Flesh and Blood vs. Magic: Bad Takes And Thinking With Your Heart

For quite a while now, I’ve seen a segment of the FAB community spend a disproportionate amount of time dunking on Magic. To a degree, this makes sense. A lot of people in the FAB community have a history with Magic and a fair number have quit Magic and moved over to FAB. Additionally, LSS themselves set up a very direct comparison to Magic with James White’s infamous “My past; my future” post. Thus, comparing the two seems very natural. There are certainly useful ways to compare the two games that can help inform our understanding of the fledgling FAB market, but all-too-often I see people making claims that seem a lot more like they’re based in personal animus instead of actual well-thought out points. I want to dive into some of these negative mindsets to investigate why I think people are having such a strong emotional reaction. Then we’ll shift gears and talk about what I see as the actual useful ways to compare the two games for productive ends. I want to emphasize that most of my interest here is in how these bad mindsets can lead to poor financial decisions as opposed to how you should feel about Magic. People are welcome to not like a thing, I just don’t accept their emotional reactions as evidence for financial trends.

Console Wars and Jealous Exes

For the younger audience, “Console Wars” was a phrase used colloquially to describe the competition between rival videogame consoles that was really at its peak during the 90’s and early 2000’s. While there are certainly still fans of specific consoles today, the culture has largely eroded due to Nintendo shifting to its own market segment and recent Xbox and Playstation generations having increasingly homogenous libraries and even cross-play for some games. However, back in the days of Super Nintendo and Sega or PlayStation and N64 console exclusive games were far more common, consoles and games were relatively more expensive, and the userbase was a fair bit younger on average. This meant that most people owned one console with no real plan of ever owning the other.

Because the average person was pretty much locked into a single system per generation, there was an emotional incentive to stan your console and slam the competition. The way that you affirmed that you picked the “right” console, instead of talking about why you liked it, was to demonstrate why the other one sucked.

You better believe my brother and I shoved this ad in the faces of all out N64-owning friends

I grew up lower middle-class until the early 2000’s when my dad’s business took off and suddenly we jumped to lower upper-class. It was shocking how quick and easy it was to abandon a console wars mindset when you could suddenly have both consoles (I’m sure growing up a bit helped too).

I bring this up because CCGs are in a very similar space in that they are exceptionally expensive hobbies, and the average person can’t realistically keep up with both Magic and Flesh and Blood at the level they’d probably like to -I know that I can’t keep up with both of them as much as I’d like and I’m doing fairly well. So, If you decided to move over from Magic to FAB or you decided to start CCGs with FAB instead of Magic (and I know some of these people), you might have some internal insecurity about whether you made the right decision or not, and one way to alleviate that fear is to slam Magic to help convince yourself that it’s actually a bad game.

I see another behavior pattern that overlaps somewhat with the console wars mindset, but is generally performed by people who specifically quit or heavily reduced their involvement with Magic in order to get into FAB. Often they didn’t personally like the direction the game was going or just saw more opportunity in FAB. When I see these people spending a lot of time in FAB-specific social media dunking on Magic, It kind of reads like someone who is obsessively (and creepily) following their ex on social media. They tend to be weirdly hyper-up-to-date on news for a game they profess to not like any more and are always rushing to post something Wizards did on FAB finance social media. Usually this is accompanied with some diatribe on how Magic is failing and FAB is king.

Essentially, these two groups demonstrate their anti-Magic stance very similarly in terms of how they behave; it’s primarily their motivations that differ. I think the most extreme manifestations of these thought patterns are people claiming that Magic is tanking or that in 5-10 years FAB will have dethroned it and it will be a dead game. This sort of thinking is frankly delusional. While it’s possible that Magic will decline or die someday, it’s been around for nearly 30 years and is having all-time-high sales and just generally massive success. I played Magic from Alliances to the original Theros (and picked it up again a few months ago off the back of FAB profits), and some segment of the playerbase has always been saying that Magic was dying, and they’ve always been wrong. Don’t get me wrong, Magic had some lower points from time to time, but now is definitively not one of those times. The main warning I’d issue here is that investing or speculating on FAB with the belief that it could unseat Magic in any sort of near future is risky because it’s incredibly unlikely to happen. It’s far more likely that FAB will be dead in 5-10 years than it will “beat” Magic. I say that not because I think FAB will be dead in that timeframe (I’m betting against it, given the value of FAB product I’m holding) but to caution you not to let your enthusiasm for FAB overwhelm the reality of its market position.

