Magic the Gathering: The Launch of Battle for Zendikar has Been Less Than Smooth

John takes a look at some of the probelms that have hampred and overshadowed the launch of the latest Magic the Gathering set, Battle for Zendikar.

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Before I do my first set re­view next week, and whilst I take some time to see how Battle for Zendikar will ef­fect stan­dard, I thought I’d take some time out to dis­cuss some of the var­i­ous mishaps and con­tro­ver­sies that have plagued the re­lease pe­ri­od of this set. Stories of al­lo­ca­tion is­sues, price goug­ing, and down­right dis­hon­esty with the ed­i­to­r­i­al at one of the most high pro­file sources of Magic the Gathering cov­er­age and sales have all come to light. This is — once again — go­ing to be an ar­ti­cle more crit­i­cal of Wizards of the Coast, game stores, Magic cov­er­age, and the big card re­tail­ers, but if you’ve put up with me thus far I’m sure you’re used to my style of in­de­pen­dent coverage.

Allocation Frustration

Stores not get­ting their full al­lo­ca­tion, get­ting late prod­uct, or grip­ing about their al­lo­ca­tion is noth­ing new. These prob­lems hap­pen on some scale with every set re­lease, and the prover­bial show al­ways goes on. Widespread re­ports about this have popped up this time around — un­like than the last few sets. It didn’t help that there were con­fus­ing mes­sages be­ing passed from Wizards of the Coast to game stores; with some be­ing told print lev­els had been low­ered by around a third — a claim I am very du­bi­ous on to say the least. And a claim that a PR per­son may have sim­ply pulled out of their arse to ap­pease an an­gry store own­er af­ter they only re­ceived “only 9%” of the fat-packs they were promised.

One store in Australia re­port­ed­ly had their en­tire al­lo­ca­tion re-distributed be­tween oth­er stores to make up a short-fall. Many sim­i­lar sto­ries have been cir­cu­lat­ing on so­cial me­dia with vary­ing de­grees of ver­i­fi­ca­tion. It’s hard to tell what is and isn’t just nor­mal fric­tion be­tween sup­pli­er and store, and the prob­lems haven’t been suf­fi­cient enough to de­lay a large amount of pre-releases and events, but it would still be nice for Wizards to en­sure they can meet de­mand for one of their core prod­ucts. Not to don my tin­foil hat, but the launch of Battle for Zendikar seems to have been marked by a pe­ri­od of false scarci­ty in or­der to take ad­van­tage of the play­ers will­ing to pay over the odds. Especially when you con­sid­er the next story.

Fat Packs of Cash

It’s an open se­cret that fat-packs usu­al­ly don’t sell ter­ri­bly well. They have long been the awk­ward mid­dle child of Magic prod­ucts; with boost­er box­es pro­vid­ing a sig­nif­i­cant dis­count on price per booster-pack. This means fat-packs only have a sin­gle print-run, and of­ten lan­guish in stores long af­ter they’ve out­stayed their wel­come. You can gen­er­al­ly pick them up once a set is on the wane for be­low MSRP/RRP. But when some­one puts in a few full art lands sud­den­ly every­one los­es their mind!

Fat-packs have been rou­tine­ly sell­ing for up­wards of £50 in the UK and $60-$70 in the US; a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease over their usu­al price, and lu­di­crous for an un­lim­it­ed print run set. The only part of the prod­uct that has al­tered is the in­clu­sion of 80 full-art ba­sic lands. These packs are be­ing treat­ed like they are al­ready an out-of-print set by stores look­ing to cash in. Honestly, it’s pret­ty much every­one do­ing it. Which is disappointing.

Let me beat you over the head with this: full art lands are go­ing to be bor­der­line worth­less over time, and this price-hike has been done by cyn­i­cal stores want­i­ng to make a quick buck try­ing squeeze every pen­ny of per­ceived val­ue out of this set. Battle for Zendikar is prob­a­bly go­ing to beat sales records; every new set is the biggest set ever as Magic ex­pands. As I ex­plained in my “Fetch Lottery” piece, print-runs have gone up dra­mat­i­cal­ly in size since the days of the orig­i­nal Zendikar. Full art lands are go­ing to be some of the most com­mon set-specific lands in Magic his­to­ry. Every sin­gle booster-pack of the set opened puts an­oth­er full art land into the mar­ket­place; every fat-pack puts 89 full art lands into circulation.

