Careful Consideration – Magic: Not Quite Dead

This time last year, a friend convinced me to go to Grand Prix: Denver. I didn’t want to go as the format was Lorwyn Block Constructed, a format I didn’t particularly care for. I didn’t have a deck I felt comfortable with, and overall I was floundering in a Grand Prix I had no real desire to play in. So why did I go?

Because someone had successfully convinced me that Magic was dying. There may not be a Pro Tour or a Grand Prix circuit within a year or two. Tickets from Seattle to Denver were cheap, so make the best use of it while you can.

Fast forward to today. I haven’t purchased a booster pack (outside of buying entry fees into Drafts) since Time Spiral. But I plunked down a nice bundle of cash pre-ordering three cases of Zendikar, relatively confident it would be a smart financial decision.

So what’s different?

First of all, I am a little more discerning about listening to gloom-and-doom prognostications. But more importantly, Wizards has had an excellent year and despite the economy’s struggles, Magic seems to be thriving in spite of it. Let’s look back at the changes they’ve made in the last twelve months (or so) and see what the effect has been.

Prerelease changes

Wizards went from the model of having exclusive large Prereleases to having smaller, in-store Prereleases. Some places have a large Prerelease on Saturday (while other stores can also run Prerelease events), but in a lot of areas, there is no “large” Prerelease. The store you go to for FNM can be your Prerelease destination.

Reviews have been mixed. For people who had to travel an hour (or more) just to get their hands on the new cards, this has been a welcome change. Sure, the specialness of the Prerelease is diminished, but that’s offset by not having to be in a car for several hours. Areas like Seattle where there’s still enough local support for a large Prerelease are still able to have them, although attendance is definitely down for them and they don’t feel like as big of an event.

I usually go to the big Prerelease on Saturday and then a smaller store Prerelease on Sunday (which still gets 40-50 people), and while each has its own flavor and feel, neither seems decidedly better.

More people are attending Prereleases overall, so I suppose anything that gets more people Magic is a good thing.

Verdict: Positive, but it comes at a cost.

Mythic Rares

Mythics haven’t seem to have affected the Magic-playing world aversely. Ajani Vengeant was the first mythic to really see a lot of play, and its price was in line with a top-end rare (hanging between $10-20). Subsequent mythics have seen the same effect, with the exception of Baneslayer Angel, which we’ll get to in a second.

The introduction of mythic rares came with the smaller sets, and that appears to be by design. If Shards of Alara had been a 306 card set instead of a 249 card set, you’d see the price of mythics be higher. Imagine if Cryptic Command had been a mythic rare in Lorwyn! But the Elspeths and the Ajani Vengeant are reasonably priced.

Baneslayer Angel is approaching Tarmogoyf-level prices despite not having the flexibility of Tarmogoyf (that is, going into every possible deck in the known universe where it would make sense to run it – and you splash for it when possible, too!). It’s a tier one Constructed card, but it’s also an angel, which has large casual appeal. Serra Avenger is still a $5 card despite seeing absolutely no competitive play[I hate being the one that has to point this out, but Mike Flores won NY States with this girl. -Riki], but it’s an efficient angel (with sweet art). I agree with LSV that making Baneslayer Angel a mythic was probably a mistake, but one card doesn’t invalidate the marketing strategy. Overall they seem fine, and the odds of you opening any given mythic rare are not that much lower than you opening a particular dual land in, say, Ravnica.

Verdict: Cool marketing, smaller sets make for a smaller card pool in Standard, which is probably fine. Not a game-changer either way.

States (or the lack thereof)

States was not sponsored by Wizards last year, but the tournament organizers banded together and held their own States, which Wizards after-the-fact advertised and provided the foils for. This year, that doesn’t appear to be happening. Have you seen anything about States this year? No? That’s because unlike last year, Wizards is quietly letting it evaporate.

I have to admit that I don’t understand the reasoning behind this. States didn’t cost WotC anything except for a few foils and a plaque. It was a popular tournament, and people really looked forward to playing with the new cards while brewing up new decks for the Standard format. Despite not having a plane ticket or a Pro Tour invite, States drew PTQ-esque numbers.

There are rumors that there will be a States-esque tournament held on December 5th of this year, similar to last year’s States (but presumably without the promo foils this time). Expect to hear more about this at the end of the month.

