Magic players can be selfish. When Wizards of the Coast makes a decision or a change to the game, most people talk about how it affects them. Standard players talk about how it affects Standard, Cube enthusiasts talk about possible inclusions from the new set, Modern and Legacy players look for playable eternal cards, and so on. It’s normal to form your opinion based mostly on how the change affects you.
What strikes me, though, is how oblivious some people can be to WOTC’s perspective. Wizards is in business to sell Magic: The Gathering product and just about every decision the company makes is a means to that end. When you start to look at it like that, the thought process behind business decisions becomes a lot easier to understand. And if you can understand WOTC’s decision making, you can better predict its future actions.
For example, there is a perpetual discussion on whether or not [card]Birthing Pod[/card] should be banned in Modern. People will typically cite power level, diversity, the need to shake up the format, etc., when making a case.
Wizards, at least at a high level, is not overly concerned about optimizing the Modern tournament experience at any given moment. Sure, it’s on R&D’s radar and they certainly want it to be good, but Modern Constructed is just one tool in their toolbox for creating demand for their product.
Wizards is not in business to balance Constructed formats, it is in business to sell product. WOTC doesn’t really care that much when six of eight decks in a grand prix top eight are Pod decks, even though that might be incredibly frustrating to a die-hard Modern grinder.
When it comes to [card]Birthing Pod[/card] and moving product, Wizards is probably considering a menu of options like this one:
- Reprint it to sell packs.
- Print must-have Pod hate cards to sell packs.
- Ban it to shift that demand to something else they can sell.
We underestimate how important sales are to Wizards of the Coast and overestimate how important everything else is. R&D’s decision on Pod is just as likely to result in a fixed [card]Null Rod[/card] in the next block at mythic rare as it is in banning Pod itself. This way they can keep Pod in Modern Masters II and juice sales of both sets.
So today I’m going to write from the other side of the table. I’m going to approach a topic from WOTC’s perspective by taking the sales-first position, explaining what I believe drives the team’s decision making. I’m going to support my points with actual decisions made by Wizards, but be aware that this is really an opinion piece. I don’t have access to anyone at Wizards or to any non-public information.
Since we’ve already started in that direction, today’s topic is going to be reprints.
Reprints are a beautiful thing for Wizards because they allows the company to convert equity in the secondary market (which belongs to someone else) into sales dollars for themselves. Reprints also conserve R&D resources in the process.
Wizards does not have a direct stake in the secondary market. That means that when [card]Thoughtseize[/card] went from $30 to $60, Wizards didn’t see another penny because that card was out of print. The new equity belonged to the players and store owners who owned copies of the card. But Wizards is not out of this game by any stretch of the imagination.
While Wizards doesn’t have a direct stake in the secondary market, it certainly has ways to interact with it. One of the best ways is through reprints. It’s important to remember that WOTC’s production costs are the same whether they are printing a sheet of [card]Thoughtseize[/card]s or a sheet of basic lands. The first is a sheet of twenty-dollar bills, the second is worth less than the paper on which it is printed.
It does feel a little like printing money in that respect. They have been doing it for years with the judge program, using reprints as a currency to buy needed labor.
Now, the players and store owners who had all the Lorwyn [card]Thoughtseize[/card]s lost half of their equity when the reprint dropped them from $60 back to $30, but it undoubtedly moved a ton of Theros packs for Wizards in the process. Our loss is their gain, but cashing in on valuable assets is solid business strategy and I wouldn’t expect anything else.
Was the [card]Thoughtseize[/card] reprint a developmental mistake? Was it too powerful for Standard? These questions are secondary to, “How many Theros packs will a [card]Thoughtseize[/card] reprint move?” Wizards might tell us that [card]Thoughtseize[/card] was printed to give black some play against enchantment creatures, but that’s only relevant because it fits into the larger strategy of reprinting high-dollar cards to move product. A new, lower-power [card]Duress[/card]/[card]Despise[/card] hybrid would have done the trick, too.
Similarly, many were surprised when Mark Rosewater explained that the allied fetch lands were the first cards in Khans of Tarkir, despite lacking the design synergy that we saw with fetches in Zendikar. No one should have been surprised. Printing high-value cards is a lucrative business and these were prime candidates. Trust me, Wizards cares about the efficiency of mana bases in Modern way less than it cares about spiking Khans sales. Way, way less.
One very significant thing to note here is that a lot of these reprints are being put into Standard-legal sets. Wizards can print pretty much anything in a supplemental product without worry, but that would be missing out on the huge demand that comes from a Standard printing. This is worth taking some risks in the format. Cards like [card]Mutavault[/card], [card]Scavenging Ooze[/card], and [card]Chord of Calling[/card] are great examples. These cards didn’t need to be in Standard—no one would have missed them if they weren’t.
