State of the Game – Year in Review: 2021

I wanted to have this up a week or so ago, but you know, given my ability to get stuff out in a timely matter as of late, this isn’t too bad. Anyway, this is a sort of reflective piece looking over how FAB as a whole did in 2021. In it I’m considering the game itself, its financial vehicle, and its existence as a piece of media. From there, I’ll outline some of the things I hope to see from the game and LSS in 2022. I’m also working on a sort of companion piece to this one, looking back at my site over the past year and change and then laying out a bit of a tentative roadmap for the future. So, while I’ll throw in some of my personal experiences in this piece, the bulk of that discussion will be in the next article instead of this one. In that piece I’ll sort of give more of a behind the curtain look and talk about the types of content I want to produce in the coming year(s) as well as reflect on the experience of writing fairly extensively about FAB. But again, that’s not what this article is about.

Game On

The area that was most emphatically a net win for the year was organized play. We had our first big US Callings which posted good attendance numbers despite the ongoing pandemic, and many other countries, especially European ones, had their first large tournaments for the game. We’ve seen significant growth in the player base as inferred from event attendance and user growth of social media groups dedicated to the game. We also saw large Magic content creators like Tolarian Community College and Pleasant Kenobi dabbling in FAB, and both continue to periodically talk about and show support for the game. These sorts of people matter more to me than content creators with bigger audience who don’t actaully produce much or any CCG content. To my thinking, the success of actual play was the most important thing for the game – demonstrating that it could survive as a game and not just a speculative asset.

There were of course downsides in this area as well. The pre-launch ban of Duskblade was a bad look for sure, especially since the way it was communicated made it seem like it was partially a product of negligence as opposed to something that earnestly surprised them when players figured out something that internal testing had missed. I don’t think this is particularly damning long term. To be honest, this sort of thing can end up being a nostalgic memory for people down the road. I was playing Magic during Urza’s block which was, perhaps, the most broken set of releases the game ever saw (when thinking about them in the context of the contemporary play environment). While the notorious “Combo Winter” represented a sort of dark time for tournament attendance and play, the sets are looked back on quite fondly now and the enduring legacy of those sets far outstrips the relatively lackluster Mercadian block that followed. Is Tales bound for that sort of legacy? I’m not entirely sure that it is, but I do think that in 5+ years people will fondly remember being involved with the game during this period , and a card like Duskblade could have some of the charm of an obviously busted card like Tolarian Academy. Who knows, maybe it will be a favorite piece of gear for some casual format that doesn’t exist yet.

Still, it was a year largely dominated by the Runeblade class with first Chane and then Briar taking positions at the forefront of the meta, so much so that they both saw bans of cards associated with their decks (and Briar, herself, just got power-level errata). Meanwhile there was the omnipresence of Ira and Dorinthea back in the Blitz season that warped that meta around them and spiked Warrior CRU singles to obscene levels. That isn’t to say that other decks were totally unviable in either format, but there were very clear frontrunner in both CC and Blitz for most of the year as opposed to a set of tightly matched Tier 1 decks like we saw previously. It’s hard to say how much of this was due to what is still a relatively young community building its collective skill. While content for the game is ever expanding, it certainly isn’t at the point that allows for the meta to be “solved” on a timely basis. Would a more mature FAB player base have taken this iteration of CC and created a more diverse meta or would it be even more narrow? We’ll never know for sure, but I think one of the questions for LSS going forward is “can you foster diverse metas without a very clear best Hero?” 

In terms of OP generally in 2022, I think LSS mostly just needs to stay the course and do their best to wrangle the ongoing COVID situation. They’ve already got a pretty ambitious slate of competitive events and the Armory kits remain a respectable level of prize support for relatively-low stakes events. Compare Armory prizes to what Magic is doing for Friday Night Magic where prizes are mostly of negligible value; it’s a pretty stark contrast between a game that is hungry to grow and wants to get people into LGSs and one that takes its OP for granted (perhaps at it’s own peril). Armory CF and playmats almost all command respectable prices on the secondary model and make winning the events feel like a proper achievement.

