Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Customer Vital Prep for Card Games, Part 3

Welcome back to The Backstage Pass!

Time to talk sleeves.  In this third part of my card accessories primer, I am going to cover what you need to know as a retailer or a new card player about sleeving those cards.

First of all, I know it may seem a bit obvious, but yes, sleeves are necessary.  Even for a player who says they plan to keep cards forever and never trade them in -- and everyone who says this eventually changes their mind at least once -- nobody wants them to get obliterated due to normal wear and tear, and for games like Magic: the Gathering, opaque-backed sleeves are required for tournament play regardless.  For other games, even where sleeving is not required, there can be print run differences between editions and expansions and players don't want these variations to cause them to fail a deck check.
Before proper TCG sleeves were made, gamers who thought to sleeve cards simply used sports-card "penny" sleeves, so called because they are sold in packs of one hundred sleeves for a dollar.  Card players were mercilessly mocked for sleeving up, "card condoms" and all that.  Well, the joke's on them now, with differences in wear on early Magic cards making thousands of dollars in difference to the cards' values.  We're not just talking about Lotuses and Moxes here -- DSG buys and sells Revised dual lands all the time, and a worn Underground Sea that saw unsleeved play may barely sell for $200, while a near-mint specimen will reliably sell for $300 or more, as of this writing.

Of course, penny sleeves break very easily and shuffle very poorly.  Ultra-Pro introduced card sleeves designed specifically for gameplay in 1996, starting with clear, then black-backed, and then red-backed "Deck Protectors."  In the early going the sleeves did not stand up to wear that well, but honestly, they were an order of magnitude better than penny sleeves, and Ultra-Pro deserves all the fortune they've reaped for being in the right place with the right product at the time.

Today's Ultra-Pro Deck Protectors are still evergreen because their price point is low.  There are cheaper sleeves (MAX Protect, Player's Choice) but we never saw them turn volume, so while you can carry them without significant exposure, and certainly you should experiment with that, don't expect miracles.  We see significant sales of the regular Deck Protectors mostly to price-sensitive players.  They come in packs of 50 in a rainbow of colors, or packs of 100 in the Magic primary colors:

We see good volume also on the next step up, Ultra-Pro's Pro Matte series, which has some texture and stands up to wear much better than standard Deck Protectors do:

Ultra-Pro attempted to repackage the Pro-Matte line in 100-packs, mimicking Dragon Shields (which I'll discuss in a moment) as the "Pro Slayer" series, but we did not see any player interest on that and our distributors appeared to have discontinued it more or less at the same time we did.
So, what's the step up in sleeves?  For a while, the step up was art sleeves.  Like art binders, these are entirely dead money now.  Art boxes do okay because the art has little or nothing to do with the shuffling properties of the sleeves, but they still fail to outsell Ultra-Pro's more elaborate Mana Flip and Pro Tower style boxes.  Art sleeves for a while appeared in a variety of styles, primarily as licensed promotion for current Magic expansions:

Legion Supplies released almost nothing but art sleeves and were a mainstay during DSG's early days as a store.  Their art designs were generally more imaginative or inspired than the licensed art sleeves, and for a time we saw widespread player uptake on them:

Ultra-Pro got into the act by introducing "meme" sleeves in addition to their licensed art sleeves:

By mid-2014, none of this mattered.  The sleeve market had matured, and players wanted one of two things: a robust, textured, high-quality sleeve, or a cheap sleeve.  Nothing else.  The premium charged for art sleeves became extraneous, and players not only disdained "slippery" non-textured sleeves unless they were cheap, but also discovered that art layers peeled with surprising ease after being subject to vigorous shuffling over time.  DSG does still see some sales of Grumpy Cat, Doge, and My Little Pony art sleeves, and occasionally the new Magic expansion licensed sleeves, but in terms of overall volume these sales are dwarfed by sales of textured or cheap mono-colored sleeves.  We discontinued Legion products entirely as sales ground to a complete halt.

