The Problem with “First Edition is for Collectors; Unlimited is for Players”

So, I can’t remember who initially voiced the idea (I think several people said similar things around the same time), but back when the very first spike happened and we started seeing prices go up at the end of August, some people began to question the wisdom of playing with their, now modestly expensive cards. At the time, the thought was phrased as “first edition cards for collecting and unlimited cards for playing.” The shift to “first edition is for collectors; Unlimited is for players” happened over the intervening months, and represents a subtle but fundamental shift in how people are talking about the game, and I think it’s actually a bit of a problem, or at least something we should be cautious about.

What’s the Difference?

The difference between these two sentiments is that the first one is a generalized recommendation for all players about how to treat their valuable cards, essentially: “keep your expensive cards protected at home to ensure their value, and buy cheaper versions for actual play.” Now, I personally don’t subscribe to that view – I enjoy playing with the fancy versions of cards, and it’s why I buy them in the first place. I do the vast majority of my personal investment in sealed product, and I only really deal in singles for personal use, short term flips, or relatively cheap singles that I can go long on with minimal risk (those $2 cold foil Commons for example). Anyway, my personal preference aside, this bit of advice isn’t really a problem. It’s just encouraging caution to anyone who happens to have valuables, which is worth considering.

The issue with “first edition is for collectors; Unlimited is for players” is that it creates two classes of people that engage with the game and posits an expectation that one group is superior to the other because, let’s be real, we all know that the “good” version of the product is first edition. This is precisely the sort of thing that people seem to be experiencing discontent with in the current Magic releases – multiple tiers of product released alongside each other where the “good” ones are generally only available to the affluent, and the excitement around the “normal” or “for play” versions is diminished because you have a zero percent chance at the really chase cards.

I believe that one of the core appeals of CCGs over other forms of game is the built in gambling aspect, the opportunity to open big money out of a pack. This was also the appeal of the Fable slot in WTR (it’s changed a bit as F’s have gotten better, which is a change I’m not thrilled with). In the context of Magic, historically you could sit down to draft a set and have a chance at opening the big money card on any given night. It added an extra level of excitement and helped players who were less likely to win the draft and associated prizes find an additional excuse to give it a go, because even if you went 0-3, if you opened a good foil Mythic, it was still probably a good night for you. At a base level, it’s less exciting to take part in these events when the big money is off the table.

Now, this is also an issue of degrees and can be handled in better and worse ways. The worst approach is launching both products at the same time and pricing up the fancy version. If first edition FAB launches with $150 booster boxes and unlimited comes out at the same time with $80 boxes, we’re essentially at a swingier version of Magic, which is bad. The current WTR situation is a bit different. Alpha WTR was out for nearly a year at well below MSRP before it sold out, anyone who wanted some when it was the current set had more than a fair chance to acquire it (if it was distributed in your country). So, for WTR, Unlimited feels like a reasonable product that fulfilled the goals of LSS in terms of protecting the value of collections and keeping key cards in circulation for players. The concern with Monarch is that it is going to be a much more condensed timeline where first edition will be gone immediately, and players who were active and involved with the game during its time as the most recent set, are going to have very little opportunity to get first edition.

Coming to the game late and not getting the fancy version is one thing, but being an active player and getting largely blocked out of the “good” version of the current set because you can’t afford to put down thousands of dollars out of the gate for the new set is a bad experience for players. For a big portion of a game’s player base, buying some product week to week or month to month is the norm. Those who are lucky enough to just be able to pay for all the product they want at launch are a decided minority. It’s also an unappealing situation for new people entering the game. While LSS is right to want to assure players that their collections are things with value, they also need to be able to convince players that buying into the game will allow them to build their own collections of value, which is a harder sale when the only available products on the market are unlimited editions. Essentially, you want the percentage of a year where there are zero first edition products of any kind available from stores to be minimal. Some amount of time is probably unavoidable, but, if for nine of twelve months, there is no value-gaining product available, I think the game is a harder sell.

The Responsible Parties

You can already tell that people are worried about this – there have been multiple posts in the past several weeks on various FAB groups either appealing to people to limit their Monarch purchases or straight up calling out “investors” for potentially “killing the game”. I strongly believe that this is a fundamentally incorrect approach to the problem. In a lot of ways, it’s like yelling at individual smart phone users for inhuman working conditions in iPhone factories. You’re missing the forest for the trees. In this case, it is not the responsibility of individual players or collectors to “fix” the availability issue. That responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of LSS. If I dropped a dozen cases from my Monarch order, those cases are unlikely to turn into 48 boxes going into the hands of 48 individual players. They’d probably just be snapped up by someone else with the money to buy large quantities of cardboard. It would only work if all of the people buying multiple cases agreed to this practice, which will absolutely never happen.

I understand Monarch is sort of in a unique situation as it is releasing during an explosion in the game’s popularity and a mountain of global logistics issues. So honestly, I do not think that this is a problem that will be resolved in time for its release. (Well, LSS could do multiple waves of first edition and announce that plan in advance, but they seem apprehensive to normalize that as a solution, which is OK as long as they come up with a long term fix). I don’t have official information that confirms release size for MON, but it does seem like the current belief among store owners that I’ve spoken to aligns with Rudy’s prediction from the recent Alpha Investments message, that is: we’ll see first edition Monarch sell out very quickly (4-6 weeks at most, though there are definite concerns it won’t even last that long), and we’ll hopefully see an unlimited printing released right on the heels as opposed to the long lag between WTR and ARC and their respective unlimited printings.

To a degree, this pattern of rapid first edition sell outs is something that might be tolerated with some grumbling by the player base for a couple more sets. Most people seem to already be coming to terms with the idea that they won’t get as much first edition Monarch as they’d like to, though we won’t really know until launch or shortly before how bad it is going to be (or if LSS pulls some miracles out of their collective hats and manages to get sufficient supply). As I’ve said bother earlier in the article and in previous ones, while a supply shortage does likely limit the game’s growth from what it could be with adequate supply, the game is doing well and LSS has some time to dial things in. That’s OK as long as we see improvement at a reasonable rate set-to-set. And it would be even better if they articulate a plan for how things will be handled and improved for each subsequent release. But, to loop back to the original point of this piece, I think the long term health of the game requires that your average player has a reasonable amount of time where they can go into their local LGS and open a product that could potentially contain cold foils. If we instead move towards a model where cold foils really are just “for collectors” I think it will limit the game’s ability to grow and serve as evidence that the perception of the game as “cardboard crypto” isn’t just the angry mutterings of people who are mad they didn’t get in on the ground floor but rather a fair assessment of an investor driven commodity. In their reprint policy LSS says, “We want players who invest in building their collections, to be proud to own something of value,” I believe that for the average player to be able to build a collection that they’re proud of, they need reasonable access to first edition printings of new sets when they are current. Opening cold foils, even at lower rarity, is one of the best pack opening experience in card games. For me, it feels special in a way that opening premium cards hasn’t really felt since the Uzra’s Block days of Magic. If this experience increasing becomes only for the affluent, it will be a real loss for the game and the community.

*Header Image – Cash In by Anastasiya Grintsova

%d bloggers like this: