MTGO’s changes have made me nervous.

Edit: Following a couple questions on Reddit I’ll explain at the very end what MTGO redemption is. Just scroll to the bottom then return here.

 

If you look through my history on this site and on Reddit, you’ll see I’ve been pretty solidly behind MTGO’s general direction over the last couple of years, with the exception of the redemption changes (which came bundled with a decrease in draft entry fees, but overall I feel this was net negative).

My opinions changed this week. I’d like to outline my fears, and the reason I’ve significantly downsized my MTGO collection.

I’m not totally panic selling and I’m keeping my decks, but I have sold off the collection of format staples I had accumulated over a few years, and converted them into complete Amonkhet sets, ready to redeem.

Goodbye my playset of almost everything from MM2; goodbye Ancestral Vision, Scapeshift, and all my spare VMA dual lands and spare Snapcasters. And hello to 40 sets of Amonkhet.

 

The Rishadan Port Price Collapse, and its implications

I posted a thread on Reddit about a month ago that, as far as I can tell, precipitated a price crash despite not starting a lot of conversation.

This crash was always going to happen, but my post seems to have spooked two or more dealers into getting into an undercutting war rather than sitting on their stock.

MTGO – Why isn’t Rishadan Port in freefall? from mtgfinance

It turns out I was wrong. It’s not going to be 6 months for Port to be under 70, it will be 6 weeks. Four weeks after my prediction, it is buylisting at 73 (PRM version) and retailing at 80.5 tickets. (Prices taken from www.goatbots.com, an MTGO dealer I am not affiliated with but use as a priceguide and often buy from and sell to; there may be better deals available).

Now Port was always going to fall.

The card was ultra, ultra rare due to the nature of the Masques release, and ultra low supply cards with low demand are the most sensitive to crashing in price.

In MM2, the paper world experienced this with Daybreak Coronet while MTGO players saw Hurkyl’s Recall crash from $55 to $2.

When treasure chests were introduced there was serious panic that they would crash the value of older cards. I argued at the time that these fears were unfounded. But then two things changed.

First, there was the decision to aggressively pump the drop chance on some of the rarest cards online. Port, Wasteland – these cards had their drop rate more than double recently. As a result I expect a slow, steady decline (for the Wastelands and Force of Wills with high demand) and a rapid decline (for the likes of Port with low demand).

Secondly, there was the decision to award 1300 treasure chests per week – that’s nearly 6000 per month – in the format challenges.

This is a huge increase in supply, much more than I anticipated when I defended the introduction of Treasure Chests against criticisms from people saying ‘this will crash the value of my collection’.

I still don’t think the original chests would have crashed anything, but I do think the two changes combined mean that any non-redeemable MTGO collection is now a depreciating asset; much like a Standard staple approaching rotation like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is.

This isn’t to say that a diversified Legacy collection on MTGO will crash in value next week, but I now project that it will trend downward over the medium term.

I own one multi-thousand dollar depreciating asset (my car), I don’t want to take the loss of owning a second one.

After a good deal of thought, I decided a couple weeks ago that if anything about MTGO’s future scared me, I would sell most of my valuable older cards and turn them into one of tickets, hard currency, or redeemable sets, and that I would downsize over time starting with selling off my extra VMA dual lands.

 

The Future of Redemption

And now we get to Announcement Week, and the mysterious announcement about digital Magic scheduled for Tuesday 13-Jun.

Redemption is a huge overhead for Wizards, but at the same time mass redemption (not players redeeming 4 sets for personal use, I’m instead talking paper MTG stores and e-stores redeeming 100 to 500 sets per month, every month) is the absolute pillar online cards derive value from.

This is the reason that MTGO dealers will pay you real life currency for bulk Event Tickets – they know they can trade to turn those tickets into redeemable sets, and sell those sets to paper MTG stores that are not affiliated with online dealers, acquiring real currency back from the store.

Wizards have made redemption worse on several occasions.

First they removed the ability to redeem sets released years and years ago (until about 2009 you could still redeem Invasion-era sets).

Then they upped the redemption fee from just postage, to $5 per set + postage, to $25 per set plus postage.

And most recently they severely restricted the redemption window, from ~24 months after a set releases to just ~6.

I’ve long feared that removing redemption was in WotC’s long term plans, I’ll go over why I recently began to fear it may be in the short term plans too.

Consider the timing of the ‘digital Magic’ announcement.

We all know that the Banned and Restricted announcement is the absolute most important piece of Magic news, especially when Standard could go many different ways.