Somewhat related to that, I really hope that LSS is using the unexpected reality of the pandemic to rethink their position on a digital version of the game. I’m not expecting anything in 2022, but having spent most of the year playing my card games exclusively online (my local shop just shut down in-person play again pending improvements in COVID infection rates), I really have come to value the ability to queue up for a game at 1am on a Tuesday while wearing my pajamas. This ease of access to play allowed me to get back into playing Magic via MTGA where I was able to post a seasonal finish of 35th overall June, I would not have been able to get up to that level of play if I had to rely on finding in person events. I also found myself hitting Legend in Hearthstone more than I have in any other year just because I had so much time at home, and I even dabbled in Legends of Runeterra here and there. If FAB had anything comparable, I would have been thrilled to channel a good portion of that time into it. It would have been really nice to get in more games of FAB in than the handful I managed on TTS and with webcams this year. Yes, in-person play has its own merits, but there’s a lot to be said for being able to get games from the comfort of your own home without futzing around with webcam setup or attempting to wrangle TTS (to say nothing of the recent debacle that is TTS’s moderation team and the massive influx of Nazis and other assorted bigots to their steam community) .

Casual Vacuum

Don’t misconstrue the heading as me saying that no one is playing casually. Plenty of people are engaged in casual play, but the game as a whole often gets the read of a serious competitive undertaking . It’s somewhat hard to approach, and while the marketing and design encourages you to find a Hero you like, a lot of Heroes are not particularly viable in competitive play (which is OK, if you’ve got a solid casual environment). One of the biggest thing that the game needs for continued growth is a healthy casual scene, which likely involves the introduction of a format that is kinder to playing cards that people like as opposed to only the best cards. Magic’s Commander is the preeminent example of what an engaging casual format can do for a game’s popularity and growth. While there are always diehards who will play severe underdogs into a hostile field because of their sheer love for particular cards or desire to win an uphill battle through their scrappiness (I see you, Azalea fans), a lot of people get turned off when they get crushed game-after-game by tier 1 decks, which tends to be somewhat unavoidable at even casual Armory-scale events once a game really finds its footing.

Casual formats also encourage experimenting with deckbuilding in a way that competitive formats really don’t. For the vast, vast majority of people, if you want to play competitively, you’re very much best served by learning and playing with a proven list you got from the internet as opposed to building your own deck from scratch. Even when you’re experienced, most people will still primarily do their best by tweaking extant lists vs innovating with an entirely new brew. Meanwhile, in a casual format, making something that is yours becomes a lot more viable, and there is a strong appeal to coming up with something that you made, even if it can’t take down a competitive event. As another Magic example, when a new Standard set comes out, I am usually asking “what deck am I playing on MTGA now” because what’s good dictates what I’ll be using. Meanwhile, friends who mostly play Commander are asking “what new cards can go in X Commander’s deck?” which promotes a more exploratory type of interaction with new sets and really gives life to cards that may be fun designs but can’t hold up in cutthroat competitive play.

Applying this to FAB, I would really love to see some concrete information about the rumored PvE format, which is something that we’ve been getting very vague hints of for over a year. If FAB is supposed to be about getting together with other people and having a good time, than a cooperative format could really do wonders for the game. Co-op also has the distinct appeal of offering a low-stakes way to learn the game’s mechanics. You don’t need to be as worried about getting rinsed by a more experienced player when said player is on your team helping you out and working towards the same goal. They can also give you tips in a more organic way then when you’re actively playing against them. These sorts of formats also offer a second chance at life to non-competitive heroes and an opportunity for cards that aren’t particularly valuable for competitive play to shine and become lucrative items. This second element is a huge windfall for collection values and can help to create more “hits” for people opening boxes. As an example, Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider is a Mythic from the Kaldheim Magic set that was released last year around this time. It currently sells for about $25 for the cheapest version in non-foil. It saw fringe competitive play several month and since then has been almost entirely a casual card. It is currently the second most valuable Mythic in the set significantly eclipsing Standard all-star Mythic, Alrund’s Epiphany, which at about $8.50 for the cheapest copy. I want that sort of thing to happen in FAB.

Additionally, while competitive play often requires people to change decks as new expansions come out, casual formats allow players to keep a beloved deck together almost indefinitely, often with only minor tweaks. This makes it a lot easier for people to justify buying the fancy versions of cards. For people that don’t spend huge amounts of cash on the game, it’s a lot easier to justify making a big purchase of a cold foil if they know they get to use it in a favorite deck forever as opposed to until the next expansion comes out and kills their deck’s competitive viability. FAB’s player base has swung hard towards a focus on the cheapest versions of cards which has left the chase variants’ value somewhat lacking in comparison. I’d love to see a casual format bring some excitement back to owning CFs for the average player.

The Market

There’s no way of avoiding this one, 2021 started with a boom in the FAB market and ended on kind of a whimper, at least comparatively. I wrote about this overall movement a bit in a recent Rathe Times piece, but on the whole, I would say 2021 was a reality check for both FAB and the collectible card market in general. Though it looks rough to see WTR Alpha boxes drop by about 50% from their highs, the current prices remain exceptional for a product that is only a couple years old, and it looks like we’ve reached a point of relative stability. Recent months have shown a spike of interest in these, and if Everfest’s carnival slot can reignite some collector’s interest in the game and reassure the collector/investor market that will continue to be exciting stuff to acquire, we might see the high end items start to pick up again.

