The Kitchen Table #222 – What Wizards Can Learn From WizKids

Read Abe Sargent every Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, February 21st – Hello folks, and welcome back to the article series dedicated to all things casual. Today I want to talk about two companies. Each company has several product lines, so I want to specifically address Magic and HeroClix. In particular, I want to talk on what WizKids can teach Wizards…

Hello folks, and welcome back to the article series dedicated to all things casual. Today I want to talk about two companies. Each company has several product lines, so I want to specifically address Magic and HeroClix. In particular, I want to talk on what WizKids can teach Wizards…

Why is this necessary? Do I think the makers of Magic are screwing up? Do I believe that Magic is about to die out? No, of course not.

First of all, there are rumblings as to changes in Organized Play in Magic, so it’s a great time to write this article, since many of these things deal with events.

Second, I would rate the maker of any successful game that never changed the game with a “D” (on a typical classroom grade scale). You have to keep innovating and making your product fresh in order to really last for the long haul, and doing so will increase your grade in various ways.

I believe Wizards is getting a solid B. That’s an increase from the C I would have given them prior to Time Spiral block, which was full of innovation in areas like the time shifted cards, an extra rare if you open a foil one, innovative new card deigns doing things never done before, and so forth. As a result of this success, I have increased their grade.

In my opinion, WizKids has a major A with HeroClix, and are getting closer to a resounding A+ with each set. In a moment, we will look and see what WK is doing with HC, and how Wizards could do the same with Magic.

I will be looking at the entire product for Magic and HC. This includes tournaments, product packaging, quality of product, quality of artwork and innovation in design.

Before I do, I want to highlight some of the things Magic has done recently to warrant my praise.

I mentioned getting another rare out of the pack when you open a foil rare. That’s new. The additional token/rules card, that’s a solid addition. The Great Designer Search was a great way to answer one of Wizards’ classic problems (which was that everybody they were hiring for R&D was coming from the same place, and the cards made were suffering). That alone raised Wizards a whole plus on the scale.

Several years ago, I would have given Wizards a C or C-, but now, they are at a B-, and have every shot at making Magic so much better.

They just need to take a look at WizKids, who still get it. Alright, ready to take a look through several items that Wizards could use to improve Magic? Here we go:

Fellowship Prize

I am a Level 2 envoy for HeroClix, and I have played in HC tournaments for four out of the five years the game has existed. For as long as I have played or judged, HeroClix tournaments come with at least two prizes. Each is identical. One prize goes to first place, as congratulation for winning. The second is a Fellowship Prize that goes to whomever the judge deems worthy of winning it. It could be someone who built a fun team that had no chance of winning, or a kid who just started playing, or a player who told his opponent about a rule that caused his opponent to win instead of cheating, or the player who loaned half of his collection to others so they could play to.

WizKids understands that social games like HeroClix and Magic are about having fun, even in a tournament setting. If you go to a local tournament, you can take a fun team, that you will enjoy playing, and have a decent shot at the Fellowship Prize. Or, you can take a cutthroat team and have a decent shot at winning First Place, and both get the exactly the same prize.

Because of this, there is room in any HC tournament for different kinds of players, looking for different things, and everybody is rewarded. The player who needs to min-max their team and create awesome combos is rewarded, while the player who just builds the original West Coast Avengers team and plays it out is also rewarded for their style of play.

Why is this important? It’s simple. During all of my years of HC play, in tournaments, and as a judge, I have never been told by a HC player that they left the game because it was too competitive, or it wasn’t any fun anymore. I have come across numerous Magic players who played in lots of tournaments that the game was no longer any fun.

Because WizKids gives an equal prize for Fellowship or First Place, the incentive to build the absolute perfect team is only there if you want it to be. How many Magic players would like to play in local tournament, but don’t want the hassle of trying to build a perfect deck?

Pertinent Prizes

This next section deals with the vast majority of Magic tournaments sponsored by DCI, like FNM. It is not focused on Pro Tours, Grand Prix tournaments, and so forth.

