Hail to the Queen, Baby: An Ode to Monarch

I’m back! It’s been two weeks since my last article over at The Rathe Times and nearly a month since I posted one here. As I said in my “on hiatus” post, I appreciate people giving me time to process things, and while still in that ongoing process, I got an additional struggle added on when my second vaccine dose took me out of commission for a couple days. So, I’m trying to get back into the swing of things with a whole mess of articles in the pipeline, all in various states of draft with topics ranging from “How did LSS handle Monarch spoiler season” (really well), to “How is Monarch flavor text?” (it’s a mixed bag), to “What are the hidden gems the market hasn’t caught onto yet” (That’s an actual topic, but I’m not doing to tip my hand, yet). In any case, there are a lot of things I want to talk about, and I’m going to do my best to get back to a regular release schedule from here on out.

Finally, before we start, thanks to everyone who welcomed me back when I hopped on Discord a couple weeks ago. And additionally, a callout to whoever sent me this envelope from a Magic order of TCGPlayer; it was very cute. Also my wife spent the next few days randomly asking if I was “the” Ada Korman. Good times.

Wait, What The Hell Is This Article About?

Oh, yeah, I guess while I was preoccupied with self-indulgence I forgot to mention what this article was actually going to discuss. Well, it’s a weird little bit of content. We’re not going to deep dive a bunch of LSS articles, analyze art, or speculate on the market. No, I’m going to just argue that opening first edition Monarch is the most exciting set opening you may ever get a chance to be a part of in FAB or any other card game.

So, that’s a bold statement, and I’m sure that some people knocked their chairs over on their way to be all “excuse me, ma’am, but Welcome to Rathe Alpha…” and to that I say, “How did you get into my office?” But seriously, we’ll touch on WTR as we move through this piece. I want to start by talking about why Monarch is such a singular set to open, but before we get into my actual argument, I guess I should put my cards on the table.

See what I did there?

So, full disclosure, the picture above includes my cold foil and extended art hits from 28 boxes of Monarch (a bit under half of my starting position in the set). Obviously I did very poorly on the assumed 1:80 L pull rate, but very well on the Fable front.  Assuming one F in 30-40 boxes, my lifetime pull rate is finally close to average. There are definitely a bunch of factors that make my personal experience opening Monarch feel exceptionally good (three shiny sideways ones in particular), but I really do think the set is going to be remembered by people who were around for it as the most memorable opening experience in the game’s history. So let’s get to it!

Value at Launch

Monarch occupies this very interesting position in the history of the game where it is the first set to ever to be released that was not readily available on its launch date for less than MSRP. Not only could you not get sub-MSRP boxes, you couldn’t find boxes for less than four times MSRP. Assuming you got into Monarch boxes at anywhere between $61 (thanks GameNerdz!) and $200 or so, by the time pre-orders shipped, you were sitting on boxes that had already significantly appreciated. And that’s a big component in the excitement of opening Monarch. Ignoring the small number of people who got to do pre-release events and get into the market at truly absurd prices ($12,000 Library, anyone?), on opening day of launch you could open an F and sell it for $3000-5000 with incredible ease. That’s an order of magnitude over what any previous F sold for at launch. No set has ever given the opportunity to hit it big and realize those profits immediately in the way that Monarch does, and I don’t think it will ever happen again, unless Kingdoms is woefully underprinted.

Monarch is the first set that has come out since it was clear that Flesh and Blood was legit. When Crucible launched, there was a small tightknit community, and we were all super excited for it, but the cost of a box vs what you paid for singles was laughably low compared to what you see with Monarch. And that’s part of what makes Monarch notable. Opening WTR had the excitement of it being a brand new game, and that is absolutely an exciting experience that will doubtlessly be a source of nostalgia for many people years from now. But, when WTR launched (and I wasn’t in the game until several months later), no one really knew that the cards would be valuable. People were clearly excited by the game, but they didn’t know what it would grow into. People are already nostalgic for the experience, but most didn’t really realize how special it was until many months later with benefit of hindsight. Meanwhile, Monarch was a set that you could open fully cognizant of what you had in your hands. Even during Crucible’s launch week, while the community had built a level of faith that cards held meaningful value (though many of us scoffed at $500-700 Shiyana at the time), prices were very reasonable. I leisurely picked up CF R’s at $8-12. Compare that to Monarch where it’s tricky to find a sub-$100 CF C.

To frame it a different way, people have long debated if CCGs are essentially gambling marketed towards children, and while I think that we can all agree that FAB is actually marketed toward adults, opening a CCG booster pack is absolutely gambling, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a Hasbro lawyer. But, unlike virtually every other booster box you open for any game you happen to play, opening Monarch is like gambling when the owner of the casino really wants to impress you –the house is going to take care of you and make sure you have a real good time. You’re indulging in gambling, but you’re playing with house money. At $100 a box, Monarch is a die roll that’s virtually impossible to lose; with the upshot of the potential to “win” forty times or more what you put in if the right card comes up. It’s wild, all the rush of slinging C-notes at the roulette wheel without any real risk of going broke. It’s a singular moment in the game’s history and one that few other games have ever achieved.  It’s transient, and, as I said, unlikely to come again, but if you’re still sitting on boxes you paid $100-200 for and plan to open, revel in the experience, this is a decadent thing that you may never get to partake of again in the CCG space.

