Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Battle for Zendikar Release Post-Mortem

I've written articles like this for every Magic: the Gathering expansion released since this business blog began!  They are some of the most heavily read and linked articles on this blog, so evidently people enjoy these observations.  Good enough for me!  (Enough that I basically copy the template and write in the details afresh each time.)  Here, then, is the DSGCW's experience with the release of Magic: the Gathering: Battle for Zendikar!

First of all, a quick bulleted list of what Battle for Zendikar gave us:

  • Ultra-Chase Cards!  A subset of 25 "Zendikar Expeditions" land cards appeared in the set at a rate of roughly one card per 160 to 180 booster packs.  I discussed the "dangling carrot" of Zendikar Expeditions a few weeks ago in this article.  The Expedition lands in person are, if anything, far more impressive than we were led to believe.  The foil gloss is deep and allows rich, vivid color to come through.  The artwork on some of the lands is breathtaking, even for a guy like me who doesn't enjoy the theme of floating rocks and angular "hedrons."  And the economic effect is already proving as predicted: Standard players are trading them in immediately and using the store credit to complete their decks with regular cards, while players (like me) who enjoy beautifying our Commander decks have some new treasures to buy.
  • Giant Eldrazi creatures!  They no longer have the fun-repellent Annihilator mechanic, and instead are invasive and destructive in new and imaginative ways.  In terms of the main Zendikar set itself, I think this aspect will rank above the Allies synergy as the lasting design achievement.  Casual Magic players love big creatures, so this set is perfect for them.  Competitive Magic players love winning, and if it can be accomplished with big creatures, they have no particular objection to that.
  • Some standard "push" mythics that should see meaningful action, provided a deck arises by the weekend of October 24th, when the pros tell the hopefuls what cards everybody is allowed to play.
  • More than a few cards that are good enough to make the list of 99 in well-developed Commander decks.
  • A glorious surge of pre-order activity thanks to all of the above.
  • Once again, a good limited format.  And,
  • A cogent continuation of the new method of Magic: the Gathering storytelling, wherein narrative lines involving the game setting's main characters, the Planeswalkers, are interspersed between and among one another against a backdrop of exotic settings, epic struggles, intrigue and war and heroism and everything that comes with it.  While nothing that has happened so far in the Zendikar story is going to shock and astound anyone familiar with fantasy fiction tropes, the execution has been sharp and the flavor appealing.  It's the fictional equivalent of a restaurant quesadilla: Not the most nourishing thing you could have ordered, but great taste in every bite.
Conversely, we did not get:
  • Nearly enough fat packs!  With each fat pack containing eighty full-art basic lands, much as the original Zendikar and Worldwake fat packs did, the $39.99 product SKU was a quick and furious sellout at retail and climbed right past the fifty-dollar level on the secondary market.  I say this despite receiving well over a hundred fat packs, more than I've ever ordered before; I could have sold twice that number.
  • A main-set reprint of the enemy fetchlands.  I know, they're in the Expeditions.  And that's probably good enough for now.  But man, it has been a genuine pleasure having allied fetches available and affordable to everyone thanks to Khans of Tarkir, so I really want to see WOTC keep reprinting utility cards right into oblivion so that Magic becomes a game again, to everybody, and not as much of a financial instrument to the speculators.
  • That's about it.  There wasn't much about this set that didn't deliver.  Oh, I guess:
  • Much in the way of new, non-reprinted cards with significant implications in Modern and Legacy.
The new reality of two-set blocks as Magic: the Gathering's release pattern has now commenced.  We know already that the second set is called Oath of the Gatewatch.  We can speculate quite a bit about the direction the story will go based on that: in all likelihood the planeswalkers will banish the mighty Ulamog to that flying rectangle place where Superman sent Zod and the other miscreants, and the good guys will have to take turns watching the portal to make sure she doesn't sneak back across the chasm of eternity.  That crafty abomination, she.

Where will the story go in the spring?  WOTC has already laid the groundwork for stories involving Liliana and Chandra, and it's sensible to expect our other leads to continue to protagonize to some degree.  I expect popular planeswalkers and characters from the past to start dropping in.  It's tough for me to name names because I am informed that some of these characters are dead, and I'm not conversant enough with the storyline to know which, though Elspeth and Venser were obvious even from my distant perch.  We know Ajani's story is in limbo, so he may jump back into the plotline.  Couldn't tell you what Koth, Tibalt, Ral Zarek, Ashiok, or Teferi are up to, so maybe some of them make it back?  Once Sarkhan and Narset get tired of the same old household routine, I'm sure they'll reappear as well.

