Magic the Gathering: Battle for Zendikar — The Fetch Lottery

John gives his opinion on the recent news that the Battle for Zendikar set will have rare fetch-lands at high ratios that aren't even Standard legal.

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Booster packs have al­ways been a lot­tery. I know I harp on about val­ue a lot in my Magic cov­er­age, but in the re­spons­es to my last ar­ti­cle — “Why do peo­ple Quit Magic the Gathering” — the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­i­ty cit­ed the fi­nan­cial bur­den in some ca­pac­i­ty. So get­ting max­i­mum bang for your buck is im­por­tant for keep­ing play­ers interested.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the re­cent de­ci­sion to re-print a whole new set of lands in the up­com­ing Battle for Zendikar. I will pro­vide my opin­ion on the de­ci­sion, as well as some of the pit­falls of the Magic the Gathering mar­ket in gen­er­al. For a fuller de­scrip­tion of what will be go­ing on with the Zendikar Expeditions set of lands, see our news post on the an­nounce­ment.

The lev­el of hype sur­round­ing this an­nounce­ment has been un­re­al; I’ve al­ready seen peo­ple ex­cit­ed­ly pro­claim­ing they are go­ing to be putting a big in­vest­ment into this set and ex­pect­ing it to ap­pre­ci­ate in val­ue like the orig­i­nal Zendikar block has done over the years. I would be quick to cau­tion those peo­ple, and any­one else who is get­ting over-excited over the set at this ear­ly stage.

feth lotto side 1The first thing to con­sid­er in that Zendikar is so valu­able now be­cause it was print­ed be­fore the large ex­pan­sion of the game we’ve seen in re­cent years. Print lev­els are far high­er than they were back when the orig­i­nal Zendikar was print­ed and Wizard’s isn’t shy about sup­ply­ing the newest set to meet de­mand. The more that Battle for Zendikar is in the mar­ket, the less sealed prod­uct will be worth. Since get­ting hold of it won’t be an is­sue, the more peo­ple who hoard the set then the more sup­ply there will be once the set is out of print. I know many of you saw “Zendikar” and “Full art fetch lands” and thought this prod­uct was go­ing to be worth a mil­lion dol­lars a box in a cou­ple of years, but with print and avail­abil­i­ty lev­els the way they are that is high­ly unlikely.

Even a cou­ple of years ago peo­ple didn’t think about the spec­u­la­tion mar­ket as much as they do now, but now we are see­ing a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion as to what we saw in the com­ic in­dus­try in the 90s; lots of peo­ple are buy­ing up prod­ucts with huge scale print-runs all hop­ing for them to go up in val­ue. If every­one is hoard­ing it then it isn’t rare. This is just the tip of the ice­berg; I hope to cov­er the pit­falls of the Magic the Gathering sec­ondary mar­ket in more de­tail in a fu­ture piece.

The sec­ond thing to con­sid­er is the low ra­tio these cards will ap­pear at. The odds of get­ting one of these fetch lands is dif­fi­cult to cal­cu­late with any de­gree of ac­cu­ra­cy, and there is some dis­agree­ment about how ex­act­ly the ra­tio of foils works in terms of rar­i­ty and the way box­es are ran­dom­ized is con­stant­ly be­ing tweaked. As I dis­cussed in a pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cle, box­es of Magic the Gathering are nev­er ful­ly ran­dom so I guess it’s re­al­ly down to Wizards and how many they want to in­sert in packs.

The rough idea of “As rare as a foil myth­ic” is all we have to go on. I’ve seen num­bers any­where from 1/126 packs (al­though this dates from Conflux) to rough­ly one in every eight box­es – that be­ing 1/288 packs. Factoring in that more than half the time you won’t be open­ing a fetch-land and you be­gin to see the is­sue. Suffice to say you are go­ing to be a very lucky to open one out of an en­tire box, nev­er mind out of a loose booster.

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Wizards is ar­ti­fi­cial­ly in­flat­ing the per­ceived val­ue of their packs by print­ing cards that are not even Standard le­gal, and these cards will only make it into the hands of a tiny frac­tion of play­ers. Now I’m not go­ing to fly off the han­dle just yet, but there are a few burn­ing ques­tions that need to be an­swered be­fore I’ll see this as more of a positive:

Will Battle for Zendikar otherwise be a low-value set? 

I know this isn’t al­ways some­thing Wizard has con­trol of, but the is­sue nig­gling me is if the in­clu­sion of these cards is go­ing to be the only ‘val­ue hook’ they use for this set or block.

