Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #246 – A Modest Proposal

Read Peter Jahn... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, October 16th – I have been looking at the prices for Classic set rares on MTGO. The Classic rares are from sets that are only legal in the online Classic format. These sets include Masters Edition I & II, Mirage / Visions / Weatherlight, and the two blocks that just rotated out of Extended. The rotating blocks are out of print, but MED I & II and Mirage block packs are still for sale. Sales stink. I’m wondering if this could justify “throwback” pricing on these packs, as a way to stimulate drafting.

I have been looking at the prices for Classic (as opposed to classic) set rares on MTGO. The Classic rares are from sets that are only legal in the online Classic format. These sets include Masters Edition I & II, Mirage / Visions / Weatherlight, and the two blocks that just rotated out of Extended. The rotating blocks are out of print, but MED I & II and Mirage block packs are still for sale. Sales stink. I’m wondering if this could justify “throwback” pricing on these packs, as a way to stimulate drafting.

I am talking about discounts — but I want to look at whether discounts will be justifiable, whether they could promote interest in drafting these formats, and so forth.

And for those of you with good classical educations, my modest proposal is not as extreme as Swift’s.

The first question is whether there is really a problem. I think so. I have been in and out of draft queues all year, and I cannot recall seeing a Mirage / Visions / Weatherlight draft fire this year. I can’t recall seeing more than 1 or 2 people in the queue for months. Simply put, drafts for these sets don’t happen.

MED II is a brand new set. It has a dozen or so highly sought-after cards. Simply put, it does not do well. The no-top-eight sealed deck release event simply did not happen. The draft-top-eight events (which happened every four hours) generally fired, but with only 50 or so people. At present, drafts with MED II are still continuing, but appear to be slowing in frequency. Right now, MED II is still new, and people may still be drafting with their prize packs from release events, but that will not continue.

So why is this a problem? It is a problem because the supply of cards is too low, and the price of chase cards in these sets is way too high.

Want to guess the most expensive card — of those currently in print — on MTGO? It’s not Bitterblossom ($12.50.) It’s not Mutavault ($17.50.) It’s not Figure of Destiny ($18.75.) It’s not ‘Goyf ($14.75.)

It’s Underground Sea, which is currently listed at my favorite online dealer for $42.00 — and he’s sold out at that price.

The highest priced cards that are still “in print” online include:

Underground Sea $42.00
Tundra $38.00
Vampiric Tutor: $36.00
Taiga: $26.00
Badlands: $26.00
Savannah: $22.00
Figure of Destiny: $18.75
Mutavault $17.50
Phyrexian Dreadnaught: $ 17.00
Null Rod: $ 17.00
Abeyance; $15.50
Tarmogoyf: $14.75
Necropotence: $11.00

The prices are heavily linked to the number of cards opened, much more than to the demand for the cards. Cards like Vampiric Tutor and Lion’s Eye Diamond are not super-expensive because they are in high demand. Vampiric Tutor is restricted in Classic and banned in every other format, meaning that Classic players need a maximum of one. There are not that many Classic players — but there even fewer Vampiric Tutors available online. Lion’s Eye Diamond has an even smaller group of interested players — LED is basically a card for players that like Classic combo. That is a very small group — but the supply of LEDs is small enough to push the price up.

On the other hand, look at cards like Mutavault and Figure of Destiny. The numbers of Block, Standard, and Extended players looking for these cards is probably an order of magnitude (or two) higher than the number of classic players — but the prices are not orders of magnitude different. The only conclusion is that the number of Lorwyn & Shadowmoor Block cards in circulation is that much higher than the number of Mirage block cards.

And that’s the problem. How can we get the number of cards in circulation from Classic only sets to rise? Well, cards get into circulation in two ways: people buy and bust the packs, or people open them in limited. Let’s look at the options.

The people who tend to bust packs for cards are, generally, players looking to build decks for casual or multiplayer games. Again, in general, such players are more likely to bust packs in the smaller formats — Block or Standard — because those formats are easier to enter. Even the newest newbie quickly learns that the odds of holding your own with a deck built from a very limited card pool are much better in if you advertise for a Block game than if you invite an opponent to a Classic or Freeform match — even if you are in the new player room. As a result, pack busters seem to spend more time busting packs in newer sets, but I don’t have all that much hard data on that. Let’s move on to the drafters. That is easier to quantify.

Drafters break into two groups: those who are drafting in an attempt to collect the set, and those who are drafting and reselling cards to finance further drafts.

This is where the problem lies. Mirage Block cards — aside from the few chase cards — are much less valuable than current block cards. This is because Block card pools are so much smaller than the Classic card pool, and Block commons are far more often playable.

