Monday, October 30, 2017

Magic's Terrible Value Proposition

Magic is my favorite game. It's a game millions of people play. And it's a terrible value proposition.

Many gamers never even try Magic because it's notoriously expensive.

How much does it cost to play Magic? Well, there are a ton of ways to play and Magic is literally its own economy, but we can answer this from the perspective of a consumer choosing between Magic and another game.

A new player can join a Sealed tournament and get 3 or 4 matches for $30. They'll definitely lose and probably get a pity pack. Maybe they'll open a rare worth a few bucks and maybe someone will tell them so. You can't really do anything else with just the cards you opened. Let's call it $25 for 4 hours of play. Not bad compared to a movie, assuming you enjoy it and those 4 hours aren't downside. You could alternately buy Summoner Wars for $30 and get a strategic fantasy duel that could entertain you and a buddy for 4-20 hours or more.

A Draft runs about $16. Less if you run your own event, buy in bulk, and re-draft rares rather than offer booster packs for prize support, but that's not something most players—much less most new players—have access to. That draft will provide about 3 hours of entertainment and again leave you with some cards you can't really do anything else with. Again, this compares well with the theater, although you can stream a movie for a lot less. For the same price, you could buy Epic or Star Realms.

Now, if you have the opportunity and inclination to play in multiple Sealed events or Drafts, you can build up a collection with which you can build a Standard deck. Your deck will not be remotely competitive at Friday Night Magic, but you can play it against your friends and their casual decks. This is free once you've played enough Limited. Think of it as a buy-3-get-1 deal. You can also shortcut to this point with a deck-builder's toolkit for $20. Even though you can play these decks a bunch, you're not going to because you'll either get bored playing the same decks with your friends or you'll want more enough to go buy either a booster box to open up your options, or specific cards to counter your opponents' bombs or even explore a certain strategy.

At this point, I'd like to recommend Dominion. If you haven't played it, dear Magic player, I promise it's up your alley. $45 gets you an excellent game that you can play with your friends for many hours, and it will scratch your deck building itch, even if it's a bit shy on dragons.

The next step up is buying a competitive Standard deck. In addition to cost several hundred dollars, this also takes the time of researching the format and sourcing the individual cards. The good news is, this deck will carry your Friday nights for 3 months, maybe more, assuming you don't tire of it. At this price range, the competition is a living card game like Netrunner, where you can buy every card printed and you and your corporation-friend can build many clever decks to face-off with each other.

Vintage players and pro player / aspirants are outside the scope of this discussion.

There's something I've only hinted at that's important here: What about equity? You can sell your collection at any time and make back a good portion of what you spent. Yup. You can re-sell your used board games too. The vast majority don't go up in value like Magic rares do, but good games also don't bottom out the way many Magic rares do.

I love Magic Online. The ability to hop into a draft anytime (except Wednesdays) is pretty great. The value proposition there is a joke. You're not even getting physical cards, and it's impossible to sell cards at any reasonable value because the bots have you outnumbered 100:1.

The most solid value proposition Magic offers has go to be Planeswalker/Duel Decks. They're designed to be a good way learn the game with a buddy. These run $20-$30 for a pair of decks you can play right out of the box. As you acquire more cards, you can modify and improve these decks. They don't get you much closer to competitive Standard, and I'm still not sure if the cards unique to these decks are tournament legal or not.

At pretty much every level of engagement, Magic just doesn't supply the same fun:cost ratio as so many other games. So why are there so many die-hard fans? Well. Magic is an awesome game and a unique experience, and we're a bit brain-washed. Magic is a lifestyle game. Everyone invested in it shares an earnest passion for it, the embarrassing knowledge that we've spent far too much time and money on something that we know will never repay us in kind, and the pride of playing the best game in the world.

The real question: How do we improve the value proposition for new players?

Here are some possibilities:

• Reduce the cost. Hahaha. Right? Moving on.

