By Imshan AKA Sinis
Hello readers. Normally I deliver content along the lines of community, strategy, and technology, like our podcast does. I like to talk about cards and social interactions. But, as you might imagine, I have other hobbies and interests. This week, I’m going to shift gears a bit and talk about marketing, economics and Commander’s Arsenal. I’m going to hash out how a $75 price tag, and the nature of the product itself, is damaging to Wizard’s bottom line and handling of Commander in general.
More than anything, I want to talk about how this release is one of the perfect examples of what a company should not do, not because it has an MSRP that I don’t like, or because I think it will have cards I don’t want in it, or because I don’t think there is enough value in the box without actually knowing what’s inside. Rather, I want to show how this release does nothing to advance the popularity of Commander outside a small subset of players, and may actively detract from its popularity in a large number of players.
First, I want to preface this article with the idea that I have nothing against people wanting to make a dollar. Wizards provides a wonderful game that I love to play, and it is worth some monetary amount. Further, if I ever felt it wasn’t worth it, I’m under no obligation to continue buying. This might all seem pretty obvious, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression; I like Magic, and I am willing to pay the ‘asking price’ for it the vast majority of the time. However, I think that Commander’s Arsenal is a terrible by-product of poorly-executed marketing research, resulting in a rushed attempt to capitalize on fledgling and veteran Commander players that will ultimately fail, or rather, not succeed as well as another product would in its place. More specifically, Commander’s Arsenal is a very niche product meant to make a quick buck on a tiny subset of players who highly desire foils, while the majority of players are left wondering if Commander is really a supported format by Wizards and whether next year’s product will be more like 2011’s release and less like Commander’s Arsenal.
As a new thing that Wizards can target and market, Commander is enormous. I have no hard evidence to back this up, but I think that this one could be taken as a given; Commander has been recognized by Wizards as a thing in 2011 with the initial Commander product release, and now has its own product line. Were it not a ‘thing’, Wizards would have ignored it in the paper world like every other fan-created casual format, like 5-colour, or Cube draft. There are no ancillary products for those, and they are probably not coming.
Given that Commander is actually a ‘thing’, it is unsurprising that Magic 2013 and Planechase 2012 both saw sudden and ad hoc legends, which are relatively unheard of in ancillary products and core sets. The Planechase 2012 announcement and packaging, in particular, strongly featured legendary creatures. While it may not be obvious to the casual observer, Magic sets are designed years in advance. If the wikipedia page about set releases is to be believed, the turnaround is about three years. Now, I have nothing against the M13 and Planechase 2012 legendary creatures, they’re good stuff. I just think they were added in at the last minute, in attempt to attract the attention of Commander players, and capitalize on the increase in sales. This is perfectly good and simple marketing; include stuff in a product people will want, let them know that what they want is present in a product, and even if it’s rushed and at the last minute, your target audience will buy it.
So, why the disappointment for Commander’s Arsenal? It’s like they looked at the online community and decided that it was representative of all Magic players, especially people who play casually. Players who frequent forums, listen to podcasts, and read columns like this one behave very differently when set next to players who don’t. For example, we (and I mean me and you, the reader) look for optimal card choices, think about our decks, tend to have more decks put together, use online Magic search engines like magiccards.info, and are more likely to ‘pimp’ our decks with shiny foils, altered art, or foreign cards. The online community is also intensely well-informed; we know what cards are reprints, are frequently aware of market values and the reasons for prices in the secondary market, or at the very least, understand why revised dual lands are a fortune and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.
To contrast, ‘offline’ players specifically are not like players from the online community. They don’t visit forums, listen to podcasts with any regularity, can’t be bothered to read columns, or much care about the specificities concerning cards in their decks. They don’t go out searching for tech, but are happy to use it when they come across it. They see a revised dual land, or even a Ravnica block shock land, and think “man, that’s so expensive, but my Drowned Catacomb is almost as good.” Of course, these generalizations should be seen as a gradient; not all players in the online community exhibit all these behaviours, nor do all the ‘offline’ players. The final note about these two sorts of players: players in the online community are, by a huge margin, in the minority. Ask around at your local game store. Think about the number of people who bought the Commander product released in 2011 that you never saw again, except when they came in for a single or two. I want to be clear, I’m not casting aspersions on the kind of crowd that spends less time on Magic than the online community does; they just have other priorities that rank above slinging cardboard.
