Early Concerns Revisited: What’s Changed in Three Months?

It’s been three months to the day since I wrote a piece about my long term concerns for FAB. Well, I wouldn’t say that they were concerns so much as things to watch out for. In the opening of that article, I said that I was pretty confident that the game’s success to date would assure it lived through the next few years at a minimum, and I continue to hold that belief. In general, I would say that we’ll likely continue to see growth over the next couple years, though probably not at the meteoric rise we’ve seen so far. However, with a few more months of experience in hand, I thought this would be an interesting time to revisit my issues from the end of last year and see the state of each right now. I’ll briefly summarize my original points as I reevaluate them, but if you want a more complete look at my thoughts on any of them, you should definitely take a peek back at the original article. After I wrap up the retrospective, I’ll take stock of where I am in terms of things to keep an eye on going forward.

Looking Back: Playable Fabled Cards

Past me had serious reservations about a rise in Fables being played. I noted the prominence of Eye in Kano, the seeming potential of Arknight Shard should Viserai ever get the other supporting tools he needs to break through, and I was generally dismissive of Heart as a concern. The core of my worries was that the exceptional cost of these cards, especially the ones that were only available as first edition CFs, would dramatically damage the game as a competitive endeavor if any of them every became staples in “the best deck”. This would, I imagined, necessitate bans as limited availability would make building a top tier deck untenable given the scarcity of CFs. Also, I assumed that banning the multi-thousand dollar card people bought to play the top deck would be a real bad look.

So where am I on that? Weirdly, I am both more convinced that Fs are/will be a problem (from a play perceptive –they’re obviously doing gangbusters as a collectible) but also a little less concerned that them being a problem is a threat to FAB’s success. My current take is that, although they aren’t essential (though I still think that if a tier 1 Viserai build emerges, then Shard will be an auto-include in it), they are somewhat concerning. Eye remains prominent in most Kano builds, and Davis Kingsley, who has been cleaning house with his “Tall Dorinthea” deck in Skirmish events, just wrote an article (https://rathetimes.com/articles/steelblade-supremacy-how-dorinthea-loosened-iras-chokehold-on-blitz) over at the Rathe Times where he said that he’d be running Heart if he owned one.

This obviously prompts people to ask if Heart actually matters, considering his impressive performance without it. To that, I would say that we’re still in a period where the game is relatively immature competitively. There are a handful of very strong players cleaning house at most events. This is due to a combination of a small player pool and shallow (but growing) level of technical sophistication at the community level. As the game grows and increasingly advanced content and resources become readily available, we’re likely going to see much fiercer competition at the game’s top levels. As this happens, gaining a few percentage points on your win rate due to deck composition is going to be an increasingly important element. In short, right now there are so few truly top tier players that having a sub-optimal deck isn’t a huge obstacle to making Top 4s or 8s, but if the game continues to grow and succeed, that will be less true over time as the total number exceptional players grows.

Personally, I would still prefer that the F slot be either retired entirely or changed so that is it no longer used for game-play unique cards. A special treatment of a regularly available card remains a potential option. Alternatively, if the F rarity were limited to first edition product only, and Fs were downgraded to L in unlimited printings, that could also be a viable solution, particularly if we’re going to see unlimited released just after or alongside first edition in the future. As before, I think that a particularly broken F would be a traumatic event that the game could recover from only if serious changes were made. I think a more significant concern is that there will be a slow creep of Fs as role players in top lists where they will exist as correct choices but not the thing that makes these decks work. This more subtle infiltration of the top decks could sneak up on us, particularly if Blitz is going to continue to be an important format for OP.

Looking Back: Small First Edition Print Runs

Oh boy, here’s the fun one. A lot of my concerns from this issue have actually come to pass – I spun a “what if” scenario for first edition selling out on pre-order, and, well, that’s pretty much the world we live in now. I would say that the general community response to that has been division. We’ve got some finance people telling players who are upset that they can’t get boxes for anything approaching MSRP that they’re entitled idiots who don’t understand “the market,” and then we’ve got angry players in turn calling the investors greedy bastards who will be singing a different tune when they’re the ones who get blocked out of first edition in the future as more whales move in. So, that’s all been super lovely.

In the previous piece, I said “The big question I have is: How long does LSS think a first print run should last for?” That remains the crux of this issue. If I could get LSS to answer any one single question about the game, that would be it. But since they don’t talk to me, we’re going to have to have to work from inference. To that end, I feel like we’re a little closer to knowing the answer than we were in December, and we’ll probably have an even better idea once we see how much MON-U is out there. If MON-U doesn’t sell out, either LSS is intentionally keeping first editions tiny with the goal of selling out on pre-orders, or they’ve miscalculated total demand in a meaningful way. But, at the end of the day, does any of this matter? And to that I say, “sort of?”

