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The Joy — Or Anguish — Of Building Master Sets

master set

The baseball card hobby, historically, is really built on the idea of completionism. Cards were more to entice collectors to buy more of something…more tobacco, more cigarettes, more gum, or more candy.

Collectors bought more product in order to complete their card sets. Even once cards became the primary “product”, completing a set was usually the collector’s goal.

While the hobby has changed a lot over time, many still enjoy building sets in the “old-fashioned” way.

Some even take the entire process to new levels of completeness by chasing master sets.

Master sets come in all shapes and sizes. Here’s what’s listed on ebay right now

The collector and hobbyist mentality

Does the idea of building a set sound appealing to you? Whether you start with packs/boxes, lots, buying singles, or some combination, set building is a fun and sometimes challenging undertaking.

While it’s a fun challenge, what it likely is NOT is profitable. Typically speaking, sets sell for less than the total of their parts. In fact, one path to profit can be buying complete sets and selling out the cards in singles or lots. But if you’re building a set, you’ll be lucky to build it yourself for less than it’d cost to simply buy a complete set.

So, why do people build sets? Because card collecting is a hobby and the thrill of the hunt and the time spent with the set are enjoyable. Consider the time set building a set as “entertainment value.”

If you’re furrowing your brow right now and wondering why anyone would do this, maybe you’re not a set builder. Maybe you’re an investor or someone who hunts for rare inserts. Or a team or player collector. That’s OK. I’m actually more of a set breaker than a set builder, although I’ve built a few late 1970s base sets over the years.

But if the idea of searching for that last card, even if it’s a common, to complete your set sounds exciting, you just might be the hobbyist/collector for whom set building is perfect!

Now, let’s talk about some of the forms set building can take, specifically building a base set vs. a master set.

What is a complete base set?

Quite simply, a base set consists of one of each “regular” card in a set. For example, the 1952 Topps set has 407 cards. The base set is one of each of those 407 cards.

Look for complete or near-complete sets on eBay

What is a master set?

Building that base set was fun, but now what?

Because, as we mentioned earlier, if you’re building sets you’re likely a collector or hobbyist instead of someone looking for a quick flip or investment, the answer is somewhat up to you.

Generally speaking, a master set can consist of some, most, or all of the following:

  • Variations
  • Short Prints
  • Inserts
  • Error/Corrected Pairs
  • Parallels
  • Relics
  • Autographs
  • Serial numbered cards

If that feels vague, it’s because it is, somewhat by design. What exactly a master set is will depend on the era, the set, and the collector.

Complete Factory sets are a great start – but master sets go further!

Master set eras: The pre-insert era

In the days before inserts and parallels, the base cards were the chase. Once the base set was complete, however, collectors yearning for more quickly realized that packs included more than just one of each card.

Variations and error/corrected pairs meant there was more to chase to REALLY call the set “complete.”

That 407 card 1952 Topps set? The first series (cards 1-80) were printed with both red and black backs. Cards 131-190 from the second series were printed on both white and dark cardstock. Some cards in series 3 have gray-back variations.

Cards 311-313 were double printed. These have variations where the stitching on the number circle points right on some cards, and left on others. Card #311 is Mickey Mantle, by the way. And card #313 is Jackie Robinson.

There are a few smaller error and variations sprinkled throughout. If a collector were to decide to chase all of these cards as a master set, it expands the challenge significantly.

Once traded/updated sets became the norm, they could be added to the “master set” for a given year and company, even though they were not released in packs.

Some sets have very few errors or variations, but others had a significant number of them, making for quite the challenge.

Master set eras: Inserts & Parallels 

Once inserts and parallels became the norm in the early 1990s, master set building changed with the times. A standard set of that era may include one or more parallels, such as gold versions of the cards randomly inserted in packs, as well as one or more insert sets that are again seeded into packs at a variety of ratios from the fairly easy to find to the somewhat rare.

The generally accepted definition of a master set adapted to include these. Typically, a master set will include any parallels and insert sets when dealing with sets in the era before ultra-low population cards became the norm.

Master set eras: The Modern Era – 1/1, SP’s, autos, and print plates

As the hobby continued to evolve master set building took on some new challenges. Sets today can have upwards of 20 full or partial parallel sets, including some with limited print runs. Add in low-print autographs and relics, retail-only offers, and variations of those cards, plus print plates and the rest, and quickly the idea of building a true master set for a modern offering quickly begins to look impossible.

Even with unlimited funds, putting together all the 1/1’s in a set would be impossible, and who among us has unlimited funds?

What’s a collector to do? Research. Soul Search. Adapt. Since master set building is a personal challenge, you can set the rules for yourself. Maybe you decide that rarer variations aren’t worth the effort or expense. Maybe you set a limit and not chase anything under a certain limited print run.

The key is to find the right approach based on your collecting desires, budget, and how much time you want to invest. Find the sweet spot that will keep you interested and excited, but not make you feel hopeless or discouraged.

A few tips & tricks

A few tips for those getting started collecting master sets. Some of these are era-specific, but others span all eras.

  • Be the master of your master set project. You get to decide what to collect, so set yourself up for success and enjoyment when selecting what to build and how deep to go with your master set.
  • For older sets, buy bulk lots to start. This will be the least expensive way to get started. Consider trading or selling off duplicates to fill holes in the set.
  • Buy the stars first, so you’re not setting yourself up for a big expenditure at the end of the project to turn your “pile of commons” into a real set. Unless of course you…
  • Buy the key card last. Maybe building a 1952 Topps set sounds like a great idea. Maybe you find out it’s not for you….probably best to do so before you drop a mint on the Mantle card.
  • Unopened is fun, but probably more expensive. Since unopened packs offer the chance at rare treasures, they tend to be a less cost-effective way to build sets. That being said, they are fun, so maybe allow yourself a little entertainment.
  • With new sets, start right away. If you plan to build a master set of a current year product, you should probably dive in early as many of the variations, rarer inserts, and the like will dry up pretty quickly after release.

The final word on building master sets

Building master sets is an enjoying and challenging opportunity for collectors. The key is to do your research, know what you like, and set your own rules. If you follow this guidance, many hours of collecting fun await you.  

Mike D.

Mike D

Mike D. has collected cards for over 35 years, since he bought his first pack of Topps at the corner store in 1987. His fandom,  collecting interests, and contributions to Cardlines center around baseball in general and the Baseball Hall of Fame specifically.

Mike's collecting focus is centered on graded cards, mostly rookie cards, of Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers. Lately, he's been enjoying dabbling in graded minor league cards. A collector/investor with a "buy and hold" approach, Mike takes the long-term view with his collection.
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