For example, let’s compare Lorwyn uncommons with Mirage uncommons. The following Lorwyn cards have seen play in Lorwyn / Shadowmoor Block decks that have done well in PTQs.

Briarhorn (well — one or two)
Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender (one or two hundred decks for this dude)
Changeling Berserker (vague memories, but probably not)
Cloudgoat Ranger
Crib Swap
Various Harbingers
Familiar’s Ruse
Goldmeadow Stalwart
Imperious Perfect
Jagged Scar Archers
Knight of Meadowgrain
Makeshift Mannequin
Marsh Flitter
Merrow Reejerey
Pollen Lullaby (??)
Silvergill Adept
All five Vivid lands
Wizened Cenn
Wren’s Run Vanquisher

No matter how much you want to quibble over certain cards, the clear fact is that 20 or so cards were commonly played in Tier 1 Block Constructed decks. These cards had value. Even now, with Block Constructed season pretty much over, these cards still retail for several times the values of more generic commons.

By comparison, here is a list of the uncommon Mirage cards that I have seen played in Constructed decks of any kind (not just Tier 1 decks.)

Bad River & the bad fetchlands (played — but not by anyone owning the Onslaught fetches.)
Crystal Vein
Dwarven Miner
Enlightened Tutor
Mystical Tutor

For Lorwyn, 20-30 uncommons, out of 80, are playable to the point of raising their price. That works out to between 25 and 37.5% being playable.

For Mirage, 5- 10 uncommons, out of 110, are played to the point of raising their price above the base. That works out to 4-9% of the uncommons being playable.

You can do the same sort of analysis for the rares and commons. Mirage has a few cards wanted by collectors (e.g. Cadaverous Bloom — and I have no idea why. It’s a card that has not been worth anything since Mike Long played them from his lap in a PT in the last century.) A few cards have a price boost due to old combos in other formats (e.g. Early Harvest, still at about $2.00 and Sacred Mesa.) Other than those few, the only cards with any value online are Flash ($6.00) plus Lion’s Eye Diamond and Phyrexian Dreadnought. The rest of the cards are generally worth $0.30 to $0.80 each. In short, while Lorwyn had a lot more cards worth much more while it was newer, even now it has over 10% of its cards worth more than $2.00 each. Mirage, on the other hand, has less than 5% of the rares worth $2.00 or more retail.

With Mirage, the odds of winning the lottery (opening an LED or Dreadnought) are slightly above 3 in 55. If you don’t hit the jackpot, then the cards you open are likely to be worth less than $1.50 — meaning that even if you win at least 2 packs and sell all the cards you got, you will still be a ticket or so short of buying into the next draft.

Lorwyn works out a lot better, but the exact numbers are hard to calculate. Some online sales sites have started showing prices as images, to keep people from pulling the prices using automated bots. However, I also copy those prices into Excel, to calculate averages. The images make calculating the average value of a pack much harder. That said, the average Lorwyn uncommon retails about $0.08, with a significant number being in the $0.10 to $0.25 range. The rares, even if you exclude Cryptic Command, are worth more. It is not impossible to draft and sell the singles — rares, uncommons and good commons — for 6-8 tickets — meaning that if you win at least one match, you have probably paid for your next draft.

A secondary reason for people not being as interested in classic events like Mirage Block drafts is that it is not practice for anything in the real world. Right now, people are working on Alara sealed and drafts, in hope of make Top 8 at a PTQ. People are even practicing Shards drafts for FNM. No one is practicing Mirage Block drafts, because the only sanctioned Mirage Block drafts around are on MTGO.

So, the short version: current sets are worth practicing and have more intrinsic worth, because a higher percentage of the cards are playable in commonly played formats. Classic sets are — chase cards excepted — not worth much of anything. This means that players are much less likely to be able to get full value from drafting the classic sets — whether you define “value” as cards to play with or cards to resell to finance another draft. The result — no one drafts Mirage Block. I have not seen a Mirage Block draft fire for months.

Again, this is only bad because the volume of these cards entering the card pool is small enough to adversely affect the Classic formats. If it was just a case of people not wanting to draft because it was not a fun format, that’s fine — but the problem is lack of cards in the singles market.

What to do:

The best way to encourage people to draft the format would be to cut the prices of Mirage Block packs.

Price cuts are dangerous, however. They can bleed a company’s revenue without really helping boost sales. Customers can fall into the habit of waiting to purchase until the sale prices come out. For example, U.S. auto manufacturers started giving rebates and price roll-backs, and a significant number of customers simply delayed their new car purchases until the rebates appeared. The total number of these cars sold in a year remained about the same — but revenue fell. (It gets more complicated: The fact that other car manufacturers would also offer rebates made it impossible for any manufacturer to be the first to end rebates, without losing customers to the others, but then no analogy is perfect.)

