Game Review: Magic the Gathering

It is no secret that Magic the Gathering, a.k.a. Magic, a.k.a., MtG, has been out for a while and has been reviewed, commented on, streamed, and everything else so much that a review of the game itself is probably largely unwarranted at this point. This review isn’t about the game in general but instead more about recent game changes.

Unless you’re new to Magic the Gathering, you are probably already aware that the first retail versions of the cards, often referred to as Fourth Edition, were first released in the mid-90s, August 5, 1993, to be more exact. And only those living under rocks for the last practically 30 years will be familiar with the dozens of expansions that have been released within that time to keep the game refreshed and evolving. Wizards of the Coast has continuously managed to produce new cards, new mechanics, and new art to drive collectors and players alike to snap up more and more cards.

And it is this innovation and production of the modern game that this review will focus on. Most players of MtG are keenly aware of famous cards like Black Lotus and the extreme value associated with them.

While card values will fluctuate, collectors will drive demand and prices. But it's this very value and demand that I worry WotC is starting to abuse. In the past, expansions seemed to come out less frequently. Of course, it could have just been that such releases were just slower to reach smaller areas like where we lived but my friends and I did not see a steady stream of new sets for several years. However, in the last couple of years, we have noticed that the number of set releases per year is becoming alarmingly high.

For instance, Dominaria United was released on September 9, 2022, Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate was released in June 2022, Streets of New Capenna launched in April 2022, and Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty was released in February 2022. That’s 4 sets in 8 months. Every 8 weeks they’re dropping a new set of cards onto the shelves. How are players supposed to enjoy the new cards, and new mechanics, and develop new deck strategies and competitive builds when no sooner than they get the card or cards they want from one set another set is released that forces the cycle to start anew?

6 expansion sets within 12 months are just too much. Especially when you consider that there are special edition cards that are released in between. Double Masters 2022 dropped in July 2022 and there are special cards released practically monthly through WotC’s website known as Secret Lair Drops.

The cards are looking spectacular in modern cards compared to the older cards. Etched foil, borderless alternate art designs, and just fantastic-looking designs make the modern cards almost too gorgeous to play with. I’m being sincere, there have been some cards we’ve pulled out of packs that we refused to put in a deck because we didn’t want to take a chance of messing up that card in a game but we still made sure to put that card in our cases so we could show them off to our friends.

Magic cards have almost gone from being a key component to an entertaining game to pieces of art that are to be admired but not touched.

Now, I don’t have too much of an issue with the quality of art increasing but when a game starts producing standard retail kits that are more valuable as collectibles than game pieces then I think we need to step back and re-evaluate some things. For instance, when the Double Masters 2022 set was first announced everyone expected those cards to sell for more than the standard sets. The cards in DM22 were going to be part of a more limited printing and would include some reprints of rare cards that had been out of circulation for some time.

Most normal boxes will retail at release for between $120-$150 but the Master series sets like DM22 usually sell for about twice that price. My son and I each pre-ordered a box of DM22 but from different places. He ordered his through an online store and I ordered mine through our local game store Oiltown Comics. In the weeks leading up to the set’s release, we started reading reports of the price for DM22 rising, some reports listed a box price of over $400.

More worryingly, as the demand drove the price to new levels, stores that had taken pre-orders early when the prices were still low decided they could no longer sell the pre-orders for that price. Stores would cancel pre-orders at the lower price and make their customers re-order the set again at the higher prices. Luckily, while my son’s pre-order was affected in such or horrific manner like so many others, mine was not, Our local store was much more reasonable with their prices for that set and as it turned out, they had an extra box too that my son ended up buying so that we could both have a both without either of us having to go bankrupt to get it.

Sure. Sure. The prices charged by the retailers are not a reflection of WotC or MtG but when cards are released and sought in such a dramatic way it makes you question if the cards are being sold for the gaming aspect or the collecting aspect. To me, WotC has embraced the more profitable collectible side of that coin and has tailored their development and release strategy to milk all the profit they can from collectors without much regard to the players that made the game popular, to begin with. When cards are released in such a rapid fashion that players can’t enjoy the cards from each release before needing to rebuild because a new set dropped then it is clear the retail sales are not about the game and the players.

Even talking with retailers that carry the cards, they all seem to suggest that recent changes in even the packaging are creating a clear delineation between player purchases and collector purchases. For a long time, cards were sold in expansion packs. You could buy a single pack, also known as a booster pack, or a box of packs, just like you can sports cards. Up until recent times, all packs of cards were created equal. You could walk into a store and just buy a pack of MtG cards.

But not anymore.

Now, if you walk into a store and try to buy a pack of cards you have choices. There are draft booster packs that have more cards but fewer valuable cards and lower odds of getting fancy arts and special prints. There are set booster packs that have fewer cards but higher chances of getting rarer cards like the alternate art styles. Then there are the collector booster packs that only have special cards in them. And of course, these different packs cost different amounts with the draft boosters being the cheapest, the set boosters being usually $1-$2 more, and then the collector boosters which are typically around $20 each!

On the surface, it might seem like WotC is trying to accommodate both the player and the collector worlds with their purchasing options but really what they are doing is hurting both. To produce the cards to have enough of them to package in so many different ways, the market is saturated with cards that only serve to drive down the prices. The frequency of releases means that many cards see multiple printings in shorter windows of time, driving down the value of each printing for that card. Retailers now have to choose which options they will carry for each set and how many of each option to buy. Collectors don’t want draft boosters and players, especially younger players who don’t have much money, don’t want the set boosters and can’t afford the collector boosters so retailers often find themselves sitting on a product waiting to sell because how do you predict who is going to buy what with 100% accuracy for each set released?

But on top of that, the frequency of releases means that retailers, especially smaller ones, don’t get much time to move their current product off the shelf before needing to buy more. How can I sell 8 boxes of Dominaria United when I’ve still got 4 boxes of Commander Legends and 2 boxes of DM22 on a shelf that only holds 8 boxes? I’ve had conversations with people in the comic store while I was there shopping talk about not wanting to buy any packs that were sitting there because they were waiting for the next set that was going to drop in a couple of weeks. If the previous set had been out for 6 months or more then that wouldn’t be surprising but when to hear people say that less than a month after the set they’re talking about hitting the streets is worrying.

I love the game. I will continue to play MtG and buy cards. Make no mistake about that. The development team behind the card game comes up with the cards, develops new mechanics, and strives to drive the game forward to keep things refreshed and new enough that I don’t think the game will ever get old. However, I have noticed that my purchase levels of cards have declined in recent years, largely because by the time I buy a few boxes of the current set, they are already outdated and being replaced by something new.

If I was retired and could just sit around to study my cards and endlessly modify my decks to optimize their builds as new cards hit the market every few weeks then I might not care so much but as someone who actively tries to play, I find it exhausting to constantly have to be tweaking my decks because a card dropped today that made one that dropped 8 weeks ago obsolete. 

Even competitive play has become more about who has deep enough pockets to buy the best cards from week to week and less about who got some good pulls from the booster packs. I don’t know if WotC is afraid that this golden goose is going to stop laying eggs soon or if they just need the money that bad but their current trend of releasing new sets every other day (or at least so it seems sometimes) can’t be sustainable and frankly does more harm to their product than good. 

I love talking about MtG with other players. I enjoy teaching others how to play. I love playing all of the various styles of MtG with my friends. I started playing this wonderful game in 1996, not long after its release. I have well over 30,000 MtG cards in my collection thanks to my long-time commitment to this game. I don’t plan on not playing the game anytime soon but I can’t see how I can feasibly continue to collect and appreciate my cards with their rate of release. 

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