Verdict: Baffling. I fail to see how this is a net positive.

Smaller print runs

As we now know, Magic 2010 was a huge success. The first print run sold out almost immediately and so did the second. In two months, M10 outsold 10th Edition, which was on the market for two years.

Wizards is also limiting the supply that’s being put out on the market. Rather than have a set that rots on the shelves (Coldsnap, for example), they want to get as close as possible to 100% of their product being sold. They have been able to do this because they are now better-equipped to fire things up and make another print run in a shorter period of time. So send out a (relatively) small amount of product, see how it goes, and if necessary, fire up the presses and make another print run. This limits waste.

The downside is that the players can end up with product shortages, which might be fine for driving up the price of things in the secondary market, but very poor if I want to go to my local store and draft, only to find that there is no product to draft with and there won’t be for a few weeks.

We’ll see how this plays out with Zendikar, which is being handled the same way.

Verdict: It’s a more efficient sales model in the short-term, but it remains to be seen how this will affect the product down the road.

Duels of the Planeswalkers

This is a masterstroke of Wizards marketing. Create a product that’s cheap ($10), accessible to a huge audience, make it a downloadable game, and then offer a promo alternate art Garruk Wildspeaker for those who buy the game.

In addition to having the ridiculous revenues from the hundreds of thousands of downloads of the game, the promo card is a nice touch. There’s some number of people whose interest in Magic was awakened (or re-awakened) by Duels, prompting them to explore the world of paper Magic. Giving them a shiny premier promo card (that’s a very good card when you play with it) to start off their Magic collection provides just a little more incentive to get them to wander down to the card shop.

Jay Schneider and the other people who worked on Duels of the Planeswalkers get huge huge kudos for this one.

Verdict: Between this and M10, Wizards hit back-to-back home runs. Towering, without-a-doubt-the-second-it-leaves-the-bat Mark McGwire-esque home runs. [So M10 is juiced? -Riki]

Jace vs. Chandra/Divine vs. Demonic/From the Vault (Exiled and Dragons)/Planechase

These are products that are aimed for more casual and EDH markets, and they have all sold like gangbusters. Planechase release events at the Penny Arcade Expo were filling up much faster than anticipated, and everyone I’ve talked to who’s played it has said very good things about them.

Verdict: Maybe Wizards will burn out by releasing a product every month (Garruk vs. Liliana – coming soon!), but right now there’s a market for Wizards’ products that seems almost insatiable. Some of it is better marketing, and a lot of it is designing good products. Divine vs. Demonic is fun. Jace vs. Chandra more so.

M10 rules changes

Is this horse dead yet? I think that it’s safe to say that we now know that the game is essentially the same. Some things are better, some things are worse, but the rules changes did not kill Magic, it did not fundamentally alter it, and it did not make the game feel all that different.

Verdict: Magic is not dead, although the thousands of forum responses to the rules changes might have you believing otherwise.

Whatever it is that’s driving Grand Prix attendance through the roof

Grand Prix: Seattle – 1127 players.
Grand Prix: Chicago – 1230 players.
Grand Prix: Boston – 1502 players.
Grand Prix: Paris – 1838 players.

I went to Grands Prix: Philadelphia and Los Angeles and it was a big deal that both were in the high triple digits. Now people are showing up in droves for these events. Triple digits? Pshaw. 1200 people showed up for a Legacy event. The first Grand Prix: Seattle had about 300 people. What is going on?

Verdict: No seriously, what’s going on?

Chris Galvin has left Wizards of the Coast

Most people don’t know who Chris Galvin is, but he was an instrumental figure in setting the organized play system we have now. Friday Night Magic, the Pro Tour, and who knows what else.

Galvin left the company right around the time Pro Tour: Honolulu happened, and this is actually pretty big news, even for those who don’t know who he is. It’s easy to show what kind of money a Grand Prix brings in, but a Pro Tour is a lot different. The Pro Tour’s value is really about advertising, and we don’t know exactly how much money it brings in. How much money is made by people playing Magic chasing the Pro Tour carrot? We can speculate, but without hard numbers, it makes it a possible target for getting cut by the executives at Hasbro. Galvin was in a lot of ways a security blanket for the Pro Tour, and with him gone, it’s an unknown. Other changes to Organized Play are likely to happen over the next while, though I have no sense of what those might be.