In every single local event, WizKids sends specially made Limited Edition (henceforth referred to as LE) prizes. These are new versions of a figure that appeared in their most recent set. The new version has a different name, point total, and set of abilities than the version in the boosters. LEs are essentially a new figure that you get only as a prize.

In FNM, you get a foil card that is already in print. If someone is not interested in that card, then the prize drops in value to them. Also note that a prize card is at every tournament for a month, whereas WizKids has a new LE every week. That’s a big change in prize support, when one company cares enough to send you a new prize, at no cost to you, every week, but the other just reprints an old card and sends it to you once a month.

I’m not saying that Wizards should print new cards as prizes. If those cards made it to the tournament scene, it would be chaos, and I admit that. However, prizes don’t have to be boring.

First of all, Wizards could do as WK does, and have a new prize every week. WK is a much smaller company, and the printing costs on pieces of plastic have to far exceed the printing cost of foil cards, and yet WK can have new prizes every single week. Wouldn’t a new foil card every week help Wizards?

What I would like to see is older cards that have value because they haven’t seen print in forever, or newer cards with alternate art that have a high secondary market value.

For example, I remember when I got a full art Psi Blast in the mail as a prize. That was a great choice, because Psi Blast had such a high secondary market value. Print out some alternate art planeswalkers or similar, and go to town.

Don’t make them foil, so there is still value in finding the old ones. Would you be happy to get an alternate art Garruk Wildspeaker, but just for one week? Would you make a special trip to your local store for FNM?

For older cards, why not reprint something, like, say, Maze of Ith in foil? Would you go to FNM for a Foil Maze of Ith, especially if it were the prize for just one week?

One way to make the prizes more pertinent is to change them eve week. Another is to increase the quality of the prizes. Let me show you some examples of FNM prizes:

Arrogant Wurm
Armadillo Cloak
Black Knight
Mogg Fanatic
Slice and Dice

Sure, all of these cards might have some play value, but do you see a trend here? All of these cards were commons or uncommons with little value. If you wanted a playset of Arrogant Wurms then you probably already had it, and getting a foil one is nice, but not necessary. If you went to a FM and won these, you probably went because you are in the habit of going, or some friends were going. I doubt there were many people who wanted to score a special FNM foil of Smother. It was a nice benefit of going, but it didn’t get you out.

In fact, the current prize of Tormod’s Crypt is better than any of those and closer to where I would like to see their prize support. Good job on choosing the Crypt, and keep it up.

Supporting Your Local Store

WizKids has gone out of their way to introduce new ways of getting players to support their local brick and mortar store. They introduced a new way of selling product two years ago. Instead of buying their products by the booster pack, or the case, they created bricks.

A brick is a set of 12 booster packs (now ten) that you can buy in brick and mortar stores. When you do, you can send in the receipt, cut out the bar codes on the boosters in the brick, and a special form that you only get in the brick at the local store. Then, WK will send to you an LE figure that you get for free… all you have to pay for is shipping.

Let me sum this up. By making bulk purchases at a local store, you get the ability to pick up a special figure only available in this way for free. All you pay is a couple of bucks shipping. This is a unique figure with a unique sculpt, all ready for you to play. And it is not available online, just in real stores.

Imagine Wizards doing that for your local store. You can buy special bricks of booster packs, with a set of 18 booster packs prewrapped. Then send in the packs, a special form, and the receipt, and you get a free rare that is not printed anywhere else, or distributed through any other means. Assuming the rare didn’t suck, that would really help the local stores combat too many internet purchases and sales.

Another way WK has done this is by giving brick and mortar stores free stuff as a thanks for allowing the store to be a tournament venue. At the end of a mega five-week long tournament, WK sent the store I judge for a free Starro, just as a thank you. Starro is going on eBay for 100+ dollars and is a lot of plastic, but WK just gave it away.

For a lot of stores, a little free product now and again that can be sold for significant dollars can mean a lot to the bottom line. WizKids understands that the local store is vitally important to the gaming community. Just look at SCG for an example. Despite a massive web presence, they also have one of the largest gaming venues in the country. They understand this principle.

I would love to see Wizards give the local venues more support.

