Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #263 – Rotation of Old Sets on MTGO

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Thursday, February 19th – Online, main Magic expansions sets are released a couple of weeks after the prerelease, and stay on sale in the store until the next plus one main set goes on sale. The old-but-new-to-online sets in MTGO, like Mirage and Tempest, don’t have any such schedule. They should – here’s my recommendation.

Over the years, Wizards has developed a standard release model for sets. The base sets are released in the fall, and are available from Wizards to wholesalers for roughly eighteen months… then they aren’t. Online, main expansions sets are released a couple of weeks after the prerelease, and stay on sale in the store until the next plus one main set goes on sale. The old-but-new-to-online sets in MTGO, like Mirage and Tempest, don’t have any such schedule. They should — here’s my recommendation.

First, some background: Wizards releases a big expansion set every year, in fall. That seems to happen in October. Shards of Alara came out in October, Lorwyn the October before. The October release provides enough time for the cards to be used at the World Championships, etc. Seems like that will continue.

Magic Online puts those cards up on sale a couple of weeks after the paper prereleases. It takes that long to do a full beta test — and we know that Wizards will not allow beta testers to get their hands on cards before the prerelease. They tried that for Masters Edition II — and at least two beta testers had shipped the complete card list to rumor lists within an hour. Wizards will not risk that again.

In February, Wizards releases the first small expansion for the set released in October. This year that was Conflux. The year before that was Morningtide, and so forth.

At the end of April, Wizards releases either the third part of the October set (this year that will be Alara Reborn, two years ago that was Future Sight — the conclusion of Time Spiral). In alternate years, it releases a new larger set, like Shadowmoor, which will have a smaller expansion later.

In mid July, Wizards releases another set. In the past, releases in this slot have included Unhinged and Coldsnap. Ninth and Tenth Edition were also released at this time. Now, it appears Wizards has got the scheduling right, and will alternate between releasing the new base set and the follow-on expansion to larger expansions released in April. In other words, if Wizards plans to release a new base set, then they will have a three set expert set, ala Time Spiral or Alara. In years where they are not going to release a new expansion set, then they will release four sets, in the big/small, big/small pattern of Lorwyn/Morningtide, Shadowmoor/Eventide.

That makes the Magic Online schedule look something like this:

February: new expert set
May: new expert set
August: new base set or new expert set
October: new expert set

On Magic Online, Wizards can also release some of the older, unreleased sets. Magic Online was launched when Invasion block was on sale, and Odyssey was the new draft format. Magic Online has had all of the base and expert set cards released since then. It is also beginning to get access to the older sets. These include:

Masquerade Cycle
* Prophecy
* Nemesis
* Mercadian Masques

Artifacts Cycle
* Urza’s Destiny
* Urza’s Legacy
* Urza’s Saga

Rath Cycle
* Exodus
* Stronghold
* Tempest

Mirage Cycle
* Weatherlight
* Visions
* Mirage

Ice Age Cycle
* Alliances
* Homelands
* Ice Age

Early Sets
* Fallen Empires
* The Dark
* Legends
* Antiquities
* Arabian Nights

* Portal
* Portal: Second Age
* Portal: Three Kingdoms Base Sets

Base sets
* Alpha
* Beta
* Revised
* Fourth Edition
* Fifth Edition
* Sixth Edition

Other Sets
* Chronicles
* Starter
* Unglued
* Unhinged

Let’s start with the easiest, first. Unglued and Unhinged will never appear online. They just won’t. I’m not saying that because of my perceptions on whether they were any fun, or interesting, or whatever. That’s a personal preference. They won’t appear online because they cannot be programmed, and cannot work digitally. Remember, the “Un” cards include mechanics like balancing cards on players, throwing cards around, playing under the table, speaking strangely, no-touch cards, singing songs, cards that care about what your opponent is wearing and cards that get torn to pieces, or get you a drink. Those are simply not things that can be done digitally (or, in some cases where it is possible, that should not be done digitally).

It is possible that Wizards might one day try another online joke. Based on the reaction to their last attempt (the Magic Online 3.0 Open Beta), I hope they refrain from this sort of humor in the future.

Editing note: I just reread that last paragraph. It was a cheap shot — or at least at way too easy a mark. The initial 3.0 beta was crap, and the 3.0 release code was not all that much better. It is a lot better now. I play MTGO a lot, and I have not had to file for a refund because of a crash or a technical issue in months. Even while playing in the Conflux beta, the bugs I saw were minor (e.g. some split cards not displaying correctly.) The program is much better, and the list of bug fixes and improvements in just this week’s upgrade is huge. Well done Wizards.

Anyway, back to the sets that are not yet online. Unglued and Unhinged are out. Reprint sets, like Fourth-Sixth, Chronicles, Anthologies, etc. are pointless — if we have the original cards available, I could care less about having white-bordered versions. I also have no desire to make Fifth Edition available for drafting.

