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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Kaladesh 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 DSG's experience with the release of Magic: the Gathering: Kaladesh!
It was only a matter of time before Magic introduced a setting based on south Asia, and a setting based on steampunk themes, and Kaladesh is Wizards of the Coast's attempt at both.  There was some grousing online about Kaladesh being a poor analogue for India and the regional culture, and there was some merit to the complaints.  On balance I believe Mark Rosewater's explanation that the design team was apprehensive about mimicking so closely as to appear stereotypical and disrespectful.  It was a tightrope to walk; maybe they nailed it, maybe they missed somewhat.  I don't know what the long-range impression is going to be, but we will get a chance to see them try again in Amonkhet, the Ancient-Egyptian-themed set announced to start the next block in the spring of 2017.  I'd like to return to high fantasy for the late 2017 main set, with a new setting, but I think we're more likely to see another existing setting return.  Ravnica 3: The City Blows Up.

Kaladesh is good.  Overall, anyway.  I'll get to the specifics of that below, but I want to assert from the outset that it's good, because that puts into context how it had our second-worst pre-order numbers (after Conspiracy 2: Electric Boogaloo) in store history.  Some of that comes from the explosion of new stores in the region, including one dumping boxes at barely over cost.  Surely he got some numbers I would otherwise have gotten, though he didn't get much benefit out of them.  But the real culprit was wallet fatigue, continuing with this last of five booster releases in a six-month span.  We have no new booster releases due until Aether Revolt in January, and thank the good Lord for that.  Even devoted players only have so much money at a time.  I expect Kaladesh to have legs, but the great prerelease and release weekend sales we saw could have been far better, and could have sustained far more robustly.  With only Commander 2016 and the Planechase Anthology on the horizon, we're set up for another November Swoon like last year's, and this time I will be ready.

Here is a quick bulleted list of what Kaladesh gave us:

  • Masterpieces!  Continuing the Zendikar Expeditions chase card tradition evermore, according to Mark Rosewater, we have in this block a collection of artifacts called the Kaladesh Inventions.  Virtually the entire roster are great Commander and eternal format cards that either have broad popularity among players or badly needed reprints.  Our first-ever foil of Mana Vault, which I predicted for Conspiracy 2 in my Eldritch Moon article, headlines the list.  We also got gorgeous entries of Sol Ring, Scroll Rack, Lotus Petal, Mana Crypt, three Swords of Thing and Thing, the five Jaegers, and much more.  Will these crush the value of the rest of the set's contents the way the Expeditions did for the Battle for Zendikar block?  Yeah, probably.  Whatever.  It will be worth it.  And that makes Standard more affordable for more players.
  • Huge mythics!  Chandra the Mind Sculptor, viable-looking Nissa, and newcomers Saheeli Rai and Dovin Bann joined the planeswalker roster.  Meanwhile, the Pacific-Rim-Jaeger-esque Gearhulks gave each color a new artifact titan to crash to the table.  For that matter, much of the rest of the mythic and rare roster looks like it could potentially be of some constructed use.
  • Meaningful rare lands!  The enemy-colored "fast lands" were great to see arriving at last, this time with generic names so they can reappear on blocks that are not set on the plane of Mirrodin.  (There ain't no Darkslick Shores on Alara, folks.)
  • A new subtype: Vehicle!  Artifacts that can be "crewed" by whatever creature you have handy, such as the eerily compatible Lupine Prototype from Eldritch Moon.  The silver-and-brown card frame for vehicles calls back to the original brown artifact frames and I am in the visible minority online who thinks it looks great.  At least a couple appear tournament-viable as well, the Smuggler's Copter ("ROFLcopter/looter-scooter") and Fleetwheel Cruiser ("the racecar").  
  • A new resource: Energy!  No, not Pokemon Energy, though it resembles the Lightning variety of same.  Earned and spent like credits from Android: Netrunner, Kaladesh's Energy is generated in various ways and kept until needed and used.  This parallel colorless mana of sorts does a nice job of evoking the steampunk side of the setting.  And,
  • Planeswalker Decks!  A new introductory product that has proven thus far to be an absolute hit, popular across player types.  Well done, Wizards of the Coast.

Meanwhile, here is what Kaladesh did not deliver:

  • Heavy pre-order activity and significant release-weekend sales.  As discussed above, I think they're just squeezing blood from a stone at this point.  For release Saturday, Magic wasn't even the top-selling category at my store.  That's concerning.  I think Kaladesh will have legs that will lead to a nice protein burn all month long, though.
  • ...that's it.  The content really stood up this time, as far as I can tell.  There are some long-term market implications and there is a lot going on that may or may not lead to a vibrant and diverse Standard metagame, but this time around we don't really have a gaping hole of expectations unmet.  No, the enemy-color fetchlands did not appear, but since we got enemy-color fastlands, it's all bueno.  With the announcement of Modern Masters 2017, plus a setting-compatible block to come in Amonkhet, it's only a matter of time before we have another shot at Arid Mesa, Marsh Flats, Misty Rainforest, Scalding Tarn, and Verdant Catacombs.
Attendance for the Pre-release tournament undershot expectations, with an allocation of not quite 500 packs bringing in less than 400 players.  As with Eldritch Moon, pre-registration was mostly very easy through Crystal Commerce, both in-store and on the website.  We sussed out a few more exception situations and learned more to optimize the workflow, but mostly things got done.  One thing we learned was to stage up the pre-registrations sooner, because our entire Saturday roster of start times ran late.  The one time we might have been on time, for the 3pm Two-Headed Giant start time, was when Wizards Event Reporter decided to be touchy and drop players from the team list instead of entering them consistently.  All told we lost over an hour to late starts.  That is going to be a primary focus for Aether Revolt in January.

DSG opened big on cases yet again, since that strategy has worked well several times in a row now and with more and more competitive players simply buying singles from us and nothing else, we wanted our pantry to be full.  With release weekend in the books we've still got 100% stock on non-foil Kaladesh cards and reasonable stock of foils and even a few Inventions.  The optimal labor scenario has us not doing case breaks on an ongoing basis unless we get a big buy opportunity at a great price, which meant attempting to get essentially the entire store seed stock in one shot.  It appears we did it.  There is no point in listing our yield as we basically opened plenty of everything.

With prerelease attendance just under our Shadows Over Innistrad level, we had enough packs remaining to break an entire case live on camera last Tuesday morning for marketing purposes.  This was watched by literally hundreds of viewers on Facebook.  Considering we did not announce it in advance or anything, that number pleased me greatly.  We received plenty of feedback about it and we're going to look at our results and work on polishing them up to improve.  The case break was simultaneously recorded with a dedicated camera for editing and release on our YouTube channel, with meaningless packs sped up and commentary focusing on the big opens.  Every attempt I see my social media staff sharpening their craft.  I think Tanner and Josh have a good voice for this kind of thing, one that connects well with our primarily Millennial audience for the videos.  As you can tell by what you're reading right this moment, I am not going to abandon the printed word or even photographs.  But I think there's room for us to do more and in a wider array of media, to bring our games to our players in an immersive fashion.

Next week I'll write about something else, so hope you enjoyed this look at the business side of the Kaladesh release!  Today is 10/4, so I'll just wrap with a breaker breaker, over and out.

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