What it means for us is that we can expect a steady stream of high-profile reprints popping up in large Standard sets. If it can go through Standard, it will go through Standard. Why give cards straight to Modern players in a set like Modern Masters when you can make Standard players buy them too?
Of course, not everything is fit for Standard. Cards that really would wreck the format, would subtract substantially from Limited playability, or feel badly out of place flavor-wise can go straight to the supplemental products. You risk hurting sales as much as helping if you get too ambitious.
If we extrapolate this line of thinking, we come to the conclusion that the enemy fetches will not be in Modern Masters II (but will instead be in Standard at some point). We also come to the general conclusion that things left out of reprint sets have a higher-than-usual chance of showing up in Standard at some point. [card]Damnation[/card] seems like a good possibility in this category.
Let’s take it to the extreme, just for fun. [card]Wasteland[/card] was left out of Vintage Masters for a reason, but you can be sure Wizards is going to cash in on this gem. Is it crazy to consider the Standard implications? If it is ever going to be viable, a Standard where the best mana-fixing involves fetching basic lands would be the place. [card]Wasteland[/card] would keep all the rest of the duals from Khans in check while allowing fetches to do their thing.
I’m sure the chances of [card]Wasteland[/card] in Standard are very small. The point here is that Wizards will surely consider it because that is the highest payout. They will probably conclude that it is too powerful and put it in a Commander product at some point (or something along those lines).
If Wizards can’t put a card through Standard, the next best option is a reprint set like Modern Masters, Vintage Masters, or Conspiracy (I realize that set had some new cards).
Reprint sets are great for Wizards for a few reasons. The first is that a draftable set appeals to some people on that basis alone, widening the audience. In other words, you don’t have to play Modern Constructed or care about the reprints at all to enjoy Modern Masters. Very enfranchised players that wouldn’t pay much attention to a product like Planechase dive right into these reprint sets. These sets (although not Conspiracy), also have a nice synergy with Magic Online.
The next reason is that reprint sets are a much less efficient way for players to get the reprints they need. If [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] was in a Commander deck, essentially anyone could buy a ‘Goyf at $30 retail. Instead, it was a mythic rare in Modern Masters, so it appeared in one out of every 120 packs (one mythic in every eight packs, with one-in-fifteen shot at that mythic being a [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]).
Did I mention reprint sets are great for Wizards because they can charge $7 per pack?
On average, Wizards booked $840 of sales of Modern Masters packs for each [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] put into circulation. That’s a bit more than the $30 for Commander decks. This means that players have to dump a lot more money into their reprints in a reprint set.
The “special” rarity in Vintage Masters was born out of this very favorable math. I do not think we have seen the last of it.
The final reason that reprint sets are great for Wizards is that they are inexpensive to produce. They need zero designers, zero creative, and just a few developers to make the set out of existing pieces. This almost seems like the type of thing developers do in their free time, to be honest. Instead of dedicating most of your R&D team to making a new set for a year, you can throw Adam Prosak and Ian Duke in a conference room with a laptop, have them put together what is essentially a cube with rarities, and then sell the packs for twice as much as your current Standard set.
Vintage Masters had to be even more profitable than Modern Masters (on margin, surely it didn’t outsell it) because Wizards didn’t even have to print physical cards!
I expect that we will see a draftable supplemental product virtually every year going forward. These sets will be all or mostly reprints. As long as a card has significant equity in the secondary market, I think Wizards will include it (unless they are printing it somewhere else). So I’m predicting [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] and [card]Dark Confidant[/card] in Modern Masters II. I also expect that Wizards will experiment with stretching rarities even further in paper products. I’m not sure if the company will decide that Modern Masters II is the right time to try it, but it is a great way to preserve equity for future reprint sets.
Finally, I want to point out that none of these strategies work unless you have product on the shelves. This may already be obvious, but I strongly feel that we have seen the last of the ultra-limited print run. Any demand that goes unsatisfied due to a limited print-run just creates equity in the secondary market. Wizards is trying to harvest that equity, not create more.
I expect Modern Masters II to be quite a bit easier to get than the first one. From the Vault sets and Commander decks are already much easier to get then they used to be, and I doubt we’ll see another attempt at a Commander’s Arsenal.
I wouldn’t rule out a straight reprint of the original Modern Masters in the new frame at some point, either. We see this thought process in action already with the Duel Deck Anthology. If there is still demand out there for the first set (and $400 booster boxes indicate there is) and the set was already all reprints, why the heck not? Of course, I would revise my prediction of ‘Goyf and Bob being in the second set if the first one is scheduled to hit the market again.
That’s my take on the Wizards of the Coast reprint strategy. If the reception to this article is reasonably good, I will probably write a similar article for Magic Online. Let me know if you are interested in that.
Thanks for reading.