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I think this is a short-sighted move by lo­cal game stores, and a cyn­i­cal ploy by the big on­line re­tail­ers who have a mas­sive al­lo­ca­tion. They are act­ing to ar­ti­fi­cial­ly in­flate the price, and not en­gage in com­pe­ti­tion. If your lo­cal store is do­ing this then I would ques­tion their loy­al­ty to the fans who keep them go­ing in lean­er times. This is a prob­lem com­plete­ly sep­a­rate from Wizards them­selves. We don’t know how big the print run was for these fat-packs so I can’t re­al­ly fault them for under-printing them when we sim­ply don’t know what the case is. I was hop­ing we could all get our fat-packs, and our nice amount of full art land, and peo­ple would calm down, but it seems we just can’t have nice things.

Both the pro­fes­sor from and Tolarian Community College and Jason from MTG Headquarters cov­ered this top­ic very well — al­beit one more po­lite­ly than the oth­er. Do not pay over the list price for a Battle for Zendikar fat-pack. It is just not worth it. The price of the land in sin­gles is low, and not worth the ex­tra mon­ey be­ing charged for the fat-packs. You can get the 80 lands sin­gu­lar­ly for sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er than the price dif­fer­ence. It’s also worth not­ing that in the US, stores like Target and Walmart are sell­ing the fat-packs for their prop­er price. So avoid the price-gougers at all costs. I would echo Jason’s raised mid­dle finger.

Channel Fireball Buries Negative Coverage

On September 21st, 2015 Magic the Gathering Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa pub­lished an ar­ti­cle on Channel Fireball en­ti­tled “Everything That’s Wrong with Battle for Zendikar.” When a play­er with nine Pro Tour top eight fin­ish­es says he has reser­va­tions about the qual­i­ty of a set, I sit up and lis­ten. It’s a great ar­ti­cle, and Paulo ob­vi­ous­ly has an ex­cel­lent grasp on Magic me­chan­ics and de­sign so it’s well worth a read.

I was ini­tial­ly pleased with the re­fresh­ing change of pace from Channel Fireball. This is the kind of hon­est Magic cov­er­age I want to see more of. Then the bull­shit started.

First the date of the article’s pub­li­ca­tion was changed to September 16th, ar­guably in or­der to move it off the front page of Channel Fireball’s web­site. The site has since changed the date back to the cor­rect date, but com­ments have been re­moved from and dis­abled on the ar­ti­cle — plus it still hasn’t reap­peared on Channel Fireball’s front page. There has been no of­fi­cial ex­pla­na­tion oth­er than the mat­ter has now been “re­solved,” what­ev­er that means, and spec­u­la­tion is still rife about the cir­cum­stances that led to this occurrence.

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Gee, who could have pre­dict­ed that the large card re­tail­ers were not the best peo­ple to be pro­vid­ing the most high-profile cov­er­age? I mean what kind of ge­nius could have fore­seen Channel Fireball and Star City Games sim­ply favoured hyp­ing card-sales above all else and that ed­i­to­r­i­al in­tegri­ty and ba­sic hon­esty would be an af­ter­thought? Sometimes I feel like Doom Paul, and I should walk around a Magic Grand Prix with a mor­tar­board telling peo­ple they “should have lis­tened” and “you could have pre­vent­ed this.”

In all se­ri­ous­ness, I’ve no­ticed some peo­ple make these same points about Magic the Gathering cov­er­age. The MTG crit­i­cism fo­cused blog Kill Reviews has talked in the past about a “neg­a­tiv­i­ty shaped hole” when it comes to Magic the Gathering; a hole I am do­ing my part to try and fill.

A site that is a card re­tail­er and has a close re­la­tion­ship with Wizards de­lib­er­ate­ly bury­ing cov­er­age crit­i­cal of a prod­uct about to launch is ex­act­ly the kind of in­ci­dent we can point to in or­der to show how un­trust­wor­thy the cov­er­age from these out­lets can be.

I want­ed to get all the is­sues sur­round­ing the set out of the way in this piece so I am able to judge the set pure­ly on its own mer­its. Especially when you con­sid­er most of these prob­lems are not di­rect­ly Wizard’s fault, and it wouldn’t be fair to mark their prod­uct down be­cause of some of these is­sues. An in­formed con­sumer is a bet­ter off con­sumer, and I think we can’t sim­ply sweep con­tro­ver­sies un­der the rug.

Equally I’m not try­ing to ruin anyone’s fun. The events sur­round­ing a set can be im­por­tant. They should ef­fect your pur­chas­ing de­ci­sion like with any prod­uct, but if you can avoid the bull­shit, and just play some Magic then more pow­er to you.

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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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