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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Magic Origins Release Post-Mortem

I've written articles like this for Fate Reforged, Dragons of Tarkir, and Modern Masters 2015.  They are some of the most heavily read and linked articles on this blog, so it sounds like there is interest in this.  Works for me!  Here, then, is the DSGCW's experience with the release of the "final Core Set" of Magic: the Gathering: Magic Origins!

First of all, a quick bulleted list of what Magic Origins gave us:

  • Flipwalkers!  There are always planeswalkers in the Core Set and so far always five of them.  This time, they are five legendary creatures that can be transformed into planeswalkers, reflecting the "origin stories" of five of MTG's more popular characters: Gideon Jura (Kytheon Iora), Jace Beleren, Liliana Vess, Chandra Nalaar, and Nissa Revane.  The stories of how these characters turned from mere mortals to powerful planeswalkers provides the entire thematic basis for Magic Origins.  The transformation mechanic on those five cards is the central gimmick of the set.  The Flipwalkers get further credit for being playable as Commanders in both the titular format and in the new offshoot Tiny Leaders.
  • Some standard "push" mythics that should see meaningful action, provided a deck arises by the weekend of August 8th, when the pros tell the hopefuls what cards to play.
  • A few cards that are good enough to make the list of 99 in well-developed Commander decks.
  • A handful of meaningful reprints, primarily Goblin Piledriver from way back in Onslaught, Sigil of the Empty Throne from Shards of Alara, Sylvan Messenger from Apocalypse and every Elf tribal Commander deck anyone ever built, and a respectable encore of the Apocalypse painlands we saw in last year's Magic 2015 Core Set.
  • Once again, a good limited format.  And,
  • Ten planes' worth of references, including two "new" ones the main game had not yet explored.  The events of Magic Origins take place in Theros, Bant Alara, Vryn, Ravnica, Dominaria, Innistrad, Kaladesh, Regatha, Zendikar, and Lorwyn.

So, is Magic Origins good, in terms of gameplay and design?  Yes and no.  Wizards of the Coast already described on the mothership how the set had to be redesigned extensively on a short time-frame.  I believe the set may not age particularly well because it's a bit shallow, perhaps because they had so little time left after pulling up the floorboards.  There is the planeswalker origin story quintet, and that's all this set is.  The ten planes add a bit of beef, and the production value is very high, but players will explore this one out in short order.  If this expansion is a success at retail, it will be because the execution on the marketing side excelled.  We got:
  • A San Diego Comic Con exclusive "black" Planeswalker box set, featuring double-sided black-and-foil Flipwalker cards that have to be seen to be believed.
  • Five different cover arts for the Fat Packs, one for each planeswalker, adding differentiation for the first time to the Fat Pack packaging.
  • A fantastic Clash Pack with excellent contents at a solid value level.
  • Great prerelease promotional foils.
  • Near-perfect fulfillment at retail.  And,
  • A new Deck Builder's Toolkit to pair with new intro decks, new demo decks, and a special two-demo-deck packet designed to be given to new players.  This entire facet of Magic Origins was assembled and delivered better than anything that has come in previous Core Sets in terms of providing a jumping-on point for prospective new players.

Conversely, we did not get:

  • A particularly "sexy" land reprint or new print.  Lands are fundamental to what Magic is, and the quality of lands tends to sell the set -- just look at Khans of Tarkir if you don't believe me.  The best lands in Magic Origins have been in Standard for a year already.
  • Sufficient critical mass of Standard-impacting cards from the get-go to prompt competitive players to pre-order boxes en masse.  This item might be a copy-and-paste from my Dragons of Tarkir review.  And,
  • Cards with significant implications in Modern and Legacy, other than Goblin Piledriver.

So, we know this set was meant to bridge us over into a new Standard consisting of triads of two-set blocks.  It's a one-off in many respects, and doesn't quite fit into the grand scheme except as a sorbet, to cleanse the palate.  The real rodeo comes on October 2nd when Battle for Zendikar brings us back to a plane that players have been salivating to rediscover.  The set must, of course, reprint the five enemy fetchlands that first appeared in 2009's Zendikar expansion: Arid Mesa, Marsh Flats, Misty Rainforest, Scalding Tarn, and Verdant Catacombs.  We can surmise with some confidence that WOTC will make these reprints -- they put the shocklands into Return to Ravnica on purpose, after all, and the Onslaught allied fetchlands were the cleanup hitters in last autumn's Khans of Tarkir.  The baffling lack of Damnation in last summer's From the Vaults: Board Wipes notwithstanding, I cannot imagine that WOTC allows this grounder to roll by them as Bill Buckner once did.

