Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #306 – The Third Set Conundrum

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Thursday, December 24th – Last week, I talked a little about the release of Exodus in Magic Online. I want to look at the alternatives that Wizards might have for releasing old sets. The current model isn’t working – and it will only get worse. This isn’t just a problem with Magic Online – it is partly a third set problem. It is just worse online than it is in paper.

Last week, I talked a little about the release of Exodus in Magic Online. I want to look at the alternatives that Wizards might have for releasing old sets. The current model isn’t working — and it will only get worse. This isn’t just a problem with Magic Online — it is partly a third set problem. It is just worse online than it is in paper.

The “third set problem” applies to Constructed. The problem is that cards from third sets are scarcer, and therefore more expensive. The reason is pretty simple. A high percentage of all cards are opened in drafts and sealed play. Taking Alara block as an example, people drafted triple Shards of Alara for three months. After the Conflux release, they drafted Shards / Shards / Conflux for three months. After Alara Reborn came out, we all drafted Shards / Conflux / Reborn. After three months of that, we shifted — for the most part — to M10. Assuming that drafts fired at about the same rate throughout the period, that means that people drafted six packs of Shards and two packs of Conflux for every pack of Reborn opened in a draft. The same ratio applies to sealed nowadays.

Let’s put it another way: for every Maelstrom Pulse opened, someone will have opened two Noble Hierarchs and roughly 4 Cruel Ultimatums. (Note — not six Ultimatums — Shards has 53 rares and 15 mythics, the other two sets have 35 and 10.) In any case, the prices of the cards reflect this relative scarcity. Cruel Ultimatum is cheap — partly because it is not used in many Tier 1 decks at the moment, while Noble Hierarch is $10-$15 and Maelstrom Pulse is in the $20-$25 range.

It is not universal — a bad card is cheap regardless of set — but great third set cards are always in short supply. It is even worse with old sets online, where we never had the masses buying boosters. The most expensive online Classic cards are Force of Will, followed by Oath of Druids and Null Rod. A few Mirage cards also make the list, but that’s mainly because Mirage sold during the bad days of the v2.5 to v3.0 transition, and Mirage has a lot of bad rares.

It is pretty clear that Wizards knows about the third set problem, and is trying different ways to address it. I see three main changes that all help with the third set problem.

Elimination of Tournament Packs

Tournament packs were, basically, three boosters of the main expansion set, plus lands. This meant that a sealed pool was 3 boosters of the main set and 1 of each expansion by the end of the season. For prereleases, TOs would often decide to do a tournament pack and three boosters of the new set, but that was an exception for prereleases. Now, using just tournament packs, tournaments can use the same ratios as drafts — 6 first sets, then 4 first, 2 second, then 2/2/2 once the third set is out.

Elimination of the Third Set, Version 1.0

In Lorwyn block, Wizards tried to avoid the third set problem by creating a four set block, with a large set, a small set, then another large set and another small set. Drafting consisted of triple Lorwyn, Lorwyn / Morningtide, then triple Shadowmoor and Shadowmoor / Eventide. The numbers of Morningtide and Eventide were relatively low, but not as low as a third set would have been.

Elimination of the Third Set, Version 2.0

Wizards is trying yet another approach with Zendikar block. Zendikar is a main set. Worldwake, to be released early next year, is a traditional second set, and people will draft Zendikar / Zendikar / Worldwake as expected. However, the third set — Rise of the Eldrazi — is another large set. It will be drafted separately, and sealed events in that season will use six packs of Rise of the Eldrazi.

Allow Triple Set Three Drafts

This is mainly an online thing, although some stores and TOs also offer triple set three drafts during release events. Triple third sets drafts are also offered online during online release events. These drafts do serve to pump a lot of third set cards into the card pool, but the drafts are not always particularly fun. Wizards does not design third sets for stand-alone drafting. Some are particularly bad. Anyone who has drafted triple Eventide remembers the joys of multiple mimics and mimic-pumping enchantments. Personally, my worst experience was triple Urza’s Destiny. Destiny was chock full of enchantments and artifacts, but had no Disenchants at all. Fun times.