This raises an important point. Online, there are two large ways and one small way in which cards enter the card pool: drafts, busted packs, and sealed. Drafts are, I believe, the way in which the largest number of booster packs are opened. Just busting packs — regardless of whether that is a good or bad idea — is the second most common way in which digital packs are converted to digital cards. Sealed events result in a smaller, but significant, number of opened packs. Even once tournament packs go away, sealed events will still not rival draft and ripping as a pack opener. (Note: I’m basing this on my interpretation of some excellent work Algona has done in tracking the number of digital objects online.)

My point is that Fifth Edition was terrible to draft. It was huge, with a whopping 8,285,5723,237,548 cards, of which all but fourteen were total crap — just nine good ones plus the basic lands. If it was released online, no one would draft it, and the pack busters would soon learn not to waste their money. We don’t need Fifth Edition online.

Some older sets are also terrible to draft. Expansions like Antiquities and Arabian Knights have interesting cards, but they come in 8-card booster packs, and repeat cards with different artwork. Antiquities, for example, has four different versions of Strip Mine and of Mishra’s Factory. Drafting wasn’t even contemplated when these sets were designed. Later sets, like Fallen Empires and Homelands, were not only designed without considering drafting, but also designed without giving serious thought to concepts like “fun” or “making decent cards.” I have, in the past, drafted both Homelands and Fallen Empires, and I can say that I would never again draft them — especially not online — if you paid me. (Okay, I lied — but you would have to pay me a lot.)

The Portal sets are probably in the same category, although drafting them might have some novelty. I have never drafted Portal.

I also understand that Wizards does not own all the rights to some of the early artwork, meaning that it would not necessarily be able to bring all the original cards online unless it paid more or modified the art. Once again, that is not a show-stopper, but it is an additional problem.

In any case, Wizards has already decided not to reprint the very old sets. The sets before Mirage block are being cherry-picked — Wizards is just reprinting some of the old cards, in sets called Masters Edition. Masters Edition I came out in September of 2007, and included a mix of nostalgia-filled cards, a few amazing cards (like Force of Will), and some chaff. Masters Edition II included half the original dual lands, Necropotence, Mana Crypt, a few other cards and more chaff. There will be a Masters Edition III (with the rest of the duals, at least), and possibly more Masters Edition sets.

Masters Edition I was on sale in the stores for just a few months. That period coincided with some of the worst performance issues MTGO has had. We had crashes and problems. A lot of drafts, PEs and other events were curtailed, and MEDI did not sell anywhere close to the numbers that might have been expected in more favorable times. Still, what’s done is done. Wizards has taken MEDI off sale, and it is not about to bring it back. I have often written about the importance of keeping faith with dealers, so I don’t expect Wizards to change that. MEDI is gone, and not coming back.

The questions are when will MEDIII arrive and when will MEDII go off sale? The same questions apply to Mirage block, Tempest block, Saga block, and Masques block. We don’t know when those — at least those after Tempest — will be released, and we don’t know when they will go off sale.

Mirage block was released online in December of 2005. It is still on sale, and available to be drafted.

Visions was released in April of 2006, and is still around.

Weatherlight was released in December of 2007, and you can buy packs.

Tempest was released in December of 2008.

Let’s look at the timing of releases. Visions came 4 months after Mirage. Weatherlight arrived 18 months after Visions, but MEDI was slotted in between those releases, arriving three months before Weatherlight. Tempest arrived a year after Weatherlight, but MEDII was released in there somewhere.

The release rates are also all messed up by the whole v2.5 to v3.0 transition, which was almost as difficult and protracted as — well, add your own comparison. In any case, it wasn’t pretty.

In the past, old main expansions have been released three years apart, with the smaller expansions released in between. At this rate, we would see Mercadian Masques arrive sometime in 2014, and Prophecy arrive only slightly before the sun goes nova. At various times, I have worried that cards are being released too quickly, but I really don’t want to wait five years to have Rancor (and all the rest of the Urza’s Legacy goodness) appear online.

Waiting 18 months between Visions and Weatherlight was not too hot.

What I would like is to have the classic sets appear more quickly. Online, at the moment, we have the new paper sets appearing every three months, like this:

February: new expert set
May: new expert set
August: new base set or new expert set
October: new expert set

We could just slot in the releases of the classic sets in between, and putting Masters Edition in the last slot. Ideally, though, Wizards should tweak the dates so that the big part of the classic cycle does not hit at the same quarter as the big October release. Putting it just before the release of the August set would be better, since that would be just before the base set / fourth set release, but we can’t have everything.

Here’s what such a schedule would look like for the next few years.

February 2009: Conflux
Late March 2009: Stronghold
May 2009: Alara Reborn
Late June 2009: Masters Edition III
August 2009: 11th Edition
Late September 2009: Exodus
October 2009: 2009 expert set Part 1a
December 2009: Urza’s Saga

February 2010: 2009 expert set Part 1b
Late March 2010: Urza’s Legacy
May 2010: 2009 expert set Part 2a
Late June 2010: Masters Edition IV
August 2010: 2009 expert set Part 2b
Late September 2010: Urza’s Destiny
October 2010: 2010 expert set part 1
December 2010: Mercadian Masques

February 2010: 2010 expert set part 2
Late March 2010: Nemesis
May 2010: 2010 expert set part 3
Late June 2010: Prophecy
August 2010: 2010 expert set part 4
Late September 2010: Masters Edition V
October 2010: new expert set
December 2010: ???

