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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

MTG Dragons of Tarkir Release Post-Mortem

I wrote an article like this after Fate Reforged was released in January, and received quite a bit of feedback that readers found it useful.  Accordingly, here is a post-mortem analysis of DSGCW's experience with the release of the latest Magic: the Gathering expansion: Dragons of Tarkir!

First of all, a quick bulleted list of what Dragons of Tarkir gave us:
  • Dragons!  Unlike previous expansions purported to be centered on dragons, this expansion delivered dragons in every color (and none at all) and at every rarity.  There can be no question even in the slightest that, just as Avacyn Restored delivered angels, Dragons of Tarkir delivered dragons;
  • In the thematic realm, an alternate-present-timeline story that I know many players agree was delightful;
  • A cycle of Elder Dragonlords, some of which will be Commander favorites in perpetuity;
  • More clear Standard "push" mythics, in particular Deathmist Raptor, Shorecrasher Elemental, and Dragon Whisperer;
  • Two splashy planeswalkers, one in a color combination (red-green-blue "Temur") that had not yet hosted a planeswalker;
  • More special alternate-art promo cards from the Dragonfury dice game, which ultimately won't move the needle compared to the Ugin promo card from the last set;
  • "Money" uncommons in Roast, Draconic Roar, and others; and
  • One of the most satisfying draft formats in years.
Not a bad resume, right there.  Plenty of MTG sets have delivered less.

It's not all good, of course.  Here is what Dragons of Tarkir did not offer:

  • A set of rare dual lands, whether the enemy-colored fetchlands that were expected, allied- or enemy-colored "fast lands" a la Scars of Mirrodin, allied- or enemy-colored "filter lands" a la Shadowmoor/Eventide, or what have you;
  • Sufficient critical mass of Standard-impacting cards from the get-go to prompt competitive players to pre-order boxes en masse; and
  • Cards with significant implications in eternal formats.

We can live with two of these things based on the greater context.  Khans of Tarkir was such a blowout success in part because of the reprints of the Onslaught allied fetchlands, and let's be fair: WOTC bought themselves a honeymoon period with that.  Fate Reforged kept the party going with additional fetch access in the land slots in boosters.  Magic Origins in the summer can have just about any land mix and be acceptable, because Battle for Zendikar in the fall is fully expected to complete the fetchland reprint cycle.  (And if it doesn't, look out below.)  Cards for eternal formats mostly drive sales when they are for Commander, which at least is seeing some impact from the set; Legacy and Modern are seeing virtually nothing, but those aren't players who spend money on sealed MTG anyway.  Your typical legacy veteran's main purchase pattern at the FLGS level consists heavily of premium sleeves such as KMC Card Barriers or Dragon Shields, occasional slow-turn high-glitter cards like ABUR dual lands and foreign, original, or foil eternal staples, and concessions.

The third factor is a greater concern.  Because the Standard implications of the set were so opaque in the promotional period, pre-orders for boxes came in extremely shallow for us, a result we saw reflected to varying degrees with other store owners that communicate regularly with me.  We know now that there is plenty for Standard in the set, not the least of which are Dromoka's Command, Dragon Whisperer, and Roast, perpetual outage singles.  And we could have surmised that no set being released is going to allow Standard players to sit out.  I stood confident of that.  But the fact remains: Interest from competitive players started low.  Now, because of it being a Dragons set, it has been a beautiful slow burn of sales to casual players since release, much like Avacyn Restored was.  I still go through almost a case a day, give or take, and have gradually whittled my opening supply down to only a few dozen boxes.  I have still never restocked Fate Reforged, but I restock Dragons of Tarkir every week.  But this marks two sets in a row where the initial "burst" of sales failed to cover the cost of the initial allocation.  I've been bending down my pre-order numbers to account for this; just watch as Origins or BFZ are completely bananas and I wind up with stock outages.  I am hoping part of WOTC's new Standard rotation plan is that it allows them more consistent fulfillment, which thus far does appear to be the case.

The prerelease for Dragons of Tarkir broke all records for us, besting our previous best of 268 for Fate Reforged by bringing in a whopping 352 players on a 360-player allocation!  And the remaining eight were mostly defective player packs we needed to replace -- several Kolaghan packs contained no seeded pack or two seeded packs, and then we needed to open a couple of Ojutai leftovers to get prize packs for the main events.  The event was effectively a sellout.

We reduced the price of the prerelease to $24.99 plus tax, whether paid in money or store credit.  We reduced the prizing to only the two boosters provided by Wizards of the Coast.  This allowed us to push hard with our online web pre-registration, coupled with in-store pre-registration.  I discussed this in an article here a few months back when we did it for our Fantasy Flight Store Championships.  This time we had a pre-registration SKU for each event start time, and it fed through to our web store.  Players could register in-store or online and their order of entry was preserved by Light Speed Retail so that we could print out a report the morning of the event and have players pick their clan/dragonlord packs in the order they registered!  It was everything we ever wanted it to be and more.  I cannot stress enough what a difference the pre-registration system made.  It helped again to a lesser extent for our much smaller TCGPlayer Modern State Championship tournament last weekend, but the big breakthrough was using it for hundreds of prerelease participants.  No more long lines at the crack of dawn.  No more players having to wait to enter events.  No more delayed event starts.  It was glorious.  And players have sent their message as clearly as you like: We want a low admission price more than we want prize augmentation, the end.