Whatever the decision is – whether it’s a Marvel ban, no changes, an unbanning of Reflector Mage and/or Snugglecopter, some combination of the above, or something totally unexpected, the Standard B&R announcements will be the absolute centre of Magic discussion tomorrow. Discussion of other formats will be hot too.

Any other news released on the same day as the B&R announcement is going to be buried.

Political theorists have a term for releasing one piece of bad news strategically, in order to divert attention from another, more damaging piece of news. It is called a ‘Dead Cat strategy‘.

Wizards know this. Their decision to schedule “an announcement about digital Magic” on the same day as the B&R announcement may be harmless or even a mistake. But it may very well be that the B&R announcement is the dead cat being thrown on the table, in order to suppress discussion of redemption changes or redemption ending.

There’s just this circumstantial evidence that the announcement may be what I fear, nothing more than that. But if it is true, MTGO will go up in flames quickly. Every dealer will try to dump all their non-redeemable cards to turn them into redeemable sets, to get as much money out of the program as they possibly can.

As a form of insurance against this possibility, I’ve jumped the gun and actioned my plan to convert most of my collection into a few dozen Amonkhet sets.

After all, I insure my car, and I consider redemption ending tomorrow to be a more likely event than me needing to claim on my car insurance.

 

Conclusion

Two years ago I was confident that having a diversified collection on MTGO was fairly safe. Some cards would get reprinted and lose value, others would gain value, and ultimately I’d have real cashout equity if I wanted to quit the hobby, or needed money. Probably less than I paid to buy in, maybe more, but at least I’d get an appreciable fraction of my collection’s value back.

Six months ago, I still maintained that confidence while a number of other people were losing theirs.

As of the last week I have lost that confidence.

I’m no longer willing to have thousands of dollars tied up in MTGO cards. Hundreds of dollars (i.e. a deck or two) is fine, but thousands (i.e. enough staples to own the core of every deck in the format at once) is beyond my risk threshold.

I expect that dealers will have to increase their razor-thin margins on MTGO over the future if redemption remains uncertain. That will hurt me if I reverse today’s decision and buy back into a diversified collection again, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay to avoid carrying the risk of losing thousands.

If redemption does die, I’ll probably quit MTGO unless Wizards announce a realistic replacement system of providing cashout equity, perhaps something like the defunct Diablo 3 Real Money Auction House. Even then, I will assess any such development on its merits before deciding whether to quit or not.

Ultimately, Magic is too expensive to play if you don’t have cashout equity.

  • sirgog

 

Edit: MTGO’s redemption program lets you swap a complete digital set for the corresponding paper cards in exchange for a modest fee.

For instance I (in Australia) can pay USD 255 and ‘surrender’ 9 Amonkhet sets on MTGO (so 9 of each mythic, each rare, each uncommon, common and basic land, all non-foil, PW deck cards not required) and Wizards will send, via FedEx courier, a box the size and shape of a booster case with 9 boxed up complete AKH sets. If my sets were foil online, they’d send foil paper sets instead.

Wizards declare a value of USD 75 per set whether normal or foil, and I’m required to pay any Australian government import taxes and goods and services tax (currently $0 on orders under AUD 1000, and 5% import duty + 10% GST + AUD 50 processing fee on orders from AUD 1000 to 9999, hence 9 sets). Your country may charge more or less.

In my experience redemption takes about 10 days but can only be initiated at downtime, which is only once or twice per month. (Wizards do not guarantee that speed).

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Reflecting on Marvel – The 14-Jun Banned/Restricted Announcement

It’s that time again. Another banned and restricted announcement is coming, and a lot of eyes are on Standard.

In anticipation of what Wizards might decide, the secondary market on MTGO has priced in considerable ban risk on Marvel’s most expensive pieces.

Ulamog has fallen in price by 50% over the past week, and at the same time the most played mythic in Standard, Aetherworks Marvel, is less than one fifth the price of Torrential Gearhulk, a card of the same rarity printed in the same set. This is despite Blue Hulk seeing less than half the amount of play in Standard that Marvel does, and no appreciable amount of play in any other format.

The MTGO market moves faster than the paper secondary market, but these falls indicate a growing number of people do not expect the present Marvel decklists to remain legal in Standard, and those people are panic selling Ulamog, while dealers also reduce the number of copies they hold. I’ve not been watching but I expect you will see reductions in buylist prices for those cards in the paper world too.

In this article I want to look at when, how and why the banhammer should be used in general, then look at today’s Standard and offer my thoughts about the upcoming announcement.

In Defence of the Banhammer

I was pretty vitriolic in calling for a Felidar Guardian ban in Standard at the last two B&R announcements. (Or Saheeli. Saheeli would have worked too, but something had to go).

