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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 1126 packs (although this dates from Conflux) to rough­ly one in every eight box­es – that being 1288 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.

John SweeneyTrading Card GamesTraditional GamesBattle for Zendikar,Magic The GatheringBooster 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…
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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.