What Keeps Me Up at Night?

Well, prior to getting good health insurance, it was breathing issues related to a deviated septum coupled with a proclivity for being nocturnal, but if you’re asking in the context of FAB, it’s mostly thinking about the long term health of the game. Once FAB started to boom back in August and September, and the value of the cards and boxes I had on hand crossed over the $10,000 mark and continued to climb I had to reassess my engagement with the game (I’m sure that I’m not alone here as this level of collection value is surprisingly common for anyone who built a set of Ls when they were $80 a piece and kept a few unopened WTR boxes that they bought for $65-80). In general, I’m happy to keep games I enjoy on hand even after they’re no longer supported by publishers; I still have all my Netrunner cards, for instance, but when values get exceptionally high, even if my initial buy in was low, it’s hard not to regard them as an asset.

In reassessing FAB, I decided that if it ever looked to me like the game was going to fail, I’d undercut the market and sell out, especially since my initial investment was low enough that there is a lot of downward room for prices to fall where I’d still be making substantial profit. Note, I’m talking about a scenario where I’d liquidate everything. This is different than the cards or sealed product I’ve bought with the intent to sell in the future once a target price is reached. Before I dive into this list of fears, I do want to say that I’m not trying to convey a sense of doom. I’ve pretty confident in the game in at least a three year window. This is more a list of things that would give me pause if they came to pass or areas that I could see causing problems down the line. These are things that, if they crop up, you should pay attention to and carefully consider.

Playable Fabled Cards

This is my top concern in that, I think it has the highest chances of happening. The Fabled (F) rarity is a mixed bag for me. Fabled cards definitely helped build hype for FAB out of the gate, but as the game grows, it’s already something that I see new players bringing up as a cause for concern as a barrier to entry. In the short term, they can usually be talked down because these cards aren’t really staple play pieces, or so the theory goes. Here’s the problem with that. I buy that sentiment as applied to Heart of Fyendal. That particular card seemed perfectly calibrated to be useable if you worked hard enough and even a reasonable inclusion when the card pool was just WTR, but it was niche and not even a high performing card in the decks that did play it.

After Heart, I get a bit more concerned. Eye of Ophidia, aside from being on the short list of best looking cards in the game, is also a legit good card in blitz when played by Kano who is certainly a viable hero in that format. Nicholas Holding was running Eye in his 1st place deck at the blitz event that ran alongside New Zealand Nationals. It isn’t a card that every hero wants, but it definitely has decks that want to play it, and those decks are good. Similarly, Arknight Shard feels like it’s held back more by Viserai not being quite there yet as a hero more than its individual quality. While I am by no means a pro, I’ve played more Viserai in Blitz at this point than any other hero in any format, and Shard definitely enables powerful plays. I could certainly see it becoming like Eye in Kano if Viserai gets just a bit more support in future sets.

Simply put, the two subsequent F’s have been flirting with power levels in a way that makes me uncomfortable for hyper rare cards. When these topics come up there is always a crowd of people who want to assure you that Fs are being accounted for and they’re not actually that good, but I like to go by results and reassess when we have new data. As of this writing, the New Zealand meta is the strongest competitive FAB environment in the world, and the player who won the most consequential Blitz event to date, did so with an F in his deck. It’s something to keep an Eye on (sorry, not sorry).

The true danger here is what happens if Legend Story Studios accidentally prints an F in the future that goes on to find a home as a significant card in a tier 1 deck, especially if it’s perceived as the “best deck” for any period of time. The prices would be astronomical to the point where it would make Magic’s Jace the Mindsculptor debacle look cute in comparison. Due to the nature of print run times, there is no way that they could get more on the market in time to address the issue. How high would such a card get? $1000? $2000? $5000? Heart is $5000+ and it doesn’t win you games in a meaningful way (I’ve honestly seen it lose more games than it wins). The only realistic response would be a ban, and I can assure you, players are not happy when you ban cards they spent four figures on. I feel like, depending on how soon it happened, this would be a devastating but recoverable mistake, although it would likely prompt the immediate removal or revision of the F rarity.

Significant ramp down of F power levels could help keep the slot around, cold foil versions would still sell for hundreds to collectors even if they remained unplayable, so the hitting the lottery aspect of opening one would still be there. Alternatively, F’s could move away from being unique cards and transfer to premium treatments of extant cards. I’m sure people would pay plenty of money for a full art, alternate art cold foil hero or similar card that doesn’t come with the risk of being a unique play piece. That said, I’d be just as happy to see them gone entirely, left behind as a relic of early FAB that would also serve to enhance the mystique of the ones we already have.

