Imagine that you are an amateur artist and you need four fine-tip markers to finish the drawing you’re making. However, the manufacturer of the markers you want sells them in weird packages. All packages of their markers contain eleven thick-tip markers, three medium-tip markers, and one fine-tip marker – so to get four fine-tip markers, you also had to buy forty-four thick-tip markers and twelve medium-tip markers. There’s nothing wrong with thick-tip markers or medium-tip markers… Except that you already have a lot of them. The ones that you bought when you were trying to get red ones just take up space in your closet.
Now imagine that the fine-tip markers come in twenty different colors, and only one will be "just right" for your drawing. However, the packages of markers are sealed so it is impossible to tell what color is inside each package. The colors that you don’t want are all perfectly acceptable – but if you use them, your drawing won’t look as nice as you would have liked and you won’t stand a chance of winning the blue ribbon at the local art show.
If each package of markers costs three dollars and seventy-five cents, you’ll have to buy an average of twenty packages to get a marker of the color you need. That means you have to spend three hundred dollars to get all four. If you had needed four markers of two specific colors, you’d have had to spend three hundred and seventy-five dollars to get all eight. For four of every single color, it would have cost an average of about six hundred and forty dollars. (I determined these numbers using a computer simulation.) Assuming that each marker costs the same to manufacture, you’re spending $300 for four markers that cost the manufacturer less than twenty-five cents to make and a whole lot of junk you don’t need.
Buying packages to get four of a specific color of marker is obviously an exercise in futility, and eerily resembles gambling. You feel somewhat relieved when you learn that there are stores that open up many packages of markers and then sell them directly to people who want a specific color. Even though they charge more than the price of one package for a single marker, it’s still less than twenty times the cost of a package.
Now imagine that half of the colors of the fine-tip markers aren’t as good as the rest. They either just don’t look as nice as the others, or have various problems that keep them from being of much use to anybody. The stores that sell individual markers can only sell them at a loss, so they have to raise the prices on the markers people want. Furthermore, there are two colors that are generally regarded as better than the other eighteen, so they are expensive and hard to find. By randomly mixing bad markers in with good ones and superior ones, the manufacturer forces you to pay not only for markers of the wrong color, but for markers that just aren’t very good. The manufacturer, despite the evidence to the contrary, claims that these bad markers are potentially just as good as the ones people like. The color you need is one of the two popular colors and the price is fifteen dollars a marker. You are charged fifteen dollars for something that was manufactured for less than twenty-five cents so the manufacturer can make money selling junk nobody wants.
Let me repeat that: You are charged fifteen dollars for something that was manufactured for less than twenty-five cents so the manufacturer can make money selling junk nobody wants.
I hope we agree that there is something seriously wrong with the way the fictitious marker manufacturer sells markers. If movie theaters only sold tickets for movies in sealed, opaque packages containing tickets to a movie chosen at random, they’d have gone out of business long ago. If you had to buy twelve bananas to get one apple, there would be far fewer apples sold. If a store sold clothes without letting you try them on and did not give refunds if the clothes did not fit, that store would have very few customers.
Now imagine that this marker manufacturer has patents on all the markers it sells and does not allow anyone else to produce them, so the only way anybody can get a marker is if someone pays the manufacturer for a sealed package that may or may not contain anything useful. Would people simply accept this as the way things were because there never was any other way to purchase markers? If your friend started to teach you how to draw nice pictures with these markers and you found that you liked doing it, would you put up with this completely unfair pricing scheme so you could do something that you enjoyed?
Apparently, many people would. If you replace "amateur artist" with "Magic player," "fine-tip marker" with "rare card," and "the manufacturer" with "Wizards of the Coast," you have an almost perfect description of the way Magic cards are sold. How many junk rares were opened so you could order that Shadowmage Infiltrator? How many commons did you put away, never to be seen again, when you finished opening the packs in that box with the Call of the Herd in it? I used twenty "rares" in the set of markers, and found that it took twenty packs to find that one color you needed.
Odyssey has more than one hundred rares, many of which are quite useless in Constructed play. What happens when a retailer like Star City Games opens a pack that contains Cabal Shrine? They lose money. You wouldn’t pay $2.00 plus shipping for a completely useless rare from an in-print set, would you? Shock, a high-demand common, goes for $0.75 at StarCity, but there are other rares that go for less than that here!
