The Professor Is In

I didn’t really think this was the article I was going to be writing tonight, but news in the world of FAB will always surprise you, given the opportunity (sorry, Telling Stories Through Art series, I know you are perpetually neglected. I am a bad mother).  Oh, “What’s the news I’m referencing?” you ask. Today, towards the end of his Strixhaven Top 5 video, the Professor kind of let Wizards of the Coast have it for excluding him from the Strixhaven spoiler season. He then, not so subtly, noted he was going to have a preview card for Monarch which would, of course, require him to make an intro to Flesh and Blood video. This is what experts refer to as a “big deal”. From the non-finance FAB sphere, this is definitely the biggest event since ChannelFireball picked up the game. In fact, I think you could argue that, if you set the financial end aside and strictly focus on playerbase impact, this is the most important thing that has happened to FAB. Let’s talk about why, and don’t worry, for those of you who don’t have a foot in the Magic world, and thus have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, I’ll give you some context.

Who Is The Professor?

The Professor along with help from many collaborators, writers, editors, etc. runs Tolarian Community College, which is the largest Magic: The Gathering YouTube channel. His content is very broad; it includes: product reviews for card storage options, set reviews, discussions of current issues, a couple podcasts, intros and advice on various Magic formats, examination of Magic lore, and more. He’s got nearly 600k subscribers. For perspective, Alpha Investments, which is the current biggest FAB content producer is at 300k, but once you take Rudy out and focus on people who are producing gameplay and non-financial content, you’ve got ChannelFireball at the top, and their videos tend to max out at a couple thousand views. There’s SessionBlood, who are quite good but still only pulling down 500-1000 viewers. And, while they definitely don’t get the engagement my finance articles do, I still get a few hundred reads on my non-finance articles, which probably puts me in contention for being one of the most-read writers in FAB (that’s very much not a flex; I’m trying to illustrate how laughably small the content engagement numbers are for FAB relative to Magic). So when I say Prof is a big content creator, I mean that he’s a big content creator on a scale that is wholly new to FAB. When he releases his intro to the game video, it will almost certainly be the most-viewed FAB video ever within 24 hours.

Why Is He Making FAB Content Now?

This is mostly speculative, but, as I noted, he got kind of snubbed in what I think is as a pretty big blunder on WotC’s part. The upcoming Magic set is themed around a magical university, and they didn’t give him a preview card for it. Yes, the biggest content creator whose channel is themed around a college motif didn’t get a card for the university set. It would have been a mind-bogglingly stupid PR decision to exclude him, and then WotC said, “Hey, let’s be mind-bogglingly stupid.” So, while I think LSS had probably already reached out to him by the time the “no Strixhaven spoiler for Prof” news was publicly known, I doubt that FAB would have made an appearance right before he revealed the number one card on his top five list for the upcoming Magic set if WotC hadn’t dropped the ball.

Now, I want to be clear, I fully believe that the Professor loves Magic above all other games and it will always be his core focus as both a player of games and a content creator. However, if he gets into FAB and puts out even semi-regular content for it, it will be an absurdly huge win for the game. I’m not really here to talk about the market aspects of this too much, but this is the sort of big step for the game that should provide additional confidence in game’s long-term health –particularly for prospective players. As an aside, while among content creators I am potentially the most vocal critic of how LSS’ handles their PR, getting Tolarian Community College to give FAB coverage is an absolute coup for LSS. And, if the game goes long (as in 10+ years), which looks increasingly promising, this is definitely going to be remembered as an important early event.

Why Else Does It Matter?

FAB’s rise has been meteoric, and although the hardcore fans don’t like to hear it, it’s hard to make the case that this has been solely due to it being a well-designed game. In late 2019 and early 2020, FAB was a small but promising game that sold itself on good gameplay and polished aesthetics. Their stated intent was that your collection would have value, but, at the time, that was an aspirational stance not a proven fact. I got in when I could buy CF Ls for less than what it’s going to cost me for a box of Monarch Unlimited, the financial end was very much a non-factor for most people even nine months ago.

Initially, there wasn’t much content for FAB out there, and what was out there tended to focus on things like gameplay and lore. As we moved into the fall of 2020, the OOP notices landed, and FAB skyrocketed to valuations that, regardless of what happens in the next few years, will likely always make it a noteworthy game in tabletop history. When prices started to rise, the content focus shifted strongly to the financial end of the game – to this day, both on Facebook and Discord, finance-related channels and pages VASTLY outpace all other FAB content in terms of both number of people engaging and total volume of engagement. Again, the biggest content creator for FAB is Rudy at Alpha investments, who, I think you’ll find, doesn’t really have a super sophisticated knowledge of the lore, the mechanics, or the metagame but is absolutely the top influencer on the financial end.

