Bans, Rotation & Distribution — The State of Magic: The Gathering
It’s been quite a while since I’ve written anything on the subject of Magic: The Gathering, the explanation for which is a whole article in of itself, so I wanted to take this opportunity to give a snapshot of the current state of the game of Magic, as there have been some important developments in player experience. These changes have come about through how Wizards of the Coast curates the Standard format.
The Banhammer Cometh
For someone who only started following the Magic: The Gathering news cycle closely in the past few years, bans in standard are completely alien, but on January 9th 2017 Wizard's of the Coast announced a ban of three cards in standard: Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter and Reflector Mage. These bans were brought forward a week from when Wizard's usually announces bans so urgent was the perception of the problem.
Since then Wizards of the Coast has made an additional ban of Felidar Guardian, again outside of the usual ban announcement cycle. The floodgates have opened and it seems Wizards is now unafraid to issue bans on multiple cards over multiple releases if they feel it will make the format healthier. These bans are also interesting as they're mostly of combo pieces or payloads, with many pieces of their combo remaining legal in standard. There is a perception amongst standard players right now of a large number of problem cards still weighing down the format.
Part of me sympathizes somewhat with Wizards of the Coast; you should ensure that when cards warp a format to the point all other strategies are sub-optimal that you are willing to fix that -- even if it means banning a card. As a game, Magic: The Gathering managed to go six years without a single standard ban, this period also marked somewhat of a revival for the game and saw player numbers surge.
With Wizard of the Coast's much touted R&D process, bans in standard are seen as a failure state for the game. This is for good reason: sets are supposed to be tested rigorously within the supporting framework of the standard environment they'll be going into. There's an unwritten contract with the player-base that standard is an environment where you shouldn't expect regular bans. Even as recently as 2015 Wizards was hosting articles on their site which talked about bans in standard like they were a relic of the past.
The reasons for limiting bans in standard are numerous:
- Standard is the flagship format: you don't want players opening cards in block-set booster packs they can't play with during Friday Night Magic.
- Standard rotates and has a limited card pool for a limited time, making it embarrassing to for Wizards not to be able to design within that framework correctly
- Although not as pricey as Modern or Legacy, standard decks can still run into the hundreds of dollars. A ban may make an entire deck become useless, causing some players to lose their primary deck for game play.
- Bans undermine people's faith in the secondary market, meaning players may be less likely to invest in powerful cards if they think they're ripe for a ban.
Having standard get into such bad shape also shrinks the player-base, an issue I'll expand upon in my next section.
With this somewhat turbulent time in standard comes an even greater focus on the format from Wizards. It’s no secret that in sanctioned events Modern is seeing less love; part of that is down to a contingent of the ‘Pro’ level players complaining about the style of game play we see in Modern. Its also true some of the common match-ups in the Modern format are not exactly the most exciting games to broadcast as Magic: The Gathering still attempts to make inroads as an “E-Sport.”
So what we're seeing on a tournament level is Standard being pretty much the only option for main events. The problem I’m hearing from many players and store owners is, due to its recent reputation for brokenness, the Standard format simply isn’t popular at a store level. I've heard reports of deserted Friday Night magic events, stores switching back to Modern, commander or simply holding more draft or sealed events.
People are tired of playing against the same decks and strategies. From my experience the bans talked about above didn't end the problems in standard, they merely removed some pieces of the most broken decks, and in my opinion not even the most broken pieces. Cards like Panharmonicon are the real culprits when it comes to standard, and those versatile enablers remain legal.
It’s very difficult to get data on exactly what attendance on a wide scale is like, even a good amount of anecdotal information is made difficult by Wizards of the Coast closing or locking down a lot of official portals, instead directing players to the MtG subreddit which, like most of Reddit, only allows a thin slice of moderator approved opinions to float to the surface.
Wizards of the Coast in their ban announcements always claim to be "listening to the community," but I'm not entirely sure where they are sourcing those community voices. What should be clear is they need to be able to identify and fix problems before they begin to have a negative impact on the game, and their laser focus on standard, at a time when their product base stretches as far back as vintage and as wide as commander, is unhealthy for Magic: the Gathering as a whole.
Rotating the Rotation
If you've not been following the Magic: The Gathering scene closely you might be confused about how standard rotates. We explained the previous structure of standard rotation in our preview of Magic Origins; up until this year cards rotated out twice a year making for a standard format that changed faster and had a smaller pool of cards. Prior to that, Magic: The Gathering sets were in three set blocks that rotated years. With the current changes, Magic now has two set blocks rotating yearly. That may seem like splitting hairs, but things aren't quite going back to the way they were before.