So Why Does this Matter?

For Limited players, it really doesn’t. For paper Constructed players, it tends to make chase cards from third sets really expensive, but not impossible. Sure, Maelstrom Pulse, Tarmogoyf, and Figure of Destiny were, and still are, expensive, but they were at least available. Even online, these cards can be had.

The problem is with the Classic sets online. These are the sets from before Invasion — the sets that were released in paper before MTGO existed. Wizards is now releasing them online. Demand is feeble at best, and this makes the chase cards really, really expensive. Classic is shaping up as a very costly format. Worse yet, if the numbers of cards is so low that Classic Constructed may not survive as a format. Expensive cards are bad, but the numbers are so low that cards may just not be available at any price.

Let’s look at the recent Exodus release, as an example. I was going to do the math myself, but Jyalt did it once the message boards. His calculations seem pretty reasonable. I edited them slightly.

Let’s add a little analysis to the thread. How many Oath of Druids are online?

There are 54 separate rares in Exodus. One per 54 packs is an Oath of Druids.

Pre-release events were TTSSEE sealed. Not sure how many fired as I didn’t even log on during the pre-release [based on] the SH pre-release, we’ll say 54 pre-release queues fired. (Meaning 54*32 packs, or 1728 packs opened — or roughly 32 Oaths.)

The actual release had ZERO release events fire, a first. However, EEE drafts, TSE drafts, and swiss sealed queues were available. On average about one EEE draft has fired per hour, one TSE draft per hour, and one sealed Swiss queue per three hours during the release itself. [For the] 11 total days during the release:

11*24*3*8 = 6336 packs opened from EEE drafts
11*12*1*8 = 1056 packs opened from TSE drafts
11*8*32= 2816 packs opened from sealed Swiss queues
[Assume roughly] 6000 packs simply opened by players/dealers

Total number of Exodus packs from the release: approximately 16,000
Total number of Oath of Druids 54/16000 = [approximately] 300.
Foil Oath? 1:70 odds of getting a foil, works out to about one foil Oath per 1600 packs (if this math is wrong, correct me). So about 15 foil Oaths should be online.

With this, I can conclude approximately 350 Oath of Druids are currently online, with about 15 of them being foil.

By the time the championship finishes, I’d expect that number to be about 500 total Oath of Druids, including those present in the sets awarded in the championship. Please note that figure expects about 7200 more packs of Exodus to be opened after the release, but before the championships.

To run an Oath of Druids deck, you need 4 copies. Oath is also good in singleton as an anti-aggro sideboard control in control decks that play creatures. At 500 copies, it means if distribution was perfect, about 125 people could play Oath if they desired. I don’t want to speculate on actual distribution, but I highly doubt more than 40 people total will have enough Oath of Druids to make an Oath deck this month.

I suspect that, if anything, his numbers may be slightly overblown. I just spent some time trolling the trade boards, major online sellers, and the BOTs, and I could find almost no one selling Mana Bond, Sphere of Resistance, and non-foil Oath of Druids or Survival of the Fittest. Lots of people were buying.

Personally, I participated in a number of those events, and have one Oath of Druids, no Survivals, two Mana Bonds, and one Sphere of Resistance. I would like to play Oath in Classic, and get the Spheres and Mana Bonds for future Legacy play, but I can’t find them. If I could, I’d have to decide whether the cost was worth it — but when they are simply not for sale, that question does not even come up.

Here’s another question: if I have one Oath, for Singleton, and am having real trouble getting number two, should I buy it when I find it? That depends on whether I am ever likely to get a playset given my time and budget limitations. Right now, I don’t know whether to go for it or not. Online formats die — and that may well be the ultimate fate of online Classic. It was the fate of Prismatic, Vanguard, and Kaleidoscope. I did pay 8 tickets for a Pillar of the Talrums, for Kaleidoscope, and that is pretty much worthless now. I don’t want to spend $100 for three more Oaths, only to find that I will never need them In the future.