Small First Edition Print Runs

If we’ve learned anything over the past couple months, it’s that first printings of FAB sets have massive upside compared to subsequent print runs. This is fine in the abstract, it feels like it awards people who were active in the game when a set was current, and unlimited editions step up to make sure that, on a playability front, newcomers are not unduly punished with exorbitant singles prices for staples. The big question I have is: How long does LSS think a first print run should last for? That is to say, in their ideal world, what is the period of time post-release that I’d be able to walk into an LGS and buy some loose packs or draft the first edition of the latest set? In my mind, that period should be “until a newer set comes out.” Yes, this will likely mean that there are smaller margins to be made in the short term. People won’t be buying boxes and selling them for 200% markup a couple weeks later. But that’s good for the game.

Cards will still appreciate in value, just at a slower rate. There will always be a bump when a set’s first edition printing is announced as out of print, but creating hyper scarcity fosters an unhealthy environment and just plain feels bad to players. Let’s take it to an extreme: if sets sold out their alpha runs at preorder, and unlimited rolled out the next day, alpha boxes would be incredibly hard for the average player to secure. Stores would be incentivized to hoard their alpha supply to resell far over MSRP on the secondary (see ChannelFireball), or they’d just hook up friends or high volume customers. There’s no reason that players with access to the funds wouldn’t just buy out their LGS’s pre-orders.

In order to prevent those scenarios, LSS needs to make sure that it’s not too easy to absorb first editions. If stores have to hold product for four months in order to begin flipping it for over MSRP, they’re not going to do it in meaningful quantities because sitting on dead inventory for four months is a retail nightmare for most stores. Similarly, Johnny BitCoin isn’t going to walk into his LGS and order five grand worth of cases to flip on ebay if the store owner can just order another truck load of cases for the following week. Philosophically, as a CCG company, you should want players to feel rewarded for coming to their LGS to play week-after-week. Limited formats are great for this because they drive sales of product. Less-skilled players have the chance to open something particularly valuable and less-affluent players can compete in a format that tests skill without the barrier to entry of a $400 deck. I would much rather see an LGS regular open a cold foil Legendary four months into a set’s release than watch sealed boxes sell for 300% MSRP in that same time frame.

Worries from investors and speculators on diluting the value of first edition printings are somewhat rooted in selfishness and, also a bit overly stated. If the game is going to be successful long term (you know, the scenario people actually investing in the game need to happen), the sets they’re selling in the next several years, even if they’re printed such that everyone currently engaged with the game, for a four month window, can buy as much product as they want at MAP, will still not have been produced in sufficient quantity to supply the player base a couple years down the road. I feel pretty confident that, if you assume FAB has at least 5 year lifespan (which you better if you consider yourself an investor), Monarch and Kingdoms 1st edition boxes are going to make you well more than the 7% per year return on investment (ROI) that I would aim for.

US Organized Play

I’m going to end on the question that I feel least confident theorizing on: How long can the game build momentum in the US market without any substantive organized play? For me, this is the thorniest area because it’s the one LSS has the least control over. I suppose that, to a degree, they could technically just hold events in areas that don’t care about COVID precautions and would allow them to be run, but hopefully they’re smarter than the dumbest parts of America –they certainly seem to have taken COVID seriously to date. I have less information about the healthcare industry than I do about FAB, but the conversations I’ve had with people in that industry, and insights I’ve taken away reading the news generally, have not instilled me with a lot of confidence that the US is going to be in good shape by the time Monarch drops. I’m not going to get into a granular analysis of how the US is handling the pandemic or the different ways that could go – if you care about that, there are plenty of better news sources than me – but I want to look at it in terms of when OP can happen in relation to the following time periods: Pre-Monarch, Monarch Release, Kingdoms Release.

For my purposes, when I’m discussing OP events, I mean Road to Nationals and higher events. I’m aware that there are shops in the US that are actively running small events now, but I don’t think that’s the scale the game needs to flourish (if you assume OP matters to growing the game). With those parameters, OP gearing up pre-Monarch seems unlikely, and I think that’s probably going to be OK. That’s a reasonable amount of time for US players to engage with the game in terms of familiarizing themselves with the current sets, absorbing content, and building the bases of their collections with Unlimited. The actual Monarch release and immediate aftermath is likely also fine, although it will obviously be a lot better if in-store events can occur. There will be a lot of buzz and hype in digital spaces, people will have new product to open, and things will be exciting from a card collection standpoint. For a lot of people, this will be the first new set where they could crack first edition boxes with abandon. But that long gap between Monarch and Kingdoms is the period I’m worried about. If people still can’t play four to six months out, how many of them will start to lose interest in the game? What about if we get to Kingdoms without OP? Are people still going to be keyed up?