Booster packs are bad for retailers and are bad for customers. This scheme is quite evil; not only does Wizards of the Coast get to sell you Cabal Shrine when you wanted Shadowmage Infiltrator, but it keeps the cost of playing Magic higher than it appears. The cost of that deck you’re using isn’t just the amount you spent on the cards in the deck unless you only buy singles and never buy packs; you have to include all the crap you found in any booster packs that you bought when you were trying to get something that might be useful for any deck that you own.
There are other ways that Wizards of the Coast could sell cards that aren’t schemes to sell bad cards to people who don’t want them and still keep selling random packs for Limited play without angering collectors or retailers. There’s no way Wizards of the Coast is going to change a very successful marketing strategy because of one guy who complains… But I can at least suggest something instead of simply complaining about evil schemes, as unlikely as change is. I don’t know if it would be the best way to sell cards, but it would be better for the average player than buying cards in packs.
1) Wizards of the Coast should sell individual non-foil rare cards at the same price as every rare in the set. However, retailers that sold singles would be angry if Wizards started selling individual cards directly to consumers at the same prices they charged stores. Therefore, there needs to be a way for stores to make money buying singles directly from Wizards of the Coast and then selling them to their customers. The solution is for Wizards to sell rares in bulk; a store might buy twenty or more copies of Shadowmage Infiltrator, but I don’t think an individual player would purchase that many. If stores can get the high-demand cards more easily, they can sell them for less than they would if they had to open boxes of cards just to get that one rare everyone wants. I don’t run a store; would Star City make more or less money this way? (Less, since individuals could buy them in bulk and distribute them to friends and teammates, cutting out the middleman – The Ferrett)
2) Making rares widely available would reduce the value of cards to collectors. However, there already is a class of card that is more valuable to collectors but is not required to compete on a high level: Foil cards. Even though there is no difference in the function of the foil version and the non-foil version of any given card, the foils are considered much more valuable. Right now, foils are much too rare to be an incentive to buy packs instead of purchasing specific cards as described above – but if, say, every pack had a foil card and there was a 25% chance that it was rare, a 30% chance that it was uncommon, and a 45% chance that it was common, I would be more likely to buy a pack or two when I happened to go by a store that sells them. Replacing foils as chase cards would be alternate art foil cards. Some of the Planeshift foil rares had different art than the non-foil version; there could be ultra-rare alternate art versions of certain cards that only appear in packs.
The current model of selling packs of cards was based on the early conception of Magic as a relatively obscure game, where people had small collections and cards traded hands through ante and trading with other people who had small collections. People would play each other with the cards taken from of a few starter decks (now called tournament packs) and a few booster packs. Making a card rare was equivalent to weakening the card, just as cards that are "broken in Limited" are made rare today. Games would be played for ante – so a player using rarer, more powerful cards, was risking more than the person with cheaper, but less powerful, commons. If I lost four out of five games but each card in your deck was worth ten times the value of any card in my deck, I would still come out ahead.
Magic is not the game that was envisioned during the design of the first basic set. Instead of people playing with small collections for ante, people buy boxes of cards and order chase cards online so they can make the best deck they can for the next tournament – regardless of the value of the cards. Playing for ante is considered unusual at best. Making a card rare doesn’t keep tournament players from using as many as they are allowed to play, which is why decks are limited to four of any specific card except basic land. People unwilling or unable to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on cards have no chance to do well. There is real money at stake in tournaments, and Wizards of the Coast is trying to make Magic a respected "intellectual sport" and the peer of games like chess or bridge.
In the world expected by the designers of the first basic set, it made sense to have cards sold in packs like sports cards. Now, the "trading card" marketing strategy actually makes Magic a worse game than it might otherwise be, just so Wizards of the Coast can sell you junk like Oath of Mages and Pale Moon. What other "intellectual sport" costs players hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year to compete at a high level, not including the cost of travel to major events? Nobody markets chess sets as "collectibles" and sells them in packages of five pawns and one random other piece. You don’t have to fill your closet with dozens of copies of the three of clubs to get the aces and face cards you need to play bridge. Magic can’t become a classic game as long as the cost of playing is so high and the only way to get the equipment to play is to gamble by opening packs or pay a store to gamble for you.
