The Unlimited Problem

Monarch did a lot of interesting things; from introducing talents, to kicking off a major conflict in the lore, to introducing mentors. It had plenty of new elements for the community to get excited about; however, one area that turned out to be a bit rocky was the market reaction to unlimited edition. Unlimited was a pretty low value box from the get go and has only dropped since release with the market currently valuing a sealed box well below MAP. Why is this the case and where do we go from here? Today, I’m going to look at what I consider the problems with the current release model for unlimited editions –first edition remains its own topic. After that, I’m going to give my spin on how I’d address the issue. This is probably somewhat of a cheeky post to make right now since we’ve got another unlimited edition in a couple months (we don’t have a specific date yet) and things could theoretically have changed significantly by then, but where’s the fun in this sort of argument if you can’t be proven wrong almost immediately?

Problems to Have

So, FAB is doing well in terms of sales. A lot of product has moved and more people are playing the game than ever before. Early numbers from the Las Vegas Calling look strong despite the continued resurgence of COVID. All in all, it seems like mostly good news if you’re LSS. But you’re not LSS (I assume –If you are then, hello, living embodiment of a company, how are you today?). For this piece, I’m primarily occupied with how the unlimited products are treating consumers. I’m considering these releases as things to buy and open and not “is X a good set mechanically,” a set can be quite good as an addition to the game but bad as a product or vice versa. I go into this with an assumption that most CCGs will not make you a ton of money by opening them, and those that do tend to be exceptions where supply is constrained. However, a good product will make you feel like opening it at MSRP was “fair” and that you didn’t just light your money on fire. A bad product will do the opposite. If you regularly find yourself holding a small fraction of MSRP after all the packs have been ripped, then opening the product probably sucked.

What I’m seeing under the current release schema is that first edition remains a great pickup at MSRP, but unlimited editions are increasingly bad things to buy, even at MAP, and people would be better served by just buying singles. “Don’t open boxes; buy singles” has long been the cry of value-minded content producers across CCGs (Tolarian Community College’s Professor being a very loud voice in this space). Yet despite these calls to action, many people persist in opening product even when market forces don’t make it the best option. Why? Well, it’s fun and engaging. Gambling is exciting, that’s also what makes it potentially dangerous. With a CCG, I think a good product will dangle out some potential big “wins” that you probably won’t get in any single box, but the overall value is such that even missing the big hit doesn’t leave you feeling too bad. I think a good summary of this phenomenon came from Alpha Investments’ recent Modern Horizons II (Magic set) box openings and discussions. A couple time Rudy said something to the effect of “Is there even such a thing as a bad box of Modern Horizons II?” MH2 is still readily available on the market, it’s not a supply constraint that’s boosting its value (as we saw with Crucible of War singles pre-unlimited); it’s just so packed full of good stuff that you’re almost always opening something exciting, and a box will often earn back most of its cost and sometimes meaningfully more. As far as I’m concerned, that should be the design goal of a CCG as a product. Sometimes you win big and even if you don’t make back 100% of the box value the experience of opening was enjoyable enough to justify paying a bit more than if you had bought singles (and hey, you had that chance at the big score –you can’t win at gambling if you don’t play after all).

Meanwhile, over in unlimited FAB land, MAP was made even more restrictive post-MON, which was a bad look to me. It felt like LSS trying to prop-up potential bad products by doubling down on preventing stores from selling them for what it’s actually worth on the market. Speaking of, what’s the actual market price of Monarch unlimited? I’m so glad you asked! Go check ebay; it’s just page after page of sold listings for $175-195 cases from ChannelFireball. You love to see LSS’s premiere retail partner in the US upholding MAP (I assume there is some fine print loophole that is letting them break MAP here, but from an optics standpoint, it’s kind of bullshit). Now pause for a moment and consider that the cheapest you’re supposed to be able to buy a case of MON unlimited from a retailer for is over $300. The market, meanwhile, is saying that it’s worth less than two thirds of that. You don’t have to be a genius to see that stores are doing what they can to get rid of their product through ebay or bundling it with non-MAP-restricted products to obfuscate the fire sale (Another method of dumping unlimited MON that ChannelFireball engaged in). The really scary thing for the customer is, you’re still looking at a chance of losing a solid chunk of your money on that $200 case because who wants so sell a bunch of sub $5 cards individually? Remember, your time has value. Someone asked me what a box of MON-U would have to cost for me to consider buying it at this point, and my answer was $30-35 (so, sub-wholesale pricing).

I dinged CFB a bunch in that paragraph, but, honestly, it’s really more of a knock on LSS for permitting the behavior. I assume they’ve consciously permitted it at any rate and aren’t somehow oblivious to what CFB is doing. This is particularly troublesome because Monarch’s MAP restrictions aren’t lifted until December 1st, so stores that want to pick the game up are essentially committing to price minimums while their competition is selling at prices FAR below what they could even attempt to match. I would also guess that CFB is paying the lowest wholesale price for boxes out of all retailers. Presumably the CFB rate is better than what small stores pay, which is just additional salt in the wound of CFB selling below MAP. I’d like to see either some explanation of why the rules don’t seem to apply to CFB or, preferably, a removal of MAP entirely. If you don’t want people selling your product for $45 a box, put better stuff in the boxes.