While I’m spinning some optimism, I do think that a lot of the people jumped from a heavy focus on FAB to chase money in newer CCGs, and there was definitely money to be made in some of those. However, things are calming down and as the opportunities to go “to the moon” on a new product begin to dry up, I think we’re going to see a renewed focus on reliable games like Magic and Pokemon that have stood the test of time. Flesh and Blood makes a good case for being the “new” game with the best shot of having a long run/solidifying a place as a pillar of the industry. While I wouldn’t put it in the same category as something like Reserve List Magic in terms of dependability, the potential upside gains are probably better for FAB over the next 3 or so years than what most Standard Magic releases will offer, especially if it can generate additional spikes in new player uptake.

On a less auspicious note, 2021 highlighted some big issues with the Monarch and Tales release models which saw values of first edition tanking (as I write this, Monarch first boxes are still sliding down slightly and Tales first is available under MSRP if you shop around). And unlimited is currently in a downright dismal position, from a value perspective. The nature of the way products are printed and released likely meant that there were limited opportunities for LSS to correct course post-Monarch, so I wouldn’t hold Tales lackluster financial performance against them, but Everfest is going to be a real test of how LSS is going to respond to the obvious problem. I don’t have enough details yet to know how I feel about the carnival slots as a potential fix, but the fact that LSS is attempting to do something is a promising sign. They appear to recognize the problems at play and want to address them. We just need to wait a few more weeks to see if their first attempt at doing so is going to work or if there is more tweaking to be done.

In terms of what I want to see in 2022 for the market, I’m reserving specific recommendations until we know the shape of the changes being implemented in Everfest. If you want my hypotheticals on how I would have changed products, I wrote a whole article on it a few weeks ago. But for now, I’ll give a list of the top issues I’d like to see addressed.

  • Key older Majestics (Estrike, Art of War, Command and Conqueror) need to be reprinted at the modern Majestic rate. These are too expensive for format staples used by multiple archetypes.
  • Legendary Equipment is too expensive in its cheapest version. I am more than fine with cold foil or other special treatments of new Ls selling for three figure prices. But the cheapest versions need to be a fair bit cheaper if the game is going to entice as many new players as it could be. Unlimited, is a poor solution to this issue as the prices on the cards are still too high, and players also have to wait weeks or months for it to come out. My best stab at a solution remains to print NF Legendarys at a rate of one per box.
  • Bring back flashy variants like Full Art Twinning Blade. Everfest sounds like it might be doing some work on the “cool variant” front, so we’ll get to take stock of this in a few weeks.
  • Doubling up here, but give us a casual format that promotes the use of cards that are fun but not particularly viable in competitive play.

Tell Me a Story (Please I’m Begging You)

Monarch felt like the first set where “a thing happened” in the overall FAB narrative, but what that thing was and how aware of it the player base is remains a question for me. We know that it was Solana vs. the Demonastery, but what were the outcomes of it? Did someone win? Was there a key event that happened? How was that expressed through the cards? If you’ve read any of my previous discussions of how FAB tells stories and develops characters, this is a familiar line of questioning. But right now, it feels like each set is more about vibes than narrative or characters. Monarch is Darkness vs. Light and Tales is Adventures in a Magical Faery Land. While those sorts of big blanket ideas are a fine framing device, I’d like to see something a little more substantive once we get past the first impression of a set.

The challenge of this has partially been that FAB cards tend to be a bit rules text heavy. I think there are some solutions to this (removing reminder text from Rares and above, for instance), but part of it is just doing more with the flavor text that is included. Jokes and random bits of world building aren’t inherently bad, but when so few cards get flavor text, it seems a waste that few if any of them develop the central conflicts in the narrative or the heroes that the community cares about. While the FAB homepage remains the best source of lore for the game, it’s often limited to stories for new heroes when their respective sets launch and very rare “between-release” story drops like the holiday one.

This state of affairs honestly remind me a lot of early Magic. Wizards of the Coast spent the first several years mostly doing ambient world building and hopping around with gradual improvement in story telling via the game itself. Most of the early stories were told via novels and comics that very few members of the community were even aware of. Part of this was a product of the time, since, back in the 90’s most people were not as terminally online as we are today. However, Magic did eventually start to build better stories – the saga of the Weatherlight and its crew which emerged out of Mirage block and continued for a few years (and introduced characters and events that remain relevant to this day) was the big turning point for the game’s story. Over the course of the years, Wizards ability to deliver stories and narratives has waxed and waned, but some of the most beloved periods coincide with regular story and lore drops on the main Magic website. This gets into the overall strategy that companies use to engage with the community.

