MAGIC THE GATHERING Conjures Up Controversy

In 1993 a small company called Wizards of the Coast produced a game called Magic: The Gathering, designed by Richard Garfield.  Few people suspected then that this game would not only become a juggernaut in the world of gaming itself, but spearhead a massive genre in gaming—the collectable card game.

Fast forward to 2022.  Today, Wizards of the Coast, LLC is a Subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. one of the larger toy and game corporations in the world.  Magic is the most successful collectable card game and has been continuously published for nearly three decades.  Wizards of the Coast has started its 30th Anniversary celebration a bit early, announcing several products.

On October 4th, 2022 Wizards of the Coast released a promotional video and news article kicking off the 30th Anniversary celebration with a few product announcements including the 30th Anniversary Edition, a collectible, non-tournament legal printing which “took inspiration” from the Beta edition of Magic—the first complete printing of the game.  This product was described as “something new that lets fans and collectors really experience some of the most iconic elements of Magic’s early years.”  The product is a box of four 15-card packs of cards printed with a ‘special commemorative back’ and includes modern and retro frame graphics with original card art.

To understand the magnitude of this announcement, one must be aware of something called the Reserved List—which is a policy by Wizards of the Coast that they will not reprint certain cards, including many in the Beta Edition.  The most notable of those are referred to as ‘The Power Nine’ and also ‘Dual Lands.’  In the mid-90s, the demand for cards was extremely high and early edition cards that rotated out in the Revised Edition gained significant value.  Today, some of these cards are priced at five figures and are highly collectable.

Reprinting these cards in any form (even non-tournament legal) raises immediate concerns for the secondary market, despite not violating the reserve list policy.  A full set of Beta-Edition cards had been reprinted in the mid-90s in the ‘Collector’s Edition’ and ‘International Collector’s Edition’ and many of those cards command significant prices as well (middle four figures).  Bottom line: this sort of printing in any form is very rare.

However, before the end of the announcement video, those issues were overshadowed by what has become a source of controversy among Magic the Gathering players and collectors–the price.  The cost for this limited edition product—60 random allocations of common, uncommon and rare cards is $999 US Dollars.  For context, a standard booster pack is around $6.

Any excitement that existed was quickly replaced by anger within the customer base.  YouTube videos discussing this announcement revealed this sentiment, with many accusing Wizards of the Coast of corporate greed and exploitation of the players.  The last reprint—the collectors editions from the 90s—included one of every card from the Beta Edition (also non-tournament legal with special gold borders), and cost around $50.  The 30th Anniversary Edition provides a fraction of the product for twenty times the price—a fact which is not lost on customers.

At a cost of almost $1000, this product is priced beyond the reach of many players.  One Magic YouTube Channel (Tolarian Community College) lamented that this product is “not for you.”  Wizards also sent some of the 30th Anniversary Edition product to an MLB and an NFL Player—both fans of the game.  It isn’t uncommon for companies to utilize “influencers” to promote a product, but sending high-priced products to wealthy individuals to advertise to the majority of players who can’t afford the product, is what many would call “bad optics.”

Other Magic commentary channels have expressed disappointment, and some have noted that this is leading to a player revolt or exodus.  Throughout 2021 and 2022 the Magic market has showed signs of slowing. Hasbro’s financial reporting stated reduced earnings and rising inventory indicating slowing sales.  Other commentators have noted that volume and price of secondary market sales have also declined.

Is the anger from the customers justified?  The customer is always right, but is the reasoning sound?  Gameplay is not impacted by this product or its high cost.  These cards are not playable in any sanctioned events, and casual players can easily create their own proxies, so it isn’t a matter of “pay to win” or anything of that sort.  Yet, the customers remain displeased.

Wizards of the Coast, in their own words, presented the 30th Anniversary Edition as an opportunity to participate in a celebration—to be “nostalgic and exciting,” but made the product inaccessible to many (if not most) players.  It is hard to understand how Wizards could be so unaware of this contradiction.  A common complaint is that this is a cash-grab and corporate greed, and this is undoubtedly an effort by Wizards to increase their bottom line, that’s what corporations exist to do—make money, but doing so with casual disregard for your customers, and contradicting their own stated purpose seems like a poor decision.

Wizards of the Coast has missed an opportunity to actually provide a product that does what they claim they want to do—provide a special experience to the customers.  This is an unforced error that could have been avoided.  Wizards already offers a product called a collector booster that costs about $25 if purchased individually.  The customers are acclimated to that sort of cost for a special product, and the ‘Secret Lair’ products have an even larger premium, but instead of pricing these cards at say $50 (still a very robust price for 15 cards) they went to an extreme. Wizards turned what they presented as an invitation to a celebration into a PR disaster.

At a lower cost, many players could take part in this celebration, perhaps buy a few packs, and enjoy the experience that Wizards stated they wanted to provide.  Players could have experienced playing the game like it was originally played in 1993.  Player groups or stores could have run (unsanctioned) special events such as a booster draft tournament or a sealed-constructed league.  Younger players would get a chance to have a play experience from a time before some of them were born, and older players would be able to enjoy a nostalgic journey to when they first played the game.  A retro 30th Anniversary Edition was a really fun idea, but Wizards’ choice to price this product as they did has made this all but impossible for most players.  It’s a missed opportunity.

Wizards could have used this sort of product as a premium bonus to customers.  A recent expansion set, “Dominaria United” included randomly inserted cards from newly opened packs from the original printing of the “Legends”’ Expansion from 1994.  One of these cards were found in approximately 3% of Collector Booster Packs.  30th Edition Packs could have been distributed throughout product released during the 30th Anniversary year in this same manner or as box toppers or with packs randomly inserted into booster boxes.

The outrage sparked by this product may prompt some players to leave the game.  The volume of product has been so great that players are already pressed to keep up, and this might push some people to their limits.  Player attrition is normal, but this might lead to a more pronounced exodus as players’ wallets are weary of the blistering pace and increased price of products, as Wizards attempts to make good on their announced profit goals.

It is interesting to note, on November 1st a separate product, the “Secret Lair 30th Anniversary Countdown Kit” (Cost $149.99) sold out within an hour, so it remains to be seen whether the player discontent about the 30th Anniversary Edition translates to a reduction in sales or an overall impact on Hasbro’s bottom line.  Some “whale” investors have stated an intention to purchase the 30th Anniversary edition, and depending on the limited production, this product may very well still sell out.

The 30th Anniversary Edition is only available directly from Wizards of the Coast—meaning this product is not available to retailers for normal sales.  However, Wizards of the Coast stated that they would be sending one box (4 Packs) to WPN (Wizards Play Network) stores and 3 boxes to WPN Premiere stores at no cost.  These stores may opt to use these packs as prize support or sell them.

Magic the Gathering has a very long history with ups and downs, but has proven over its nearly 30 year life to have staying power, despite occasional controversies.  One lesson that I hope Wizards of the Coast, or any corporation, learns is to respect their customers, and be mindful of the differences in their statements and their actions and choices.   It is sad to see what could have been a celebration turn into disappointment.


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