MTG: It’s Not Gacha

I try not to shoot from the hip on matters like these.

I try not, generally speaking, to do long-form articles about important topics where the subject matter is high impact and there are well-intentioned people who look uninformed to me. It’s a sure-fire way of wading into a complex situation where I contribute no actual value, just noise.

Plus, this is the intersection of Magic: the Gathering, game development, and human incentive systems, which I’m sorry to say I’m rapidly doing things that make me kind of expert on, even if I shy from being considered an expert. There’s a whole gulf of information between where I sit and where a lot of other voices on the matter sit, which can make me feel like I’m either talking over them (because they don’t know what they’re talking about, and don’t realise that) or that I’m getting into an extremely contentious fight (because they know what they’re talking about, and are presenting falsehoods and do not care).

Still, it’s April, it’s my month, you’re here on my blog so sit down, shut up, and learn why every time people compare Gacha to Magic: the Gathering I roll my eyes so hard it makes my skull ache.

Differences of Scale

In any given Magic: The Gathering set in a modern printing, there are about sixty rares, and twenty-three mythic rares. Mythic rares happen about once every eight packs. So, if you want one mythic rare, and you want to pop boosters for it for a chance to get it, you hypothetically need to pop 184 boosters to have a ‘statistical chance’ to get the mythic rare you want, or about a .5% chance to get that mythic rare.

Now, again, let’s set aside just how bad an idea this is. Let’s just say this is how you’re going to do it. Pop boosters until you get the card and you get a .5% chance, give or take some rounding.

Gacha games obviously vary, and those games use a host of variable systems to make your chances more or less reliable, so it’s hard to say what those chances are on average for their rarest stuff, but some games – some very popular and very well liked Gacha games, Gacha games I’ve seen my friends playing have rates for their rarest pulls during fortnight-long events at .007%.

Not 7%. Not .7%. .007%.

Magic: The Gathering’s rarest game objects by the worst method of obtaining them can be hundreds of times easier to get. And these Gachas offer paid boosters at roughly the same prices as Magic boosters too!

Which honestly doesn’t matter, because Gacha games and Magic purchases aren’t comparable in this way because of…

Differences of Ownership

Magic Cards are physical objects. When you pop a booster, you don’t get a bunch of digital stuff on a drive, you get actual physical devices, objects that are exchangeable, and tradable. You might find that other people want what’s from your boosters, and that stuff is yours to trade away. You can even sell it for money. Is it worthless? It’s probably not worth a lot, because value concentrates around the best cards in any given set, but the point is this stuff is yours and you can make choices about that.

In Gacha games, by default, there’s no trading mechanism, and why should there be? There’s no reason for you to be able to play swapsies with these digital items. Heck, from the perspective of the company doing it, trades are probably really annoying to implement.

Since the cards are a physical object, and unregulated, you can trade them with other people, and there are even stores that exist, and those stores have a reason to want to maintain a stable business, so you can take your cards to them, and sell them to them and they’ll get you involved in the business of trading and playing the game. They get more money over time if you keep coming to them, so their motivation to rip you off isn’t exactly strong.

And these stores will sell you specific cards you want.

Let’s use that idea of you gunning for a specific Mythic Rare by popping boosters. Let’s use the most expensive mythic from Guilds of Ravnica as an example, Arclight Phoenix.

As of the time I write this, Arclight Phoenix is $30 on Starcity Games, and it is out of stock at that price. The demand for this sucker is pretty high and the card is pretty good. Don’t worry about why, it doesn’t matter. The point is, you can have this card for the price of 5 boosters, which beats the snot out of buying 184 boosters to hope and crack it (at a rate of around $1,104).

Now, yes, that is pretty pricey, and we’ll get to that later, but the point is, this card is good but expensive and in an external market, there’s a way to get it that costs you way less. Gacha doesn’t typically have a secondary market (though we’ll get to Artifact later).

Do I recommend you go out and buy a playset of Arclight Phoenixes? No, not really. This is not a card you should be buying as your first point of investment in Magic: The Gathering and there’s no urgent need for you to have it right now unless you have some really weird priorities. The ‘default way’ of playing Magic: the Gathering isn’t going to ask you to have an Arclight Phoenix.

There are other, even more expensive cards out there, and we’ll get to that later.

For now, though, the introduction of this secondary market is important, because of…

Differences In Distribution

Know who makes money off Gacha purchases? The company that runs the game. They spend some of that money on running servers (which are often in-house), they spend some of that money on developing new services for their game, and they spend some of that money on promotion and advertising and all that stuff, but the root purchase goes straight to the company, and that company then decides how they spend it.

