The ‘Buy A Box’ fiasco – Time for me to take a break from Standard.

The TL:DR  because I ramble – the new Buy A Box promo card is pushed enough to maybe be a strong Standard card, and is much rarer than mythics. This is bad enough news for players that I’m taking a holiday from Standard unless/until it is fixed.


Dominaria included a rarer-than-mythic Standard legal card, and the sky didn’t fall in.

Today’s news was different. For the first time, Day 1 of official set release previews ended with me looking at three cards then closing my browser in disgust. It’s been hours (including an entire quiet work day) and I still haven’t been interested in looking over M19 spoilers.


Dominaria’s Ultra Rare, and why it wasn’t a big problem

Not available in boosters, F&S was at a new rarity rarer than mythic – it was available only as the ‘Buy A Box’ (BAB) promo card.

In the BAB promotion, game stores that actively run Magic events are given some number of copies of F&S to distribute to the first players to purchase an entire box of Dominaria.

Historically, BAB promo cards, when they existed, had been a card from the normal set, typically a good rare. Celestial Colonnade was the best one.

Specific rares in Dominaria average about 0.6 copies per booster box and mythics around 0.3 copies. At first glance, it might seem that F&S occupies a rarity between uncommon (1.35 per box) and rare.

However, an overwhelming majority of boosters sold do not qualify for the BAB promo.

Loose packs outsell boxes in most stores, and loose packs do not qualify. Stores do not get enough of the promo card to offer one to each player that buys a full box, and players that purchase more than one box only get one copy of the card.

Magic Online redemption sets do not include this card, and a lot of cards come from redemption.

Most importantly, boxes and cases sold by online retailers and boosters sold in venues that don’t run tournaments (such as Target) do not qualify either. Nor do all of the boxes cracked open by stores and other singles dealers.

There’s a lot of unknowns, but my personal estimate is that there are about 6 copies of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria for each copy of F&S in circulation. Without exact print runs we cannot be sure, but I’m going to assume this 1:6 estimate for this article.


Supply and Demand

We’ve discussed the low supply of Firesong and Sunspeaker. Now let’s consider the demand for the card.

If you play Commander or Brawl and want a commander for your casual WR spell-based control deck, you are the target market for the card.

While Commander is a popular format, WR is unpopular, and F&S demand remains a tiny sliver of the Commander playerbase. The card is otherwise poor – it’s a 6 mana creature that is easily killed, only slowly takes over a game, and generates no immediate value on most boardstates. You are almost always better off casting Combustible Gearhulk unless you build an entire deck around making F&S do silly things, and Combustible Gearhulk is far from the best red finisher even in Standard now.

This is why F&S has remained relatively cheap and easy to acquire, despite being extremely rare.


What’s different this time?

Wizards announced today that the ‘Buy A Box’ exclusive card, Nexus Of Fate.

Yes, that collector number reads ‘306/280’. Cards 1-280 are all that can be found in packs.

Firesong and Sunspeaker was not a strong card. Zero demand from competitive players, and only tiny demand from casual players.

Nexus of Fate looks weak at first glance, as a card that costs 7 and does not immediately end the game.

However, it’s not clear that this is the case.

This is the first instant Time Walk effect printed, and this effect is improved a lot by being able to be played at the end of an opponent’s turn. Taking two turns with access to all of your mana has previously been mostly a Vintage-only affair.

The five mana Time Warp was playable in Tempest Standard, and a very good card in M2010 Standard, and some six mana Time Warps have seen play in Standard too.

One of the best Planeswalkers in Standard right now allows you access to two additional mana in your end step.

Finally, its shuffle effect will increase its casual appeal drastically while making it slightly better in competitive games than a Time Walk effect that self-exiles on cast.

The Standard playerbase is huge, far larger than the playerbase of WR spell based control in Commander. Even if Nexus of Fate doesn’t end up in optimized lists, not everyone plays optimized lists. Demand will be considerable.

This doesn’t even touch upon its Commander demand. Taking extra turns is tremendously popular in casual games, especially when the extra turns come with a built-in recursion mechanic.

Beacon of Tomorrows is a weak card and Nexus is strictly better (costing 1 mana less, having some resilience against discard, and being upgraded to instant). Even then Beacon is one of the more expensive rares in Fifth Dawn (not super expensive, but in the top 20).


Fear Of Missing Out

If Nexus takes off and is played widely in blue control decks, there is no precedent for how expensive it could become. But it absolutely could eclipse the previous price records in Standard, records that were set by two different Jaces.

We can see a related effect right now with a number of ultra-low demand Reserve List cards such as Firestorm. Firestorm is a low print run card that sees some (not much) competitive play and isn’t on most casual players’ radar.

With no reprint on the horizon (or ever, as long as the Reserve List remains in place), there was a recent panic buyup of all of the copies of Firestorm listed on American trade websites, and the card’s price exploded.

This may be market manipulation, but it may also be players thinking “I need to buy this card now, because if I wait, I will no longer be able to afford it. I buy it now or I forever go without.”

Generally, market manipulation and fear of missing out build upon each other.

Firestorm is not a unique case. The mtgfinance community on Reddit regularly has people post “Supply of card X is drying up”, followed rapidly by a buyout of all remaining copies.

Nexus of Fate has the potential to be similar.

If this card puts up competitive results once, even if it is a complete fluke, we can expect a staggering price spike. Spikes everywhere will rush to get their copies before the market dries up, and speculators will jump in as well.

It takes a lot of demand for a mythic to explode in price. It will only take one-sixth of the demand for Nexus of Fate to do so, and there is no precedent for how high it could get.