Now Wizards of the Coast is going to release Magic Online, and we are going to need to buy or earn virtual cards to play. I have no problem with starting with a small virtual collection and earning more cards by playing, and I would gladly pay a monthly fee for what Wizards of the Coast has been promising. What I will not tolerate is giving people with deep pockets being able to buy their way into the top ranks by getting all the popular, hard-to-find cards that nobody else has. This is an opportunity to recreate Magic as it was originally envisioned, except for the "relatively obscure" part. I would enjoy taking part in a "sealed deck league" of sorts, but I don’t want to have to play my Sealed deck against someone else who bought cards like Shadowmage Infiltrator, Wrath of God, Vindicate, Desolation Angel, Absorb, and all the rest of the rares used in a U/W/B control deck for offline tournaments.
The way I see it, Magic Online shouldn’t punish players who don’t want to buy virtual pack after virtual pack. If I was given the power to choose a pricing plan, I would charge a flat fee instead of charging for packs, and give players a mode in which they could play games using any tournament legal card. The other option would be a mode in which people start with a limited supply of cards play for ante against other people who are similarly limited, and can only get more packs by playing games, not buying them. (There would be an option to turn ante off, but you wouldn’t be able to earn more cards that way. No risk, no reward.) Such a system would reward skill at playing Magic and trading for cards more than having a lot of money to buy cards. The two modes would have separate rankings and standings, so that people who are good at designing decks for a Constructed environment won’t have to deal with accumulating cards, and the people who want to start small, steadily accumulate cards, and eventually rise up to face the league champions with their Constructed-quality decks can do that, too.
It’s too bad that Wizards of the Coast has already told us that this isn’t going to happen, because people are going to be able to buy a collection instead of earning it. If Everquest dropped its monthly fee and instead started selling experience points for real money, it might make more money in the short term, but people would get disgusted and quit when newbies that bought their way to level 30 started making life miserable for experienced players.
Fortunately, Wizards of the Coast does not have a monopoly on organized, competitive Magic. There is a very nice program called Apprentice that allows you to play Magic on your computer with any card that you want without paying any money at all except what you already pay for internet access. There are a few leagues that sanction online tournaments using Apprentice and even offer prizes (packs of Magic cards) provided by their sponsors. They bring people together for the tournaments using Internet Relay Chat. One of these leagues is called MTGOnline and its web page at http://www.mtgonline.org has links to all the software you need to get started. It is fairly easy to do, and there are some very good players online that could challenge even a Pro Tour regular; some of them actually are Pro Tour regulars!
There are some false rumors about Apprentice leagues that are being spread by Magic Online alpha testers to encourage people to buy Magic Online instead. Recently, twelve paragraphs of Apprentice bashing written by one Rusty Sullivan was published on Star City and I need to defend my choice of software.
"Apprentice? Oh, you get to use all the cards. All the cards in the world don’t matter if your opponent doesn’t know the rules and wants to argue every play with you. Magic Online returns the game to what it was originally intended…Fun. No more rules lawyers, no more”Judge!” being screamed and spammed in the chat rooms."
People who play Magic using Apprentice generally know the rules as well as people who play in real life. Rules questions during a tournament are sent privately to a channel that only judges are allowed to enter, so they do not interfere with chatting in the room. I’ve found "rules lawyering" to be relatively rare, and the only times I’ve lost because of it is when I did something very wrong, like click "draw a card" when I shouldn’t have.
"Well, **News Flash**: Apprentice IS broken, and has been for quite a while. The cheating scripts get more effective, while the program has been at a standstill for far too long."
People can cheat in real life, too. I think the perception of cheating on Apprentice far exceeds the reality. I don’t believe I’ve ever lost a game to a cheat script. Many people seem too eager to cry "cheater!" when they get a poor draw or think their opponent has one that is too good, and I’ve been on the receiving end of several false accusations. If you had a cheat script, would you cheat in an Apprentice league? Would any of your friends cheat in an Apprentice league? Can you think of anyone at all who you know personally that would cheat at Magic with nothing much at stake? The same applies to being a corrupt judge or tournament organizer.