Know who makes the most money off a Magic: The Gathering booster? Well, based on current industry metrics, the people who drive the trucks transporting those boosters around. Around 50% of board and card game purchases are made up of transport and distribution costs. Some of the booster sales go to the store where you bought them, and they purchased the boosters off Wizards, but between Wizards and the game stores, there’s the distributors, who pay a large percentage of their costs in getting the objects around the world.

I swear with corporate diagrams like this I’m surprised I’m defending these people

Now, Wizards still make a profit on Magic: the Gathering, because lots of people buy boosters, and supplemental products. But the people getting paid for Magic: the Gathering includes a host of people who aren’t Wizards. Boosters go up and down based on the cost of paper, disposal methods, localisation teams, and a lot of what’s going on involves a number of intermediary businesses, and changes in those businesses has impacts on Wizards.

Now, this isn’t to say that Wizards have a more moral position than anyone else, but it changes the relationship between Wizards on the profit-per-sale and the demands on what a booster is worth. Because if a Gacha game sets a price for a booster, that’s how much they get. That means from their perspective, they get a lot more profit per-booster, and therefore, they have a very direct reason to want you to buy lots of boosters. Wizards want you to buy a lot of boosters too, and ideally, they’d like you to buy more. But if you buy twenty boosters trying for one card, you’re not paying them twenty booster’s worth of money. You’re paying that to your local store, to transport, and distributors, and printers.

And that secondary market? The explosive rares like Arclight Phoenix? That’s not valuable from Wizards’ perspective, not really.

See, the secondary market is typically driven by a few forces. One is a few chase formats like Vintage and Commander where players will often spend a disproportionate amount on cards that seem weird to everyone else, but which largely don’t matter, and don’t drive play or attendance. One of them is casual appeal (and we’ll get to that). Then there’s tournament success, where players will buy cards to build constructed decks that are likely to win in constructed formats.

But remember, Wizards make money on the boosters. They don’t make money on the sale of the Arclight Phoenixes that have already been popped. Those sales go to a secondary seller. If a card becomes too valuable, what happens is, stores start popping boxes of product in large volumes to get the chase card, and sell that chase card at the highest rate they can.

Booster boxes have fixed value from Wizards’ perspective; they sell them for (about) $100, and retailers pay less for them, for about 36 boosters. That means that any given mythic should show up once every six boxes… which means if a card becomes worth (say) $100 on its own, card stores are better off opening boxes and selling all the singles in them. This puts a ceiling on the possible prices of a mythic rare, and that means the rest of the cards in that box wind up being ‘free.’

We’ve seen this happen, by the way. Wizards deliberately started putting in chase cards in a few sets to push down the prices of other rares and it resulted in some very good, reliable cards selling very cheaply and that made the formats they were good in very accessable. It was a cool thing.

But again: Wizards don’t control the secondary market. They don’t run these stores. They don’t profit off them, they profit off the sales of boosters. From their perspective, what changes the amount of money they make is not single overpowered cards, but lots of people playing the game a lot. They want you to engage with the secondary market by coming to the store more and playing more, not so they can scoop up some kind of kickback for buying Arclight Phoenixes, but because you playing the game makes it more likely other people will play the game with you, and you’ll all buy boosters, because boosters are fun and cool.

By the way, this is why I side-eye Artifact. Because the people who make that game have that game’s secondary market, which gives them an incentive to make people turn over their collections often so they can collect the fees.

Differences of Purpose

All this talk of Boosters and math makes my head hurt anyway, because it acts as if Boosters are how you get the Magic cards you want, which they’re not. Boosters are not a tool for getting cards. If they were, they’d be garbage at it. You saw those odds, .5%? Hundreds of dollars to get a card that may be at best, worth, what, $30?

Boosters are boosters. Boosters are made, and designed to be a game-complete unit on their own.

There’s a way to play Magic: The Gathering called Booster draft. It is one of the two easiest to approach tournament formats that exist, and it is a format full of creature math and building tight decks, and it both rewards very specific skill, and strives to sort out for random good or bad luck.

What you do in Booster Draft is you get three boosters – that’s usually the price of entry, by the way, just the cost of three boosters. You open the first booster, take one card, and pass the rest on. The player to your side did the same thing, and now you have a different booster, minus one card, to choose from, and so on. This is a great format, it’s a good way to build skill, and it’s a good way to build a collection. If you want to play tournament magic, this is absolutely one of your best starting points.

Some of the articles harping on this point used the entry point for formats called Legacy and Vintage as their data points. This is pure crap. Those formats are functionally vestigial. Wizards are not looking to recruit players into playing Vintage or Legacy, because those formats are both fundamentally constricted (the number of cards) and entirely secondary (Wizards have promised not to print the cards that define those formats ever again).

