Monday, May 25, 2020

The Tiers of Magic or How to Cause a Whale Avalanche Sellout or Mark Rosewater Lesson No. 21

I am not bothered by Double Masters anymore than I am bothered by the price of a Lamborghini. Wizards and Magic are evolving from a game in which all of the cards sell in a $4 pack, to tiers. Wizards is slowly feeling out these tiers. The first Masters sets succeeded in taking the game from a single tier that played Standard and then used rotated cards for Extended, Legacy, Vintage into two tiers. The second tier was Modern and was fed by $6 to $10 packs. Ultimate Masters enabled Wizards to create a third tier above the Modern tier, and the Standard Tier. Now we have $4 packs, $10 packs, and then $15 packs.

The current economic turmoil may not matter in the creation of an additional tier since the number of people in the various whale tiers is small and likely unaffected by the economic turmoil me and my fellow peasants are feeling

The next tier above the Ultimate Masters tier was first tested with collectors boxes (the $25 pack). Double Masters slots into that tier, effectively doubling Ultimate Masters (close). The trend will continue for as long as there is a small group of whales to be slotted into each additional tier: $50 packs, $100 packs. Double Masters is produced in a way that enables Wizards to test out these higher tiers (the VIP booster).

I am a permanent fixture in the lowest tier, the $4 pack. I make Commander decks only out of Standard packs, and it's a lot of fun. That's just me. I am fine with there being dwellers in these higher tiers, and additional tiers being added.

I think Konami/Yugioh understands something Wizards/Magic does not. The point is to keep people playing and to maximize the number of people playing. The day Jace the Mind Sculptor is a $15 card is the day I am getting a playset. I am just not going to pay $100 per card. By the way, I can afford it. It's just not a price point I am willing to accept.

The fork in the road was Modern Masters (the first one). Wizards could have produced a long list of Masters sets as $6 packs, and Modern would be a format a newish player could get into. There is nothing wrong with also producing premium products. But Wizards has chosen to make it a choice between thing A and thing B, instead of making it viable to get thing A and indulge in thing B.

There is an endless list of Yugioh cards that are key in their specific archetypes, still legal, and at one point were $50+ cards in the competitive scene. Once they come out, all players know that they will be reprinted within a year, often at common in a pre-constructed deck. Value of collection, you say. 'I want to be able to cash out at a higher point.' This is true. Extreme reprinting makes Yugioh collections way less valuable than Magic ones. I only speak for myself. I want to play the game. I don't care about the value of my collection. For investments, I already have a 401k.

The path Wizards has chosen is bad for the game, and therefore bad for their product, and therefore, eventually, bad for their bottom line downstream. The whales will buy to a point, and then, it will only take a few whales to want to sell their cards because the game has fewer players, or because they just had a baby and have no time for the game anymore, and they will realize they cannot sell their cards for anywhere near what they paid for them. Once that first bunch of sellers sells out, prices will begin a steep decline, and the bubble will burst. The supply of sellers will vastly outnumber the number of willing buyers, and even if there are many buyers, they will all know they can wait for lower prices. A whale avalanche will ensue that will take out many stores. This is the story of the comics fiasco of the 1990s. Let's hope I am wrong and this does not happen. But more importantly, let's hope Wizards changes strategy and gets me my $15 a piece Jace the Mind Sculptors.

I think the bottom line still stands and is independent of COVID-19: if the enemy color fetchlands had been reprinted in a $6 pack earlier than now, no one would have cared that Double Masters is a $20 or $30 pack. The fact that it does not include these cards and that the company explicitly stated so even before the vast majority of the cards were spoiled is a major contributor to the negativity. I remember how Wizards hyped Modern and how Masters sets were going to make Modern accessible. That obviously is not happening.

Of course, what does have everything to do with COVID-19 is that we have a Great Depression era type of unemployment rate, however temporary. The timing couldn't possibly have been worse. The same people who renamed the corona card should have thought about the message a $20,$30 pack sends to the playerbase right this minute.

Mistakes Wizards, or any company, or any human being makes are in a range. Most are forgivable. For example, if Companion is a problem, I won't mind pulling a Companion that I can't use. I will collect it. It's fine. Double Masters in May/June 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, combined with no fetchland reprint, that's a Molotov cocktail. And it's even surprised me how much angst this very poorly timed expensive product has caused. I think this is the angriest the playerbase has been in the eight years I have been a Magic player (and this is COVID-19 all the way). Even the name is tragic: 'Double' as in doubling down on a mistake.

I am a huge admirer of Mark Rosewater, even showed my son his GDC talk, which by the way, is a masterpiece.

Mark needs to add Double Masters as lesson 21: "if you are unaware of current events, your players will inform you."

If the Wizards product planners have any common sense left, they would be reprinting the ten fetchlands in Standard and adding them to Pioneer PRONTO.