Capitalism: The Gathering

As a long-time player of Magic: The Gathering, it’s been incredibly frustrating to watch how the game has been handled by Wizards of the Coast and — more importantly — parent company, Hasbro.

For the past few years, I have referred to Magic being in its late capitalism era — expanding the product pipeline to an absurd degree as well as raising prices significantly. Nothing could have reinforced this feeling better than the decision to sell $1,000 bundles of 4 (yes, four) booster packs for the game’s 30th anniversary.

The contents of these absurdly priced packs? Reprints of the original Alpha / Beta / Unlimited (ABU) sets that launched the game, but with non-tournament legal backs. Essentially, these are the same as the Collector’s Edition and International Collector’s Edition products, released in 1993 with gold-bordered backs. (Less charitably, they could be described as official proxies.)

Now, there are a lot of things wrong with this whole situation. First and foremost, the very concept of this product flies in the face of over two decades of assurances that the Reserved List cards would not be reprinted in any form, specifically ruling out the Collector’s Edition workaround of making them unplayable in tournaments. Wizards even closed the From The Vault loophole (premium foil reprints were previously excepted) after they exploited it a few times.

The Reserved List is (was?) a contentious subject, and has been since its inception — a knee-jerk response to assuage the fears of collectors after the Chronicles and Fourth Edition sets reprinted a swath of older cards back in 1996. The list was hastily drawn up and consisted of cards Wizards of the Coast promised would never be reprinted. The last time the list was updated was 2002, but it has stood ever since.

As secondary market prices for older cards skyrocketed in the mid-to-late 2010s, the Reserved List became a more pressing issue — and seemed to come up every other month, at least, in The Discourse. Still, Wizards would not budge, a promise made was a promise kept — or so it seemed.

I find it incredibly shocking that Wizards would actually reverse course on this subject. I didn’t think it was entirely out of the question that the Reserved List might eventually be scrapped, however my assumption was that it would be thrown away out of desperation as opposed to sheer greed.

I’m not even a fan of the Reserved List, but if they’re going to throw it away then I would much rather see it done with a more accessible product than $250 booster packs that are effectively lottery tickets. The rarities of the cards have not been changed, so it is very possible to open a dud — there are a lot of absolutely garbage cards that were inexplicably rare, like Purelace. Even if you do open one of the “money cards,” it’s still a glorified proxy — it’s not legal in sanctioned play. If the intention was to find a way to make sure no one’s happy, then mission successful!

The effects on the secondary market won’t be known for some time, but the product’s announcement alone has spurred a universally negative response from the Magic community. Everyone from YouTube personalities to financiers / collectors to players of all stripe, everyone hates this.

Aside from this issue, there is the more general concern of the endless product pipeline. I stopped following new set releases a few years ago when spoiler season became a perpetual state of affairs as opposed to a cyclical event. New products are now excessive in number — with a dizzying array of variants — and are being released constantly, leaving minimal time to actually digest and appreciate the new cards.

Until recently, that wasn’t a problem for Wizards’ bottom line. In fact, Magic: The Gathering was responsible for a significant amount of Hasbro’s total profit. People like me could complain about the deluge, but business was in fact booming.

Well, the other shoe has dropped. In addition to missing profit targets, Hasbro stock plunged by as much as 9%, their CFO retired abruptly and the Bank of America downgraded the stock from “buy” to “sell”. Specifically highlighted in the report commissioned by the Bank was the company’s disregard for the Magic product in favour of maximizing profit. Dorks like me don’t matter in the big picture, but large institutional investors carry a lot of sway — and others will be taking cues from this report.

Even if Wizards did want to respond to these issues as quickly as possible, there is the reality that the product pipeline is planned years in advance. The new cards coming out in 2023 were printed a long time ago, and they are not going to be left to rot in warehouses. Not that there appears to be any consideration for slowing down, as Wizards’ Director of Communications stated specifically that there was no intention to reduce the product pipeline.

My thoughts on the secondary market are complicated, and will be elaborated in a future post. What the 30th Anniversary product suggests is that the goal of maximizing profit is going to become even more obvious. I’m not naïve, I understand that corporations are in business to make money, it’s the gratuitous nature of it that has become impossible not to notice.

I still have my group that I’ve played with since 2007, and for that I am thankful. I don’t know if even the most mismanaged version of Wizards of the Coast could drive me away from the game entirely, but I would prefer not to find out. I would like to be more excited about the forthcoming releases, instead of rolling my eyes at unwanted brand crossovers and dozens of variant card frames and designs.

So far, all we know about the success of the 30th Anniversary sale is that Wizards announced it had “concluded” but specifically made no mention of selling out. It is possible the overwhelming negativity, combined with the high price point was enough for the whole of the Magic community to say “too far,” but it will take time see things unfold in the secondary market.

To be continued.

Derek Avatar