Since the cat was drowned, Standard has had its problems, but the format is in a much better place than it was when Copy Cat Combo was Tier 0.

That banning completely turned around the collapse in tournament attendance figures.

Nowhere was that clearer than on Magic Online, where the Standard leagues were less popular than the Modern leagues in the day following the April 24 ‘no bans’ announcement. Normally, the Standard leagues have 2-3 times the attendance that the Modern ones get.

Tournament attendance is the primary basis on which banned and restricted decisions should be made.

When a deck is driving players away from competitive play, it is too late to print an answer in the next set and hope that the answer solves the problem. Magic R&D simply does not work on that timeline.

In these situations, the format needs to be altered to deal with the problem – and the tool Wizards has historically used to do this is the banned and restricted list.

Under this criteria, the ban of Splinter Twin in Modern was not justified, because the ban drove people away from the format. I’ve seen no compelling evidence that the Twin deck was driving people away from competitive Modern.

However, the two Standard bannings, and also the recent Modern bannings (Git Probe and GGT), were both successes. As was a historic example, the mass banning of almost every card in Ravager Affinity Aggro back in the days of Kamigawa.

After Emrakul met her Promised End, the Snugglecopter was scuttled and Reflector Mage took a long hard look at itself, Standard tournament attendance revived. It plunged again when the Copy Cat Combo decks were perfected, but kicking the cat did solve that problem.

A few players may well have walked away from competitive play because they had just bought into a Standard deck to see it get banned, but the format cannot be held ransom to the demands of people that buy into obviously broken Tier 0 decks.

If you buy into a deck as overwhelmingly dominant in its format as Copy Cat Combo or OGW-era Modern Helldrazi, you have no-one to blame but yourself when the deck is smashed by the banhammer.

Buying a broken deck is not an investment to be amortised over nine months (in Standard) or five years (in Modern). It’s an investment that must be amortised in weeks – something that will not happen unless you are entering multiple small tournaments each week and a couple of big events on top of that.

Alternatives to the Banhammer

One alternative to swinging the banhammer is simply declaring additional cards to be legal in a format. This actually has a partial precedent – from October 1999 until October 2002, the Extended format (a format somewhat similar to today’s Modern) explicitly allowed the ten Revised dual lands despite them not being in any of the sets legal in Extended.

This, however, creates serious problems with card availability.

Pithing Needle is one example of a card that I believe would drive the Marvel menace to the sidelines, and might also have dealt with the Copy Cat Combo menace.

However, it hasn’t had a printing below foil mythic (Masterpiece) rarity since Return to Ravnica, which is now several years ago.

Arbitrarily declaring Pithing Needle legal in Standard (or jamming it into one of the Planeswalker decks) would set a precedent I’m not too happy with, where Standard requires a card not available in current boosters (the Masterpiece version is too rare to count).

In particular this is bad for Magic tournaments run by new shops or small shops. These stores will not have an extensive inventory of cards from a few years ago, and will struggle to meet demand – potentially pushing their customers toward competitors.

In addition to this logistical issue, adding ‘must-sideboard’ cards to an environment is (at least in my opinion) bad for the game. I feel Modern would be a better format if players didn’t feel obligated to run Stony Silence and/or Rest In Peace in sideboards.

There are only 15 slots in a sideboard; reducing that to 11 is not a good thing.

The banhammer is a last resort method for Wizards R&D to fix their own screwups. R&D needs to get better at detecting these problems (it’s hard to believe that Marvel was printed without an “Aetherworks Marvel enters the battlefield tapped” clause). But any changes in R&D coming out of the fiasco that was the last year of Standard will not flow through until (at the earliest) early next year, and R&D are still going to be human.

Humans screw up. R&D will continue to screw up. The banhammer is there to provide a painful way to reduce the damage caused by these mistakes.

 

The State of Standard

Standard now is a multi-deck format, but one with a clear best deck. Aetherworks Marvel combo, specifically the Temur version, is the format’s top deck by far.

Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, is a perfectly fair Magic card if you ramp up to it. It takes over the game entirely, but for ten mana, that’s what you would expect it to do.

When Ulamog comes out on turn 4, it ceases to be a reasonable Magic card. In a Temur energy shell, the turn 4 Ulamog isn’t very common, but it does happen. When you fail to hit Ulamog, you either get Chandra, Flamecaller (weaker than the big Eldrazi, but trades off being weaker for also being hardcastable), or in the total fail case you get an energy source, which then helps you power toward spinning the Marvel again on your next turn.

 

The last weekend’s Standard GP results showed that the Marvel combo decks are far and away the best decks in Standard, and while Temur Marvel didn’t dominate the top 8s, it did dominate the top 32 of each of the three GPs, making up about one-third of each T32.