Like I said, I don’t have a lot of theory to add on how this shakes out or thoughts on how it could be addressed. What I can say is that I will be watching the secondary market for signs of flagging confidence very closely from Monarch’s release until Organized Play starts. Obviously, I look at the market all the time, but there are some specific things that I think we should be looking at as our canaries in the coal mine. The biggest ones will be Heart of Fyendal and Eye of Ophidia. Now, I believe their current prices (particularly Heart) are high and could easily retrace. However, my hope is that between now and March these will have settled into an actual stable price. Once they find a stable point where values on these are relatively flat for a couple months, that’s when we can tune into these to see how people feel about the long term health of the game. If you start to see a bunch going up for sale and prices start coming down quickly, that’s a sign that people might be feeling uneasy about the long term health of the game, and not just average players, but people who were previously comfortable holding cardboard worth thousands of dollars. Sealed boxes of Arcane Rising and Welcome to Rathe will serve a similar function. Assuming stable prices over a period of time, any significant changes can give us important information about the shifting feelings surrounding the game.

How Bad Can it Be?

The different concerns I’ve outlined have different degrees of impact, and will affect both your personal collection and the game itself to different degrees of severity. If an overpowered F is printed, unless it happens in Monarch or Kingdoms, the game can almost certainly recover though it will require quick and decisive action from LSS –probably a ban if it is sufficiently powerful, and likely the commitment to removing the F rarity from future sets or reimagine it. I think this is the sort of mistake that you can get away with once as long as it isn’t too early in the game’s lifespan and you handle it appropriately. As a player, you can insulate yourself from this by not buying over powered F’s from in print sets –if an F emerges and becomes part of a dominant tier 1 deck, then I would be extremely hesitant to buy it because the loss in value were it to be banned is tremendous.  If this happens in Monarch, then it’s chaos time, and I don’t know how to feel about it, but I would definitely prepared to make some significant moves.

Small print runs are only a damning problem if LSS makes a mistake here and refuses to correct course. However, this one is a little more insidious at a personal level because, at first, this practice would likely create price spikes as players rush to grab up the under printed CFs and sealed boxes. Then, at some point, this sort of behavior will turn players off, and that sets up the conditions for a bubble. While this sort of behavior could kill the game, LSS would have to commit to it over a sustained period of releases and then stubbornly not adjust, which, hasn’t really been their modus operandi thus far. To feel confidant on this issue, you’ll have to follow this on a set-by-set basis until you feel like LSS has dialed in an appropriate sized print run for first edition. You can use your own feelings and experiences to speculate –are you able to get the amount of product you want? Are singles prices for the current set way too high for CFs? I’ll certainly be revisiting this topic as the next few sets are launched to update you on my thoughts about how they’re doing.

Organized play is the wild card to me, but as I noted, the thing that LSS can do the least about and that we are least able to predict this far out. Again, to me, the best thing to do here is pick your market indicators and pay attention to them. If you aren’t a cardboard finance junkie, you can probably kick this forward until Monarch has been out for a month or so and then take periodic peeks at sales and store prices to see if your canaries are still alive and kicking. Honestly, I remain unsure how important OP is for a game’s success – it clearly wasn’t for Magic in 2020, but I don’t know if that can apply to up-and-coming games or if you first have to become a pillar of the industry to get away with it.

Finally, to conclude a very, very long article, I want to say that I am not particularly worried about a FAB failure at present. I am buying cases of MON with the idea that I will want to be holding a substantial number of them 5 years out. The things I’ve discussed above are what I look for as warning signs that would prompt me to pause and reassess. Anytime you’re putting money into something with the hopes of profiting, you want to be able to step back and dispassionately analyze it. This is particularly difficult with collectables because you often have an emotional attachment to them in a way that you don’t to, say, stocks and bonds. Determining ahead of time what you want be on the lookout for can be a helpful way to offset your initial instincts, which will often cast the thing you love in a positive light.

*Header Image: Viserai (Young) by Wisnu Tan

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