We have seen the death (or relative death) of card games when they cancel the high-level competitive events, so hopefully Wizards of the Coast realizes that there is a fairly large number of people who care about Magic because Wizards obviously feels it’s important enough to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars into a Pro Tour circuit. Without the PTQ circuit, what incentive is there for competitive Magic players to play? I’m a little nervous about this one, but hopefully they do the right thing here.

Verdict: Scary news when it came out, and scarier that the Pro Tour is a relative unknown on the balance sheet.

Overall, Magic is doing much better than it looked a year ago. They seem to be making smart decisions, and if you just looked at Magic, you would have no idea that we are in a recession. The next time someone tells me that Magic is dying, I may not be quite so quick to hop on a plane to a Grand Prix.

Yours overreactingly,
zaiemb at gmail dot com

31 thoughts on “Careful Consideration – Magic: Not Quite Dead”

  1. Nice article!
    I don’t buy the bit about mythic rares. They did do a good job keeping mythic rares =/= tournament staples in ALA block, except Ajani Vengeant. You wrote “the Elspeths and the Ajani Vengeant are reasonably priced” I believe this is because Ajani was the release promo and Elspeth never saw widespread play except in a few decks/SBs.

    Since that time, the first top-notch quality card, Baneslayer, has shot up in price at least partially due to its Mythic status (and M10 shortage accounting for more rarity). Despite all this, you could make an argument for a big Angel being mythic in nature/flavor

    With ZEN we see several mythics that seem like excellent tournament playable cards but not necessarily with the flavor/feel of a mythic rare (warren instigator, lotus cobra) and already pre-sale numbers are soaring.

    In short, I think WOTC has started to stray from their initial statement about mythic rarity:

    “We want the flavor of mythic rare to be something that feels very special and unique. Generally speaking we expect that to mean cards like Planeswalkers, most legends, and epic-feeling creatures and spells. They will not just be a list of each set’s most powerful tournament-level cards.

    We’ve also decided that there are certain things we specifically do not want to be mythic rares. The largest category is utility cards, what I’ll define as cards that fill a universal function. Some examples of this category would be cycles of dual lands and cards like Mutavault or Char.”

    -Mark Rosewater

  2. Look out Minneapolis! If 1200 players can go to Chicago for a GP Legacy tournament, think of the numbers a big money Zendikar sealed tournament will attract!

    Instead of States, they have “Magic Game Day” which as far as I can tell, has been an across-the-board flop. Good thing for Wizards, they put almost all of their bad ideas (crappy promos, horrendous timing, little other incentive) into something that didn’t really cost them anything.

    Also, not to mention a competitor in too positive of a spotlight, but SCG’s 5K tournaments have been drawing pretty heavy crowds, and there have been a handful of smaller cash events, including a 1K Standard here in Madison the day after M10 was released. Do you think non-PT/GP money tournaments have helped ease the loss of the other high level events? That 1K had over 100 participants without a blue envelope waiting for the winner, so I believe they’ve done a lot of good for the competitive scene.

  3. well the mythic rules seem to be totally gone now, mindbreak trap, warren instigator and lotus cobra(far and away the biggest offender and likely hitting $30 soon(20-25 right away on ebay) all appear to be tourney stables in the making, the cobra looks like it could be the most important card in standard

  4. I’ve always been too wary to pronounce Magic “dead”. The fundamental game is too good, and what they do well they do really well. But I’ll bet good money that 5 years from now I still won’t like the combat stack changes.

    And with so many changes, it’s hard to point to sales or sentiment and say “see, it was good” in regard to any particular change. As with the scientific method, you need to limit to one change at a time to draw that conclusion. It’s possible that the sets would have sold _better_ with all the above changes but without Mythics.- we’ll never know.

    And people do seem happy. LaPille’s column this morning shows 50%+ think current standard is good or great. I personally don’t – I think it’s Baneslayer driven or dependant on the same Lorwyn-block cards that we’ve seen dominating for nearly 2 years. But clearly I’m in the minority even for tournament goers, who are themselves possibly in the minority card buyers.

    I know enough about business to separate what I like from what’s good for a product, and signs certainly seem to indicate that what they’re doing, on the whole, is good for Magic.

