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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Dangling Carrot of Zendikar Expeditions

Welcome back!  I enjoyed the slow week and of course there was big news in the meanwhile that I just now get to address.

Here is what kicked off the past ten or so days of mayhem:

These gorgeous semi-full-art foil cards are part of "Zendikar Expeditions," a 45-card subset within the forthcoming Magic: the Gathering expansions Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch.  (I guess we're going to have to wait a little longer for the Eldrazi to meet their Fall.)  BFZ will contain the first 25 of these cards, which are going to be the ten "fetchlands," the ten "shocklands," and the first five allied-color "Zuals," or Zendikar dual lands that have both basic types and enter play tapped if the controller does not have at least two basic lands in play.

These special foils will occur "slightly less rarely than mythic rare foils," which occur about once every 200 boosters, so we can guesstimate a 160-180 pack frequency per hit.  The commercial effect of this announcement has been overwhelmingly good, and I'll reach that issue again in a moment.

I posted before about MTG Head Designer Mark Rosewater revealing that the enemy fetchlands (Arid Mesa, et al) were not being reprinted in BFZ.  This was misdirection, a lie of omission.  I am disappointed that increasingly MaRo has turned to dishonesty in his publicity for the game, but that's his decision to make.  MTG is a staggeringly healthy game and it seems wholly unnecessary to be even the slightest bit dishonest in promoting it.

True, MaRo, the enemy fetches are not in the BFZ expansion proper, as they are in a subset.  Yet to the salient question, "Can we get enemy fetchlands in BFZ booster packs?" the answer is clearly yes, and ultimately the players just want to know whether they can have the pieces to play their game.  Your misleading blog post about the reprint also set off chaos in the secondary market, which you knew it would.  This chaos also made it harder for players to get the pieces to play their game.

Fortunately, with that bit of unpleasantness out of the way, the existence of these chase cards will and should make it much easier for players to get the pieces to play their game.  The actual product will undo some of the damage MaRo did in promoting it.  As noted in various articles in the misguided world of "MTG Finance,"  expansions containing the fetchlands are generally opened in such huge quantities that the prices of other cards are depressed in those sets.  This has been true of every such expansion thus far:

  • Quick, what are the three most expensive cards other than the fetchlands in Onslaught right now?  Goblin Piledriver, which just got reprinted and is in Standard; followed by two Commander essentials never thus-far reprinted: Patriarch's Bidding and Mana Echoes.  
  • In the original Zendikar, it's even more stratified: only Goblin Guide is within $20 of any fetchland at mid value, and if the Guide is reprinted in BFZ or OGW, batten down the hatches.  
  • Khans of Tarkir landed last fall and, below all five fetches in the value chart, there sits a jumble of speculative cards like See the Unwritten and Dig Through Time rubbing borders with the set's two planeswalkers.  

Late in 2014 we saw the most affordable Standard format possibly in history.  We may see that happen again, and if the enemy fetchlands appear in Commander 2015, the value of the rest of that release will be deeply suppressed in a similar fashion.  I've said at length that the key to making Magic: the Gathering a truly eternal game is for people to be able to get the pieces without jumping too many hoops.  Premium foils and "bling" are optional; merely to play the game should be a perfunctory exercise in purchasing.  Increasingly it is becoming that.  This also strengthens diverse stores in the hobby trade while discouraging Magic-focused "clubhouse" stores that are little more than semi-fraudulent storefronts that exist so a cadre of players can have wholesale access to product.  The more that access to MTG can be normalized, the less the impact of "MTG Finance" activities, which in turn weakens the backbone of the clubhouse stores' revenue-driving transactions.

Purchasing, meanwhile, appears to be something the player base is more than happy to do, provided they believe they're being offered a good value proposition.  Battle for Zendikar is already the most pre-ordered product in DSG's history.  It is not close.

Pre-orders opened on September 2nd, thirty days before the set's release.  By September 4th, our entire pre-order allotment of product was sold out.  Total pre-orders exceeded those for Fate Reforged, Dragons of Tarkir, and Magic Origins combined.  And this wasn't at fire-sale pricing either.  We ran the same $99.99 per box pre-order we always do.  We did a somewhat aggressive bundle on fat packs, pairing one with a box for $129.99.  This promotion was designed to make an impression and get players to visit and see the new and improved store after a summer of inventory growth, fixture additions, and configuration refinement.

Fortunately, we only allot a portion of each set's allocation to pre-order specials.  Our regular shelf stock for release day still consists of a substantial number of boxes and cases, so we've opened that up for pre-orders at our normal off-the-shelf price of $114.99 per box and MSRP for fat packs.  But to be eating into that already at this early stage is unprecedented.  Even eagerly awaited and positively received sets like Theros and Khans did not have this effect.  I've got my final numbers from several of my sources; I have one more distributor total to lock down from among those I buy a lot from, and that will determine how soon I have to cut off shelf-stock presales and how much or how little I will be able to open for singles.  I'm also reaching out to distributors I don't often use to see if I can get a case here or there, but none of those will move the needle on the overall supply whether they say yes or no.

This release should serve as a good test of Wizards of the Coast's strong post-release fulfillment from the past few sets.  If, as has been the case all year long, I can restock cases of BFZ the Monday morning after release in quantity, I think that will end up being the elbow-drop win for everybody.  I would be absolutely delighted to spend the entire autumn selling huge quantities of this set.

From September 2nd through 6th, DSG saw gross sales comparable to an entire month of revenue in its early days.  We're giddy at the prospect of getting to decide how far forward to zero out our costs in addition to covering the product order itself.  This will help tremendously in the drive to gather capital for our eventual new location, and in the more immediate term, for our migration to the Microsoft RMS point-of-sale framework.

The cause-and-effect of the Zendikar Expeditions announcement and the firestorm of pre-orders is so proximate as to be impossible to ignore.  The thrill of the chase beckons.  That carrot, dangling with promise right before our eyes, was absolutely enough to spur us to pony up for the goods.  If Wizards had any uncertainty in their minds before as to precisely what it might take to cause twitch-speed sales to occur, well, that uncertainty should be gone now.

We have over 400 player packs for the BFZ prerelease on September 26th-27th.  I'm excited.

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