Why Are Unlimited Prices Still Broken?

There’s no real cute setup for this one. I’ve been talking for the better part of a year now about how unlimited singles prices are way too high, and I’ve often attributed that to the MSRP-or-higher cost of sealed unlimited boxes. However, the past few weeks have made MAP-priced boxes of both WTR and ARC widely available from a wide variety of retailers. That’s super exciting, but has this availability fixed prices? Nope; not really. If you look at singles prices, Command and Conquer is $80. Enlightened Strikes are $56. Art of War is $53. Class Legendarys are $100-200 and Tunic and Skullcap clock in at $260-270 each. On the whole, things aren’t better than they were in January or February, and, in fact, they’re actually a bit worse on some of these pieces.

Why Aren’t Prices Coming Down

Before I get too into the weeds here, I do want to recognize that it’s only been a few weeks since MAP unlimited boxes really hit the US market en masse. We may still see some effects on prices as more product continues to circulate, but I think the likelihood of something like $30 C&C is quite small. Moreover, we are in the softest market for FAB in months. The demand for these key cards appears to be organic, driven by need, with very few people speculating on them (which is the correct approach to unlimited at this time). MAP boxes do not appear like they are going to adequately address the issue, so what could fix it in the short term? I see two potential things that could naturally occur and drive prices down.

First, we could see more stores breaking unlimited product for singles. The wholesale prices on WTR boxes are such that if a case averages an L at $170 and you open either a Tome or an estrike, you’re paid for your case without even touching the other the singles (the price works out about the same for ARC with the generic M holding a little more of the value relative to the Ls in that set). If you think you can move even a decent percentage of singles beyond Ls and generic Ms, there is some incentive to attempt a mass opening, though steady box sales at $75-80 are an easier path with less inventory management. There are also some novel approaches happening – Midtown Merchant is spinning up unlimited case breaks which will distribute out Legendarys at an average cost of $83.33 (which is kind of an incredible deal if you’re willing to gamble on a 0L case, as literally any hit will net you more than you paid, with the potential to more than 3x your buy in if you get a Tunic).

The second possibility is simply the return of sub-MAP prices boxes. The MAP requirement expired for WTR and ARC on April 28th and May 12th, respectively, and stores can now sell at whatever advertised price they want. If we were to see a return of $60-65 boxes from some of the big volume online merchants, it could, presumably tick prices down a bit too. Though, this of course relies on the supply of boxes remaining stable, which seemed highly suspect a couple months ago, but, given the widespread availability of unlimited boxes at the moment, is something I’m feeling a little more optimistic about going forward.

The Core Problem

Given the persistence of high unlimited singles prices in the face of increased availability of boxes at lower prices, I think we have to start looking elsewhere for the culprit. Fortunately, LSS has sort of already identified it for us, and it’s the old Majestic rarity. Simply put, Ms are too scarce in WTR and ARC and the generics are too strong. All four of them are format staples with C&C making a strong case for the title of best Attack in the game. What this means is that, at least for the time being, it seems like even an abundance of cheap boxes of WTR and ARC is not going to fix the prices on generic Ms. The interesting thing is that these products have largely made class Ms affordable. Glint the Steelblade is currently the most expensive WTR Class M at a little over $20, which seems reasonable to me for a high rarity card in the class that is probably number one when you factor in both popularity and competitiveness. So, the real cost issues are constrained to Ms, Ls, and Fs.

The Solution

I feel like what we’re seeing here is that while unlimited is a good product in theory, there are obviously kinks to work out, and we can see awareness of this on LSS’ part because they got rid of the old M/S split and made Majestics more common. Right now the most expensive unlimited Majestic in Monach is Luminaris at $15, and I’d bet you a CF Luminaris that the M equipment are short printed. So $15 as a top price for the affordable version is actually pretty spectacular. The future of that rarity slot seems promising; however, that doesn’t solve the problem of the old Ms. For that I think we need additional reprints at the modern Majestic frequency. Ideally, Command and Conquer would be printed into Kingdoms because it is such a pillar of competitive play and the $240 entry price for a playset is pretty restrictive.

