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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
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.