Friday, June 5, 2020

The Natives Are Getting Reprint Restless

Another week, another (arguably justifiable) uproar in the world of Magic: The Gathering (MTG). Honestly, I cannot even tell anymore if this is a case of things reached a tipping point and, since us nerds have notoriously terrible balance, fell over at the same time, or if player ire has been balancing on the edge for a while now and just finally got that nudge. I'm leaning the latter if you lean back a little and take a look at the overall picture of the game right now. I touched on this a couple weeks ago, but between the velocity of MTG product that has been pushed out on the fanbase recently, then you couple that with a significant chunk of that new product rending asunder formats left and right with their power level and then forcing banning, the state of the game has not been the best and left players frazzled. So, as I talk myself into this, it would stand to reason that the last shove over the edge would come in the form of Wizards of the Coast generating even more ire at the direction they have for their typically beloved game by announcing a reprint product that promises to throw a bunch of juicy, sought-after cards into the pool, but at an extremely premium price.

The price of cards has always been a weird subject in this game for years now, and even going back the twenty-some years when I originally summoned my first Lhurgoyf and officially joined the demonic cult known as Magic: The Gathering. The cost of the game has risen exponentially since back in that era, but even then a deck full of staples - like Gaea's Cradles and Natural Orders for my trusty Wakefield Green deck - would still cost you twenty bucks a pop. That seems paltry compared to day's astronomical price points when you look at the broad swath of cardboard spells, but it was such a new concept back then that you could be enjoying a game where the piece had value like that, it was actually kind of an astounding novelty that over the years just grew to be the expected. While sometimes I'd have to catch myself in a moment of "what the hell am I doing here?" clarity as I was plunking down sixty bucks for a playset of Spiritmongers in 2001, it was shocking how readily it was to accept that, just a handful of years later, players were plunking down two hundred dollars for playsets of Tarmogoyf.

That's the dirty and hard truth about Magic: The Gathering; after a quarter decade of precedent, players of the game expect their cards to be of some sort of value as they nestle them in sleeves for playing or binders for future use. It's a crazy phenomena, just like any collectible when you consider how insane it is that an inanimate object is valued at anything just because of the emotional attachment a human being willing to pay that amount has for said thing, but that's where we are and have been with Magic for two-and-a-half decades, like comic books, stamps, coins, et al before it. And on top of that Magic has the added bonus of not being a collectible you keep in a covering that you keep in a display case, it's a collectible you keep in a sleeve that you pull out every Friday night at your local gaming store for FNM or weekend Commander and on and on until you, assumably, cash them out for a new house because adulthood has caught up to you, or they actually become hand-me-downs for all our nerd children that will get their faces rubbed in the dirt for being the virgin dorks they are, like their parents before them.

Obviously, though, we have either hit or are at that aforementioned tipping point. Because of the long, long history of the game and just the massive pool of cards in general, it's just common sense that the most popular way to play the game of Magic now is some sort of long-term, "eternal" format. Between the card variety at hand and the concept that, essentially, since those formats are usually pretty entrenched in what is the cream of the crop in them, once you buy in you're set for a while, with the occasional upgrade. Also, this dodges the constant churn of standard, the format for the most recent cards, because cards move in and out of that format on a yearly basis, meaning if you want to invest your time and money in standard, you're in for a constant flux of your time spent brewing new decks for the format and financing them every time a new set comes out and changes the format. The problem with all of this I just outlined, and what I think is now the core problem with Magic and why the "natives are restless" as I titled this, is that the state of Magic in ALL formats and for financial purposes is in constant, erratic flux.

Weekly Update (Mar 15): Secret Lair Fetchlands

This ties into the point I was trying to make in that aforementioned piece I wrote a couple weeks ago about how much product Wizards of the Coast (a division of Hasbro) is now pushing these days because Magic is its biggest cash cow. The stability is no longer there, across the board. Now with the game's designers targeting actual specific formats with a large swath of its production in a year, the stability of these older formats no longer exists. Now instead of just occasionally adding a new card or two with each new Standard set in a year to your Commander and maybe building around a new General that interested you in  one of the yearly Commander-specific preconstructed decks Wizards made, you are constantly on the lookout for new cards from sets that Wizards makes specifically to shake up these older formats. Sets like Conspiracy and Battlebond set the stages for this, designed as multiplayer-centric experiences within themselves, but also to showcase cards people would obviously want for their "fun" decks. And then Wizards started to design entire sets specifically for the more competitive Eternal formats, kicked off by the debut of Modern Horizons last year, which completely turned the entirety of the Modern format on its head ever since.

AND IF THAT WEREN'T ENOUGH! the power level of the cards being produced in the new, Standard-defining sets has pushed upwards as well, meaning there's more cards than ever coming through brand new sets that are causing turmoil in everything Eternal. Cards so powerful that bannings have been happening in pretty record pace across the board for a couple years now, meaning that not only has the game become more of a financial churn because of new additions, now people are rapidly bleeding invested money because cards they bought to stay up-to-date are essentially worthless. So now you have an unprecedented acceleration of new cards, an exponential amount of bannings rendering cards unusable, and a trend to rapid obsolescence of cards that means even more churn of decks. That sure sounds like a big old pool of flammable materials pooling up there for the game in general; what could be the match that finally ignites it all like half the country this weekend? Oh, right, the actual lock-solid, "these will always be good and necessary" staples of formats across the board have skyrocketed in recent years due to lack of reprints, a desire of people to at least have some semblance of a reliable card base, and the continued popularity of the game, despite all its foibles.