In fact, the only negative I have to report about the prerelease was that the Tarkir Dragonfury dice "bowling" game created some negatives when we quickly ran out of the best promo cards to skilled players in the early events.  Wizards of the Coast really needs to make sure the premium giveaway stuff allows stores to provide every player with the same gift item.  The Ugin's Fate boosters from Fate Reforged were a runaway success in this respect, and I told them so at the GAMA Trade Show in March this year.  Even though not every player opened a promo Ugin, every player felt like they had a fair chance to do so.  The Dragonfury game also ate up a lot of labor attention.  Without that on the agenda, with the pre-registration removing virtually all of the crunch from sign-ups, and given great judge volunteers, I could have run the entire weekend with a single staff member on duty.  (I wouldn't have, of course, because of the overall level of business during a prerelease weekend justifies additional coverage anyway.  But still.)

One side note is that this is the first Magic: the Gathering expansion that WOTC has ever released in the month of March, to my understanding.  This made our March from one of the worst retail months of the year (often the worst) into our best month since the release of Khans, easily.  It appears stores are now going to get a major MTG release every two months, though a couple of those might not be booster releases, and a MTG release of some kind in almost every calendar month:

  • January - Fate Reforged
  • February - Duel Decks: Elspeth vs Kiora
  • March - Dragons of Tarkir
  • April - (nothing this time in paper but Tempest Remastered in MTGO)
  • May - Modern Masters 2015 Edition
  • June - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2016
  • July - Magic Origins
  • August - From the Vault: Angels
  • September - Duel Decks: Thing vs Thing
  • October - Battle for Zendikar (this might be late September but whatever)
  • November - Commander 2015 Edition
  • December - (Duel Decks Anthology gift box analogue)

Honestly, for as long as Magic remains red hot, I see no problem with this.  It does create an awkward prerelease schedule of January, March, July, and September.  Nobody seemed ready for a March prerelease (though it didn't seem to dampen attendance any) and by the time we get to July everyone should be so overamped for it I'll barely be able to calm them down.  Which I guess would also be fine.  In fact, forget I said anything, it's all good.  (Whistles and walks away...)

We opened only four cases and change for singles.  With such low competitive player interest, and competitive players comprising the primary audience for singles, I wasn't about to be caught with piles upon piles of unsold paper slabs in the event of a mass casual clamor for foil-sealed merchandise modules, which in fact is what arose.  We did open consecutive cases to even out our yield, and the worst swings from early on did correct themselves by the end, with a staggering zero Narsets out of the first two cases eventually pulling within the bell curve with the rest of the mythics with a three-pull case and a four-pull case following after.

When it was all said and done, we weren't heavy on anything and we weren't light on anything.  My only case break disappointment was limited to my personal interests: four of our five mythic foils we opened were Standard-relevant only -- Deathmist Raptor, Shorecrasher Elemental, Dragon Whisperer, and Shaman of Forgotten Ways -- and we got only one Commander foil, and a questionable one at that, Dragonlord Kolaghan.  This was good in that we were able to sell those foils quickly, but I had really hoped to break open foils of Dragonlords Ojutai and Dromoka for Commander and of course the planeswalkers for overall top value.  Not a problem; those foils came to me in sell-backs eventually, just as all cards do.

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.  At this point, both boxes and packs are moving with excellent velocity and I am disinclined to tinker with those numbers in any way.

In ancillary products, the fat packs for Dragons of Tarkir have sold strongly.  I expected this because of the natural affinity of casual players for fat packs, as casual players tend to find booster boxes a bit too expensive for frequent purchase.  It may appear they aren't moving because I have a lot in stock, but in fact it's the other way around: they are moving very well and I am restocking them aggressively and frequently to keep the party going.  Also, what's this we have here?  An excellent Event Deck with good singles in it?  Yes, actually!  From Thunderbreak Regent and a pair of Roasts on down to a Savage Knuckleblade and some solid block stock, the Event Deck is not only good value even for a competitive player but also plays extremely well as built.  I'm not going to be restocking it in consequential numbers, but I'm happy that I am on track to sell through it.  Finally, Intro Decks.  This is perhaps all the indication you need that Dragons of Tarkir is a good set for casuals and people getting into or returning to the game.  I actually almost ran out of intro decks after the initial release, and had to restock them.  Yes, I had to contact my distributor and actually purchase a display of intro decks.  It felt so awkward, like something you're always told you can do but nobody actually does.  Like fair-catching a punt before halftime in order to have a free kick for a field goal.

A final note is that the selection of Ojutai's Command as the buy-a-box promo was great.  The card hasn't been a tournament staple thus far, but it seemed like it might be while the set was still in its promotional period, and that's what counts.  It made people want to, well, buy a box.  I would have to characterize that as a completely successful "promotion," which is what a "promo" card is all about.

So that's it!  I am happy with Dragons of Tarkir generally, despite the Zendikar fetchlands not being included in it.  Overall I don't think I need to make structural changes to our business workflows for Magic Origins.  We will make an adjustment for the prerelease by actually using the sixth start time WOTC allows us to schedule, now that it's clear we're likely to run full for the event with an entire weekend of mostly happy players amped up to pay us a return visit.  I am also going to bend down my preorder numbers yet again.  I think WOTC's fulfillment has improved to the point where I am willing to stress-test them a bit by stocking to demand plus a week or so, rather than demand plus two or three weeks in anticipation of having to wait for a second wave like we used to have to do.  That hasn't been the case lately, so I need to avoid tying up cash flow in cellulose as though it was still happening.

I have a bunch of ideas I am tossing around for next week's Backstage Pass article, so for the first time in a while, I'm just going to leave things open-ended.  See you then!

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