MTG Publishing Changes

05:24 Tue 03 Jun 2008
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Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro subsidiary who produce Magic: The Gathering, announced on Monday that they’re making some significant changes to the way they publish the game. I’m indifferent to some of these, strongly dislike others, and absolutely despise the way in which the changes were presented.

The changes:

1: Smaller sets.
2: Mythic rares (super-rare cards).
3: A basic land in every booster pack.
4: Theme decks becoming intro packs.

I’m mainly going to discuss the first two—the third irks me, but I don’t think it’s that big a deal, while the fourth doesn’t matter to me at all.

The presentation/defense of the changes was written by Mark Rosewater, and sadly that meant that it was full of public relations spin, including (at least) one outrageously ridiculous argument. I understand that Rosewater is probably in a difficult position, and I suspect (but have no evidence, just inference) that many of these changes are due to pressure coming from above in Hasbro, and that the various MTG big shots don’t have that much say over it. Nevertheless, it feels somehow personally insulting to be fed “these changes are the awesomest ever and will make everything pretty and rainbow-colored” arguments. It only makes the insult worse that the backup to the “candy!” arguments is the “we’re doing what we think is best for the game” angle—with no reference to the obvious tension between what’s good for MTG-as-product and MTG-as-game. MTG-as-product is just that, a product, a thing that costs a certain amount per unit to produce and distribute, and then has its success measured in terms of how much profit is made on it, in terms of “this set brought in X profit, that set brought in Y profit”. MTG-as-game is more expansive, and to an extent can exist separately from the product. The game is something that needs more long-term attention, because changes that sell more product right now might not actually be good for maintaining long-term interest in the players, and it is that long-term interest, not the short term product numbers, that really constitutes the health of the game as game.

Rosewater doesn’t acknowledge this at all, even though anyone who thinks about the issue will see that perspective, and therefore it’s crying out to be addressed.

Further, he doesn’t address the economics either, probably because it’s hard to bring in economics while steadfastly ignoring the tensions between the game and the product. The economics I’m referring to have to do with the first and second changes, the big ones. First, printing fewer cards per set is, quite simply, cheaper. While there has been player unrest due to the large numbers of cards printed per year, Wizards have ignored that for a long time, and further the simplest way to go back (assuming interest only in the game, not the product) is to resume printing only three sets per year. They didn’t do that, nor does Rosewater even address it. So they’re printing the same number of sets (even though printing one fewer set would also be cheaper) but with smaller numbers some economic reason.

Second, they’re obviously printing “mythic rares” to get people to buy more boosters. That’s what they want, to sell more boosters. To get all the mythic rares, people are going to have to buy more boosters, even though the set size is going down. In other words, to get a full set of one of these new smaller sets, people are still going to have to buy as many boosters as to get a full set of the old larger sets. So Wizards gets to create a cheaper product (by lowering print costs by printing fewer individual cards) while making sure that collectors don’t get a corresponding reduction in the amount of product they have to buy.

The fact that these two go together indicates that the real reason for reducing the set size is not out of sudden sympathy for the poor players who were complaining about there being too many cards out there at once, but iis driven by pure economics.

Which is fine, since they’re a for-profit company and that’s what their raison d’etre is. I would have liked it if they’d acknowledged that instead of coming out with inanities. Granted, Rosewater put something together that does sound far better than an average press release, and I do believe that he actually does care for the game, but still. The following piece, the stated reason for introducting super-rarity, is just embarrassing:

The idea of a TCG with only three rarities is antiquated. (And before I get letters, I do understand that technically basic land is a fourth rarity; for these discussions I am not going to count it.) Magic is the only major trading card game currently printed with only three rarities. If we want to stay competitive in attracting new players we have to keep up with the industry standards.

(This is the bit I referred to as outrageously ridiculous.)

The only industry standard here is the industry profitability standard, where the makers of other games are able to extract vast sums by printing super-rare cards. Rosewater goes on to claim that it’ll be easier for players coming to MTG from other games to pick it up if MTG also has super-rarity, which is just laughable. A more believable claim follows: that super-rarity encourages new players by giving them the potential to open something they can show off to their friends (although, if they’re new, opening a good current MTG rare would presumably have the same effect). However, that’s a really brief flash of interest, and to keep long-term players you need to have a balanced game that’s not focused on immediate flashiness over longevity—something that, again, Rosewater doesn’t address or even acknowledge.

The game will survive, but the changes don’t strike me as being for the better. Especially in the formats I play most, Draft and Sealed. Smaller draft sets make for a less interesting environment, but the mythic rare change means that you get just as much of a luck factor. I’d be happy to be proved wrong on that front.

One Response to “MTG Publishing Changes”

  1. Brett Says:

    I think smaller sets are totally fine… there really are too many cards in a year. It’s possible it will have a negative effect on drafting, but probably not too bad.

    The mythic rare thing really annoyed me too. I agree that Rosewater’s “industry standards” comment was lame to the point of being offensive. I felt a little better after running the numbers… when you factor in the smaller set size, the mythic rares are only a little rarer than what we have now. The question is, who on earth was clamoring for things to be more rare? I guess collectibles are a perverse (but profitable) area where making things artificially harder to get is good for sales.

    Actually, one point I didn’t consider at first is the effect on Magic Online. Adding in the mythic rarity reduces the percentage of total cards opened that are redeemable (since you have to do a full set at once). I suspect that’s a bad thing.

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