This schedule creates three problems or issues. The first — and most obvious — is that there are no more Classic sets to release after Mercadian Masques. The next block was Invasion, and that is already online.

Another question is whether Masters Edition V is reasonable. At some point, we are simply going to run out of cards worth reprinting in the older sets. (That is such a great straight line. It is so hard to resist saying they already did. Nope — could not resist.) Wizards did say that Masters Edition II was too large, with too much chaff. However, Wizards has not put nearly enough dual lands into the format. My proposal for the next MED sets would be to rotate the duals. MEDII has Badlands, Taiga, Savannah, Tundra and Underground Sea. MEDIII better have the other five. I would propose that MED IV have the first five lands again, and MED V have the other five, again. However, even with smaller sets and all of sets like Legends to pick from, I cannot imagine having enough good cards left to have a MED VI and so forth.

There is another problem with having all these old sets around: we cannot get a critical mass together to draft them. I understand that it is possible to get into a Mirage draft now, but I have never sat in a queue long enough to get into one in the last few months. (I have sat in a queue for over three hours one weekend, but that was not long enough.) It is already very hard to find 8 players for the existing options. Adding several more sets will not make it any easier.

The simple solution is to take some of these sets out of rotation. Mirage has now been on sale for over three years. It is pretty stale. It is time to get rid of it. If I ran MTGO, I would yank Mirage block from the stores six months after Tempest went on sale. I would continue this pattern: six months after Urza’s Saga goes on sale, Tempest block is pulled, six months after Masques is released, Wizards stops selling Saga block.

You can do the same sort of thing with Masters Edition. The sets go off sale slightly after the next version is released. The timing is optional, and if might make sense to have the last chance sale a month or so before the new MED set is released. Drafts could continue, but players would have to use their own packs or buy packs from other players or dealers, not from the store.

Pulling sets off sale would allow Wizards to do “last chance” sales, like they did with MED I. It would also create a bit of demand stimulation — players would try to draft through saved packs, a “don’t miss out” psychology would apply, and Wizards could hold a few last chance tournaments. However, taking the cards off sale would lead to the potential problem, in future years, that the cards from those sets would not be available. Actually, this is already a problem: unless I am willing to devote not only a whole bunch of tickets, but also a lot of time, I doubt I could obtain a playset of Null Rods today. A few years out, after Mirage has gone off sale for a while, new players might have a really hard time finding these cards. Null Rod is a great answer to Affinity, so the lack of Null Rods could distort online Legacy, once that format is introduced.

Card shortages are already a problem in these formats, but having the sets continuously available for online drafting has not been a solution. Adding more will make the problem worse, not better.

The problem will only increase. The number of players online fell badly during and after the 2.5 to 3.0 changeover debacle. However, those numbers are increasing, and increasing significantly in recent months. If this trend continues — and it should, Wizards is really putting some talent and effort into online — then we will see more shortages in the future.

Over time, another problem will develop. Players will leave the game and abandon their collections. This is not too much of a problem with serious players, who will sell their collections. Smaller players, those with only a handful of chase cards, might just drift away. Their cards will become stranded — reducing the number of actually accessible cards for new players. The same sort of thing happens in the paper world — cards are pitched or stranded in boxes in the attic. Either way, over time the total number of accessible / in circulation Null Rods will drop.

There is a simple solution to this problem — and to the problem of what to do in December of 2010 in my table above.

Rerelease Mirage.

Wizards cannot rerelease Invasion or MEDI — they have said they would not, and they cannot break that pledge without adverse consequences. However, they have never said when, or even if, they would stop selling Mirage in the store. The same is true of Masters Edition II — no statement on when it would go off sale. They could stop selling the base sets for a while, and then bring them back a few years later.

Under this plan, then MTGO would offer several options for draft and sealed play (and for purchase in the store).

1) The current sets
2) The current base set (e.g. 11th Edition)
3) Last year’s sets
4) Mirage or Tempest or Urza’s or Masques block
5) For six months of the year, the last old-time block
6) MED II or III or IV or V

That solves the “too many options” problem that is now plaguing some draft formats. It keeps the numbers down, while offering something to everyone. (My proposal to cut prices on Mirage through Masques boosters to $2.99 also has a place in this scheme, but that was another article.) The combination should work.

Under this scheme, the classic sets would be available every four years, for 18 months or so (the third sets for only part of that time.) MED sets would also only be around every four years. That should protect some of the value of the chase rares, while giving new players some chance to get the classic cards.

Anyway, if I ran MTGO, I would do something like that. I might tweak the calendar a bit, and I would have to spend a bunch of time choosing cards to see if it is even possible to create five MED sets without having to include too many crap cards, but that is where I would start.

I hope Wizards has already thought of this, and thought about it. If not — Wizards, you can have this idea. No charge — but if you wanted to toss me a draft set…


“one million words” on MTGO