CRU is a Good Set in a Bad Package

I don’t mean the actual physical packaging, which I liked well enough (though I do wish the cardboard of the individual boxes was a hair more robust). I’m talking about way Crucible of War was delivered to us. I’m not sure how everyone else experienced the move from opening Welcome to Rathe and Arcane Rising to Crucible of War, but I didn’t much care for it. The emotional feel of opening packs of CRU just didn’t have the impact of the first two sets. I don’t think it was simply that WTR was the first set of an entirely new game, I’ve opened unlimited WTR and ARC as well, which didn’t even have the excitement of the cold foil search, and those were more fun.

Don’t get me wrong, I think CRU was and is a solid set. It had cool cards mechanically, one of the best pieces of art in the game, and a really intriguing deck building challenge for years to come (let’s not talk about the state of poor Az). What it didn’t have was Super rarity cards or Legendries at a reasonable frequency.  And, more than anything else, that last one made it a much less exciting product to open. Simply put, you opened chase cards so rarely in CRU that it was quite easy to open cases (I opened 3) without hitting a single Legendary, Fable, or full art Twinning Blade. My example of three cases wasn’t indicative of a particularly bad run either. It was a little worse than what one might expect on average, but not unreasonable by any means. Coupled with the absorption of S rarity cards into the Majestic rarity, it often felt like I’d open boxes or even cases and not see anything particularly special. My third case was especially dismal as it also lacked even a single cold foil Majestic as a consolation prize. Talking to other players at the time, I know that I’m not the only one who felt this way about CRU. It was incredibly feast or famine, and even now, months later people often refer to it as the Shard/ Shiyana Lottery

It’s not even really a question of value – even before the price spikes, CRU actually had pretty decent value overall, it was just very spread out. This is mostly about an emotional reaction to opening product. Based on how I see people posting on social media, most people mark their high moments in product opening around hitting chase cards. I know that my most memorable FAB experience was opening rainbow foil Enlightened Strikes in back-to-back batches of loose WTR packs right after the out of print announcement. In this current era of Unlimited, we still see a regular stream of people excitedly posting the Tunics, class Ls, or Hearts that they found in their first boxes or cases. My main grievance with CRU is that it generates these moments of excitement far too rarely, and that makes me a little apprehensive about future supplementary sets.

What are the Odds?

We’ll loop back to the M/S merger in a bit, but the real issue for me was the change in frequency of Ls, or, I suppose, the lack of change depending on how you mentally frame it. Confused? Fair enough; I’m making it intentionally vague after all. Let’s take a gander at how LSS explained the way they approached rarity in CRU. I’m going to quote them in full: “When designing Flesh and Blood, we pay a lot of attention to the frequency of each individual high rarity card. By this, we mean that we don’t look at a Legendary as being 1:96 packs, but rather as a “Fyendal’s Spring Tunic” appearing in 1:480 packs. This was planned so that Welcome to Rathe and Arcane Rising both had 5 Legendary equipment, meaning you get, on average, 1 Legendary equipment per case (or 1:96 packs). It’s our intention for core booster sets like WTR, ARC and Monarch to mostly follow this model. For supplementary sets like Crucible of War, the model is different. Because there are only 2 Legendary cards in CRU, they appear approximately 1:240 packs, meaning the frequency of finding a specific Legendary is consistent with the established baseline.”

I put forth that this is a bad way to approach rarity, at least if you plan to print a variable number of Ls across sets. From a big picture collectability standpoint, I can see the appeal on paper. Oh look! An L in any given set is just as rare as an L in any other set; that’s very neat and clever! It’s also kind of irrelevant because you can’t open Ls from 5L sets in 2L set boosters, and the value of those individual cards is most influenced by the context of their own set. Oh, and print runs aren’t the same, so there are going to be wildly more Monarch Ls than WTR Ls even if they occur at the exact same frequency. More importantly, it neglects one core issue: as a player it really sucks to go from opening 1 L in 96 packs to 1 in 240. With ARC and WTR, you would, on average, get 1 L per case. With CRU you needed 10 boxes.

So, here’s where the feel bads come in. If you open one case of WTR and miss an L, it sucks, but it’s not awful. You’ve filled out your commons and most of your Rs, you had a smattering of Ss, and you probably still have a lot of Ms you’d like to get. It doesn’t feel like a waste. You got unlucky on the L, sure, but overall you managed to flesh out a bunch of the set and you were going to want to do that anyway. Compare that to CRU where by that third case your C and R playsets were finished long ago and you’re already at playsets of many of the Ms, and you don’t even have a single big hit. You’ve now spent about $1000 to open a dozen boxes and hit nothing remarkable. That’s a bad place to be. Obviously, in a mature CCG with a stable market, the refrain would be “if you want value buy singles!” but I think we are at a year minimum before that’s remotely pragmatic with FAB. Moreover, packs are fun to open. We shouldn’t be dissuading people from opening packs, especially in the context of a supplemental set that can’t be drafted.