Ultra-Pro covers both sides of this market, as shown above.  However, their Pro-Mattes are not viewed by players (justifiably or otherwise) as being top-tier in quality, though we have discovered in usage that they are in fact quite good.  Nevertheless, players seeking higher-end textured sleeves turn either to Dragon Shields or KMC Hyper Mats.  Those are the two critical lines you'll want to carry to cater to those players, because even the tournament Spike players who already own every card still tend to buy their sleeves locally, which means sales for you.

Dragon Shields were something of a unicorn for years.  A decade back they were the best sleeve going, bar none, and supply was woefully inconsistent.  Stores sold out all they could get, and who knew when a restock would come around.  In 2012 Fantasy Flight acquired the brand and began manufacturing their own LCG art sleeves at the same factories in China.  After some disappointing variations in quality across the Dragon Shield line in the last two years or so, by mid-2014 they had hit a sweet spot in production that continues to this day.  Moreover, Fantasy Flight's restocking consistency has improved by leaps and bounds.  Right now, today as I write this, Alliance and GTS Distribution both show every color of Dragon Shields in stock and available to ship immediately.  Dragon Sleeves feature a subtle but noticeable texture that hits just the right tolerance for many players, and these players swear by these sleeves and will buy no other.  Turquoise, Copper, Black, and New Gold are the top sellers in this line:

KMC Card Barrier sleeves spent years in the same world as Dragon Shields: inconsistent supply but a superior product.  While their supply chain is still not close to as good as Ultra-Pro's or Fantasy Flight's, it is generally solid and stockouts tend to be bad only until an overwhelming wave of replenishment shows up.  KMC makes a Super series that's high in quality but slippery, and thus sells poorly.  Their Mat series is somewhat better, the texture level is minimal but the consistency is great. However, KMC's Card Barrier Hyper Mat series has emerged as the top sleeve in their portfolio, with extremely high quality and resiliency, and a deep, granular texture that players find immensely tactile and grip-friendly.  I recommend them without hesitation, the Clears for board gaming and LCG play where opaque-backed sleeves are not required, and the monocolored Hypers for Magic: the Gathering and similar trading-card games.

There is no real right or wrong answer between Pro-Mattes, Dragon Shields, and Hyper Mats.  You just need to carry all of them, because you'll sell all three.  You'll want to be Switzerland and maintain your neutrality as to which one is the best, which is easy considering it's all a matter of personal opinion anyway.

Ultra-Pro and KMC have one additional sleeve product apiece that you need to know about.  For Ultra-Pro, they are called Pro-Fit sleeves, and for KMC they are Perfect Size (or, colloquially, "Perfect Fit") sleeves.  These are smaller sleeves that protect cards within the regular card sleeves.  So, double-sleeving, essentially.  The smaller sleeve is placed upside-down (opening to the card bottom) and the Fit-sleeved card is then inserted into the regular card sleeve.  The level of protection afforded is considerable, but many players find this to be excessive.  You'll see more double-sleeving among Vintage, Legacy, and Commander players than you will among Standard, Modern, or draft players.

I have been told by some of the more devoted Magic players, especially Commander players, that they now buy one brand and one color of sleeves to the exclusion of all others, double sleeve in Perfect Fits or Pro Fits with that brand and color, and never de-sleeve their cards thereafter.  Moving cards between decks becomes relatively easy as a result.  I recognize the value preservation argument for sure, though their method of achieving it is extremely elaborate and not especially budget-friendly.  It is worth your while to cater to these players, however, because they are willing to buy locally rather than online.  This is why I restock to a dozen quantity on each sleeve SKU I carry, and to well over 100 on the two Fit sleeve SKUs.  I never want that preservationist player, who shows up offering me hundreds of dollars for sleeves, to leave DSG empty-handed.

So, there in three articles has been The Backstage Pass's primer on card accessories for retailers and players.  I hope you have found this informative; please feel free to leave comments here or on our Facebook page and tell us what you think!  E-mail your questions about any aspect of the industry and yours might be featured in a future article right here.

Have a great week!

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