The other slippery slope for price cuts is that a producer can cut prices and stimulate demand for a while, but if that demand falls again, does the producer offer another round of price cuts? How long does this continue, and how low will it go. Existing and prior customers, who paid full price, will be unhappy if prices keep falling. The company needs to be able to clearly announce a price rollback — and have customers believe that this cut is reasonable, for a limited time, and not the start of a downward spiral.

But if it works, the results could be quite positive. We would get two different options for drafting. Drafts for the new sets — like Lorwyn and Shadowmoor (and — soon — Shards of Alara) would cost $13.97 (plus tax), as they currently do. Those drafts would provide cards that have more value, and provide practice for paper world formats.

Mirage Block — and possibly other old sets, after the initial hype has died down — would drop to a budget price. This would allow players who wanted to draft, but could not afford the full $13.97 (plus tax) a cut rate option. That might not bring in a huge number of drafters, nor necessarily pay for the cards, but it might attract a group of more casual drafters looking for a less cut-throat drafting environment than current sets. For that matter, Wizards could even try the idea of making the cut rate drafts Swiss.

I can think of two more justifications for cutting the prices on Mirage Block cards relative to cards from Shards and Shadowmoor block. First, Mirage cards are not eligible for redemption. (once redemption returns, etc.) Second, Mirage Block cards are not — at least under the most recently announced plans for MTGO — going off sale any time soon. They will, apparently, be continuously available, and that further reduces the incentive to buy these cards.

Wizards has repeatedly stated that they do not want to cut the price of packs — that they need to maintain parity between the retail prices of paper and online packs. I can understand the reasoning involved. I can also understand the very real concerns that, once Wizards first provides discounted prices on packs, they will face pressure to cut pack prices further, or on different packs, whenever players begin to perceive that demand is falling.

I think I have a solution that addresses all of those issues: have Mirage packs priced at their original retail value. When it was in print, the manufacturer’s suggested retail price on Mirage packs was $2.95. Wizards could offer Mirage, Visions, and Weatherlight for $2.99 per booster.

I don’t know whether that price decrease would be enough to revitalize Mirage drafts, or whether that could get me back into Mirage Limited. At the very least, it could sell some boosters — boosters which I doubt are selling rapidly now. It could save a format. Again, I have not done the marketing studies, but I would expect that the increase in demand should more than offset the price cut.

I probably don’t need to explain that this would not set a precedent for price cuts in in-print sets. No one could argue that the price for Lorwyn, for example, should be reduced. Lorwyn has always retailed for $3.99.

Adopting this type of “throwback” pricing would affect revenue when a set is new. Right now, people are paying full price for MEDII packs — but demand seems to be falling. We will have to see whether the demand for MEDII packs continues after Shards appears online next week. If it does, then Wizards may just keep pricing at $3.99 for MEDII for its entire availability. (Personally, I think this is a mistake — the Classic format should not be unaffordable because of the price of lands. If Wizards really wants an unaffordable format, make it because the Moxen and Power 9 are Mythic Rares — but I digress. If demand does fall off as the new set is released, then Wizards should consider charging $3.99 per pack for the initial three months after release, then dropping the price to the original retail price. (That price for MEDII is not easily determined — MEDII includes cards from sets that ran $2.45 for 15 cards, like Unlimited, and sets that ran $1.45 for eight cards, like Fallen Empires. Rarities were also different. The end result — Wizards could probably justify anything from $2.45 to $3.75 per pack for MEDII.)

Going forward, Tempest Block packs originally retailed for $2.95, as did Urza’s Block packs. Mercadian Masques retailed for $3.29 — but I played a lot of Masques Block Limited. They should underprice it. The format is pretty bad.

Wizards has created a slight precedent for this action in the past — just before MEDI was pulled off the shelves, Wizards did implement a bulk-buy option. It can be done.

Personally, I really like the idea of a slightly reduced price for busting and drafting non-redeemable sets. It could reinvigorate dead formats. That would be about all that would be required: I know I have some Mirage Block boosters in my collection. I was just waiting for a NIX TIX draft weekend. Cutting the retail price would be almost as good (after I burned through the packs I already own, of course.)

The more I think about this idea, the more attractive it becomes. It would solve the MEDII and MEDIII (once it is released) cost issues, get people playing with Mirage drafts, and still not create a price-cutting precedent Wizards might regret.

Wizards — do it. Please.



“one million words” online