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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,
-Zaiem
zaiemb at gmail dot com

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