 

Marvel – A Design Mistake

Aetherworks Marvel is surprisingly hard to interact with, and it does extremely dangerous things.

It breaks two of the most fundamental rules of Magic.

Firstly, it allows cards to impact the gamestate without being drawn. I cover this topic in another article. Marvel’s rate for doing this isn’t particularly egregious, and so this on its own isn’t a big problem.

Secondly, and far more importantly, Marvel facilitates other cards breaking what I term the Third Fundamental Rule of Magic – that cards must have an impact commensurate with the amount of investment (mana, and other costs) required to cast them.

The present Standard format has a number of extremely high impact threats.

While Ulamog is the best of these, it is not the only one. The format also contains Kozilek the Great Distortion; Desolation Twin; Void Winnower; Elder Deep Fiend; Chandra, Flamecaller; Approach of the Second Sun and Sorin, Grim Nemesis, and these will soon be joined by a Nicol Bolas card. (I’m deliberately not going to discuss the highly credible leak of Bolas but instead I’ll just assume it’s something similar to the Conflux Bolas card – a devastatingly powerful lategame trump card with a high mana cost).

These cards are balanced by virtue of their very high mana costs – in short, the investment required to deploy them. Marvel removes this balancing effect.

The other factor making Marvel a menace is its inherent randomness. Much like losing to a Miracled Bonfire of the Damned made you feel helpless and that your decisions over the entire game didn’t matter (and winning with Miracle cards felt anticlimactic), winning or losing with Marvel often comes down to a game of percentages.

In a gamestate where hitting big will win you the game and whiffing on Marvel will lose it, assuming you play 4 copies of Ulamog and 2 Chandra, spinning Marvel basically turns the entire game into a coinflip. Again, anticlimactic.

 

So What’s The Solution?

I’ve spent this entire article making what seems like a case for banning Aetherworks Marvel. The deck is too large of a metagame share, is dominating major events, and creates miserable play experiences.

However, that’s not what I believe Wizards should do. Tournament attendance is not in freefall. While I believe banning Aetherworks Marvel could be justified, I believe there is a better answer.

Spell Queller is a powerful card that is extremely good at proactively answering Aetherworks Marvel. It is a maindeckable card, solid against the entire format, but truly excellent at causing combo decks to stumble.

The decision to ban Reflector Mage, while reasonable at the time, has resulted in the Queller seeing less play in Standard than it otherwise would have.

 

My three suggestions for the 14-Jun B&R announcement.

Firstly, announce that Aetherworks Marvel Combo is a problem deck, and that while no bans are hitting it this time around, make a firm commitment to ban Aetherworks Marvel at the very next B&R announcement if the deck improves in metagame share.

During the washup of Tempest-Urza Standard, which was dominated by broken combo decks that required three waves of bannings, Standard had a format ‘watch list’.

This was a list of cards that were not banned but that Wizards wanted to warn players were at serious risk of being banned.

As part of the ‘warning’ about Marvel, reintroduce the Watch List.

Secondly, unban Reflector Mage in Standard.

Reflector Mage is a strong card, and one that was banned because the WU Flash deck with both Reflector Mage and Snugglecopter was considered too strong.

However, that deck has lost Snugglecopter and is not well positioned against two recent printings, Heart of Kiran and Sweltering Suns. Both of those cards are absolute must-answers for the formerly oppressive WU deck. (The deck has answers; it just has to have them at the correct time).

Reflector Mage being legal in the format would add more Spell Quellers into the metagame. Queller is extremely good at slowing down Marvel’s big turn long enough to win the game, and in a last resort situation, Reflector Mage itself can answer a resolved Ulamog, potentially putting you back in the game.

The 2 power on both Reflector Mage and Spell Queller also ensures that a deck built around these cards will not easily get to use the most powerful vehicle still legal in Standard, Heart of Kiran.

There has never been an unbanning in Standard before, but there is a first time for everything.

Reflector Mage should be placed right onto the new Watch List, although I don’t think it will actually need to be banned again.

Thirdly, no changes are needed in any other major format, except to put Death’s Shadow on the Modern watchlist. Legacy is extremely diverse at present, and while Modern and Vintage aren’t perfect, both are doing pretty well.

I’ll leave the MTGO-specific 1v1 Commander and Pauper formats to people that pay more attention to them than I do. It would not surprise me in the slightest to see Baral, Chief of Compliance taken out the back and shot. Pauper seems in acceptable shape but again, I’m no expert there.

That’s enough rambling for today.

  • sirgog

 

 

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