Refractors, Waves, and Pulsars—Oh My!

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Sorry, a little corny, but the feeling of not knowing why type of refractor or variation you’ve pulled or are holding can be a little scary, if not frustrating.

Let’s think about the history for a moment…we went from base and insert cards to refractors and a number of different types of parallel cards. And then the color refractors started coming (and are beautiful)—black, gold, and blue primarily.

Fast forward to today and there is everything from cracked ice to purple wave to pulsar, pink, and yes, padparadscha. As someone who likes color and shine, I love it, albeit really difficult to keep track of sometimes.

So, let’s jump in and take a look, mostly with visual examples to help you identify the sparkle and shine bursting from your card boxes and binders.

We will start from traditional and move towards completely bonkers.

Refractor (Topps)

What is it?

Hey, a word that you might have actually heard of or known the definition before jumping into cards. Yes, “refraction,” or, in card speak, the reflective and shiny rainbow that bounces off of a card when held at a certain angle.

Refractor is a term reserved for Topps, while other card brands like Panini have cards with a similar look and feel, but are referred to by different names, as you’ll see in a bit.

How to tell if a card is a refractor?

To tell if a card is a refractor, hold the card in your hand and move it back and forth in good lighting. If it’s a refractor, you should see a rainbow-like reflection, where a base chrome card will simply shine without the rainbow. You can also turn the card over to the back and look for the word “refractor” printed near the card number or in one of the card’s corners.


Also, just flip the card over and have a look near the card number—refractors will usually identify themselves with a printed word “refractor.” Sometimes they don’t, though, as is the case with, say, something like these chrome variation cards pulled from Topps retail sets.

2020 Topps Chrome - [Base] - Refractor #84 - Fernando Tatis Jr. - Courtesy of
2020 Topps Chrome – [Base] – Refractor #84 – Fernando Tatis Jr.

Not to be confused with

Really, the easiest thing to confuse a refractor with is just a base chrome-finish card, whether that’s from Topps Chrome, Finest, etc. There isn’t anything that jumps out differently from the design, so just make sure to be looking at cards in good lighting, and then “when in doubt, turn them about” in order to spot the refractor.


What is it?

If you’re more of a basketball or football collector, you might have noticed cards that look like refractors, but are actually called “holos.” Thus, a holo offers much of the same look of a refractor, but is associated with the Panini Optic brand of card.


How to identify?

Now, things are going to get just a tad confusing here if you’re not yet familiar with any of these cards. And it’s also worth mentioning the importance of some of this…

If you just acquire cards and keep them in your collection forever, then maybe you don’t really have the need to know what the hobby world might label a certain card to be. But with that said, if you’re buying singles on eBay, for example, you’re going to want to know which keywords you should be using in order to actually find something to purchase.

Likewise, if you’re selling cards online, you’re going to want to list them to the best of your ability, and that means by accurately describing them with descriptions and keywords searchers will be using when seeking.

So, all that said, as mentioned above, holos will resemble the refractor-ish chrome look when held in a certain light. Beyond that, you can also flip the card over to check, but you won’t see “refractor,” and, surprisingly, you won’t see “holo.”

2018-19 Panini Donruss Optic - [Base] - Holo Prizm #63 - Donovan Mitchell - Courtesy of
2018-19 Panini Donruss Optic – [Base] – Holo Prizm #63 – Donovan Mitchell

Instead, the way to identify is to check for the word “prizm.” So, to recap, a holo must be the Optic brand of cards, so that’s your first step. From there, check the back for the word “prizm.”

Not to be confused with

Same as above, and same as below. You might confuse a holo with a base version of the card, but a quick flip over or check with a source of light will help you determine.


What is it?

Ok, I told you this wasn’t going to be easy…and we haven’t even progressed beyond the basics.

So, we know Topps has the refractor, while Panini Optic has something very similar with their holo.

But what about the prizm?

Yes, a third, very similar type of card is the prizm. In fact, it might be the most popular of the bunch given the huge surge in basketball and football cards of late; both of which are carried by Panini, while baseball mostly rests on Topps.