Similar to the last topic, this is an area where my beliefs haven’t changed radically, but they have developed somewhat. I currently view first edition as functionally similar to Magic’s From the Vault series done at a larger scale. That is, it’s a product that is released at a low wholesale price to stores that can then sell it for well over MSRP to net a large profits or sell it at MSRP to garner customer loyalty/build their local scene. Contrary to the title of a previous piece I wrote, if this model is LSS’ intended one, then first edition is emphatically not for players, and that will be by design.

So, this is where it gets a little weird and nuanced. I don’t think this matters in the short term. Even without adding any new players, current demand for FAB outstrips supply. We’re still seeing unlimited product selling for over MSRP. I don’t expect this situation to change until late Q3 or early Q4 at the absolute earliest. This means that the current growth potential of the game is somewhat plateaued – yes, some people will continue to enter the hobby even at over-MSRP unlimited prices, but there simply isn’t enough product to support the current playerbase, much less grow it significantly. However, and this is a big “however,” at some point LSS needs to catch up with demand for unlimited. If they can’t, I don’t see how the game grows as a game that people are actually playing (its collectability would be a separate issue).

Potential new players are going to be priced out of the game – Davis ball parked his Skirmish- winning deck at over 1k without a heart, which would put the optimal build at over $1.5k using the cheapest available version of each card. Where is FAB’s competition on that? For comparison, the top 5 most played decks in paper Standard Magic cost $333, $129, $202, $342, and $117 per MTGGoldfish – that means you could easily build all of them for less than Tall Dorinthea, even without accounting for cards used in common between those decks. Hell, you have to get to the 49th most popular Modern deck (WURG at $1312) to even get close to the cost of Tall Dorinthea with a Heart (“Tall Dorinthea with a Heart” is now the name of my imagined blackgaze band).

So, if people are actually going to play FAB, readily available unlimited has to happen for all current sets. It might not happen in 2021 (I’ll be super impressed if they pull it off), but it’s essential to the game’s growth. That said, I do think this is what LSS is trying to do, and I feel like they have a good chance of sorting that out in the next 18-24 months. Unfortunately, this introduces a new problem. When supply finally does catch up, the prices of unlimited cards is going to crash. Current unlimited singles prices cannot be sustained in the face of readily available MAP boxes. I think people who bought into unlimited as their entry point will be unhappy to see their collections halve in value, but I doubt that it will cause them to quit the game in large numbers – at that point, these will be people who are already hooked on the game and own the cards, what are they going to do? They can sell for a loss and stop playing a game they like out of spite or grumble and carry on.  

The issue in my mind is new player acquisition post-unlimited availability. The promise that FAB made when I picked the game up was two-fold. The supported formats were a non-rotating card pool, but essential cards would be reprinted to maintain accessibility to competitive play and LSS would respect the value of your collection. This was a tall order, but I thought the initial solution of first editions with cold foils and cheaper accessible unlimited editions that new players could use to catch up was a relatively elegant approach. However, if we’re making the move to first editions that sell out on pre-order for two or three times MSRP, where exactly are new players supposed to be generating collection value from?  

As a final aside before we move on, the concerns outlined above are pretty much entirely about players. You entice players into CCGs, which are very expensive games relative to other options (board games, video games, etc.), by giving them some assurance that, should they decide to get out, they’ll be able to either recoup a meaningful portion of their initial costs or, if they’re lucky, turn a profit. CCGs can exist primarily as collectibles – that’s essentially what Pokemon is. Talk to people who are spending big money on Pokemon cards and see how many actually play (sure, they like the IP, but that usually means that they play the video games and collect the cards). The average player’s cards not holding value isn’t a problem for FAB as a collectible because the collector’s market doesn’t care about players overly much (there is absolutely a relation –more players means more potential collectors, but the bigger a game gets, the smaller the proportion of new players who make that jump becomes).

The issue with cards not holding value is for the game’s future growth as an actual game. If you’re trying to entice new players who don’t know much about CCGs, your top competitor is Magic. I think Magic is going to get most of the prospective players in a scenario where the cards most actual players are buying don’t hold value for either game. It’s a much bigger game so it’s easier to find people to play with, it’s well-established and very unlikely to die, and despite some old school players not liking the move, the crossovers with established IPs are more likely to entice new players with properties they already like than FAB will as an original (and unproven) IP. FAB’s initial counter to Magic, (“Hey, new Magic cards aren’t going to hold value in a year or two, but FAB has cards that will appreciate”) was a damn good argument, but it no longer holds true if most players never get a chance to get the valuable cards in the first place.

Looking Back: US Organized Play

Last time around I said this was the one I was least confident in speculating on. Today, I’d say that it honestly feels the least important. If anything, living through 2020 and seeing Magic do record numbers made me really reconsider how important in-person play is for an established game. Now, it’s likely more important to FAB than Magic because FAB has to prove itself still, but I am scaling back how significant I think OP is at this moment in the game’s lifespan. While I initially said that LSS had very little control over this dimension, they did manage to come up with a way to get some OP going via the Skirmish events, which was a smart solution to the US’ utter ineptitude in handling COVID, and they deserve praise and recognition for that.

