A deep dive into the ins-and-outs of the Japanese EX series, with reflections from the first completed PSA 10 set.
When it debuted in 2003, the EX series represented a major shift for Nintendo and The Pokemon Company. After the much-famed WOTC era gave us iconic sets like Base, Fossil, and Neo Destiny, the e-series left much to be desired, with the only true ultra-rare cards being the crystals of Skyridge and Aquapolis. Nintendo’s takeover and the introduction of the EX series brought in what has characterized Pokemon trading cards ever since: a cohesive set of ultra-rare, more powerful cards that are distinct from normal holos. While the naming of these has shifted over time, the formula has proven wildly successful.
While many current serious collectors grew up with Base Set and the WOTC era, those who grew up with the EX series are beginning to reach the age where serious collecting is an option. When I first got back into collecting, the EX series was the era that immediately grabbed me, given that it was what I collected as a kid. Over the past three years I’ve had a goal of obtaining every set-based Japanese ex card printed (a total of 97) in PSA 10 condition, and just recently I’ve been able to complete that goal. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only person who has been able to acquire all of the ex cards in PSA 10, and I’m excited to share some of the experiences and things I’ve learned along the way.
PART 1: DO-IT-YOURSELF COLLECTING
For the WOTC era and even for modern cards, grading is popular and plentiful. This means that most WOTC holos, including rare and popular cards like Shinings and 1st edition variants, usually have a listing on eBay or one is easily findable. As such, the main obstacle to obtaining a highly graded card from these eras is the amount of money in your bank account and how much of that money you are willing to spend on a card. This was not so for the Japanese ex series when I began collecting it, and in many respects continues to be true to this day. PSA 10 copies of the majority of cards are not available to purchase, making the collecting journey less about how much money one can afford to spend and more about how and where one spends that money. The route that is available in order to obtain the cards is significantly less direct, requiring significant ungraded card purchases and expenditures focused on card grading. While many view grading raw cards as a less expensive way to obtain high-grade copies, this is only partially true. Occasionally one of the first several cards purchased will come back with the coveted PSA 10 grade, but there were several cards throughout the series which required raw card purchases numbering between 15 and 30 and submissions of 5-10 of the best copies to PSA before the 10 was achieved, representing a several hundred dollar investment. In many cases this significant expenditure was the only option as cards had populations of zero in PSA 10.
The do-it-yourself aspect was further complicated by the decision to pursue the Japanese ex series, which is significantly less accessible on the English card market. The vast majority of my purchases of raw cards came from Yahoo Japan, Japanese-exclusive sites, and Japan-based retailers who will ship worldwide. For those unfamiliar with purchasing from Japanese sites, most require a middleman service which adds cost and time to purchases, but is usually offset by the lower prices available on the Japanese market. Additionally, this removed the ability to question sellers on card condition and often required purchasing blind or with one to two pictures of cards.
PART 2: SET AND CARD-SPECIFIC ISSUES
Lack of accessibility and do-it-yourself collecting characterize the totality of the set, but multiple issues emerged around specific sets and cards. These ranged from extremely rare single cards to major quality issues with entire sets of cards. These specific issues presented the biggest hurdle to my collection goal: when a card has perhaps 5 listings available at any one time across the Japanese market, and all are off-center, how can one find a gem mint copy?
It is well-known that the EX Series (both English and Japanese) had reduced print numbers due to a decline in the popularity of Pokemon at the time it was printed. While no set-based card will be truly “rare” in the same vein as trophy cards and limited-release promos, some certainly felt like they were on that level. The shattered-foil Regi ex cards from Undone Seal (EX Hidden Legends) were especially hard to pull, and especially hard to locate in mint condition. Regirock ex, in my opinion, is the hardest to grade in a PSA 10. I was lucky and graded one a PSA 10 about a year into my goal, but I have not seen a comparable ungraded copy in the two years since.
Other cards were scarce at the beginning of my search but have become more plentiful in the years since, notably Golden Sky, Silvery Ocean (EX Unseen Forces) Umbreon and Espeon ex. For a significant period of time the population of Espeon was frustratingly low, especially in 1st edition. Remarkably, popular and rare sets like Rocket Gang Strikes Back (EX Team Rocket Returns) were easy to find cards in gradable condition. I attribute this to the set’s popularity with collectors, but other factors may be in play.
Scarcity of individual cards proved difficult, but major quality issues with entire sets was the hardest issue to deal with. The higher quality of Japanese cards was prevalent throughout most of the ADV and PCG eras, with one ridiculous, mind-bogglingly challenging exception: the final EX series set, Furthest Ends of Offense and Defense (EX Dragon Frontiers). While the common and uncommon cards in this set escaped unscathed, holographic and ex cards are plagued by near-universal horrible centering. Centering on the 1st edition print run is especially brutal, I would estimate 2-5% of 1st edition holo or ex cards have PSA 10 worthy centering. A significant improvement was made for the unlimited print run, but even with this significant improvement rates for PSA 10 centering are still only around 7-10%. This adds another aspect to an already difficult goal: first one must find a 10-year old card which has been preserved perfectly, then that card must be one of the small percentage with 55/45 or better front centering. As such, Dragon Frontiers was the hardest set to complete in PSA 10, requiring several years of near-constant searching for ungraded cards, purchasing any which looked like they had high quality centering, and submitting many tens of copies to PSA. Acquiring one PSA 10 ex card from Dragon Frontiers is a notable feat, acquiring all eight was incredibly difficult. I believe that for around five or six of the ex cards in this set, I graded the first PSA 10 copy, which speaks to both the lack of collector interest in the set and its difficulty to score high grades.
PART 3: ADVICE FOR COLLECTORS
As many of us know, there is little more satisfying than completing a collection goal you have been going after for years. While I won’t specifically encourage you to pursue the Japanese ex series, I will say that pursuing large sets of underrated or under-collected cards is much easier now than even in 2015 when I started. It is easy to be intimidated by an older set that requires close to 100 cards in perfect condition, but odds are every day that goes by without a step in the right direction makes it a harder goal to complete. Your collection (and sanity) is likely served well by breaking it down into smaller goals, which I did along the way. First I would go for notable trios such as the legendary birds in Flight of Legends (Fire Red Leaf Green) or the Undone Seal Regis.
After that I would go for completing individual sets in PSA 10, the smallest of which featured only about 5 cards necessary for completion. Breaking your goals down into smaller goals, and completing those smaller goals, is a key step to making sure you don’t get burnt out and feel like there is too much in your way to completing your overall goal. And no matter what issues you may encounter along the way, always remember why you collect what you do.
Ethan Pohl - FourthStarTCG