I doubt that you could think of more than one person, out of everyone you know personally, who would cheat at Magic when all they win are bragging rights or even one single box of Magic cards. If you can, I don’t want to hear about it, and please stay away from MTGOnline. Maybe my view that almost everyone is honest and card be trusted is naïve, but the people that play in and run Apprentice leagues are the same people that play in and run tournaments in real life. If cheating keeps you out of online tournaments, why doesn’t it keep you out of offline tournaments as well?
"Apprentice is, and was intended to be, a tool. It is there for playtesting new deck ideas, practicing for upcoming events, and an all-around power gamer’s helper. It is not a game. Anyone who looks at the software and thinks otherwise is sadly mistaken … Magic: Online, on the other hand, is a game in the truest sense of the word. From the rich graphics, to the animation and sound effects, there is no denying that Magic Online was intended for enjoyment and competition. There are leagues built into the software, there is a tournament system built into the software, there is a rating system built into the software."
By Mr. Sullivan’s standards, the cards you buy in packs might not be a game, and a chess set might not be a game either. Apprentice might be a bare-bones application that contains only the minimum number of features required to play a game of Magic, but there’s no denying that you can use it to play Magic. MTGOnline’s web page keeps track of ratings and does much of the work of a tournament organizer for you. It handles registration, pairings, and reporting for all minor tournaments, and the major tournaments are run with the same software that is used to run major offline tournaments. The system works, and has been working for a long time.
Rusty Sullivan might think Apprentice might be broken, but I don’t agree. There’s no problem that tournaments played with Apprentice have that tournaments played offline do not have. I still think it’s a better alternative than any system that makes players and retailers into gamblers and makes competitive Magic impossible for anyone not willing or not able to spend two hundred dollars whenever they want to play a substantially different deck than what they have now. Being under 18 and unemployed shouldn’t prevent you from competing on the same level as someone who can afford to pay twenty dollars per card for four copies of Urza’s Rage.
I’m only one person and I haven’t paid for a pack of cards in a long time, so I can’t affect Wizards’ business directly. However, if enough people complain loudly enough and threaten to stop buying cards altogether until we don’t have to pay for cards we don’t want in order to get the cards that we do want, there’s a chance we can make a difference. I’m fed up with the way Wizards of the Coast does business, and I’m not going to take it anymore. Until I don’t have to worry about opening Suffocating Blast when I wanted Mystic Snake, I’m not going to buy another pack. Until Star City doesn’t have to throw away copies of Ice Cave to get Vindicates to sell, I’m not going to buy another single. Until I don’t have to gamble or pay someone else to gamble to get the cards I want, I’m not going to play in another DCI-Sanctioned tournament. Unless Magic Online represents a change in the way Wizards of the Coast sells Magic: The Gathering to people, I’m going to stick with Apprentice.
You may find it strange to think of Wizards of the Coast as an evil corporation… But you have been taken advantage of and will continue to be taken advantage of until you decide that enough is enough. I’ve stated the facts, and I’m calling for a full boycott of Magic cards until our demands are met. Don’t be taken advantage of. Don’t pay for cards you don’t want. Don’t support an unfair, deceptive, and downright abusive marketing scheme. Don’t pay another cent for something you can get for the cost of Internet access and a free download. If enough people stop buying cards, eventually Wizards of the Coast will have to listen to us. (If enough people stop buying cards, I’m willing to bet that StarCity will close down long before Wizards changes, so I’m not necessarily supporting this boycott – The Ferrett, who’s posting this warily)
Maybe I’m wrong, and I really am the only one who is tired of being ripped off by Wizards of the Coast, but I sincerely hope that isn’t true. If you agree with me and think Wizards of the Coast should find a way to sell you cards without you having to pay for cards you don’t want, please send me an e-mail at [email protected]. If you want to support a boycott and help me get our voices heard, please send me a message. If you support random packs of cards for anything other than Limited play, I want to hear why – so send me a message too. Send me anything at all, but please don’t tell me that I shouldn’t try to help make Magic a better game by making it cheaper and more accessible to everyone.