Magic Still Gathering Fans long after the Bubble was supposed to Burst
Twenty-four years ago, I was sitting in a college literature class reading a Gundam comic book, waiting for the professor to show up. I looked up from the giant robots and space opera on the page to listen in on a conversation a couple of classmates were having about a card game. I’ve always loved games, and this was before the Internet had the potential to spoil surprise, so I listened intently.
The Gathering Starter Decks. This is a Beta box, which means it was effectively the second printing. There could be a Black Lotus worth thousands of dollars in there.
The cards they were talking about were like baseball cards, but you could play a game with them. And instead of Rollie Fingers or Pete Rose or whoever, the cards were illustrated with high-quality fantasy artwork depicting tree people, vampires, angels, goblins and other creatures. It sounded amazing. On my next trip to Titan Games and Comics in suburban Atlanta, I asked if they had any Magic: The Gathering cards.
The guy kind of laughed at me and pointed at a couple of empty display boxes. I left with some more Gundam comics as a consolation prize. For the next couple of weeks, I was driving all over Atlanta to every comics and games shop in town to try to find these elusive cards. Eventually, I hit pay-dirt and spent way more money than I should have given my library page salary at the time and I was into the game.
This was 1994, when Magic first hit the scene courtesy a then-tiny company called Wizards of the Coast. Designed by Richard Garfield, the game was (and still is) brilliant—not just for the gameplay, but also for how it was sold. It revolutionized the hobby games marketplace by creating a new “collectible” category. You were intended to buy an $8 (at the time) starter deck of 60 random cards to get going with your collection. It was enough to play the game, sure. But there were more than 300 cards in that initial set and the really interesting thing was that you would build a custom deck of cards using your collection. So you would want multiples of some cards, or specific cards that maybe you didn’t get in that starter.
Enter the “booster pack.” A handful of quarters and other small change equaling $3 bought you a random assortment of 15 cards, including two “uncommon” cards and one “rare” card. This meant that out of a full, uncut sheet of cards, these types appeared less frequently. Sometimes, they were especially powerful and therefore desirable. Other times they were more complex or situational cards that had limited utility. Before the first expansion set, Arabian Nights, was released with an all-new set of cards, there was already a secondary market developing—and some of these cards were topping $50-$100 as players created a demand for the harder to get cards. The notorious Black Lotus, a card that still sells for thousands of dollars today, was the Holy Grail and the quest to find it meant buying entire 60-pack display cases of boosters to try to pull one. I never did.
A scene from the very first Magic World Championships in 1994. Organized play helped foster demand for specific cards and word-of-mouth praise of the gameplay—and its aftermarket value- led to quickly sold-out print runs.
Within two years, Magic was a phenomenon. I still recall quite fondly that bubble market—not just for the wild speculation, but also the thrill of opening a $3 pack of cards and finding a card worth 10 times that. The market was white hot, especially on Internet newsgroups, and it seemed like it would never last. I remember my mom sort of dismissing the whole thing, telling me that in a year or two there would be boxes and boxes of them in yard sales and at thrift stores. But here we are, 22 years later, and Magic is arguably more popular than ever, not only with collectors but also with players. The bubble never burst, even as video games rose to prominence and more or less hobbled the hobby games industry.
The secret to Magic’s success—other than its addictive qualities and the notion that it exploits the competitive desire to have the better card than the other guy or gal—is that folks at Wizards of the Coast were very shrewd in how they understood the collectible nature of its product and effectively managed demand by controlling speculation and taking steps to make sure that bubble never burst.
On the left is one of the Revised (4th) Edition Booster Packs—a genius stroke of marketing. Part of the thrill of the game was opening one of these to see which rare was in there. The earliest packs, quite comically, were semi-translucent so you could sometimes actually see what rare was in there. Foil packs put a stop to that in later editions. I genuinely thought the Legends set was going to be where the bubble was going to burst 20 years ago. But here we are in 2014, with an all new set just released.
The first thing they did was to reprint cards, effectively wresting control of the aftermarket from speculators—many of whom were coming into the game from the sports card world. The first printing, called “Alpha” sold out before most people even knew it existed. So there was a “Beta” run, which also vanished. Then there was an “Unlimited” set, which changed the borders of the cards from black to white to indicate that they were from this more widely available set, protecting some of the value of the original printings but reining in some of the wilder prices. But then they went a step further with a 4th edition, which removed some cards from the set—including the legendary “Power Nine,” a set of cards that were really quite frankly imbalanced.
The reason for rebalancing the set was to foster a greater sense of accessibility and playability, and to encourage people who didn’t have the “best” cards (which is totally relative and not related to value) to get into the game. And also because Wizards had started issuing official rulings regarding the use of certain cards and establishing tournament rules that were expected to be followed anywhere the game was being played. This included limiting certain cards or even restricting some. So a card like the Royal Assassin, which was selling for $50 or so, could only be used four times in deck. Once you had four—either pulling them out of a pack, trading for them or buying them as singles—you didn’t need any more.
The fabled “Power Nine” cards that were only available in the Alpha, Beta and Unlimited sets. These cards retain especially high value, even today, even though they are mostly unplayable in current tournament formats. Wizards of the Coast has wisely avoided reprinting these cards to keep them “special,” although many variations and similar cards have been released over the years.
The Wizards of the Coast folks also knew that they couldn’t just flood the market and continually crank out cards or the whole thing would go bust. Players would lose interest in sloppily designed, unbalanced play sets—this almost happened with a couple of early sets like the ill-received Fallen Empires cards, which felt rushed and badly designed. They also couldn’t tank the value of certain prize cards by just reprinting everything. They had to keep that aftermarket interest healthy but in check. Their approach to marketing the game was carefully studied, measured and focused on maintaining long-term interest in the game.
And 22 years later, it’s bigger than it ever has been. New sets of cards are “spoiled” online before they even hit stores and there are some cards that hit $30 to $50 in resale value before the first pack is sold at retail. Players start thinking about designing decks around certain cards long before they make a purchase, even “proxying” cards to test them out in various builds. And Wizards still controls the rhythm, with certain tournament formats restricting cards to current sets—meaning that serious players have to keep up with releases to be able to play in officially sanctioned events. Eventually, even the most valuable cards recede in value as they become unusable in these kinds of games.
A scene from the 2015 Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix. Obviously, these folks are not aware that the Magic bubble should have burst before many of these competitors were even born. Magic today is popular around the world, with new sets as well as online games always on the way to market.
So, Wizards has done quite an amazing job of controlling interest, demand and resale value while managing to keep the game current and vital. Back in 1995-96, it wasn’t hard to imagine that Magic cards would one day be as ubiquitously useless and valueless as Pogs, and it seemed like it was a fad that was peaking sharply. I remember at the time that everyone I knew was playing the game and the conventions at the time were literally floor-to-ceiling all Magic, all the time.
But the bubble never popped. It overinflated a bit and sagged on occasion, but 22 years in it is still a massive success both for collectors and players.
Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and more than a decade of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.
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