Confused yet? I know I was at first. Wizards seems to have made this change in a snap reaction to player comments as the new rotation just began to hit. Personally I think much of this was the usual discomfort players feel when their pet deck rotates out of standard, players naturally want to play with the cards they invested in for longer. I'd love to see figures on what percentage of players in standard have yet to experience a full rotation, but alas this must remain an informed guess.
Personally I think Wizards of the Coast made a mistake in not giving this new rotation more of a chance. If they are planning to keep the power level of what's being printed in the future the same as at present, a faster rotation is a good way to cycle out oppressive cards and strategies.
There's also the issue that the present, and the next few upcoming sets, were designed with twice yearly rotation in mind. We're entering an area where cards that were never meant to be legal in the same standard environment will be sharing deck-space. This could potentially lead to a lot more unforeseen card interactions and emergency bans. If Wizards is messing up interactions between cards it knows will be legal in Standard together, I dread to think how bad things could get when we have cards that were never designed with a shared environment in mind.
How the Sausage Gets Made
The opacity of the Wizards distribution network is a thing of near myth. I really don't have the time or space to be going into the ins and outs of the whole network here (that's going to take several articles I will eventually write) but the simple version is Wizards sells to a few larger distributors rather than direct to local game stores and card re-sellers. No one ever seems to know how much product they'll get, when they'll get it so when a supposedly limited print run product his many distributors order as much as they can in hopes of hoarding as much product as possible.
Not getting what you ordered, or only getting your very low basic allocation, is standard operating procedure for most Magic: the Gathering retailers, especially in the case of items that are considered WPN (Wizards Play Network) only products. There is an expectation value will be maintained in what are considered more niche products by their sheer scarcity.
Except this time that's not what happened. Turns out Wizards of the Coast printed the holy bejesus out of it for some unknown reason. Planechase Anthology was a seemingly unlimited "limited" print-run product. Supply was way over demand, and many distributors were caught out by the usual practice of over-ordering in the hopes of getting maybe a percentage of that allocation.
We had somewhat of the opposite problem with Modern Masters 2017; there was some worry about oversupply and overall set value around the beginning of spoiler season, meaning boxes were being sold for preorder below normal MSRP. The inclusion of non-WPN (Wizards Play Network) locations also led to some speculation the set might have an unusually high print run, and these inexperienced sellers may have overestimated the amount of product they would receive from their distributor.
But once it became clear allocation would be more akin to Modern Masters 2015, and that the set had a relatively high average value, some people found their the preorders they took a gamble on were mysteriously cancelled, presumably to sell the boxes at a higher price elsewhere. This situation isn't unusual with high value products; sellers get to have their cake and eat it. When a set or product is lower value they'll use those early speculative pre-orders to ensure they don't have unsold product. When a product turns out to be worth more than pre-order prices, they simply refuse to honour the orders.
The shadowy nature of printing, distribution and allocation of Magic: the Gathering usually means the further down the food-chain you reside the more you get screwed over. There is some speculation the over-printing of Planechase anthology may have been an attempt to punish distributors who hoard product and make them more cautious of doing so, but honestly I just think Wizards of the Coast misjudged demand in a non-core product.
Where Does All of This Leave Us?
Magic: The Gathering has entered a more turbulent period than its recent history. With the large growth the game saw during that period its hard to say how many players who joined under that status quo will react. Many who joined during sets like Innistrad can now be considered veteran players that have become accustomed to constant growth and stability.
There are not many metrics that we, the Magic buying public, are privy to that will allow us to know if the game is shrinking or not. To many I've spoken to, it certainly feels like Magic the Gathering is shedding players at a store level. Wizard's sudden flurry of standard bans and reversal of course on rotation seem to hint at unseen data that has them spooked, be that raw financial or player feedback. But this will only become clear over the longer term.
Where focus needs to lay is in giving players an experience that incentives them to keep playing, which might mean a diversification away from Standard Constructed. What is also clear is that Wizards of the Coast need to do more to ensure popular products are reaching the hands of the players who need them without getting gouged by every layer of distribution.
All of this is easier said than done, and an organisation as unwieldy and seemingly set in its ways as Wizards of the Coast might struggle to make an meaningful change without simply flailing in the face of short-term player anger.
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