Magic the Gathering: Eternal Masters & The Enthusiast Bubble
It’s time to have a discussion that wouldn’t fit in my main set review of Eternal Masters. The vast majority of Magic games are still “Kitchen Table” games, even those taking place at your local game store. The majority of Magic players have also never been to a Grand Prix, a Pro Tour Qualifier, or any competitive event outside of maybe a pre-release, the occasional draft, or a Friday Night Magic. Go to a game store during the week and you’ll still see a lot of cobbled together decks, kept organized with rubber bands, in the hands of players who can only afford to buy maybe a couple of loose boosters a week. To some players this is sacrilege, but that’s still the reality of playing Magic for a majority. It’s easy to lose sight of these facts as an experienced player, but we are the minority, we just punch above our weight by the amount and value of product we buy.
Getting new players into the game and gradating those casual players into enthusiast players is the most important process for keeping Magic the Gathering functioning as a game as other players naturally cycle out for various reasons. There needs to be a smooth pathway between the kitchen table and the pro-tour with as few roadblocks in the way as possible.
Eternal Masters, a Ramp to Nowhere
In theory Wizards is supposed to already offer these pathways with their “Ramping Philosophy.” Mark Rosewater explained it thus:
“The idea is that we want to create a path for someone who knows nothing about Magic to begin playing, and then have a series of products that allow them to slowly acclimate to the game.”
That’s a noble goal and a solid marketing strategy, but in practice this ramp only goes as far as Standard. Even then that incline has been made a little steeper by the death of the Event Deck and the Clash Pack which (at their best) provided guaranteed access to much needed standard playable cards. Eternal Masters was supposed to bridge the gap between Modern and Legacy in the way Modern Masters was supposed to bridge the gap between Standard and Modern, but both of these limited print-run products have failed to make serious headway in opening up their respective formats.
Limited print-run products may make a lot of headlines, but to the vast majority of people actually playing Magic, they might as well not exist. Of course Wizards of the Coast needs to cater to enthusiasts to keep top end play going, I’m not saying they don’t, but once in a while, they need to take their head out of that enthusiast bubble. Taking a fresh look will help them realise a product that no one can buy isn’t going to do them any good.
Adding to the bubble effect is the fact that Magic the Gathering is community made up of players that mostly play in their preferred formats/places, creating many different sub-communities. There are players who only play Commander, players who only play Limited, players who only ever compete in Standard, players who put all their resources and energy into a handful of Modern or Legacy decks. There are sections of the market, both casual & highly invested, that have almost no contact with the other sections of the market. This is compounded when you only look on forums & social media, as Wizards does; Wizards only gets feedback from a tiny slice of their most invested user-base.
Who are Magic the Gathering Product For?
In short, Magic the Gathering is a broad church, but a only small segment of that community is directly catered to. The problem goes further than just preaching to the choir and catering too heavily to established players; Wizards is only catering to a fraction of their enthusiast audience with their product line. This is exacerbated when products meant to serve a neglected segment of the market, like Legacy, are only printed in such low amounts to appease a handful of wealthy collectors and card re-sellers such as Star City Games & Channel Fireball.
Instead of trying to make every Magic the Gathering product appeal to everyone, Wizards of the Coast needs to decide which market a product is for and target it accordingly. Most of all, Wizards needs to ensure these products make their way into the hands of actual players. Eternal Masters is an example of how NOT to do this — a great product rendered completely meaningless by its insanely low availability. The frustrating thing is that Wizards has made strides in this area in recent years; their official support of the Commander format has been a resounding success, despite commander 2015 being somewhat underwhelming. Conspiracy, too, was a great example of how to do an unlimited print run product that firmly focused on a single aspect of the game: multiplayer drafting.
But the missed opportunities continue. Modern Masters 2015 had a higher print run than Eternal Masters, but was far too cautious on its reprints and overly preoccupied with its limited environment. Wizards needs to realise the point of these reprint sets is first and foremost to get badly needed cards into the hands of players where demand grossly outstrips supply and availability is quite literally drying up.
Wizards has to realise it has a false perception of what the market actually wants; if a dedicated player who frequents their local game store can’t even get hold of a single box of Eternal Masters, and those who do are paying over the already high MSRP/RRP, how is that availability meant to filter down to the bulk of their audience, the casual player? As long as supply does not outstrip demand, there is no danger of devaluing premium products or the secondary market — the $10-a-pack price tag already prevents the set becoming bulk. The Magic the Gathering market could easily absorb a print-run orders of magnitude bigger than what we got for Eternal Masters.
A Rich Man’s Plaything
If a casual player can’t graduate to Modern or Legacy because the tools they need to do so are financially unattainable, that places a brick wall in the marketplace and interrupts that positive-ramp effect. In short, Wizards of the Coast is leaving money on the table by not realising which side their bread is buttered on and catering to only the very top end of the market who have the money and connections to get a product like Eternal Masters.
The perceived financial burden of supported formats in competitive play also puts players off from joining the game. If you’re not going to support a format like Legacy properly, then you need to replace it with something that casual Magic the Gathering players can have access to. I’d love the see official support for formats like Pauper that would reduce the financial burden on people wanting top level gameplay.
The big thing I want you to take away from my article is this: products like Eternal Masters artificially limit the size of the player-base and are out of touch with the reality of how most of Magic the Gathering is actually consumed and played. I’m a lover of back-to-basics, pull-up-a-chair-and-play Magic. I think it’s the real heart and soul of the game, even if the cards are from a mish-mash of different sets and in highly-played condition.
Magic the Gathering is not about the big flashy mythics, it’s not about trade binders worth more than some people’s cars, and it’s certainly not about keeping the pockets of unscrupulous card re-sellers nice and fat. It’s about the desire of the new player who just wants to scrape together enough pocket-money to play a trading card game. That’s what drives the Magic the Gathering market above all, and that player should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind when flagship products are being produced, not the small bubble of re-sellers and collectors.
It should be more about your passion for the game and less about the contents of your wallet.
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