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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

MTG Modern Masters 2015 Release Post-Mortem

The body count keeps piling up!  By request I'm continuing my series of articles looking back at large events and releases and recounting DSG's experience with them.

Modern Masters 2015 (MM15), the latest Magic: the Gathering release, was a story of high highs and low lows.  Extremely so.  The early spoilers made it clear there would be jackpot cards and foils in the set: Tarmogoyf, Karn Liberated, three of the mythic Eldrazi, and so on.  Modern Masters (2013) sold through a small print run and made many stores healthy.  Its successor seems likely to do the same.

This set is sold at an MSRP of $9.99, a sharp increase from the norm for booster releases of $3.99.  Setting aside that it's long since time for the booster MSRP to increase, the MM15 sticker price even represented a bump from Modern Masters 2013's $7.99 figure.  Combined with Wizards of the Coast's wholesale price increase from the beginning of the year, this meant stores would be paying close to six dollars per booster at wholesale.  It's just as well that the print run was limited, because I doubt many stores could have withstood the cost of an unlimited printing of this set, even on net terms.

Our customers opened far better than we did; both of the store's singles boxes contained Comet Storms and our only real hits were foil Ulamog and nonfoil Dark Confidant.  We opened into Fulminator Mage, All is Dust, Spellskite, Splinter Twin, and some other reasonable playstock in both boxes, but overall our value yield was low.  Meanwhile, one of our regulars got the Karn + foil Eldrazi pack, while another got foil Tarmogoyf in one box and foil Dark Confidant in another.  That's fine, of course.  Makes our people that much happier about doing business with us.

The negatives were of three species: the booster packaging, supply uncertainty, and "everything else."  Of those, supply uncertainty was pronounced in the early going but was resolved in the end when our primary distributor took good care of us and got us an allocation well in excess of the amount Wizards promised for Advanced Plus stores.  Our secondary distributor even provided some quantity, and Wizards Direct opened up three cases' worth to WPN accounts for shipment the week following.  With Phoenix Comicon on the horizon, this was a delightful development.  It was frustrating, however, to be forced to plan with uncertain fulfillment levels yet to come.

We can also dispose of the "everything else" category: the "MTG Finance(Tm)" community, binder-grinders and garage-dealers all, engaged in a concerted and sustained effort to devalue the set upon reveal of the full spoiler by talking it down relentlessly in any online forum where their voices could be heard.  This resulted in a few pre-order cancellations for us, but given sales velocity we were delighted to get those boxes back.  Interest-free short-term loans seem good.  The grinders hoped to browbeat the community into undervaluing the set so they could buy in low.  Fortunately, that does not appear to have happened to any widespread extent.  DSG is already considering raising the booster pack price to reflect rapidly diminishing supply.  Also, the booster boxes were the larger slanted-top type used for the previous Modern Masters and resembling those for Conspiracy, which are difficult to stack and to ship.  At the GAMA trade show this year, Wizards already apologized for this and promised never to do it again.  Good enough for me.

That brings us to the booster packaging.  In an attempt to be environmentally conscious, the booster packs for MM15 are made of cardboard and glued shut, with pull tabs to open.  As an Eagle Scout and proponent of scientifically-sound sustainability, I am happy to see progress toward reduction of pollution where it can be done without economic or ethical failure.  Unfortunately, in this case there was an economic and ethical failure.

A YouTube video purporting to demonstrate easy and recloseable access to the booster pack flaps appeared.  I suspected shenanigans and indeed upon examining a booster found that it was glued shut at the spot.  Moreover, any attempt to cut out or around the glue would have been visible upon buyer inspection.  While it was possible that a print run of boosters had desiccated glue or perhaps did not adhere properly, it seemed likely that this would not be a widespread problem.  However, it focused the community's attention on the booster wrapping.  Linus Torvalds famously stated that "given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow."  Well, it took about ten minutes for multiple sources to discover that heating the booster with a common heat gun melted the glue and allowed the pack to be opened and resealed in a manner that would appear pristine under any physical or visual inspection.  Any shady fraudster could replace the rare and/or foil card in a pack with a less valuable rare and/or foil, essentially surfing boxes for the cream at no risk and selling off the remainders.

At DSG, we don't compromise when it comes to customer protection.  For the first day of release, May 22nd, we did not sell any loose booster packs.  We only sold MM15 by the box or to full pods of booster draft players.  We wanted to be sure, and to be able to prove our products were absolutely unadulterated.  We strive for transparency to the degree that customers can trust DSG without having to take our word for it.  I cannot state strongly enough how frustrating it was to be in a position to have to sell a potentially deeply flawed product.

By midday Friday, Wizards of the Coast issued this statement regarding pack security and integrity.  I would have liked something a bit more definitive, but even without more detail, this was Wizards vouching for the product, so there we were.  It was as much as we were going to get from them; they simul-posted a survey asking among other things whether respondents believed the packs were secure.  Reading between the lines is not difficult.

Given Wizards' public statement, and with demand for loose boosters from our buying community rising to overwhelming levels, we opted to sell them after all, but with safeguards in place.  Only one booster box at a time would ever be opened from its factory seal, the loose packs would remain in visible camera/public view at all times, we would break open a fresh box for all drafts of course, and we would not accept buyback or trade-in packs at all.  This satisfied enough buyers to drive us to a nice, strong revenue weekend with no evident integrity concerns.  However, some damage is already done.  Players and dealers know that Wizards released a product that cannot be proven pristine without additional corroborating evidence.  It's a problem that did not need to exist.  If Wizards wants to use cardboard wrappers again, we hope they find a non-meltable adhesive, assuming such a thing exists that would not cause more pollution than the switch from foil wrapping to cardboard would have eliminated.

In objective terms, MM15 overall has to be considered a runaway success.  More than half our allotment, limited as it was, sold on pre-order and provided us with strong cash flow.  Our Memorial Day Sealed Deck tournament for the set packed the joint with excited players.  At the end of the day, we made a bunch of money and will continue doing so for a week or two until it's all gone.  The booster packaging debacle exists as a stain on the, ah, "Legacy" of Modern Masters and will hopefully disappear and be forgotten, never to be used again.  It was a serious problem and I think they will be scrutinizing such changes far more exhaustively in the future.

Next up for us in Magic will be Magic Origins in July, our first prerelease in four months and a planeswalker-themed set that already looks splendid even with nothing for us to go on yet but one spoiled card and a bunch of key artwork!  I fully expect the set to be fantastic and to do abundant business for us.  The week after the prerelease will be our Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier for the season, and its format will be sealed deck using Magic Origins product.  If that does not turn into our best revenue weekend in the history of the store, I will have failed in some way.

Join me next week for an article on our experience at Phoenix Comicon 2015, which runs from Thursday night through Sunday!  Have a great week!

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