30 Years of Magic: The Gathering

I wasn’t there for the very beginning of Magic. In 1993 I’d have been in 4th grade, and not yet into the swing of getting any sort of regular allowance to fuel such expenditures. I seem to recall Tempest being the first set that I got into, and I’m pretty sure I came in near the end of that, so I must have been a high school freshman at that point. The shelves of the various, rather small establishments that would eventually be “local game stores” were still well stocked with 4th edition, 5th edition, and Ice Age. For some reason in my neck of the woods, vaguely Nashville, TN, Chronicles through Weatherlight weren’t as well stocked as the, I assume more heavily printed, 4th/5th/Ice Age sets (though I did have a bit of Portal back then, which felt oddly fake due to the differences in font).

30 is a big number. It’s a multiple of both 5 and 10 so as a species we’re conditioned to expect some fanfare befitting a gorilla-brain “I can count that by flashing my hands a few times” number. Wizards/Hasbro has decided to reprint the old Collector’s edition, which was a set of older cards with an alternate card back, and therefore not tournament legal. This went for about $60 at the time, and came with a full set of cards and plenty of basic lands.

The 30th Anniversary version of this is… not $60. It’s $250 per pack of 15 random cards, sold only in sets of four. There’s no guarantee of what cards you’ll get in these packs, so if you weren’t around and playing magic back in ’93/’94 you can finally experience the thrill of maybe cracking a dual land or one of the power 9… for $250 a shot. What a nightmare.

Is this inhibiting your ability to “celebrate” the 30th Anniversary of Magic: the Gathering? Of course not. Is that even a thing you should care about? Probably not. It’s not up to the players to do that, anyway, or at least it shouldn’t be. If Wizards wants the 30th Anniversary to be a big deal for its players, it’s really on them to back that happen. This is not the product for making that happen. In pricing out the vast majority of players from being able to get at this product, they’re showing that they’ve put a lot of thought into how to best exploit a very specific type of financial speculator, and that feels like a dark path for a game that I would have otherwise hoped to try and get my kids into at some point.

What’s personally, perhaps uniquely depressing (or perhaps not so uniquely based on much of the other rambling on this topic), is that this is something I’ve wanted to see them do for awhile, but not like this. This year, in the midst of this presumed 30th anniversary “celebration” they’re releasing a set called “The Brother’s War,” a time-travel set going back to the beginning of Magic’s story. What more perfect place could there be to just straight up reprint all these older cards? Even if they felt the need to keep a special slot per pack for non-tournament-legal, alternate-back printings for the reserved list stuff it would have been celebrated by the whole of the player base as a wonderful move to push the set. Packs of that junk would be flying off the shelves for a chance at those, and everyone would be able to get a little piece of it. For more fun, make them legal for the draft where they get cracked, but illegal for constructed. Your precious original printings remain valuable because they’re still the only legal versions in their formats, but players get to, you know, have fun with the game? The “play” in “player” is supposed to be that thing you do for having fun, right?

$999 for 60 random proxies is just the worst kind of madness. Mechanically unique Secret Lair cards were bad enough in their work to exploit the FOMO feels, but this is a bridge too far. The way the company has presented it, a video stream where three people, possibly under duress, describe the product while trying to keep a straight face is one of the more unsettling things I’ve seen with this game’s products. This product is so cynical that the whole rest of the game, indeed the brand, suffers in my mind because of it. I had already hit a point where I wasn’t buying sealed product (though I had seriously considered getting a few boxes of Unfinity). Now I think I’m done looking for any of it.

What’s next? We’ve seen continuing absurd escalation. Where could it go from here? $999 for 60 proxies can’t be the end of this madness. I now expect, within 10 years, that we’ll see limited, tournament-legal printings of the reserved list, but it will be treated as an actual “reserve.” Every year a shortlist of Reserved List cards, marked with the year of this latest printing, serialized. These will go to a handful of favored LGSes and sold with the same sort of back-room financing as car sales. Get yourself a copy of the 2040 Black Lotus, complete with gold-leaf embossed foiling, for just $20,000 or $693/mo. at 4.69% APR.

These really feels like a watershed moment. I think I’m finally done with this. I still like playing Magic, but just seeing how apparently desperate Wizards has become to milk the hell out of every possible facet and tier of player, I think the game for me is going to live on in the set of Commander decks I’ve curated, and even those I’ll likely try to keep paring down, and probably I’ll put together a cube since that seems to be the true connoisseur’s version of Magic. Seems appropriate as I’ve already taken some other long-dead mid-90’s card games and boardgame-ified them. This insanity probably won’t kill Magic, but I’m not sure I want to bother with a game that survives by producing this type of gatekept, predatory, absolutely desperate money-grab of a product.

However I keep playing this game, there’s going to be a lot more proxies and they aren’t going to cost $250 per pack.