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I have a few Magic: The Gathering cards whose editions I'm having trouble identifying. They are obviously from either Alpha or Beta, since they have black borders and the same design as the Unlimited edition, but how can I distinguish between both editions?

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ALPHA cards are black bordered and have very very rounded edges ( 2mm radius ) compared to all other kinds of magic cards ( 1mm radius ). Just pick up a white bordered card and overlay them ontop of each other. If the corners are VERY different then you have ALPHA, otherwise you have BETA.

There are several cards that were corrected between alpha and beta and can be used to instantly identify extremely worn cards. As cited on Wikipedia

  • Circle of Protection: Black was accidentally omitted from Alpha.
  • Cyclopean Tomb had no casting cost, instead of a casting cost of 4.
  • Death Ward incorrectly credited Dan Frazier as the artist rather than Mark Poole.
  • Elvish Archers had its power/toughness listed as 1/2 rather than 2/1.
  • Force of Nature was printed with the letter G in its text box rather than the green mana symbol, and the artist's name was spelled incorrectly.
  • Orcish Artillery had a casting cost of 1R rather than 1RR.
  • Orcish Oriflamme had a casting cost of 1R rather than 3R.
  • Phantasmal Forces was printed with the letter U in its text box rather than the blue mana symbol.
  • Red Elemental Blast was printed as an instant rather than an interrupt, making half of its ability unplayable under the rules of the time.
  • Sedge Troll incorrectly credited Jeff A. Menges as the artist rather than Dan Frazier.
  • Volcanic Island was accidentally omitted from Alpha.

This Magic Set Identifier flowchart will help you with any other sets up to about 2001, beyond there it's fairly easy to identify from the set symbol on the card. Thanks to Hackworth for providing an up to date url for it!

Magic Set Identifier flowchart

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Yeah, though Wizards has gotten a lot more consistent in their use of expansion symbols. The vast majority of cards printed since 2001 can be identified by the symbol; there are only a couple of special sets for which you'd need to look at other characteristics of the card (according to Wikipedia). –  David Z Oct 21 '11 at 14:17

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