Oh, and because this is my month, fuck it, here, let’s get really petty: I see you, Person I Don’t Even Remember The Name Of, complaining about the high prices of Legacy sideboard card Moat keeping him from playing Legacy competitively, and therefore, a sign of how much of a bad game Magic: The Gathering is and how problematically exploitative it was. I see you passing off the high cost of a bad format as a proof of Magic: The Gathering‘s tournament scene being inaccessible.

In that article, you said that Legacy was a ‘financially rewarding’ tournament environment and all I could think is are you kidding me and my balls. There is going to be one Magicfest in 2019 that’s Legacy. There were four Limited Magicfests in February alone. If you fail to get rich playing Legacy, it’s not because of the price of Moats, buddy.

Differences of Data

Wizards markets Magic. They want you to think it’s cool and buy it. They do this by making the game serve a whole variety of communities, with different axes of art, gameplay, expression and culture. Straight up, I am 100% certain that for all the moral footing of making Magic more inclusive and pushing to get more queer and millenial people into their market, is because there are people in that age range with money.

Yet because Magic is a product on cardboard that has to be mailed around the world, if they want to make art for a card they hope you, specifically, will like, they have to decide that months in advance, pay for the artwork, get it out there, and hope that you find it and hope it makes you want to buy their products. And they have to make that decision knowing that they’re putting this stuff out there for a lot of people, and what product they release, even in varied bits, is going to be trying to appeal to a very big audience with a lot of different people in it. They can’t make the game display Tity Witches for one player and make it show Tity Witches Waving Flags Saying Trans Rights for another.

Meanwhile, Gacha games weaponise the data gathering of your phone.

This isn’t a controversial issue, by the way. This isn’t some secret sleazy practice that some companies do, but the majority of Gacha game makers think, no, we are noble and honourable and would never. It is fundamental to these games that run out of your phone that they are absolutely gathering all the data they can on you, and they are setting up algorithms to tailor that game experience to you on your phone so that your version of the game is as psychologically satisfying as possible.

Some of these games go so far as to subtly change the success sound on a Gacha pull until they find the one you’ll consistantly listen to all the way through. And why shouldn’t they? There’s nothing stopping them from doing these intensely creepy things. They’re not just selling you an object they’ve made, they’re marketing an experience to you to get you into their platform so you will keep giving them money. It’s straight up platform capitalism, and it’s so different from the studies that show that ‘the moment you open a booster is exciting.’

Now, this is not a fixed point. After all, there’s no reason to believe that if Wizards of the Coast could take the thumbprint reactions off your phone to the types of Magic card that you liked best, they wouldn’t do that, because they are still a company. But they’re trying to make something in a different way, and they can’t tailor their product to your unique psychological responses.

Differences of Access

Fact is, if Wizards shut down tomorrow, every single card you own (with the exception of Urza’s Head) would work. They would work fine. If they banned your favourite card tomorrow, there is nothing they can do to make you stop using that card.

Because all of this talk about tournament formats and secondary markets is ignoring the single most common Magic format. It’s called Casual, and the cards legal in it are ‘what I own.’

Players, broadly speaking, play Magic without a central authority, without tournament structures, without net decks, without an eye towards the next stage of the pro tour and without anyone able to stop them. And this is the biggest thing with Magic: The Gathering that sets it apart from Gacha games and why the comparison between Magic and its ludicrous secondary market as a booster purchasing motivator, in that none of those things are necessary to play the game in the vast, vast majority of ways the game is played.

Is any of this to say that Magic: the Gathering is a perfectly moral game system? No, not insofar as it’s a capitalist system. It’s connected to and rewards Hasbro, who do shady shit, and it’s in the same company that makes 5th Edition D&D, which has both uplifted and tried to defend (in the past) the actions of utter monsters (Mike Mearls Retire Binch), even as it now tries to make amends.

Does it reward gambling in children? Not really, I don’t think. Even if it does, that’s a different conversation, and maybe one we can have. But it’s hard to have that conversation when there are these other, much more bullshit conversations happening, like the conversation that wants to compare Magic: The Gathering having a Legacy format and Fate: Grand Order asking you to spend five thousand dollars in a week to get a character wearing a sexy bikini.

Don’t worry, if you’ve made these comparisons. It’s okay. This is a topic where there’s a lot of complicated things going on, and it’s hard to know them all. One commenter on my twitter feed remarked that when it comes to Magic it’s either a topic you know nothing about or something you have a mini-PhD on, and yeah, I guess that’s where I’m coming at this from.

This isn’t even the thing that pisses me off the most about the conversation around Magic: the Gathering.

After all, some business assholes have taken to comparing Magic: The Gathering to bitcoin.

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