Unlimited Is Kind of Bad

The problem with unlimited post-Majestic/Super rarity merger is that value is very concentrated in a couple cards and everything else is worth so little that it’s a waste of time to sell or trade for most individuals. Additionally the hits appear at the case level and not the box level, which makes things even rougher on people who are trying to play on a budget. None of this has been helped by the fact that the community has seemingly lost interest in unlimited rainbow foils (or even first edition rainbow foils from Crucible of War forward for the most part). The majority of MON-U Majestics are worth under $2 and their RF versions are generally not worth significantly more. If we assume you’re only going to bother to sell $5+ cards, this means that you can easily open a box of MON-U with 0-3 cards that are worth selling, and all of those together could easily add up to a merger $20-30. MAP is about $76. Ouch.

A major source of the massive loss of value from first edition to unlimited emerges when we compare CF to RF prices at lower rarities. Let’s look at the various CF first edition categories next to their RF analogs. For Monarch, a CF Legendary is worth 2-3 times its RF analog. For Majestics a CF is worth about 7-10 times as much as its RF counterpart, and for Commons it’s more like 20-30 times more for the CF version. This is a massive falloff. Cold foil Majestics always made their boxes positive EV and CF commons buffered out their boxes enough that they either met and exceeded or were reasonably close to MSRP. With the collapse of these categories in unlimited, all value is funneled into the Legendary and Fable slots, and those frankly don’t appear often enough to make opening boxes ever worth it as opposed to buying singles, especially with the continued downward trend of unlimited Fables across the board.

What I Want From Unlimited

Unsaid to this point is that the monarch unlimited price crash is actually pretty good for players overall, particularly if they’re buying singles or buying sub-MSRP boxes off ebay at prices that resemble the actual value of their contents. It’s good for necessary cards to be relatively affordable (CCGs are never going to be a cheap hobby, but there’s a world of difference between $8 Majestics and $100 Majestics). Ideally, any solution to the unlimited value problem should not make the actual cards needed for play more expensive than they currently are. Hell, I still think the cheapest versions of Tunic and some other essential Legendarys are still too expensive, to say nothing of Command and Conqueror and Enlightened Strike, which desperately need reprints at the modern Majestic rate.  As noted above, I want to see a product where the contents of the average box won’t be worth significantly less than the price of that box. But, doesn’t that present us with a problem? How can we both hold the prices of the most important singles down while also improving the EV of opening a box?

Enter Box Toppers

So, this isn’t a particularly new solution to the problem, but I think this is also a case of not needing to reinvent the wheel. Box toppers are special boosters that contain one or more cards from a curated list that are inserted into a booster box as a bonus. Quite a few games use them, though I’m personally most familiar with their implementation in Magic. There you don’t use them for draft, they’re an extra sort of “super pack” that usually holds special versions of some of a set’s “good” cards (or even cards that aren’t in the set proper and only appear in the box topper packs). What does that mean financially? Well, for FAB it would allow LSS to add value to product without adjusting the frequency of various pulls or otherwise altering the collation of the set from first edition to unlimited beyond substituting cold foils for rainbow foils.

Here’s a quick example of what this looks like in a recent Magic set. Sword of Feast and Famine is a popular card that’s been around since 2011 receiving several printings in that time including multiple premium versions. It is played as a single copy in multiple competitive decks in multiple non-rotating formats and in Commander (an extremely popular multiplayer casual format). The cheapest version of the card comes from the Double Masters set and costs about $65 for a near mint non-foil copy. However, there is also a borderless variant of the card that only comes from the Double Masters box topper (each of which contains two borderless variant cards). That version costs about $130 in non-foil.

Flesh and Blood could add a box topper spot to unlimited products that included variant versions of popular cards – either with new art of other treatments (extended art, full art, etc.) The inclusion of these would allow for additional value to be injected into sets without forcing the prices up on the cards that people need to play. In fact, if they have a real effect on the prices of the other cards in the set, it would be a slight nudge down in price. If these variants only appear in unlimited products it creates a system where the people who want fancy versions of cards and have money to get them are helping to subsidize entry into competitive play for people on tighter budgets. If you are a player on a budget and open a good box topper, it becomes something you can sell or trade to help build out your deck. The beauty of these is that they are pure luxury items that are almost always going to sell for more than the cheapest version of the same card. If we’re going to funnel money into one area of the FAB market, I very much want it to be the cosmetic luxury versions of cards and not the “you need this to play” cheapest copies. Unlimited is, on the surface, a good idea. If you’re going to have special limited versions of cards in first edition, you definitely need a way to circulate other version of those same cards to people who just want to play. However, right now unlimited is worth so little money that I think I’d have a hard case selling a store on stocking it when you see what happened with Monarch. If LSS wants to enforce MAP on the product, they need to come up some way to make the product feel like it’s actually worth MAP, be it box toppers or some other approach. Until they do, I’m going to continue to tell people to buy singles and let other people take the loss on opening Unlimited.

*Header Image – Phantasmaclasm by Marco González

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