There really isn’t a lot to say here. Given the current enthusiasm for online play and the high demand for cards, I have a hard time imagining that in-person OP in the US getting kicked forward to Q3 or Q4 would really make much of a dent on the game’s momentum. If new player growth stagnates, it’s going to be due to issues of supply and/or cost rather than players being locked out of OP. If I were going to speculate on when US OP will actually happen everywhere in the nation, I would say that July seems to be about the earliest I could imagine it. I’m personally not going anywhere near a brick and mortar until I’m vaccinated.

Shaking Up the Rankings

Having looked back at my list, I would say that US OP isn’t a thing that concerns me anymore. It will happen at some point, and the lack of it in the short term isn’t going to drive the current playerbase away, nor will it be the chief factor in keeping new players from picking up the game. Once it finally gets rolled out, we can assess whether the number of events is adequate for a country as geographically large as the US, but, for now, I’m taking it off my list.

I’m also going to downgrade Playable Fabled cards to a minor concern. While I absolutely do think that they are a problem, and one that will eventually have to be addressed, there will probably be an eventual notable event (like a big event with a top 8 where half the decks, including the winning deck, are running an F) and then LSS will change the nature of the F slot or get rid of it and we’ll move on. People will be mad, there will be grumbling, changes will be made, but we’ll all move on. It’s very likely going to feel bad when it happens, but I don’t think it’s going to kill the game or anything.

That leaves us with small first edition print runs. Given how much I talked about that one, you can probably tell that I still have concerns about it. I maintain that FAB will do better if new players have a realistic way of building value in their collections, which, under the current model will require access for first edition cards. LSS can probably get away with kicking this issue down the road a bit though, because it’s a problem that isn’t really going to manifest itself for some time. Due to unlimited prices being in bubble-mode, people can open $100 ARC-U boxes with $70 Command and Conquers in them, which seems like a fine ROI; hell, RF L’s are selling for double or more what CF Ls were selling at right before WTR went out of print. Again, if/when printing catches up with demand on unlimited, this bubble is going to pop, and then LSS is going to have to figure out if and how they’ll deliver on the promise of providing a game where players’ collections have value.

One for the Road

In three short months my thinking has changed a fair bit. While I still regard all the issues outlined above as problems with or for the game, I am less worried about how much any of them can hurt the game in 2021. Obviously first editions remain the one with the highest odds of stalling the game’s growth, but that isn’t a 2021 problem. So, since my list of three is now reduced to a single entry, let’s add a new item: Supply.

Supply is the number one issue for FAB in 2021 and will likely be the top issue for 2022. I think the game going into decline in the next year is a very low probability outcome, but we do seem to be at or nearing the size of playerbase that the current pool of cards can support. Honestly, while that is frustrating for players, it’s not a terrible place to be as a collector or investor. The thing I will be most focused on for the rest of the year is how efficiently LSS rolls out unlimited product. In particular, I see CRU-U as being an essential release sooner rather than later. With NF Courage of Bladehold up to $150 already and NF Spoils of War over $100 for a NF copy (which will almost certainly go up more if the copper mechanic is expanded in Monarch), Crucible of War singles are going to help drive the minimum cost of playing some of the top decks to well over the $2000 mark.

If we get to that point where the perceived cost of entry into competitive FAB is a few thousand dollars for a non-budget deck, growing the playerbase is probably going to be fairly challenging. Again, that won’t mean the game dies or anything dramatic like that, but it would likely represent a plateau for the size of the playerbase. While I get that, “oh no, people bought all the cards we made” is high up on the “problems to have” list, it is actually the chief constraint of the game’s ability to grow right now. I see some people arguing that Monarch is going to cause the game to blow up, and I tend to disagree. I think, barring the unlikely event that it’s a bad set, Monarch is going to absolutely be a huge success among current players. People are already incredibly excited for it and we haven’t seen any confirmed cards yet. I’m excited about Monarch. If you’re reading this, that probably means that you’re either a bot or you know what FAB is, and are thus also excited about Monarch. But, even given all of that excitement, I am doubtful that there is going to be enough product to grow the base significantly. The current players are too rabid for it. First edition is going to be gone at launch or within a week or two after, generally at double MSRP or more. I suspect that the initial print run of MON-U will also be long gone before the end of the year, and then we’re back to the “oops, nothing to buy at a reasonable price” scenario. Monarch is going to sell out, but that will primarily go towards keeping current players engaged. Again, problems to have. At the moment, I’m not looking at the supply issue as a question of “will FAB fail any time soon,” it’s more “when will FAB be able to start growing again?”

*Header Image – Viserai, Rune Blood by Steve Argyle

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