    (MODO has exploded specifically, despite subtle reductions in prizes and an increase in buy-in costs. I think the Magic Onilne Championship Series has been very well received, and is certainly driving some people to play more events. However, unless I’m wrong MOCS attendence has been dropping since its premiere. Last month they couldn’t even populate Last Chance qualifiers. So perhaps this too is more about the casual gamer than the competitive one.

  5. In #mtg on EFNet, you’ll find that, more often than not, the topic includes “X will kill Magic”. To date, not one of mythic rares, From the Vault, Premium Deck Series, Planechase, M10 Rules, the Chaos symbol, DotP, MTGO PTQs, enemy fetchlands, or anything else have actually succeeded in going all the way.

    Another thing that isn’t exactly well-known, but is certainly worth mentioning, is that the judge program is also doing very well right now. There’s many more judges, and some awesome perks I can’t tell you guys about 🙂

    The casual play support is another thing worth mentioning along with the prerelease discussion – with oodles of promo cards and the ability to support casual events, things are definitely looking good.

  6. One of the other big things I have noticed especially with the Zendikar spoliers (so far) is the lack of cards which are totally useless. By totally useless, I mean cards that are neither tournament playable nor fun for casual gamers. Even the “bad” rares spoiled so far seem to be getting a lot of positive feedback on the MtGSal forums. THis efficiency is nice, because it means you will always (or at least more than in the past) have someone to trade your cards too.

  7. On the subject of Mythic rares, I think that it bears noting that due to the smaller rare print run, ‘rares’ today are much more common than rares of the past. And Mythic Rares are only slightly rarer than old-style onslaught era rares.

  8. What will most likely happen is that people buy huge loads of Zendikar because it obviously has a huge monetary value. This will sooner or later lead to an oversatiation of the market (or at least some form of satiation) which in turn will make the overall prices lower. The monetary value bound in magic will increase.

    I do not think that the Cobra will kill Type 2 despite it being pretty nuts. Neither will the Trap despite most likely being the counter of choice for blue based strategys. Lets see and wait. At least the Cobra has the diestoeverything disease.

    I think magic is doing great right now. But im a bit afraid that the game is burning out and not fading away. But on the other hand it couls just be that Zendikar is such a fine set.

  9. ehhh Duels of the planeswalkers, accesible to a huge audience????!!!!!

    I’m sorry but have you forgotten, the following audience cannot play Duels: PC owners, PS2 and PS3 owners, Nintendo Wii owners.

    In my mind the wizards made a huge mistake here, not to offer it to more formats, at least keep their word and release it to PC like they said they would.

  10. @Parth (congrats on Swansing your way to Nats by the way, even if it did make PV want to throw things) – Yeah, I was willing to give a free pass on Warren Instigator. But Lotus Cobra is ridiculous and I don’t agree with it at all. This certainly treads on the assurances Rosewater made when they announced mythics. Blah. Stupid stupid stupid.

    @Kenshin – It’s certainly possible it’s burning out, but I don’t see any indication of that. Maybe R&D is exhausted of ideas and is tapped out (so to speak), but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Certainly from a players’ standpoint, the masses aren’t going to burn out on Magic unless something bad comes out of Renton. I think it’s pretty safe to say that things are trending well.

    @observer_dk – Xbox Live has over 20 million users (as of May of this year). Even if you don’t offer it to anyone else in the world ever until the very end of time, that’s still an enormous, enormous audience. If PC/PSx users had access to it, then it would simply be enormouser.

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  12. Re: Mythics

    They got lucky with Ajani Vengeant. Without the massive number of promos on the market, it would have dinged $30-40 pretty easily. The promos kept it sane. No promos for Baneslayer, the results speak for themselves. The same problem will occur with Zen, specifically with the Cobra.

    Mythics get hit coming and going – They can’t be too good, or they become incredibly expensive staples. They can’t be too crap, or they don’t impress anyone. R&D basically can’t win. (It is my opinion, of course, that when one encounters a game that is impossible to win, one should stop playing, and therefore, stop printing Mythics. But hey, it usually takes them about six years to notice they’ve made mistakes, so it might be a while.)

  13. Where does your information about print runs for M10 come from? A smaller amount of printing has been assumed by everyone, but I don’t know that I’ve actually seen that confirmed nor the reasoning behind it that you explain here.