Better Art Please, Thanks

This next topic can be kept short, so I will do so. If you compare the latest release of either HeroClix or Magic to the art of the original release, each looks demonstrably better.

However, there is one difference. HC looks better and better with each set, and the quality of the figures, and the plastic used has improved. HC used to have problems with broken and bent figures, but new packaging and new plastic as solved that.

Magic, however, in my opinion, looks worse than it used to. It looks too homogenized. The art is so similar that it loses its appeal.

In my mind, the classic days of art were Mirage block and shortly thereafter. Artists still had very unique styles, and each card was very different. Compare a Foglio with a Charles Gillespie with a D. Alexander Gregory with a Richard Kane-Ferguson with a Ron Spencer. Artists today have a muted style, so that the entire world Wizards creates can have a similar feel, but the consequence is largely interchangeable art by largely interchangeable artists.

Sure, Morningtide looks better than Alpha, but it looks the same as Lorwyn. Let’s play an experiment.

Take all of the Morningtide cards and cover the names of the artists. How many artists can you identify? That’s my point. Maybe it’s the style guide, or an over commitment to similar-looking artists, but there are few distinctive styles left in Magic art.

Yet HC sculpts are getting better each set.

Major Local Tournaments

For local store tournaments, WizKids will occasionally run a major event instead of the normal weekly ones. I alluded to this above with a five-week sealed event culminating in a Starro tournament, to win a Starro worth a lot of dollars.

Wizards tournaments are the same week in and week out. What format will FNM be this week? The same format it always is. PTQs and GPTs can shake things up, but the prizes don’t appeal to most players who have no shot at winning and the distance required to make the drive can often be prohibitive. On the other hand, the local store just keeps having FNM. One exception being release events, which come one every three months.

Why not have a series of tournaments at local venues that are geared to the casual player beyond release events? WK will give away major prizes to the winners of these events, with figures like Galactus and Starro that have significant attached cost to produce and are worth a bundle to the winner. Then WK will give out LE figures to all participants in these major events, so everybody leaves with something significant.

Again, it just seems to me that WizKids gets it. They understand what it is all about.

Remember, I am not asking Wizards to do the exact same thing every time that WK does. They have different product lines, so assuming that Wizards could duplicate LEs is silly. On the other hand, they could have more local events.

City Championships were a poor decision because they were in few cities, and those places had players already benefiting from a large number of unusual tournaments locally.

If I live in Baltimore, then I already have, right there, a bunch of PTQs and GPTs in my city. Getting City Champs is a nice addition, sure, but it is giving to the rich.

On the other hand, someone who lives in my old state of West Virginia gets what exactly? Maybe one PTQ or GPT per season in Charleston, and that’s it? Local events are the only thing that some players have for over an hour in any direction. Where is their special event? These are the people who most need help, and yet little is forthcoming.

Another example from WizKids is New Guy Night. What is the most important player to a company, or a product line? The one who obsesses over it and buys a bunch of product? No. The person just introduced is the most important. That person represents untapped profit. That person may have a community of friends and contacts to introduce as well.

WizKids has a New Guy Night promotion at the beginning of every set. For NGN, anybody who brings a new player has that player get a free, unique LE which is usually quite good. At the end of the night, extra LEs go to the ones that brought the new players, and from there get distributed to the regulars. This is another local venue tournament that you can find anywhere.

This is a tournament that makes a lot of sense for any company and product line, and I would love to see the DCI begin a set of NGNs at the local stores.

Change the Product Up

During the past two and a half years or so, WizKids has been slowly introducing more product. They introduced bystander tokens that were released in boosters. They introduced feat cards you could add to figures to give them new powers. They introduced battlefield conditions that would affect the game is new and interesting ways. They introduced event dials as a way of bringing comic events like the Civil War and World War Hulk to the game, with a changing dial over time bringing different rules to reflect the event. They introduced figure cards with unique abilities designed to bring out the flavor of comic characters. They introduced new special object tokens with abilities to replace the normal ones on the field. They fixed problems with broken figure by changing the packaging, plastic, and adding trays to the box to protect the figures.