I’ll start with the positives on this one. LSS is really good about supporting and promoting content creators in the community. There are, of course, the preview cards they send out to both larger and small creators (my Everfest one arrived in the mail yesterday and will be dropping on January 27 –get hype). But they’ve also done things like their interview series and the Content Creator Appreciation Kits (which let me run a pair of contests that were an absolute blast) –I wrote about that second one here. However, as I noted, the first party content is a bit sparse. Obviously LSS is not a Hasbro-sized company, and I wouldn’t expect the sort of volume of content that Magic is putting out from them, but I would like to see some movement towards a couple reliable recurring columns and perhaps a better organized archive for older piece –I know that I keep a messy notepad list of links to old article for reference purposes because finding them on the site can be a bit of a challenge. Recurring content on the main homepage also has a pretty appealing benefit of getting your players to tune in regularly. If you know that a new story/lore article will drop every Wednesday, for example, then when you come to read that, you’ll also see any incidental announcements they’ve made or articles they’ve written, which is an easy boost to player engagement.

What sort of content would I like to see? I think, as a starting point, I would want to see two weekly releases. First, a designer-driven piece that talked about the game, how they work on it, goals, reflections, etc. While I often find myself disagreeing with Mark Rosewater as a designer, his long-running Making Magic series was hugely impactful for people interested in game design (and ultimately helped them cultivate future members of their design team). It also shaped the way that people engage with the game. Terms like Timmy, Johnny, and Spike became common parlance due to these article as did discussions of things like the color pie. In effect, this series helped to educate the Magic player base which made them savvier consumers of the game and allowed them to engage more meaningfully with design decisions. FAB has a host of passionate designers who we often see pop up near a set release to let us know about a newly revealed mechanic or other interesting element. Having a weekly article from the design team (even if no single person has enough time to do a weekly recurring column) would be huge.

The other weekly content I’d like to see is probably pretty obvious at this point: give me something relating to lore. This could vary dramatically week-to-week, maybe one week it’s a short narrative about a hero we know. Maybe the next week we get a deep dive on one of the creatures native to Rathe. Perhaps we get a series of interconnected stories around a new set release that helps contextualize the narrative it’s telling. All of this would work to steadily build up a growing body of lore that will help players be more involved with the game’s narrative. I say this every time it comes up, but it seems fairly clear that, internally, LSS cares a lot about the stories of Rathe and its heroes; they just need to do a better job of sharing them with us.

Overall Take

When I consider all of these elements together, I honestly feel pretty good about the state of the game and the current trajectory. I cannot emphasize how much of a relief it was to see FAB weather the downturn, stabilize, and then mostly maintain prices. We really do need to recognize how exceptional the “older” card’s values are, even in their diminished state, when you put them in the context of game that’s only a little over two years old. I don’t think we’re going to see any wild upward spikes anytime soon, but it does feel the market is coalescing at the current prices on pre-MON product, and we will hopefully begin to see the slow accumulation of value over the next year.

LSS came out swinging in terms of organized play, was willing to be dynamic in how they approached webcam games, especially during the Blitz season, and have built Amory kits with prizes that are actually desirable. They did all of this while Magic’s organized play was repeatedly falling on its face, and hopefully that diligence will set them up for success when we eventually return to something resembling pre-COVID normalcy, even if that is still months away. While the narrative and story elements that were explored this year were a bit thin, the two releases we got definitely had clearly articulated themes and moods, and the production, design, and art direction have been building on the strong foundation that was laid with the game’s launch. FAB cards are still aesthetically pleasing objects to own and open, and who knows what surprises Everfest will hold on that front.

There certainly remains plenty of room for improvement: building up casual play, making some of the staple competitive cards more accessible, figuring out how to amp up the excitement of opening new product (which hopefully involves making first edition chase cards that justify rolling the dice on a case opening), bringing narrative and characters more to the foreground, producing more in house content, and more. Still, what makes me most optimistic about the game’s future is that there are clear signs of LSS recognizing some of these issues and attempting to address them. I don’t expect them or any studio to nail everything in one shot, these are challenging issues to tackle after all. But a willingness to recognize problems and pivot is very encouraging.

I’m excited for what 2022 can bring to the game and look forward to it with hopes of being surprised.

*Header Image – Pulse of Volthaven by Milena Vasyukova

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