Making Smart Comparisons

Comparing Magic to FAB for the purposes tearing down Magic and building up FAB isn’t particularly productive. It generally just makes you look childish and a touch insecure. Magic players aren’t off dunking on FAB because they aren’t insecure about their game’s status. FAB fans doing it in FAB-spaces don’t make the game look strong, it makes them look like they need to reassure themselves that the game is as good as they’re claiming it is. This isn’t to say that you can’t dislike decisions Wizards of the Coast makes or critique those decisions, but, for the most part, that’s really a discussion for a Magic community or with other Magic players and not something that has much if any impact on FAB. For instance, I think the Modern Horizons 2 sketch frames are incredibly ugly, like some of the worst-looking cards I’ve ever seen, and I’m going to be disappointed every time I open one instead of either a normal treatment, full art, or retro-frame. I also think WotC’s product lines are overly confusing to the consumer and it’s very difficult to know what a pack of cards might have in it. However, I’m not letting those things distract from the reality that MH2 is almost certainly going to be one of the best received sets of all time, and I’m certainly not cancelling my early collector’s booster orders because, even if I don’t care about the special treatments, I think the product is going to be a great 5-10 year investment and will likely be showing solid gains a year or two out. If you’re going to compare FAB and Magic, you should do so with the goal of learning from something Magic did to predict how something similar might perform in FAB, or rarely, to make inferences on what certain Magic decisions could mean for FAB.

Seriously, this card frame is a crime against Richard Kane Ferguson’s art.
Ah, the old days when all the card frames were good.

That second category is, as I said, kind of rare, but it is relevant. Let’s take a very recent example of some big Magic news and what an emotional reaction looks like as compared to a useful take. Last week, Wizards of the Coast functionally ended professional Magic. Previously there was a path for people to make a living (albeit a tenuous one) playing Magic, and now the capacity to do that is severely reduced and mostly relies of heavily supplementing competitive winnings with revenue derived from content creation. How did people react? There was a loud contingent posting links to the above article across financial FAB Discord and Facebook to slam WotC and talk about how this was a sign of Magic’s continued decline and imminent doom. My personal immediate reaction was that pro play doesn’t matter to Magic in 2021, nor is it likely to in the future. I’ll note that people who are far more actively involved in Magic than me also had similar thoughts – we’re talking creators ranging from SaffonOlive on the MTGGoldfish podcast to Rudy over at Alpha Investment – prominent people from both the play-focused and financially-focused end of the Magic world.

So, the bad take for those concerned with FAB was the baseless doomsaying (this move is not going to do anything to Magic’s popularity or success). A useful consideration would be what opportunity this opened up for FAB. While I’m sure there are a contingent of aspiring pro players that will quit Magic over this decision, they’re miniscule in the scope of the Magic player base. However, they aren’t so small when compared to the total FAB player base. To me, the key insight here is not that this move harms Magic (again, it doesn’t) but it does provide LSS with an opportunity to grow the player base to a degree that wasn’t there before. Magic doesn’t need pros, but FAB could sure as hell use them. And, in what was a savvy PR move, LSS recognized this and put out expanded information on their own Organized Play system. As an aside, LSS, after having pretty lackluster PR for most of 2020, has definitely upped their game in the past couple months.

The thing that strikes me here is that, if LSS is committed to growing OP in a way that could support something that resembled the old Magic pro tour system, it’s possible that they could cultivate a notable pro scene and attract some big names from Magic who see more professional opportunity in FAB. While Magic doesn’t need those people to be a success, FAB is a much smaller game, and the exposure and draw of a competitive scene would mean something very different for an up and coming game as compared to a pillar of the industry. Moreover, if pro’s or aspiring grinders move over from Magic or take up FAB in addition to Magic, this could cover one of the game’s current deficiencies for attracting new competitive players: a general lack of resources. If you want to play competitive Magic, it is incredibly easy to get comprehensive deck tech for every relevant deck in the meta. FAB is not at that point yet, which, fair, it’s a young game. While I’m thrilled that Karol and Kieran got, what I’m sure are dream jobs for them, not seeing Session Blood on my monthly Patreon invoice is a reminder of how small the content creation pool is for FAB when one podcast going on hiatus is a meaningful blow to the amount of quality content out there (per the Patreon page they’re hoping to keep making content but will obviously need to figure out what that looks like).

If you look at FAB social media, you can see increasingly frequent posts by people who frame themselves as Magic players looking to get into FAB and inquiring about tier 1 decks (essentially, they’re Spike’s if you’re using magic Magic psychographic profiles). Right now these sorts of posts get mixed responses of varying helpfulness, whereas if someone asked me what a tier one Modern Deck was for Magic (even though I haven’t played a non-limited game of Magic in nearly a decade), I could easily point them to MTGGoldfish and boom, there’s the meta. Google the name of a deck that looks cool along with “Modern magic deck tech” and you’re off to the races. For FAB, you have to do a lot more legwork. This means that there is definitely a bit of an accessibility curve for FAB when it comes to identifying and learning the basics of the top decks. We’ve already seen what sorts of resources emerge around a scene like Magic’s old OP system, so if LSS can provide something comparable for prospective players, it stands to reason that a similar infrastructure could grow up around it. From a financial end, anything that could meaningfully impact the growth of the player base is really important to us because it will drive prices of the most desirable cards up as more people enter the game. We’ve seen some dips across the FAB marker in the recent weeks, and I think that one of the biggest causes is that there isn’t enough money to absorb all of the cards hitting the market at the same time. Most of the big money people have already made their positions, and prices aren’t yet low enough to shift them back into buy mode for opportunistic purchases -though if the market generally started seeing the $300 a box prices Rudy is alleged to be acquiring, I’m sure there would be a lot of people who are buyers again.