Thus, WOTC knew they had a blowout autumn expansion on the way that would make a big impact on tournaments and the metagame.  Magic Origins only had to get us there without completely crashing the barge, and this was the perfect window for them to do something overwhelmingly "top-down" and all about flavor.  That is exactly what they did.  The set won't have serious implications on gameplay, and will mainly exist as a fun respite in the ever-grinding history of the product.


The negative implication of the above, of course, is that without a lot of urgency to push competitive players and hopefuls to buy in, pre-order numbers at stores will come in shallow, leading to something of a muted launch at retail.  Given the scale Magic enjoys in this industry, I'm not sure their "worst" launch is actually all that bad in absolute terms.  A typical product release of most other games is probably a rounding error against a "failure" of a Magic set.


And still it might not matter: Dragons of Tarkir had some of this same problem, as I wrote, and yet it led to a glorious and fulfilling gradual burn of strong product sales over the course of months.  I would take that any time over, for example, the initial blast of the Magic 2015 Core Set that led into a very slow period once the initial enthusiasm waned.  This may be exactly where WOTC intended to go all along.  Cater to the casual gamer primarily, to the competitive grinder secondarily, and watch the product flow normalize and behave, well, more like retail.  And again, it's a Standard-legal set, and competitive players aren't going to be able to just sit out.  They will need some cards from it.


The prerelease for Magic Origins probably could have broken even our record from Dragons of Tarkir, except we were only allocated 340 player packs (260 + 80 growth), rather than the 360 we got for the previous event.  This was a result of the Origins number triggering off our Magic 2015 attendance -- the WPN allocation email was in error stating it was based on Dragons, I checked with my rep -- and considering our M15 final was something like 260 players, that number makes sense.


We ended up seating 334 of 340, a slightly better mark than the 352/360 from Dragons by a tiny fraction.  Still an effective sellout.  I really hope to get allocated strongly for Battle for Zendikar, because I still had to cancel our Sunday evening event due to running out of product.  I had one additional flight scheduled originally that was meant to be played "competitively" with a top 8 draft and so forth, but WOTC informed me that it was not permitted.  I was embarrassed about that because usually I ask before trying things like that, and it goes to show that when you're a store that plays by the book, you get a friendly warning and you get to avoid violations before they happen.  In any case, I won't even consider stretching the bounds again in terms of event formatting for future prereleases.  DSG may do some creative things external to the game to drum up interest and get people immersed in the event, but none of that will carry over to the card tables unless I am given explicit instructions that I can do something.  As long as everyone has to play by the same rules, I'm on board.


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 worked perfectly once again.  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 how the customer behaves in reality.  That topic is an ongoing study for our ownership group this summer.  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.


This time around our singles strategy changed.  I opened three cases, then set our buylist to be an overwhelming percentage of the TCGPlayer Mid price (65%-75%) on the hottest singles, on the assumption that players would take their chances selling back right now while the environment is still in flux, and we would be able to keep stock.  For the most part this proved out.  Aside from some very strange chase uncommon activity (Shaman of the Pack and Sphinx's Tutelage) stock levels remained strong with few, and brief, outages.  And unlike the ~12 cases of Magic 2015 we opened, this entire routine cost me thousands of dollars less in the cost of meaningful cards that actually sell, rather than loading me deep with bulk.  There was some mythic variance again, but it was within norms.  Unfortunately, only a handful of good foils showed up.  They didn't last long.

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.


So that's it!  I am happy with Magic Origins generally, though somewhat less so than I was for Dragons of Tarkir.  I don't see any serious need to change our workflows.  We reduced pre-orders slightly on a hedge and it paid off -- fulfillment was available immediately for delivery the week after release both from WOTC Direct and our distributors.  Honestly, that kind of consistency is such an outstanding thing for our retail finances that it makes me comfortable continuing to invest our resources, energy, and attention into the game in a big way, reducing what I assume would have been a greater impact from the seemingly endless parade of stores opening or re-opening intending to poach competitive players by paying them to play Magic.  Instead, we just see the tide from that blue ocean of players washing in.  And every player remembers their First Store... and if they're happy there, they never truly leave.

See you next week either for some tradecraft or more pithy commentary on the biz!


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