Hidden Problems Behind Buy-A-Box Promotions Like Nexus Of Fate

Game industry veteran and SCG Tour commentator Patrick Sullivan is the perfect person to ask about ramifications of Buy-a-Box programs! Get an informed and wide look at the Nexus of Fate situation!

The Buy-A-Box program, and specifically Nexus of Fate, is such a hot-button
topic in part because it feels like uncharted territory. It mostly is.
Magic has dabbled with distribution in ancillary channels in the past (more
on that later), but having a card so short-printed be Standard legal and
then appear in a format-defining deck is without analog. Without it
appearing in a booster release, it is unclear what the future is-does
Wizards ride it out? Put it into the next set? Send a bunch to stores to
distribute some other way? It isn’t clear what answers Wizards finds
necessary or practical, or how agile they can be in their response. This
adds to the agitation and uncertainty.

Before delving in further, I’d like to mention that I’ve worked in the game
industry for over a decade, working primarily on trading card games. I am
also no stranger to programs like Buy-A-Box. The now-defunct World of
Warcraft Trading Card Game leveraged these types of programs to a much
greater degree than Magic ever has. Some programs were direct sales
promotions, some were tied to organized play. I was in charge of final
design for several years, and was responsible for how the cards went out
the door. The call to action from superiors was always some variation of
“make it good enough that people want it, but not good enough that if
people can’t get it, they aren’t mad,” which is of course impossible and
obviously so with about two seconds of critical thought, but such was my
charge. I was never responsible for a Nexus of Fate, but I didn’t bat 1.000

I’ve also played Magic for over twenty years. My first sets were The Dark and Revised. Several cards that never appeared
in booster packs predate my involvement in the game-Nalathni Dragon, Sewers
of Estark, and Mana Crypt. The Dragon was distributed with some sort of
convention, while the other two were acquired by sending in the UPC to a
Magic-themed novel, or something. It was hard to gather an underlying
philosophy from these three cards-Sewers and Dragon are transparently
unplayable even by the forgiving standards of the mid-90s, while Mana Crypt
was and is one of the most powerful cards ever printed-but I don’t recall
having much of an emotional reaction to them. Boosters of the older sets
were scarce even then, and so these cards didn’t seem altogether different
from those in Legends or Arabian Nights. If I put in some
effort I could probably flag one down, but I wasn’t likely to stumble into
them by accident.

Wizards took a long break from tournament-legal promotions until relatively
recently, with Standard-legal cards appearing in the Standard precons and
the Commander products being broadly legal in Eternal formats. The
Standard-legal cards, and especially the planeswalkers, are very
conservative designs, and with good reason. Standard is intended to be a
jumping-on point for newer and lapsed players, and is supposed to be the
format with the most local support. Encountering cards that you don’t know,
and don’t know where they came from, can be a deeply destabilizing
experience that can engender more frustration if it turns out you actually
need to go get them. There’s little harm in the novice at your store
playing a card you don’t know if it’s simple and not very good, but pushing
past that point is very risky for dubious gains.

The Commander cards are more explicitly pushed for Legacy, but there are
good principles behind that. First, it’s very challenging to shake up
Legacy in a way that doesn’t ruin Standard; the only proven recipe is “this
card works with Polluted Delta somehow,” and you can only hit that note so
many times. The card pool is so vast that even experienced players aren’t
intimately familiar with every legal card; how much does it matter if it
came from Commander 2016 or Antiquities? And the format
can be prone to stagnation and a lack of novelty; it is probably net-upside
for someone to get blown out by a Fiery Confluence they didn’t know existed
so long as that experience isn’t happening too often.

Against this backdrop of modest success with creating legal cards outside
of booster packs, I’m not surprised that Wizards dipped their toes in the
water with something more adventurous. And wanting to give love to local
game stores is an admiral goal. Where did Nexus of Fate go wrong?

It is telling to contrast Nexus of Fate with Firesong and Sunspeaker, the
first Buy-A-Box promo that debuted with Dominaria. It isn’t just a
question of rate, though Firesong and Sunspeaker is appreciably weaker. The
card is an appealing read, but there are so many six-cost creatures and
planeswalkers that even if it hits, you’re creating more competition with
future sets. Also, the abilities of Firesong and Sunspeaker call out to
particular mechanics, which you can be conservative with in future releases
if you have reason to believe the card went out the door more powerful than
it should have. In short, you have “backstops” among multiple fronts-the
nature of the card is such that it’s hard to imagine it being the best
thing going for six months straight even if the rate was pushed hard, which
it wasn’t.

Nexus of Fate has none of those backstops. Wizards doesn’t print that many
Time Walks, and since Time Walks stack up for the appropriate decks, the
answer to it hitting can’t be “make a better Time Walk.” And there are
other things going on at the edges-“shuffle into your deck” is about the
same thing as “exile” but reads much better in the “honest” usage case, but
is problematic when someone is trying to do something abusive. The current
Standard metagame is ripe for Fog. Teferi, Hero of Dominaira is itself a
card that encourages all sorts of rancid behavior, and it slots in very
effectively here. In short, I think Wizards made a bunch of small, bad bets
and caught the downside risk on all of it.

There is an emotional experience that I believe is different about
Buy-A-Box than even the Commander or Standard-legal decks. I was told a
quote once that was attributed to Magic bigwig Aaron Forsythe (hopefully
this isn’t a lie) that went something like: “Why is Pearled Unicorn a 2/2
for three? Because there is a place called Dominaria, and on that place
Pearled Unicorn is a 2/2 for three.”

What Aaron is expressing is the idea that sets are creations of a world,
both mechanically and narratively. They are something close to an album,
with each individual card constituting a song, or even a note. And even my
most beloved albums contain some moments I’m not that fond of. That isn’t
the point, though. The point is how the different elements create a whole
that can be digested and experienced and shared, pulled apart and put back
together again. And some of that wonderment and artistry is dampened by
busted mythics and articles about how the Play Design team wanted certain
cards to be powerful. But it is still there regardless. Even the Commander
and Standard products are decks, the creation of which represents some sort
of curated experience.

None of that exists with Buy-A-Box. It is a naked commercial transaction,
devoid of any nuance or plausible deniability. It is the expectation that
you will like A Thing enough to buy Another Thing (or in this case, be
compelled into thinking you need to own A Thing). At least in the case of
Firesong and Sunspeaker, it is a legend that promotes a set that cares
about legends; it is at least somewhat connected to the mechanics of the
set. Nexus of Fate has nothing to do with anything; it feels like a widget
that was dropped from outer space. Within that context of isolation, it
feels exploitative and artless. And for people who gravitate to Magic
because of the artistry, of the feeling of it being an experience that the
user discovers and defines for themselves, having all of that laid bare as
fiction can create a dissonance that is hard to process. This is awfully
flowery language to describe the person on Twitter saying “This is stupid,”
but I think that’s often what’s being tapped into.

I’m not sure what the path forward is, and I don’t want to discount the
very real benefits that programs like this can have on the local level. I
suppose I hope that Wizards is more mindful-more mindful of rate, more
mindful of creating effects that can’t easily invalidate, more mindful of
acknowledging the set structure in which the card ostensibly exists.

That is somewhat secondary to my larger concern-Magic, at its best, is art
that happens to be a commercial product. Buy-A-Box is a commercial endeavor
that aspires to masquerade as art. A small boost in local sales can easily
be undone by the long-term ramifications of stripping away at the core
elements of the experience. I think there is a way to thread the needle,
and I’m hopeful that Wizards can come away from Nexus of Fate with the
knowledge and fortitude to make it happen.