And Things Will Never Be The Same Again

There’s a sort of game that I sometimes play with friends where I ask “If you had a time machine, and you could go back to see a performance by {insert band or solo artist} which one would you pick?” It could be a specific performance (Nirvana Unplugged in New York, the Smashing Pumpkins “final” Metro show) or just a specific album’s tour (David Bowie touring The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust). I think the question is particularly interesting for bands that you found midway through their careers because there’s this interesting tension between going back to relieve something you have strong nostalgia for and the appeal of being there for a pivotal event in the history of this thing you love that you couldn’t be there for the first time around for whatever reason.

What does this have to do with FAB? Well, I think you can apply this same sort of question to CCGs, especially long-running ones: “If you could go back and play during any period, which would you choose”. I think, at first, there’s this inherent appeal to go back to the initial release of a game, but, for most long-running game’s, their most interesting moments aren’t necessarily their first sets. I had a version of this conversation with my bother a few months ago and he talked about wishing he could go back to draft Urza’s block. At this point in his life, he’s done a bit of game design work, and he excels at finding the way to exploit systems and abuse mechanics, so I can appreciate how he just missed getting a chance to play in the sandbox of potentially the most broken format of all time (we started playing Magic in Alliances, but didn’t really have a chance to try drafting until the end of Mercadian Block). For a personal example, I will always love Netrunner in mid-San San Cycle when Replicating Perfection was in its more glorious configuration and the Psi Games were at their most sublime (yes, I know, I’m a bad person), and, if I could go to any period in that game, I’d replay that one, even though I was there for it the first time, it was just such fun.

For FAB, I think Monarch is going to be one of these linchpin periods in the game’s history. If you are here reading this right now, take a moment to realize where we are. This is the first set where it’s abundantly clear that the game has made it and it has legs. I’ll admit that I thought Monarch revealing the “completeness” of the game was mostly marketing hype, but the talent system really is a clever piece of game design that potentially addresses what I long worried about as one of the game’s potential pitfalls (an ever-widening set of classes). There’s a whole article to be written on that point, but the significant thing is that LSS delivered on MON. In addition, it’s rolling out just as America gets its shit together on vaccines, which means people are going to get a chance to play in person. We’re headed into a period of discovery where everyone is learning these new characters and mechanics. Veteran players certainly have a leg up, but everyone has a lot to learn, and that makes it less daunting to show up in a store and play some games. I think this is a period in the game, that, when we look back on it in a few years, we’re going to talk about as where things really started to cohere.

This is what I think really distinguishes Monarch from Welcome to Rathe in terms of what makes it likely to be an enduring high point in the game’s history. WTR will always be significant in the same way that Alpha will always be significant to Magic. But, if you actually sit down and look at Alpha, it wasn’t actually a meta that would be enjoyable to play with after spending years with a more sophisticated design sensibility. Now, certainly WTR wasn’t remotely as rough as Alpha was, but when I first saw it demoed by Team Covenant, and to this day, I think of it not as this peak of exciting gameplay. It was a set that outlined a game with promise. Meanwhile, Monarch has the benefit of a sufficiently deep card pool to, hopefully, support a variety of decks and heroes.

I also expect that the actual physical environment of play spaces is going to be incredibly exciting. For countries that haven’t really gotten to play much yet, there is going to be this weird atmosphere where many stores are going to be populated primarily with a players who have only recently discovered the game and people who have been following it for months but haven’t had much opportunity to engage with it as a game, focusing mainly on the collectable and investment aspects by necessity (imagine your author sheepishly waving here). That’s a special type of energy that’s sort of hard to come by. When you take an established game like Magic, there are constantly people joining, but they do so amid shops full of people who have been playing for years or decades. When you start an established game, there is usually a period of losing a lot because everyone has a lot more experience than you. However, due to a quirk of COVID, Monarch has released into a world where excitement for the game is at a fever pitch, but very few people know how to play. So, most of your games are going to be a shared experience with other people learning the ropes, and when you do get paired with that person who has been grinding webcam Skirmish tournaments for the past few months and they demolish you, it will hopefully feel like getting a peek at the depths the strategic elements of the game have to offer. As I keep saying, this is a singular time period; it’s a very unique confluence of events that involve the intersection of a compelling game, a global pandemic, and a boom in collectables. Take advantage of it; get out there and crack boxes and play games!

*Header Image: Halo of Illumination by Sam Yang

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