The prerelease for Battle for Zendikar broke all records for us.  We were allocated 414 player packs and sold them all out, seating 362 players.  That's a pretty high rate of take-and-drop at 52 heads, and I imagine WOTC will take notice of this.  In fact, I brought this up in the private WPN Retailer online forum for discussion, so hopefully if this is indicative of a greater and more widespread concern, it can be addressed.  Stores are anxious to continue to max out their allocations, which in the past at least has meant reporting the highest possible participation metrics.  However, the integrity of the event is served by having as many possible registrants actually take part in the tournament.  There was a time when dropping from a prerelease actually earned players a DCI warning, which didn't make a lot of sense, but so it went.

Our actual attendance figures in final reported participant totals:
Saturday 12:01 a.m. ("Friday Midnight"): 106 players
Saturday 11:00 a.m.: 76 players
Saturday 3:00 p.m. (2-Headed Giant): 56 players (28 teams)
Saturday 7:00 p.m.: 44 players
Sunday 11:00 a.m.: 62 players
Sunday 3:00 p.m.: 18 players (and ran out of product).

These are outstanding totals and I hope we are given an opportunity to improve on them further for Oath of the Gatewatch in January.

We kept the reduced price of the prerelease at $24.99 plus tax, whether paid in money or store credit.  Prize pools consisted only of the two boosters per player provided by Wizards of the Coast.  Online preregistration was unfortunately unavailable to us this cycle because we're migrating to a new web host and point-of-sale system, and believe me, it was missed.  And I continue to get a strong signal from players that, regardless of what else they say, their behavior indicates that price is the primary concern for them in making a buying or attendance decision.  This is not a good or bad thing but simply an observation of customer behavior.  It is not up to the customer to behave as the retailer might like or prefer; it's up to the retailer to adapt to what the customer does in reality.  That topic is an ongoing study for our ownership group this autumn.  Of course all retailers would like all customers to spend wildly and indiscriminately like drunken sailors.  If wishes were fishes, we'd all cast nets.

Our singles strategy returned somewhat to normal for this set, with a deep open of a lot of cases to ensure the store would get a bunch of Expeditions to sell.  With our recent changes to singles pricing, business was brisk.  Players readily cashed in their Expeditions and hauled off with piles of Standard singles from the set.  The dream of an ultra-affordable Standard environment, rarefied air we tasted for a tantalizingly brief time last fall, appears promising once again.

The case breaks led to a relatively even mythic spread, with some variance as always, mostly favorable from where I sit:

  • 17 Oblivion Sower
  • 19 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
  • 19 Void Winnower
  • 16 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
  • 12 Quarantine Field
  • 12 Part the Waterveil
  • 11 Drana, Liberator of Malakir
  • 13 Ob Nixilis Reignited
  • 14 Akoum Firebird
  • 11 Dragonmaster Outcast
  • 16 Greenwarden of Murasa
  • 16 Undergrowth Champion
  • 19 Sire of Stagnation
  • 10 Kiora, Master of the Depths
  • 16 Omnath, Locus of Rage

The Expeditions yield also pleased us, offering up:

  • Prairie Stream
  • Smoldering Marsh
  • Cinder Glade
  • Hallowed Fountain
  • Stomping Ground
  • Temple Garden
  • Godless Shrine
  • Steam Vents
  • Overgrown Tomb
  • Bloodstained Mire
  • Wooded Foothills
  • Marsh Flats x 2
  • Verdant Catacombs x 2
  • Misty Rainforest

Apologies for any errors in that listing; we had taken in some singles during the prerelease and these counts were from the combined haul.  Given the law of averages and large numbers, it should remain an accurate reflection of the actual multi-case break.

We sell boosters at MSRP and boxes at 20% off MSRP, making off-the-shelf booster box sales about $114.88, or ~$123.90 after tax.  How did sales reflect the vastly increased levels of competition and market saturation?  Turns out Battle for Zendikar still outsold every other release we've ever had.  We divided our allocations roughly fifty-fifty between pre-orders and release day shelf stock, to ensure we'd have enough for each.  Pre-orders sold out in two days.  Release day came and the other half of our product hit the racks.  Thirty minutes into Friday morning, fat packs were sold out.  By midday Sunday, there wasn't a Zendikar booster pack left in the building.

So that's it!  I am beyond happy with Battle for Zendikar.  It has outperformed every expectation and done so despite what I and others thought would be crucial flaws, such as not having fetchlands in the main set.  It turns out the rest of the equation was so strong it just didn't matter, and now WOTC has banked that mechanical equity for future releases.   I pre-ordered heavily into fat packs and guessed correctly.  For Oath of the Gatewatch, everyone will guess correctly, thanks to the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, and it won't matter; they will still sell through.  Will a Jace: the Mind Sculptor analogue appear and make Oath a reprise of Worldwake?  If so, batten down the hatches.  These seas are going to get pretty active.

Magic: the Gathering has used a fall expansion once again as an opportunity to revisit a popular setting and tread familiar territory.  In response to popular request, I'll do the same right here next week: A special double-length article revisiting one of my most popular recent articles from a different perspective and in greater detail.  See you then!

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