What is a ‘val­ue hook?’ Well, it’s of re-printing on­slaught fetch­es in Khans of Tarkir, it’s putting Thoughtsize in Theros. Wizards has a long tra­di­tion of re-printing cards to sell sets and that’s a‑okay — in fact it’s ex­treme­ly wel­come. The is­sue is that those reprints were suc­cess­ful be­cause they hap­pened at a much low­er rarity.

You could buy a box of Khans of Tarkir and be pret­ty con­fi­dent in get­ting two to five fetch lands. This has a mas­sive ef­fect on over­all cir­cu­la­tion; the dif­fer­ence be­tween two to five per box and one per eight box­es is as­tro­nom­i­cal. In terms of the sec­ondary mar­ket, and in terms of the cal­cu­la­tion of av­er­age val­ue per pack, they might as well have not print­ed these lands with them be­ing so scarce. This wasn’t the mass reprint Modern has been cry­ing out for.

Is this the ‘Big Reprint’ of the Zendikar Fetch Lands?

The re­frain “What are you bitch­ing about? We al­ready print­ed them!” is some­thing I hope to God we won’t have to hear. As I said, this will have a small ef­fect on cir­cu­la­tion due to scarci­ty and hoard­ing, its biggest ef­fect will be to pro­duce a new class of “bling” for peo­ple who like to pimp out their al­ready ex­pen­sive decks. To get these cards into the hands of play­ers at the prices we see for the Khans block fetch lands com­ing in at, they re­al­ly need to have them print­ed on a sim­i­lar scale. With Wizards reprint pol­i­cy, this could be the last time we see any print­ings of these cards for sev­er­al years. Can you imag­ine the price Zenkidar fetch lands will get to in four to five years’ time with­out a large scale re-print?

Will this new Rarity be a Staple Moving Forward?

The ad­just­ment to “Mythic rare” al­ready turned quite a few peo­ple off as, de­spite re­as­sur­ances, it re­al­ly did be­come a way of fur­ther lim­it­ing the sup­ply of the most pow­er­ful cards and sell­ing sealed prod­uct. If this new “Foil rare” lev­el — es­pe­cial­ly for cards not even in­clud­ed in stan­dard play — is go­ing to be a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence then it makes me even less like­ly to buy sealed prod­uct as they de­volve more and more into a lot­tery of big win­ners and losers. I know we had the price­less trea­sures in the orig­i­nal Zendikar block, but that felt like more of a pro­mo­tion than any­thing else. These are cards specif­i­cal­ly re-printed for the set in their new full-art vari­a­tion. This is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent than that promotion.

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Something that I touched on in my first ar­ti­cle here on Magic is that Wizards of the Coast needs to choose which mas­ter it serves: the sec­ondary mar­ket or com­pet­i­tive play. Putting these cards at a rar­i­ty above Mythic gives a clear sig­nal that this is a mar­ket­ing move and one that is meant to not up­set col­lec­tors. It’s a good piece of PR but it does not solve any of the sup­ply prob­lems we see in Modern and oth­er for­mats where the price of sta­ples has gone out of con­trol. I think Wizards could stand to let some of the foam out of the spec­u­la­tion and sec­ondary markets.

If these are not even Standard le­gal, then why not run them as a store-level pro­mo­tion? I think it would be a real boon for the lo­cal game stores if Wizards of­fered these are re­wards for Friday night mag­ic or pre-release/game-day events. That way there is a ben­e­fit to stores and the com­mu­ni­ty as a whole. Not just Wizards and the mas­sive card re­tail­ers who are the only par­ties who cur­rent­ly ben­e­fit from this. Please Wizards, we re­al­ly need more in­cen­tives to go to our lo­cal stores when most play­ers buy their prod­uct on­line — where it’s gen­er­al­ly cheap­er any­way.  Anything that gets peo­ple play­ing phys­i­cal Magic in a phys­i­cal store and boosts the sup­ply of sore­ly need­ed cards sure­ly can­not be a bad thing.

All in all, I think it would be pru­dent look­ing at Battle for Zendikar like these cards didn’t ex­ist, be­cause for most play­ers they might as well not. The new cy­cle of dual-lands with ac­tu­al land-types on them is far and away the most in­ter­est­ing an­nounce­ment to come out of all of this. But we will have to wait and see if they have any im­pact on the eter­nal for­mats for them to be worth any­thing. It would be a fol­ly for Wizards not to keep reprint­ing vi­tal sta­ples like fetch­es, be­cause you can’t play com­pet­i­tive eter­nal for­mats with­out them. This seems a way of re-printing some­thing with­out re­al­ly re-printing it. In re­al­i­ty, the vast ma­jor­i­ty of us will only ever see these foil full art lands hang­ing on the wall of our lo­cal game-store com­mand­ing lu­di­crous price tags and be­ing stared at with long­ing by play­ers who can only af­ford to buy the odd sin­gle pack.

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John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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