  14. PS doing duels for Xbox owners only was a stupid mistake. I own every other system that has downloadable content as well as a PC. 20 million users aren’t all active and don’t all play magic. 20 million also pales in comparison to 200 million. Enourmouser or not 😉

  15. fair enough, I get that Xbox reaches a big audience, but why not give other loyal fans a chance of this game.
    Why wouldn’t they want PS3 or at least PC owners to try this game?

    It seems strange to me if they want to keep magic alive, that they leave out that many other platforms, it’s a sad tendency, that we see more and more.

  16. Maybe we should ask Coca Cola why they don’t have a commercial running during every break during the Superbowl. Surely that would reach more people than just the two or three they do run. Heck, every commercial on TV should be for Coke. Seems like a mistake to not do that.

  17. Great freaking article and well thought out. I have only been playing seriously for a year and a half now and even in that time I have noticed a difference. I think Lorwyn block falling out of standard will only help the magic scene. Newer players that were having a hard time competing against the Fae and cards like Cryptic Command, and didn’t want to buy the soon to be vanishing cards, will soon find themselves with a clean slate and more competetive deck options. I’m looking forward to the future of magic and it seems that Wizards is too. WoTC is a very strong company and they clearly see that MTG has become more than a game for most of us. If they took away the Pro-level then it would once again become just a game, and that would be business suicide. They may make the occasional bad decision but I don’t see them cutting off their own legs anytime soon.

    —Tangent was here…

  18. Zaiem,

    This is definitely your best work; I made the person next to me at work look over when I chuckled at, “No seriously, what’s going on?” I’m keeping faith that Wizards will get things right on an ongoing basis. It’s a tough real world we live in but the game is thriving and things are stable in the Magic world.

  19. @ Riki
    I don’t think that’s the best company to compare it with.

    Coke is one of the best brands in the world, they hardly need that kind of advertising.

    We are talking about a brand that many people have doomed and predicted dead, of course unsuccesfully.
    But the argument that Zaiem was making, was that WOTC are doing a great job of promoting Magic and ensuring that it doesn’t die, but my point is, that it’s a mistake to aim that narrow and forget about the many fans that doesn’t own a Xbox.
    Magic is expensive enough and I do not have the money to buy a new console just because WOTC only offers their computergames to Xbox.

    It seems to me that Duels is a good alternative to people like me and many others, that can’t afford to buy cards on magic online and in real life, that’s why it would have been a great idea to hit a wide market.

  20. While you made some good points, you either missed a few. Mythic rares while having a few questionable cards coming in Zen, had a hugely negative effect on the MTGO economy. The buyers for junk cards are buying to complete sets for redemption. With mythics being the new rare, junk rares for example have lost about two thirds of their worth, if you can sell them. I dont think WoTC considers MTGO sometimes when making big changes.

    And maybe its just me but with all the talk about violating mythic rules with the new ones in Zen, im frankly more upset that they made a functional reprint of a tourney staple. Something in m10 they said they werent going to do, but unless regeneration makes a huge comeback, making a new WoG is very shady.

  21. @J_Klimek – I don’t think it’s ever been said in print anywhere, but it’s not a huge secret. Talk to your favorite retailer. One of the benefits of living in WotC’s backyard is that you get to meet and talk with people who have a lot of information about these sorts of things.

    @observer_dk – I get the sense that Duels was a trial thing. Wizards isn’t an electronic game company, and when they’ve tried to develop games, it hasn’t gone all that smoothly. Picking just one platform and focusing on it seems better than overextending and getting overly ambitious by trying to hit all the major gaming platforms. I also don’t think that they expected it to do as well as it has. Maybe they’ll take it to other platforms, but I would rather see them make a good product for a smaller audience than a lousy product for a big audience.

    God of War is a Playstation-only title, Halo is exclusive to the Xbox 360…there are platform-exclusive products, and they have done just fine despite cutting off dozens of millions of potential customers (even if their reasons for being platform-exclusive are different than Wizard’s).

