Imagining a Better Booster Box

Heya, look at me releasing two articles within a week like it’s 2020! This piece is going to be a big old sprawling mess that mostly boils down to “what if you were in charge of how Flesh and Blood was sold?” After over a year of writing about the game and over 20 years of playing CCGs, I think I’ve stacked up a pretty significant pile of critiques on sales models as well as a host of personal preferences and idiosyncrasies. So, today is the day in which I lay out my ideal version of how this would work (well, my ideal version involves a post-scarcity utopia, but this is how I’d do it under a capitalist system). I’ll note right off the bat that, while I’m going to be making arguments for the major changes I’d be conducting, I’m going to do this under the premise that I have no control over the actual mechanical end of the game, meaning I cannot change the class system or remove cards from the card pool, for instance.

My overall philosophy on the approach to CCGs that you expect people to actually play (and not just collect) is that an ideal game is both affordable (relatively speaking) for new players and has a robust secondary market for variant versions of cards. These variants should be where the secondary market is putting large sums of money, and their exclusivity should be respected by the game manufacturer. When considering how to package and sell cards, there are a lot of ways to fuck up. Wizards of the Coast’s decision to preserve the Reserve List (which seems permanent barring a desperate cash grab) is among the worst decisions anyone has made in the industry when speaking strictly from the perspective of the game as a thing you play. I know it sounds obvious, but it doesn’t matter how good a game is if you can’t play it.  Vintage is a great and mostly dead format. Legacy is a spectacular format that creeps closer to death every year that passes without a solution to the problem posed by key format staples being on the Reserve List. In short, Reserve List cards are increasingly non-functional as game pieces and are instead continuing their shift towards pure collectible and speculative assets. LSS has wisely said that all FAB cards can be reprinted, but the current model makes even the “cheap” version of key cards unreasonably expensive. If these prices are to be lowered, then value needs to go somewhere else. So let’s get to it!

FAB’s Current Problems

We begin our journey with a list of grievances. Even though I don’t necessarily subscribe to a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” philosophy, in the case of Flesh and Blood’s distribution model, I think we can safely say it’s decidedly broken in several respects. I’m going to just catalog some of the most salient issues I have here without really going into proposed solutions, and then, once we’ve got a solid collection of complaints, I’m going to attempt to synthesize these into some sort of cohesive vision for a revamped product line.

So yeah, the unlimited/first edition model is kind of a mess right now with unlimited product selling at around or below even the best wholesale prices. I’ll just leave this here to illustrate my point:

Pouring one out for a $38 box before fees.

Yikes. This is a pretty self-evident issue. If a product is selling on the open market for less than it costs stores to buy, it’s not a sustainable product. Sure, players who don’t care about the collection or financial aspects of the game are going to enjoy the super cheap boxes, but stores are not going to carry a product that loses them money, which will lead to either prices rubber-banding back upward or the game losing support.

Unlimited has clearly been a major problem for post-Crucible of War sets, but even first edition has a lot of problems as a sealed product. Tales of Aria was a really cool set whose story, I fear, will be marred by it’s relatively low value. First edition FAB products are a very feast of famine opening experience, and. it’s gotten worse in each release post-Arcane Rising. Flesh and Blood consolidates a ton of value at the L and F slots, and given that these tend to appear at the case or multiple case level, opening any quantity less than a case can be financially devastating. More often than not, opening a single box will yield one cold foil and it will be a common. Add a generous 7 Majestics and 2 foil Majestics (which are worth an increasingly small premium over their non-foil counterparts) and, in an age where many TOA first edition Majestics sell for under $2, you’re still often well below the ~$96 MSRP a box costs. To break even, you really need to hit a Legendary and do well on Majestics. To get ahead, you need a Legendary and another cold foil that’s above Common rarity, and, even then, you often still need some luck on your Majestics. I think the highest quantity of product you can expect even an enthusiastic player to open is a case. People like me who open multiple cases are functionally degenerates and account for a small percentage of the people engaging with the game (I should note that I’ve also been opening increasingly less product post-Monarch because the EV is so bad.)