Another useful way to compare Magic to FAB is to draw analogies to help understand how certain things can affect the FAB market or to create a reference point for understanding events. While aspects of the Magic and FAB markets don’t always map one-to-one, you’re often better off with an imperfect model that you can build off of as opposed to relying on “gut feelings”. My go to example on this is how we should regard first edition. The finance community likes to talk about first edition in comparison to Magic collector’s boxes –as a high end product targeted at big spenders with premium card treatments not available in normal (unlimited) boosters. However, I’ve been arguing for months that this fundamentally misunderstands these two products, and the better comparison, at least for now, is to the discontinued From the Vault series. Despite, both collector’s boxes and From the Vault releases being marketed as high end limited products, their distribution models were fundamentally different and it had significant implications for investors and collectors. FtV releases were sold at a low price to retailers who then had the option of either passing them onto their customers at MSRP, selling them at market price, or anywhere in between. Prices ranged hugely, I got my FtV boxes reliably at MSRP from my local store that I ran pre-release events and FNMs for, but if you wanted one online at the time, you’d probably be paying three times MSRP or more. collector’s boxes, on the other hand, are sold at a much higher price to retailers, and the margins are nowhere near what FtV releases used to be.

This isn’t an academic distinction. For someone looking to buy these products, it means that FtV releases had a much lower potential floor relative to their market value than collector’s boxes, and there were opportunities to get them at bargain prices. For collector’s boxes, there really aren’t great deals to be had. In general, the optimal practice for most people is going to be a pre-order on Amazon as soon as they show up since you don’t pay up front and can cancel any time prior to launch. Then you just pay attention in case a Theros situation occurs and they’re looking soft at launch. If this happens, you can cancel at Amazon and pick up a cheaper one from another retailer. For FtV, online orders were pretty rough as they were almost always at market price, but, as my previous anecdote illustrates, if you had a relationship with a local store, they might sell you one for MSRP. You can probably see how this relates to FAB. At present, first edition boxes are sold at a very low cost to stores who can then do as they wish it. We saw many stores following the market and selling for big markups and a handful of sellers hook up regulars, or, in the case of Team Covenant, subscribers, at or below MSRP. This is what created the conditions that allowed people to flip Monarch boxes. If you got a $100 box, which were available for preorder in large quantities at the end of 2020, you could easily quadruple your initial spend on launch.

Because we know this, we can speculate that if LSS moves to a collector’s model with higher prices to distro and retailers, we can expect the flip opportunities to dry up. This shifts the window on box investing to a longer timeframe before reasonable returns can be realized. That means that we now want to closely monitor how first edition Kingdoms and subsequent sets are priced for retailers and singles sellers (plenty of them talk about this sort of thing on FAB social media, it’s not super difficult information to get a hold of). If we learn that the pricing to retailers for first edition is changing significantly, it means we need to reassess how first edition boxes work.

Be Detached

Having strong feelings about a thing you are or were emotionally invested in is fine. Magic has been in the process of shifting who its customer base is for several years now. It is now less interested in targeting competitive tournament grinders and people who want to make decade-spanning singles investments and more concerned with people who are playing casual formats and whose interest in collectables is informed by the sort of ethos that makes them comfortable with spending hundreds of dollars for cosmetic items they can never resell in digital games. If you are in the former category, it is totally reasonable to be sad or upset that a thing you liked has changed and maybe isn’t really for you anymore. And if you want to hang out with your friends and complain about that to sympathetic ears, that’s totally cool too. However, when we’re focused on the financial end of things, that sort of emotive response is the kind of thing that can either cause you to miss opportunities or to overvalue the thing you’re stanning. I’ve seen people who had previously invested in sealed Magic boxes liquidate their stock and swear off Magic because they didn’t like some random decision WotC made. Meanwhile, Magic has thrown out some really lucrative opportunities recently. For instance, Time Spiral Remastered boxes were available in February for $150, and now they’re $250. On the flip side, as time goes on, the absurd gains offered by FAB are going to diminish. Things will calm down and investments will take significantly longer to return meaningful yields. As this happens, Magic, as the oldest CCG people invest in, will provide insights that may help us better understand FAB’s evolving secondary market, that is, if we’re willing to listen.

*Header Image – Selfless Glyphweaver//Deadly Vanity by Johannes Voss

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