The first time WotC decides to reprint a set of fetchlands in three years and it's in a limited product that they almost begrudgingly sent to retailers instead of selling for themselves and that cost several hundred dollars given what they set their costs at for a handful of pieces of cardboard in a nice box. This didn't even begin to quench the demand thirst for these cards and poured barrels of oil down an already slippery slope that the Secret Lair product is by having Wizards directly acknowledge that individual cards are worth money and trying to capitalize on it. After this debacle, Wizards did end up coming back to everyone, hat in hand, to say that REPRINTS ARE ON THE WAY!!... in another premium product. Not just any premium product, a big old affair featuring double the amount of foils, rares, and extended art "box toppers" per box, all for the "low, low price" of three hundred dollars for one of those boxes, because the company has gone completely tone deaf.

Again, I believe that Wizards has a difficult task to manage every single day they produce the game because they have to not only find new means and ways of continuing to keep cards and formats exciting but they also have to fill an affordability need for a large chunk of players while also not alienating another hefty portion of players by rendering their cards worthless. That said, three hundred dollar boxes are not the way. Premiumly priced products are fine when they are a unique product in the vein of "one time only" affair. Yes, I understand, the exclusivity of something like that is always going to feel alienating, but if executed properly it usually ends up being a "progressive tax" on those with more flexible incomes to generate the revenue for more widespread product. Reprints, though, ABSOLUTELY SHOULD BE THE WIDESPREAD PRODUCT!! It's one thing to do somewhat of a price upgrade in a means to keep value on a gradual decline, for reasons I outlined above, but reprints to cards that are completely fundamental to the smooth playability of several formats is just ripe for disaster, and sure enough Wizards has already reaped what they have sowed in the form of online blowback. You simply cannot leave the barrier of entry to those with the most income. I don't know if you've looked at America in general these days, but that kind of mentality is kind of drowning the vast majority of us; that kind of mentality in a game people play as a damned hobby is like tying cinderblocks to your ankles while going out for that casual swim.

Double Masters - Card Kingdom Blog

With all of those open wounds on the game of Magic: The Gathering, it's no wonder it feels like it's a bit of a, dare I say it, dying animal. Player confidence is currently shot because, simultaneously, you can't feel safe playing the competitive format for new cards due to rampant banning, you can't play the older format because Wizards tinkering directly with them is leaving them in constant flux, and you can't play the most casually reliable format because poor reprint policy has rendered a breadth of the staples unaffordable. And as I hope I've made clear by now, people are heavily invested in this game, both financially and emotionally, and that is a huge, huge strength of the game and to it's longevity, hopefully so much so that the fanbase will stick around to help it survive through this tumultuousness. But Wizards is apparently a big bus of insomniacs with everyone passed out asleep and no one at the wheel. Someone at Wizards understands the economics of making money from the game but not the economics of the people spending on it. The design team obviously understands how to make mechanics that push the power of cards to make them exciting but not to stop them from running wild on a format and rendering it unplayable. Wizards of the Coast knows how to make great game that people what to invest time and money into, but they don't know how to reign themselves in, or there's someone making decisions from on high who is willing to cut that longevity off at the knees if it means making shareholders happy now.

Right now this country is obviously doing a lot of very overdue soul-searching, and I know the day-to-day decision making of a tabletop game designed to hook teenagers and hold onto them as long as possible is absolutely minuscule in comparison to what is going on in the streets of America. Hell, I only kept writing this because it was a distraction from several hours a day of watching fellow Americans get goddamn truncheoned in the streets because they had the audacity to go out and loudly proclaim "our black brothers and sisters are hurting right now!" But, people are looking for positive things to focus on and a game they've spent years loving with fellow nerds and the community around it is a good starting point. I do genuinely think that as a whole the team at Wizards knows reprints are a problem and wanted to make 2020 a year for concerted effort to addressing this issue. The Mystery Booster product that came out earlier in the year was an unexpected and surprise in the depth of card pool it reprinted but a limited print run left it not quite having the full impact it could have had. We're seeing some Core Set leaks that seem juicy but, by the nature of those kinds of sets, a couple juiced mythic rares are about the best we can come to expect. And then, of course Double Masters is a disaster in multiple ways except probably the actual contents of the set itself, though that remains to be seen. That quantity makes it clear someone somewhere has the motivation to tackle this issue but the approach is wrong or, even worse, mostly in the hands of the people who make decisions based solely on bottom line, damn the consequences. It would really be a shame to throw away near thirty years of one of the best games ever created simply because restraint is a word that doesn't seem to exist in the halls of where the game is made, but this is definitely a possibility and a horrifying one at that. The stakes aren't anywhere near as high as a lot of other things going on in this country and world right now, but we all could use something positive in our lives right now and a game like Magic that we all hold dear is a good starting point, provided it finds some stability in these rocky times.

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