Another problem is the high financial barrier to entry for new players. I’m going to do something that’s a pain in the ass to do without an mtggoldfish equivalent for FAB, but let’s price out four winning decks for different heroes. Each deck is going to be a first place finisher at a recent national championship, prices are TCGPlayer lows without spending too much extra time consolidating shipping. We’re going to assume that we’re playing the cheapest version of the deck. Limbo’s Briar deck which won Taiwan’s Nationals clocks in at $1,204.58 plus $24.34 shipping. Yuki Lee Bender’s Lexi deck runs us $817.21 and a flat $20 shipping. Mikael Teittinen managed to sneak a Katsu deck into the Tales-dominated meta to win Finland’s National championship (In Finnish spirit, while writing this, I’m listening to Swallow the Sun’s new album in anticipation of seeing them next week on tour). That Katsu deck costs us $820.51 with only a meager $9.37 shipping tacked on. And finally, Yorgos Samaras won Greek Nationals with this Oldhim brew which can be yours for a paltry $1,350.99 with $15.10 shipping. That means that the average cost of a competitive FAB deck is a very normal $1,065.52 when considering these four different heroes, and the “cheapest” option is over $800.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the current price for building the most popular Standard Magic decks is wildly lower. In paper those costs are currently:  Mono-White $151, Izzet Dragons $310, Mono-Green $227, and Esper Control at $286. Accounting for cards that they have in common, you could buy all four at about the cost of one of the cheaper FAB decks we just covered. Flesh and Blood is too expensive as a competitive game that’s only 2 years old. For an analogous expense in Magic, you’d have to hop over to Modern which has a lot of decks in the $600-1800 window, but it’s also been a format for over a decade and is still often regarded as “too expensive” by the Magic player base. Moreover, arguments about FAB being all eternal formats are largely worthless at this point in time. This is not like Magic’s mature eternal formats where you can play the same deck for years with few or minor tweaks. FAB’s card pool is very shallow and a Hero can easily become non-viable from one expansion to the next (and if they’re ever too good they get banned, functionally forcing you to start over and build a new deck, as there isn’t usually an equally strong hero with the same class/talent that you can plug in with only small changes). Maybe in 5-10 years, when FAB has a deeper cardpool, a wide range of Heroes will be a reasonable choices to take to any given event and you can play the same hero for years with minor updates. But that’s not the world we live in today. People who want to be competitive players should probably expect to change Heroes at least once per year if not more, unless they are vastly superior in skill to other people in their meta.

Related to all the cost issues, and somewhat paradoxically, we also see a lot of collector and investor apathy towards post-Crucible of War Flesh and Blood. I’m not saying that these people are fleeing the game, but they (and I include myself in this group) have largely assumed a “meh” stance on this dimension of the game. What does “meh” mean in more concrete terms? For sealed product, I still very much believe in it, but I believe in it the same way I believe in sealed boxes of Standard Magic releases: I continue to buy them and store them with the idea that in about 5 years or more, I will be able to sell them at a price that translates to something like 7% a year or more in gains. I’m happy to have them as part of a diversified set of investments, but it’s not sexy. Also much like Standard Magic, singles from new sets are not exciting at all from a financial perspective. There are plenty of them that I’m excited to own because I think they’re cool, but I’m not stocking up on them beyond copies for my personal collection, and I’ve already made my position on pre-Monarch singles. TOA prices haven’t even finished hitting their floor yet, meaning that I’ve been in no rush to pick up the rest of my CFs.