So, given that, “Prizm” is actually its own line of cards, as you see here:


But within this Prizm line, there are “base” cards, and there are “prizms” are “silvers” as you might have heard, or “silver prizms” as some will say. Still with me?

Think about it like this—Topps has Topps Chrome, and within Topps Chrome there are refractors. So, while every card has the chrome finish, refractors offer a premium. Same with Prizm—they are all of the Prizm set, but silvers are special, and command a higher value. It’s just confusing because the whole set is called “Prizm.”

Now, one last wrinkle—there is also the Select brand of cards, which also feature Prizms.


Actually, this is the last wrinkle—Select Prizms also feature different levels in addition to the silver and other parallels. For instance, in 2020 Select football you have Concourse, Premier, and Field Level versions.

How to identify

Much like the two above, hold the card at an angle to check for the “rainbow.” You can also flip the card over and look for the printed “Prizm,” as you see here:

2019-20 Panini Prizm - [Base] - Silver Prizm #7 - Yao Ming - Courtesy of
2019-20 Panini Prizm – [Base] – Silver Prizm #7 – Yao Ming

Not to be confused with

You know the answer. Easily confused with base versions.

Prism Refractor

What is it?

No, this isn’t a trick. There is a refractor. There is a prizm. But, there is also the prism refractor. Mind blown, right?

As you can see, there is a spelling difference—this is the Topps “prism” with an “s” as opposed to the “z” prism from Panini.

How to identify

If you’re looking through your chrome cards, a refractor might be relatively tough to pick up on, but a prism refractor has a different look altogether. As you can see below, a prism refractor is going to have clearly-defined lines and shapes, giving the front a clear difference when compared to others.


This look will be more pronounced in later examples (like the x-fractor and pulsar), but for now, the best way to identify the prism refractor with your Topps baseball cards is to look for the shapes. But not quite squares…

Not to be confused with

You might confuse the prism refractor with an x-fractor, but if you do, you’ll probably only make that mistake once. Learn more about the x-fractor below, but while both offer a substantially different look than a regular refractor, the two compared to each other are also that much different.

Actually, if anything, the prism refractor from Topps could be easily confused with the hyper prizm from Panini, which I’ll explain below. But, the fact that they are two different card brands, you’ll know which one you have just from that fact alone.


What is it?

Moving along, beyond your typical refractor, holo, and prizm, let’s talk about the X-Fractor.

If you’ve a baseball card collector, and have been since the age of the uncirculated card boom, the X-fractor probably looks familiar given it has played a key role with Topps for years.


For those who don’t know, take comfort in knowing they are easier to identify than your basic refractor among other Chrome cards. Have a look:

How to identify

So, yes, the front of the card is a dead giveaway, and it’s near impossible to be thumbing through cards and not notice the X-fractor’s checkerboard, with mini connecting squares across the card.


Not to be confused with

I mean, I guess if I said you might confuse a prism refractor with an x-fractor, then I guess the same could be said the other way around.


I was going to keep this to listing all of the Topps/baseball cards and then jump into Panini for basketball and football. But, with Panini picking up more steam with baseball, there is more crossover appeal, so figured why not just go for it.

Which brings us to the Pulsar variation. With a look as intense as it sounds, you can find Pulsars popping out of Panini products like Prizm, Select, and Optic.

How to identify

First, close your eyes and imagine the card’s design popping off the cardboard, and how it would look if it was animated, and flashing lines of colors moving horizontally from left to right.

Nothing? Well, to describe it using the above variations as anchors, refractors, holos, and prizms offer a rainbow “tint” from lighting, where the X-fractor has a substantially different look with its squares. Pulsar is a bit of both, offering different shining colors depending on your lighting, and smaller square bits that almost make it appear that the card is in motion.


Another way to look for the Pulsar is, it’s one of the few variations that isn’t symmetrical or “balanced” in its design. Meaning, a refractor is a refractor across the card, and the X-fractor has those evenly-spaced squares across the board as well.

They come in a variety of colors, and you’ll probably notice a lot of pinks and purples among Prizm Draft products.

And that’s it for now! I’ll be back to update with new and different variations, but let me know if you have any questions or comments in the meantime.