I would not bet $50 on Nexus being the first $150 Standard-legal card. However, were someone to offer me a bet, their $50 against my $10, that it hits $150 while in Standard, I would seriously consider them up. If it becomes a staple control card – even as less than a 4 of – then supply, demand and fear of missing out could very well push it there.


The Promotion’s Good Intentions and Horrible Execution

The ‘Buy A Box’ promotion is an attempt by WotC to pay Magic stores for the work they perform in promoting Magic, teaching new players the game and providing a space for players.

In the past WotC have had a number of products – most notably From The Vault – which filled this role for stores. Stores were charged a pittance for a small number of box sets they could sell at a huge markup.

FTV, however, had a very serious issue.

A tiny number of stores were also incentivised to record fake tournaments to increase their FTV allotment, although in my opinion this was much rarer than many players believe. Store owners that would risk their entire liveliehood over $600 in potential profits are few and far between.

More importantly, players who didn’t understand the nature of the product accused stores of price gouging for selling FTV boxes at the market price, which was far, far above the MSRP.

What was intended as a gift to stores became a PR issue for them.

Some stores charged market prices for FTV and simply weathered the complaints, aggrevating some of their best customers in the process.

Others charged MSRP, and ended up simply giving free money to the first mtgfinance savvy customer that walked into the store with $500 in cash to buy the entire stock, only to relist it for $2000 on eBay.

Others reserved FTV for tournament prizes, or for their regular customers.

In every case, players that missed out on getting FTV at MSRP felt they were being fleeced, and often blamed the store.

The Buy A Box promotion is intended to allow stores to compete with online dealers with lower margins. Stores can’t compete on price, but if you buy from the brick and mortar store, you will get an extra bonus.

For this card, however, this will be an unmitigated disaster.

Undoubtedly, a couple of dodgy store operators will ‘forget’ to give away some copies of Nexus. This will be rare (and rarer than most people think), but it will happen.

Stores that sell Nexus of Fate after legitimately trading for it will be accused of doing just this, and of stealing from the Buy A Box promo and/or players.

Players that buy a box but miss out on the promo due to allocations being too small will be furious, especially once the card is no longer a forgettable budget rare.

Stores should get some WotC gifts, but not ones that come at the expense of players. Exclusive cards are bad. Exclusive cards that are extremely scarce are even worse.


Voting With My Wallet

I made my feedback clear about the dangers of BAB-exclusive cards when Firesong was announced. It was ignored, and so I will be voting with my wallet.

Unless/until this card receives a wide release (or is banned or allowed to be proxied), for the entire time Nexus of Fate is legal in Standard, I’m taking a break from Standard and probably all of Magic. I will not play in Standard events, nor purchase Wizards of the Coast products.

This isn’t a threat. It is a promise to the MTG community, who deserve better than the introduction of ultra-rares by stealth, and WotC deflecting  all of the bad PR from this decision onto stores.

I still like my local store, and so will continue to purchase from them. In tabletop roleplaying games, WotC’s main competitor Paizo, the publishers of the Pathfinder RPG, has some interesting looking stuff coming out over the next year. I’ll be spending my Magic budget on those books.

This isn’t a call for a boycott, but it’s my way of making feedback that was ignored a little louder.

If enough other people feel the same way, we may see some change.


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My Response To Mark Rosewater’s “What Is A Game” Article

The official Wizards of the Coast Magic site posts lots of articles worth reading, but one today is possibly the best to come out in the 15 odd years I’ve read it.

It’s Mark Rosewater asking the question – “What is a game?”

Go and read it now if you haven’t.

It got me thinking enough to write Mark a response, which I’ll make public.


Hi Mark

Your article today was a fascinating read, to a question I’d never have thought to ask.

I do disagree with one point, however, and have an alternative definition for your consideration.

You raise the condition “Lack of real world relevance” as part of your definition of a game.

Magic is often played for stakes. When I started ante still hadn’t gone away, but even today, a match in a tournament can decide small stakes (e.g. ‘whichever of Alice and Bob wins this match gets the cool promo card’).

Tournament matches can be played for medium stakes (finals of an event where the winner gets a box of boosters, or a dual land).

Sometimes they are even played for almost life-altering stakes (the grand final of a Pro Tour, where USD 30000 rides on one match outcome on top of the USD 20000 each player is guaranteed to win).

In my opinion Magic remains a game whether the stakes are nil, a cool promo, a booster box, a dual land, or even a five digit sum.

My proposed alternative to your definition is as follows:

“A game is an activity with a goal, a failure condition, restrictions, agency, and that is participated in willingly and deliberately, usually for entertainment”.

The ‘failure condition’ clause is minor, but required to clarify that you can, in fact, ‘lose’ a game. A ‘game’ you cannot fail at is, in my opinion, also a toy or a puzzle.

For example, the Rubik’s Cube is an activity with a goal – solving all six faces. It has restrictions, agency, and is participated in willingly and deliberately (or has no real-world consequences to use your criteria instead).

But it has no failure conditions other than abandoning the puzzle because you tire of it. I do not feel that this makes it a game.

On the flip side, the much harder puzzle of attempting to solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded does have a failure condition – you declaring incorrectly that the puzzle is solved – and I feel this makes it more like a game.

(And yes, there are people that can perform this feat, including at least one truly awe-inspiring seven year old kid)

The ‘willingly and deliberately, usually for entertainment’ clause is intended to weed out elements of life like your suitcase packing example, or other optimization puzzles that we come across, such as asking “I am in Melbourne and want to get to Sydney. Should I drive, fly, catch a bus, or do something else?”

I feel it achieves this without the issue of also excluding Magic tournaments, games of Poker, or anything else where more than just bragging rights are on the line.

Best Regards

– (real name redacted from this web post, but it’s sirgog)

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