Compared to Magic, we also aren’t seeing post-Crucible sets that blow up pricewise (to be fair, we only have a very limited sample set). Magic’s non-Standard releases sometimes go up significantly post-release. I bought a few cases of Time Spiral Remastered for $150 a booster box in February. There was an initial rush due to shortages that shot prices up to over $300 a piece in the weeks following release, but, even after the dust settled, they’re selling for $230-250 a box. With some game knowledge, you can also fairly reliably pick out Secret Lairs that will be 1.5-2x their initial cost by the time they ship (and you don’t pay for them until a couple weeks prior to shipment). I don’t currently see a FAB product that could do that sort of growth within a year. On the other end of the spectrum, FAB’s fast flip days and moonshot opportunities seem to be largely over. New CCGs will almost always own this space in terms of semi-predictable events. Established games will have occasional spikes like Magic did on old boxes in 2020. But those are very hard to predict, and I wouldn’t attempt to do it. Note, I don’t think games should be chasing fast-flips as a business model, but right now FAB appears to be long-term-only for sealed product without the occasional short term hits of Magic (though that could certainly change in the future).

Unresolvable Issues

We pause here to acknowledge that there are some issues that FAB has that cannot be cleanly resolved on the product marketing and distribution end of things. The class/talent systems, as implemented, are sort of fundamentally bad for singles prices. Because class-specific cards have a narrower use case, strong generic cards tend to suck up a disproportionate amount of a set’s value because they can appear in multiple decks. It’s no coincidence that some of the most expensive RF Ls (Skullcap, Tunic) and the most expensive NF Ms (estrike, C&C) cost a lot more than similarly rare and powerful class-specific cards. This is even exacerbated further in the case of specific character specializations and cards that are both class and talent gated. I think, if I was approaching the game with an intention of trying to account for this, as well as providing players with more deckbuilding freedom, I would have put out eight core classes and then made specializations that people could pair with their hero freely so that you could do something like play a character as a static class but with your choice of a talent (ex. I’m playing Light Dorinthea and you’re playing Elemental Dorinthea).

The reason not to do this is because it’s a design nightmare (one that Magic lives with all the time), and I think there is strong evidence from things like “oops, we didn’t realize Duskblade was too good” that LSS lacks the resources to test even two years’ worth of cards at sufficient scale. This isn’t a knock on them. Well… OK, the Duskblade callout was a cheap shot, fair, but, constraining your design space to make balance and tuning manageable is an important part of design. I generally work on games with far fewer moving parts than a CCG and I can still think of plenty of instances where an interesting idea needed to be shelved because it made balance too difficult for the resources at hand. Essentially, FAB is likely going to bear the burden of uneven pricing that makes generics more valuable than equivalent class and/or talent restricted cards for years to come.

My Genius Solution™

How would I address the solvable problems? I’m so glad you asked; let’s enter the hot take zone! First things first, we’re going to stop tanking first edition prices by dropping immediate unlimited editions. Under the Freyja model (which is probably the only time me and “model” will appear in the same sentence), printing targets will be for first edition to be readily available at stores at MSRP with the assumption that it will run out around the time the next set is released.  Obviously this isn’t an exact science and some guesswork is involved, so we may see unlimited hit shelves alongside some lingering first edition product or we could have a couple weeks of gap with no easily available MSRP product. Hopefully that gives first edition some room to breathe as compared to the current situation where a new set debuts with high singles prices, those prices steadily fall, and then around the time they’re stabilizing, unlimited drops and they plummet off a cliff (see the bloodbaths of Monarch/Monarch unlimited and Tales/Tales unlimited).

Even with that change, we’re still in a weird scenario where boxes are probably negative EV to open and essential singles are too expensive, so let’s work on introducing some stability. The cheap versions of Ls are too expensive and the pricy versions aren’t expensive enough (more on that second part shortly). So, we’re introducing cheaper versions of Legendarys in a way that will also add consistency to the opening experience. Each box of both first edition and unlimited will come with a sealed one card booster that contains a random Legendary in non-foil. Because we can assume that unlimited boxes will sell for MAP, I anticipate that the average NF Legendary will be $40-60 at most (class/talent restricted vs generic) and probably a bit less. Running Tunic and Skullcap gives you a $400 baseline before you even put a single card in your actual deck. Knocking that down to $100 or so is a huge coup for cost of entry. Now let’s roll up our sleeves and start tinkering around under the hood of the money cards, so to speak (is that how car metaphors work? I’ve never done anything more complicated than replacing a battery or changing a flat).