Essentially, at this point, the biggest driver for the game is its extreme value. The model has becomes something like, “Come for the free money; stay for the gameplay”. When I say that, people think it’s a snub to the gameplay, but it’s really not. When I got into the game, WTR Alpha boxes were $65. I didn’t dump a few thousand dollars into the game in July and August because I thought I would be riding sealed boxes and cold foils to the moon. I dropped a bunch of cash because I saw Team Covenant play the game and it seemed cool; I was intrigued by the pitch of a one-on-one fight that felt like an actual fight and not something like Magic’s heavily abstracted duel; I thought the art was polished (mostly); and I enjoyed the games I was playing, even if I really don’t like Tabletop Simulator. However, people moving into the game in recent months as prices have gone up have increasingly done so with an eye on the financial end – again, look at the growth and engagement on the financial social media vs the fan/play social media. You can see what aspects of the game are getting the biggest numbers. Certainly, plenty of people who get in because of perceived value go on to be hooked by the gameplay and become fans and not just investors, but finance is leading. Like I said, “Come for the free money, stay for the gameplay.”

And, honestly, that model isn’t a problem for FAB right now because they can’t print enough cards to keep up with demand. Yet. But, someday the “to the moon” prices are going to level off. It’s not going to happen with Monarch, and it’s not going to happen with Kingdoms, but it will happen at some point. LSS can definitely maintain a level of collectability that exceeds the average modern Magic release, but I doubt that in two or three years you’re going to be seeing first edition boxes pre-ordering for five times MSRP or boxes going up one hundred times their price in less than a year (and if they do, I’ll happily admit I was wrong while Scrooge McDucking through a giant pile of money). As the game grows, it needs to increase its appeal to prospective players in way that is gameplay-first because the crazy prices won’t be a news story in and of themselves forever. What makes this tricky is that, right now, LSS itself isn’t producing any content with the sort of reach that is going to draw these sorts of players in. In general, I’d argue that they’ve largely neglected PR and left content creation up to the community (this works in the short term, but I think WotC definitely benefits from having regular weekly content that drives players to their homepage). With that in mind, the community has yet to produce anyone that talks about gameplay and has even a tenth of the reach that Tolarian Academy does. So, the Professor making an intro to FAB video should be regarded as major step in this direction. It isn’t the sort of major event that the FAB community has been trained to focus on since it’s not a direct finance-related move, but the downstream impact could potentially be massive.

Wild Speculation

At the moment, my assumption is that Tolarian Community College is going to put out a couple FAB videos and not necessarily do recurring content. Prof did a pair of Legends of Runeterra videos including an intro to the game, but he isn’t really a Legends of Runeterra content creator. I would expect a similar video for FAB, and then the spoiler video itself. With that said, there is a potential that he gets hooked on the game; it is, after all, a well-designed game so far. If he put out periodic content for FAB like he does for Pokemon, that would be huge in terms of exposing potential new players to the game. I do think that one thing that absolutely needs to happen if you’re going to see Prof buy in long-term is that prices need to come down on unlimited singles.

Right now, there are a lot of good reasons that unlimited singles are overpriced. The game blew up to a degree that no one could have anticipated and there’s a global pandemic constraining printer capacity. These are very acceptable reasons for the current state of prices., and make valid short-term excuses. We are also fortunately in a window where cheap MON-U is still readily available for pre-order. Seriously, if you want MON-U, just preorder. If you don’t like floating money –and I can’t blame you– you can still set up a subscription in with Team Covenant while they’re offering it at MAP, and you won’t need to pay until right before ship time. I give that reminder because there is a serious potential that MON-U will sell out long before Kingdoms hits shelves. And that will be a problem for unlimited singles prices. We also can’t neglect that CRU singles prices are soaring with no unlimited version available, and a lot of classes are going to be pricing people out. As a quick example, right now, if you want a Courage of Bladehold and three Spoils of War, your cheapest options will cost you $500+ for those four cards. And wait until Classic Constructed gets back up to speed and Plasma Purifiers rise to meet Spoils. Most of the tier 1 decks are going to be gated by $300+ playsets of CRU Ms.

I bring this up because the Professor’s most frequent complaint about Magic is the cost of format staples. His constant refrain over the past couple years has been, “Reprint fetch lands!” and, right now, a ton of FAB staples are much more expensive than fetches. This is something that LSS’ reprint policy allows them to address, but they actually have to prove that, in addition to being willing to do it, they can actually print enough product to drive prices for unlimited staples down to the point where decks are affordable for players. If they can’t do that, I have a hard time imagine the Professor supporting the game as time goes on.

*Header Image – Red and White Painted Building by Pixabay under Pexels free-use liscence

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