  22. Did anybody even notice WHY Lotus Cobra and Mindbreak Trap are Mythic? Here’s a hint: one has the word LOTUS in the name (which makes it fall into a very elite class of what 5 other cards? Black Lotus, Blacker Lotus, Lotus Petal, Lotus Bloom and Gilded Lotus are the ones that come to mind) and Mindbreak Trap is the closest thing to Force of Will that has EVER been printed.

    One has a very strong “this must be very rare” feel to it, and the other falls into the category of “big spells”. That means that WoTC is actually keeping their word perfectly. Feel free to disagree, but I think it would have been a mistake to print either one of them at anything other than Mythic.

    That said, neither of those cards are actually all that good. I for one will be more than happy to trade Lotus Cobra for an enemy fetchland on pre-release day. Heck, if they hit $30-$35 I might even get 2 out of the deal!!! I might keep like 2 Mindbreak Traps for SB tech against combo in Legacy, but it’s strictly inferior to Force of Will and probably even Counterbalance.

  23. “Here's a hint: one has the word LOTUS in the name (which makes it fall into a very elite class of what 5 other cards? Black Lotus, Blacker Lotus, Lotus Petal, Lotus Bloom and Gilded Lotus are the ones that come to mind) and Mindbreak Trap is the closest thing to Force of Will that has EVER been printed.”

    Lotus Vale and Misdirection would like a word with you. 🙂

  24. Lotus Guardian, the seven-mana 4/4 flier? I guess he doesn’t make the cut for a number of reasons, really, but still.

    (also Lotus Blossom, and Mox Lotus if you’re counting Blacker Lotus, but neither of those are really noteworthy. At least Guardian was good in Limited.)

  25. People have been declaring the death of magic since uh, right around 1994 if memory serves. This is nothing new. WoTC may be changing things around, and the possible loss of the Pro Tour will surely hurt, it won’t be the death of it. (Perhaps the start of it, the Pro Tour is rather important)

    As for Mythics.. Im saddened. They struck out with Alara block Mythics on all accounts except for 2 planeswalkers. M10 was pretty much the same except for Baneslayer, and now we have the 100% playable Mythics. The other two sets will follow suit. The next full block will most likely be a mixture. If you follow the history of magic, we have power creep and power suck constantly, and we just had 4 power creep sets in a row (Lorwyn Block, Alara Block, M10, and Zen) The next 2-4 sets will be power suck. Its just the way this works. Be happy your playing in the time where deck building is at its (IMHO) finest. Its difficult to have 100+ great cards that should be 4 of in your deck and make a great, top tier deck. Would you rather we go back to 4th Edition and Fallen Empires power levels? Yeah, thought so.

    Sit back, and enjoy your preorders I say =) Mmm, buying Cash $.90 on the dollar.

  26. In my group of friends we have banned X cards (even if a reprint of previous release). The rule changes are also banned. I was one of the people who downloaded that game. I told everyone I know about it as well, then I played it a second time (and a third), and then quit playing. It was too dumbed down, better than nothing and not a total ripoff but it is not what I was hoping for. Then when I saw that X was adopting the same concepts as that game, we made the decision. I just want to point out while I was one of the multitudes who purchased it right away, at that time I would have purchased any MTG branded game (no longer). You should not confuse the sales numbers with the success of the product. I feel it was brand that made it appear succesfull. Anyway, long live 6th edition!

  27. Anyone who has played Magic for any length of time knows full well that there have been people fortelling it’s doom since the very beginning. It’s weathered worse storms than this recession and will weather many more inevitably.

    There is no way to please 100% of the players 100% of the time, I mean there are still people who think that revised dual lands should be reprinted in M11, those people are unlikely to be made happy. I know some people have always been nay sayers about the cash prize tournament system, and if Magic stopping offering a cash prize for PT then Wizards would have to listen to the other spectrum ad nauseum.

    And lets be honest people, the only reason mythics are here, and why they will remain is because despite promises to the contrary, have chase rares helps sell product, and selling product keeps the company afloat, you don’t really think that there’s a mox in every ~410th Zendikar pack because it fits the storline do you?

    I for one would love to see much more support for type I anything goes, but I have fond memories of type I tournaments when I started this game. And to be clear if you think that the switch to type II was to keep the game affordable for younger players you are half right, for the other half see previous paragraph. Because Wizards could reprint the P9 whenever they felt like it, and just think what the product sale rate would be on a From The Vault: P9. But I’m just rambling now.

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