In my ideal scenario, LSS would give it new art in such a reprinting. I do think that there is some interesting history to the original Majestic rarity even if it was bad for the game once people started playing in significant numbers. Swapping out the old art would let the harder-to-pull ones remain special, which I think would be a nice gesture of respect for the players who committed to buying $240 unlimited playsets and would, hopefully, do a little to mitigate the depreciation of those cards in the face of a reprinting.

That brings us to Legendrys. I do think the current average $170 per WTR L price is too high. Even the ~$145 average you get without Tunic seems too high. LSS chose to reprint Tunic into CRU because they thought it was too expensive when it was around that price, so certainly that’s too high for the unlimited printing of the average L, right? As we’ve gotten more pieces for classes, and seen the addition of talent-based equipment, we’re starting to see more equipment options at Legendary (warrior can now play one in every slot, and you can make a reasonable case for doing so, or, minimally, three of them in your 80 cards). Not everything is expensive (Bravo has recently seen success with what is actually a pretty budget-friendly build), but when we talk about the game as a whole, it’s worth looking at the average deck, not the most expensive or cheapest decks of the format (unless one of those is the runaway favorite).

I’m going to elaborate on that with an analogy to Magic. Mythic Bant is a contender for my favorite Standard deck of all time. I played and iterated on it for pretty much the whole time it was legal, and while I think there is case to be made that it was the best competitive deck of that era, it was not significantly ahead of other contemporary top decks, like Jund. The deck’s name was derived from its extremely high quantity of Mythic cards, Magic’s highest rarity. A big portion of the non-Mythic cards were also Rares, and relatively pricy ones at that (Knight of the Reliquary and Noble Hierarch were quite expensive before the reprints). It was a rather expensive deck to play, but it was also notably pricier than most of the other perfectly viable decks that were regularly winning events at the time. Was Mythic too expensive for a Standard deck? Yeah, probably. But you had a lot of good options that were notably cheaper if that price was a barrier. Mythic Bant was an outlier not a realistic idea of how expensive a Standard Deck was.

By the same token, I don’t think pointing to the existence of a budget deck is a valid counterpoint to the average cost of decks. People will always point to Burn in Magic as a viable budget deck, and it is. You can play a version of Burn in most formats and it won’t be awful. And that’s great for the people who really like that play style, but, in a lot of formats, it feels kind of like you’re really just spectating on people playing the actual the format while you sling your damage spell in a concession to cost. You can put Legacy Burn together for about $250, but it doesn’t really feel that much like a Legacy deck, and you’re missing out on most of the charm of that format (your creature base is literally identical to the Modern version of the deck and your land base is actually more boring than the Modern equivalent); however, to play anything else, you’re in for a couple thousand dollars (aside from Death and Taxes, which clocks in just south of $1000). So, if we were talking about the format, while a $250 deck exists –which it’s worth noting is like a whole deck for the cost of a Tunic– we wouldn’t really call it an affordable format since the average deck is probably more like $3500.

Given the current direction of FAB, it seems like as the talents continue to roll out and we see more class/talent Ls, the average character will likely be using two or more unless we start to see highly competitive Ms, Rs, and Cs printed at a higher rate. If the unlimited version of an L costs over $150 (Monarch unlimited L equipment averages $158, Arcane Rising is the cheap set at $138), we’re looking at a baseline of about $300 before you even start putting cards in the actual deck. As I noted in a recent piece, not only will $350 will build you pretty much any deck in Standard Magic (and you could easily build several very good ones for $100 less), there’s no real compelling reason to argue that you’ll be swapping decks in FAB significantly less frequently than you do in Standard Magic. As a quick example, when I started playing FAB, I was playing Control Katsu in CC. As we moved to the last NZ National we saw that deck fall out of popularity, making zero appearances in the top 8 of the strongest meta in the world. After that I picked up Control Dash. Recently the high number of Prism decks has made Dash unenjoyable to play, even in a casual setting (she’s also not exactly posting big competitive wins), so I’m likely swapping decks again… for the third time in less than a year.