We had much the same thing happen online with Extended. Back when Extended included Invasion block — a block which was massively underdrafted online — few players could obtain Tier 1 decks, so the format was not heavily played. Once Invasion rotated out, the number of Extended players shot up.

The Classic sets have another problem online: a huge percentage of the cards are worthless outside of Limited, and old set Limited is pretty bad compared to modern Limited. I know that, aside from trying to build my collection, I would never willingly draft Mirage or Tempest block when I could draft Zendikar or even M10. The modern sets are just better.

The other problem with Tempest cards being playable only in Classic is that cards that would be good in Standard or even Extended — cards like Cursed Scroll and Living Death — are just not good enough for Classic. As a result, the price of all but a few of these cards crashes, hard, a few weeks after the initial excitement. Most of the Tempest rares are worth, at most, a quarter. Aside from a very few chase cards, the value of a busted pack is a lot less than the cost of a pack. Even if you win a couple rounds, the odds of being able to come anywhere close to breaking even drafting Tempest block are really low. It is a lottery: either you open a Grindstone / Mox Diamond / Oath of Druids or you lose money, pretty much regardless of your finish.

Wizards has released Exodus. The next old set scheduled for release is Urza’s Saga. Saga might do well — it has a lot of solid cards playable in Classic, Vintage, and Legacy. The same thing might also be true of Urza’s Legacy and Destiny, but I don’t know for sure. Tempest was a really strong block, when you list the Vintage playable cards from that block, and attendance at its release events were pretty dismal.

So what’s the answer?

One potential answer might be to cut the price of the old sets. Many people, including me, have called for the Classic boosters to be priced at original MSRP. For Tempest block, that would have been $2.99 a pack, instead of $3.99. That might have created a demand for old, nonredeemable sets as a cut-price drafting option. For a complete discussion of the pros and cons of that approach, check out my archives, but it is moot. It is clear that Wizards will not / cannot deviate from their concept that a pack is a pack is a pack. Changing that might trigger legal issues, create awkward precedents, whatever — the point is that Wizards simply hasn’t done it. I don’t see that changing soon, especially since the MSRP on Saga and Masques block cards was higher. For future sets, the difference in price is simply not significant. I’m not going to play Masques instead of Zendikar simply to save seventy cents a pack.

The problem, of course, is Masques block. Mercadian Masques was not a good draft format. I know — I learned to draft fighting for Rebels and thinking 3/3s for 5 mana were a good deal. Mercadian Masques does have a few playable Vintage / Classic / Legacy cards, like Rishadan Port, Dust Bowl, Unmask, and Misdirection. Nemesis, the middle set, has Accumulated Knowledge and Tangle Wire. Prophecy has, well, Squirrel Wrangler, I guess. It also has Avatar of Woe, but that is already online, so no point I drafting Prophecy looking for that. In the uncommons, Prophecy has Foil, the Counterspell, but that is so unlikely to be played it is irrelevant. Even so, that may be hard to get, because no one is going to be interested in drafting Prophecy. That online release should be a total bust.

I think Wizards should release Masques block as a whole, all at once. If you want to play in the release events, you get a sealed pool with 2 Masques boosters, 2 Nemesis boosters, and 2 Prophecy boosters. (I also think Wizards should do this with Urza’s block, but they have already announced a release schedule, and the sets are pretty good. Masques, though — not so much.)

What would they lose? Not much. Triple Masques was not an amazingly fun set to draft. Masques / Nemesis was not that much better. They are not going to get much of a bump from the Nemesis release, and nothing at all when they add Prophecy. Releasing three sets together won’t spoil any surprises — we have the complete “spoilers” for these sets already. Combining the sets should not hurt sales much.

What will they gain? Well, releasing the sets together should promote more drafting and more sealed events. Masques / Nemesis / Prophecy is actually a better draft environment than triple Masques. Combining the sets also “forces” everyone to buy Prophecy, meaning that it is at least slightly more likely that we will see playsets of those cards.

This isn’t a perfect solution. For Prophecy, I don’t think there is a good solution. Releasing the set all at once, though, seems to be the “least bad” solution for the set as a whole.


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