WK created the collectible miniature genre, but since then, other companies created new standards for the industry, like the common/uncommon/rare/super-rare distribution. As such, WK decided to change to fit the new standard, and HeroClix changed as a result. Gone were the rookie, experienced, and veteran version of figures that had long defined Clix. They embraced the sleeker, more modern tech of game design.

And HeroClix became a better game as a result.

Now, I have given credit in this article for things Wizards has done to change their boosters. The new tokens/rules card and the foil rare (and foil uncommon too), replacing a common are examples. The timeshifted cards in Time Spiral were a good way to change things up, but they were for just one pack, not permanent.

WizKids understands that to keep a product fresh, you have to do more than just keep making product. You have to change it up. I have not seen too much of this from Wizards, however, which is rather unfortunate.

I want to see more of these sorts of changes from Wizards. Changing the borders was merely cosmetic, but I think the negative reaction from fans may have scared them. Whenever a game changes something, people are going to fear it. When WizKids decided to change rarity or added cards, players were upset at the idea of changing the game they loved. The feared it was the beginning of the end for HeroClix. It wasn’t.

There would be some naysayers, but that is what happens when you make a game. There are naysayers about everything, you just have to deal with it, and move on.

Lose the Overemphasis on the Pro Tour

I would love to be on the Pro Tour. I think it would be a lot of fun. I’m sure the players on the Pro Tour are having a blast. I think the Pro Tour is good for the game, and having players to look up to is very important, no question.

I also recognize that Internet traffic is different from customer patterns. Although the overwhelming majority of those who buy Magic packs are casual players, I suspect the majority of regular Internet readers are probably Pro Tour players or wannabes (where a wannabe is defined as someone parsing tech and trying to squeeze every drop of knowledge about a format so they can get on the Pro Tour).

Therefore, I can understand why a larger number of articles on a website, like SCG, would be geared towards the PT crowd than the casual one. I get that, no problem.

I also get that Wizards would want to advertise this Pro Tour that they are spending money on, and have podcasts and articles on their website. Again, I understand that with no problems.

Where I take issue is the failure on the part of Wizards staff to separate themselves (and the product) with the Pro Tour.

This may be because, until recently with the Great Designer Search, the people they hired came off the Pro Tour and has a natural bias and fondness for it. They forget one very simple fact.

The vast majority of Magic players do not care about the Pro Tour.

Sure, the Pro Tour is a nice advertising gimmick, and it makes a lot of the best players money and recognition they might not have had otherwise. Again, I don’t question that.

Read some of the articles written on the website, and you will see the biases I mention creep up every now and again. Reading Aaron Forsythe articles would regularly give you a strong indication of Pro Tour bias. Want the perfect example of this bias?

Pro Player cards.

This has to be one of the worst ideas in collectible gaming’s history. Now, if you are on a card, maybe you are all happy about it. I have never seen a casual player keep a Pro Player card. They throw them away with the trash from a starter deck.

When the vast majority of the Magic audience does not care about the Pro Tour, and won’t, how does making these cards help sell the game? It seems like the Pro Player cards were just a giant fiasco. How much money did Wizards put into printing all of these cards, which virtually no one keeps, for practically no benefit?

Now, imagine if Wizards put that money into more prize support at FNMs, by having weekly prizes instead of monthly ones (which would not cost four times as much, because you’d be making one-fourth the amount of product four times. It would cost more, no question, but it would not cost four times as much as current product). Would that have been a better way to advertise and sell your product? What about putting that money into New Guy Nights, brick and mortar store support, prizes for Fellowship, pertinent prizes, special local events, changing the game when needed, using modern game tech to revamp your game, and more.

WizKids understands that any social game is about one thing:


Forget top prizes for only the top players, traveling hundreds of miles for one event where you won’t know anybody, and too much emphasis on a Pro Tour that most players don’t care about anyway. Focus on the things that matter.

Winning is nice. Being a good sport is everything. Playing a game is great. Having friends is everything. Getting the latest cards and figures is fun. Living as a community is everything.

Know what it is all about, in your heart, and all of the details will follow.

Until later…

Abe Sargent