I think this is likely going to be the paradigm for the next several years. Maybe we’ll get to the point in the future where the impact of each new set will be muted enough that it doesn’t radically shake things up, but for the foreseeable future, each release is likely to significantly change the meta. If you want to play a deck that has a solid chance of winning an event, if piloted well, you’re probably going to need to keep changing heroes and decks. And, let’s not forget that the Blitz and CC metas are different, so if Blitz remains a competitive format, you’ll also need to have a separate deck for that. If this remains the norm, I think the cost of Ls starts to be somewhat of an obstacle for the average player, to say nothing of Fs. As ever, I think the Fable rarity as a spot for mechanically unique cards is a disaster waiting to happen. UNL F’s are sill $500-700 as semi-playables. I think the claim that they are collector’s pieces is kind of off base, and they’re definitely flirting with higher power levels in the designs and have been the entire time. I expect the first one to show up in a tournament winning deck to shoot up to 1k in its unlimited printing pretty quickly, which is bad optics for your game’s primary format. However, at least for now, that remains a second order concern behind the high price of a few key format staples and Ls.

Proper Framing

To be clear, all of these critiques and concerns are made under the assumption that cost problem will lead to a bottleneck on growth not a crash or failure of the game. The reason the prices are high in the first place is because actual player demand is real. I had some challengers to my assertion that the player base was growing at a notable clip, but you don’t get unl C&C at $80 while boxes of ARC unl are $75 unless demand is there. To deviate to collector/investor interests for a second, I’ve had a $250 first edition C&C up for sale with no interest for over a week (that’s $50 less than the TCG low, which is from a seller with a 87.5% rating). The collectible/investible versions of this card are the softest they’ve been in months; meanwhile, the most abundant version of the card is at the highest price it’s ever been. Collectors/investors are not propping up unlimited prices; player demand is real. However, the average cost to buy a competitive Flesh and Blood deck, should it get too high, is going to act as a limiter to the game’s potential growth. If you have 2 Ls at $300 and 3 C&Cs at $240, you’re up to nearly $550 on 6.25% of your deck. That’s a tough sell to a prospective player.

Remember when I talked about Mythic Bant earlier and how it didn’t stop a diverse standard format with other viable decks from thriving? Well, when rotation came, the format shifted to one of the most stagnant ones during my time of playing Magic – essentially, it was fairly clear that it was an incorrect choice to play a deck that didn’t run Jace, the Mindsculptor, which was a $100 card at the time. With most decks running 3-4 Jaces, you had a high price of entry to Standard and attendance at events plummeted. That was about a decade ago, and it’s possible that the average CCG player’s cost tolerance is much higher now, but I doubt it. There is a point where your main format is too expensive, and not only will it turn away new players, it will keep your current players at home.

This feels like a uniquely significant problem for FAB as compared to a game like Magic where the driving format (Commander) is a casual one. Maybe Flesh and Blood will knock it out of the park with a great PvE format at some point, or they’ll figure out a multi-player format that appeals to the Commander crowd, but, for now, the game is defined by its competitive formats, and having them be so expensive is an issue. Commander has plenty of absurdly expensive cards, many of which (dual lands, for instance) would be auto-includes if you have them. However, as a casual format mostly played among friends, there’s no real reason you can’t proxy an expensive card you need. For FAB, with competitive play, even if it’s just an Armory night or a Skirmish, leading the way, proxies aren’t really an option. If we’re going to see big growth in FAB, the cheapest versions of the top cards need to be cheaper.

*Header Image – Rift Bind by Ramza Ardyputra

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