Going back to that 1 in 10 box rate, in my mind, a single case is the upper limit you could reasonably expect a player to get. Obviously enthusiasts are going to crack more and plenty of people are only going to open a box or two. This model worked great with ARC and WTR because, on average, you’d get a copy of one quite valuable card that paid for its box (we’re going to pretend we’re back at pre-OOP prices). CRU meanwhile felt very swingy. If your case had an L, you were good, and if it didn’t, it sucked, and more often than not it sucked. Coupled with the fact that it was a smaller set, you filled out your collection with the non-chase rarity cards much quicker, which made opening that next case less and less appealing. CRU obviously panned out great long term, regardless of what was in your box (assuming you paid MAP to MSRP), but it’s simply not realistic to assume the massive spikes in value we’ve seen over the past six months will continue for all future sets. Eventually FAB boxes are going to stop being a huge return on investment in a matter of months; it’s just not sustainable. And when we get to that point, opening 10 boxes to hit one L on average is not going to cut it

Confounding Variables

I do want to cite the M/S merger as a partial source of the bad experience. Ms were a big deal in WTR and ARC. By contrast, Ms felt a bit more trivial in CRU, though I think that they were somewhat victims of extenuating circumstances. LSS’s intention of combining M and S into one slot and letting the players identify the power cards and prompt the secondary market to react appropriately makes sense – it’s how Magic handles this by releasing a mix of good and bad Mythics in each set. The model is fine, and I’m glad that they made the change; I think the simplification is smart. It just didn’t play well with CRU.

Whether it’s just because the game was young, or because COVID limited play and theory crafting, or because FAB lacked (and to a large degree continues to lack) a robust online community of content creators, there wasn’t a clear set of agreed upon high value Ms upon release (that’s not intended as a knock on my fellow content creators. I think a lot of people are putting out good content; there just aren’t enough of us yet). I don’t recall seeing any stores offering pre-orders on singles, and upon release, prices were clumped at rarities for a few weeks before they started to differentiate (frankly, I don’t think they’ve sorted themselves out yet either; Plasma Purifier just started to pick up in the past two weeks, and Gaze of Ages seems like it should be higher as well). In the context of CRU, this hesitancy to define star Ms muted the impact of opening Ms outside of the cold foil equipment which people at least knew was good (though these were still only $30-40 cards for the most part from August until a few weeks ago).

The Simple Solution
Assuming you buy into my argument that opening CRU failed to hit the highs of ARC and WTR, LSS has two very simple solutions. First, they could abandon their rarity frequency policy. To imagine how that would work, we’re going to start from a pretty basic assumption about how CCG secondary markets work: a given in-print set has an effective ceiling on singles prices across the set assuming sealed product is readily available. That is to say, the sum total value of singles in the set is constrained by the fact that boxes can be purchased and broken down for singles. You can’t have an in-print set where every M is worth $25 because the expected value of the cards in a box would be so far in excess of the price of a sealed box that boxes would be opened at scale until the singles prices went down to an equilibrium level. In most CCGs, set value clusters at higher rarity cards with a couple strong cards swinging above their weight class due to how ubiquitous they are. For FAB, in most sets, that means the big chunk of the value will cluster at the L rarity. The frequency of Ls within a set dictates how expensive they are on average NOT how frequent they are in relation to Ls in other sets. We can see this born out in FAB. While exceptional cards can carry a premium (Tunic being a meaningful outlier) L’s had a pretty even price, about $80-110 per in unlimited (until the UNL shortage kicked in and started raising prices), which was about where alpha Ls were pre-OOP announcement. Compare that to CRU where we only had 2 Ls – removing the upper outliers, Shiyana was $350-550 before the spikes and CRUnic was $150-200. Even at their lowest prices, both Ls sold for at about twice what WTR and ARC Ls sold for or more. Consider that there are more Shiyanas in the world than any of the CF ARC and WTR Ls due to CRU’s larger print run, but she currently sells for more than all of the class CF Ls and is about on level with Skullcap. Again, I love Shiyana, but she’s just not a “good card” currently. To me, this suggests that CRU Ls could have been distributed at the same rate as WTR and ARC Ls and still held considerable value. Instead they were harder to get and more expensive, which is something we really don’t need from a game that already has the F rarity (which, I maintain was a good hook for a brand new game, but it now just a disaster waiting to happen unless it stops being used for gameplay unique cards).

The alternate solution, if you’re really insistent on arbitrarily maintaining the same individual frequency for Ls (again, this doesn’t even really make sense with print runs of differing sizes, but whatever) is to just print more Ls in the set. If your weird proclivities dictate that you need 5 Ls per set to allow us to open one L in the average case, then suck it up and give us 5 Ls. They wouldn’t even have to be all new cards. An alternate art or premium treatment of an extant M could fill the role, and I know this is true because it’s literally what they did with Full Art Twinning Blade in this very set. FA Twinning is selling for the same or more than some CF class Ls right now. It’s a beautiful card, and I would have been thrilled to open one. If supplemental sets are something that’s going to be with us in the long term, which I’m not entirely thrilled about due to the lack of draftability, they at least need to be a better opening experience. To achieve this, the rate of opening a truly chase card needs to be in line with what players are trained to expect from the normal sets.

*Header Image – Twinning Blade by Marco Wulfr

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