Fables in their current form are retired, full stop. Gameplay unique cards at exceptionally high rarity were always a terrible idea for a game that is player-driven, and we can come up with better ways of injecting value into product. With the retirement of Fables, I am introducing *drumroll* …Fables! Wait, what? Alright, the current versions of Fables are becoming Legendarys. Legendary is now the highest rarity that gameplay unique cards will appear at. The new Fables are going to be alternate, full art variants of any adult character appearing for the first time in that set (think mentors for the look). Old characters and young characters can appear in either supplemental products, small releases, or promos. Each specific character will appear at a rate of 1:40 boxes, so a normal set with 4 heroes will have a full art hero in every 2.5 cases. First edition copies will be in cold foil with unlimited ones to be rainbow. I anticipate that these will actually get to see tables far more often than current Fables, which is an exciting way for players to showcase their prized cards relatively safely while also putting attention-grabbing cards on the table for the duration of the game. But that’s not all!

The serialized Viscera Seer is intentionally printed backwards

To spice up the high-end market, we’re going to take a note from Magic’s recent foray into serialized cards (a move they stole from sports cards). For those unaware, serialized cards are individually numbered cards with a total print run listed, such as “1/100” or “13/50”. Serialized variants provide a “lottery” experience without the issues of gameplay exclusivity, allowing you to produce items that are orders of magnitude rarer than you’d otherwise be able to include without ruining your game. The starting point for serialized print runs will be 1% of each card’s total CF print run; that includes the newly reimagined Fable rarity. This creates an entry point to newer collectors with larger runs of serialized commons while creating incredibly rare top end serialized Fables. What sorts of runs are we talking about with these numbers? Well, if we assume 100k boxes of first edition that’s 2500 of each new Fable and 25 of each serialized Fable. As print runs grow or shrink, the percentage could be tweaked, but that’s the general idea. The beauty of FAB is that, because most of these cards will be gear or heroes, you’ll actually be able to put them on a table in a slab without worrying about damage. Want to flex? Drop you number #1 of 25 Hero down to kick things off.

With exclusivity in mind, serialized cards will not appear in unlimited product. The goal of unlimited is to hold singles costs down while avoiding dismal EV on opening, and I think that will be accomplished by the inclusion of the NF Legendary in each box, though this decision could be revisited in the future. In terms of the serialized card design, I’ll leave that to your imagination. You could toy with the cold foiling a bit to make them visually distinct beyond the number as well, maybe something like the white cold foiling you can see in parts of Shiyana’s frame. You could make the black border of serialized equipment golden. Do some test prints, figure out what looks cool, and roll with that.

I Just Fixed Sealed FAB

You’re welcome. But seriously, that’s a rough outline of what I would do if given the power to overhaul FAB’s booster box model. It’s a lot of changes, and some things would likely need to be tweaked here and there, but some change is inevitable over the current model (remember those sub-$40 TOA boxes? LSS remembers) and I’d rather see bold action with course correction for booster boxes than a stagnant approach of small tweaks. Though it’s true that there’s no way to make everyone happy, I think FAB could be making more people happy without LSS sacrificing sales to achieve it. In fact, energizing the collectors and investors and making the game more approachable financially for new players is a great way to move more product and grow your game. Speaking of, maybe next time I have time I feel the urge to take us on one of these speculative journeys, we’ll explore FAB’s need for a more accessible casual format, a topic I’ve been talking about for nearly as long as I’ve been involved with the game. Catch you later!

*Header Image – Electrify by Faizal Fikri

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