• Increase the value. I don't see them putting more cards in a pack, or better, but they do a good job luring players into Prereleases with shiny promo cards and pity packs.

• Better communicate the (hidden) value. The more Wizards can convince people the Magic is actually the best game in the world, the more people will try it despite the cost of entry. The more we can make those new players feel like part of the community, the more friendships we can give them, the more will stick around and join the lifestyle.

• Create easier and/or more favorable ways to liquidate assets. This really really needs to happen and it just isn't going to.

• Offer more efficient fun:booster ratios. Live Booster Draft League is by far the most fun you can have with three packs of Magic. Leagues in general are actually a great way to offer more play at a relatively low cost.

• Push Constructed formats that better support the transition from Limited. Pauper does this, but I don't know any stores that run Pauper tournaments. The problem is that stores are better off pushing booster sales and individual card sales more because the secondary market is so strong. Is there something Wizards can do to support players and stores here? One obvious idea is awarding Standard-viable rare prizes for Pauper tournaments to help players make the transition to the no-holds-barred FNM. I've seen stores run brackets at FNM: One competitive and one casual; that's another great method to ease the transition.

How else can Wizards mitigate the problem of Magic's poorly perceived value proposition?


  1. I think the perspective here is a problem, probably largely due to the length of time most established players have been playing.

    For the vast majority of casual players, Magic works more or less like DotP/Arena. You get some cards, build a deck or two, add cards as you get them. Kitchen table Magic. When you're playing like that, a sealed or draft tournament isn't a one and done deal, but rather a large expansion of your collection. Those cards are going to get reused and recycled endlessly. There's no need to haven't tournament support, you're supported by friends who have a mutually agreed upon level of competition that really only exists within your group. It's a hard microcosm to sustain, but it's how the vast, VAST majority of Magic gets played. However once players become competitive, the game experience isn't nearly as satisfying.

    That said, Wizards also sells products that provide high replayability for casual players like Explorers of Ixalan, Dual Decks or Bolas Archenemy. The key to these products is the key to most of the other games you listed: they're a closed system. Once you start allowing full sandbox control, you wind up in the arms race again. Which results in either eternally escalating costs or a stale format. Those decks get stale soon too, but hopefully they can deliver the 4-40 hours you'd expect it of most board games to casual players.

    Really experienced players unfortunately don't have a shot at this. The Commander decks come close, as they're willing to have a depth the other products don't and the Singleton nature means there's more variety and variance. The old world championship decks are kind of good with that, although those decks run into problems when they were trying to be released contemporaneously and sometimes just had terrible, unwinnable matchups just lIke real life

    1. I definitely spent a disproportionate amount of words talking about competitive play versus casual, doubly so when you look at how much more the game is played casually.

      Something Chip mentioned on Twitter that's relevant: There is a perception among would-be players that Magic is a game that you win by spending by more money. It's not entirely wrong, and its a big turn-off.

    2. MTGO is actually much better for experienced players looking for a good value proposition with complex game play. Beyond the fact that the constructed formats are much cheaper, phantom formats like cube, historical standard gauntlets, or throwback drafts are great and very cheap with reasonably effective records. I would love love love paper products that could reflect that. Gold bordered products opens up those opportunities, especially for old standard gauntlets or prebuilt cubes that capture historic draft formats. One can only hope.

  2. You're missing the best value proposition in Magic: Commander!

    Precons are $30-40ish and not half bad out of the box. With $20 more and a little research it's possible to turn any of them into something truly unique and fun (and plenty competitive for most playgroups). For that you get any number of fascinating games, limited only by your ability to find opponents. And if your deck starts to feel stale, it's usually only a matter of finding a dozen cards or so to swap out and freshen it up.

    It's a format where decks hold both play value and monetary value surprisingly well.

    1. This is a very good point. Commander offers a lot of variety in play because of the huge variance 60-70 unique cards bring over Standard's 9. It would be very hard to get into, but the pre-cons make it easy, even getting you broken cards like Sol Ring for cheap.