The market success of the initial Commander release in 2011 can be chalked up to a couple of factors. First, new players could run a deck out of the box. Just sleeve it up (or not), and start playing. But there were more attractive features to the set than that; older veterans would find new generals whose colour combinations were previously scarce, reprints that they may have been unable to find, while new players would get everything they need, and perhaps have the perception that the new cards would give them a chance against veterans who had it all. If there was any market research done here, it would have showed that the throngs of ‘offline’ players got everything they wanted: something they could play without spending more, doing more research, or needing to know anything special, all without breaking the bank, even if your store inflated the price a bit.
So, what does Commander’s Arsenal offer? The announcement says: sleeves, battle marks, a snazzy life counter, 18 foils which may or may not be reprints (but likely are, given that Sylvan Library is a reprint, and the scarcity of the product), and 10 oversized foils (which almost certainly are reprints of smaller cards, given that they could targeted by an effect that shuffles it into your library). All of this stuff is cool, to be sure. But, who is meant to buy it? The reasons that players bought into the 2011 release are simply not present here. It’s not playable out of box, some of it’s contents are barely playable at all (you could, after all, only play with so many oversize cards in one deck), the cards, when they’re finally spoiled, will probably be distributed somewhat evenly among all the colours, meaning that a player with one deck could not reasonably use them all, and really, we all used dice or whatever was handy for counters and life totals anyway. All this could be yours for more than double the MSRP of the initial release. Oh, and that price isn’t a guarantee: far more likely, retailers will inflate the price, given that it will be least as scarce as the From the Vaults series, if not moreso. Sadly, the MSRP is probably driven by the battle marks; anyone in the boardgame industry will tell you that the non-paper, non-cardboard materials like metal pieces or miniatures are the most expensive of the bunch, and really, it makes a certain amount of sense when you start comparing the primary market for card games to the market for miniatures.
Commander’s Arsenal seems to be marketed toward a certain subset of the online community, the variety of player that cares about foils (I don’t know anyone who cares about oversize stuff, from any community), and is willing to pay the MSRP, or more. They are, in essence, an extremely un-casual bunch in the casual format.
The high MSRP will not be well received by the ‘offline’ community: they may not necessarily know how much it costs to make battle marks with a reasonable markup for profit, but they will see a pile of cards that seems to be designed to be exclusive through price and scarcity. This is dreadful for a huge number of reasons. Firstly, ‘offline’ Commander players may see this as a real problem for their continued interest; they don’t play standard or legacy because of the perceived cost of playing, and if the dedicated Commander product is going to carry that kind of a price tag, they won’t want in. To exacerbate this, they may not know that it’s all likely to be reprints; meaning that they will see it as preying on players’ competitiveness for a profit. Finally, they will look down on their retailers, who, even if they charge 75 bones for this product, will be perceived as gouging their customers of a casual game. When they inflate the price beyond the MSRP, the ‘offline’ community, the majority of players, will walk away in disgust.
The failure to entice, and to even repulse a wide swath of the community is a disaster enough. To make matters worse, the release and subsequent activity with the product will send false positive market signals to Wizards. Wizards will make money and Commander’s Arsenal will sell out, everywhere. But not because it’s popular with the entire crowd. It will sell out because it is expensive and scarce, which attracts it’s own special kind of consumer that enjoys the product because it’s expensive and scarce. These are known as Veblen goods, and this is the exact appeal that leads people to loading their decks with foils and the like, and explains why ‘budget pimping’ is not, and will never be, a phenomenon. Conspicuous consumption is only possible for the few, and generally not attractive to the many. Wizards might conclude that the product was wildly popular (“We couldn’t keep it on the shelves!”), and go on to print more oversized cards, and more foils, and more scarce releases, which only a tiny set of players actually want.
More than anything, the marketing failure here is its timing: a year has elapsed since the first Commander product was released and Commander’s Arsenal is the product line’s second release. The most casual players have been playing with Kaalia, or Riku, or whoever for a year, and have never known anything else. They want more, and Commander’s Arsenal is not only going to fail to deliver, but have the door slammed in its face because of price, perceived retailer greed, and because it smells like a bait-and-switch on the part of the manufacturer, who made an accessible product last year, but a highly exclusive one this year. Worse still, when the Commander’s 2013 release comes into view, will the witnesses to Commander’s Arsenal even be watching?
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