Unlocking the Vault #38: Online Vintage

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Wizards announced last week that the Power 9 will be available to draft in Cube in early 2013. This “Powered Cube” will be available for a short time, but offers MTGO users the first glimpse into playing with Power online. It will also serve as a gateway to bringing Vintage online as well. According to the article:

“…with Magic‘s 20th anniversary on the horizon, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than letting our fans collect-and build decks with-these amazing cards [the Power 9] before the end of 2013.” — Chris Kiritz, Magic Online Business Manager

For those clamoring to get online Vintage, this is certainly a welcome announcement. While not the first time Wizards has declared that Power will eventually make its way online, this was the first official statement and also the first time that they indicated a timeline for release. The patience of those that have bought into Classic with the intent to buy-in early for Vintage will soon be validated as well. For those who appreciate Classic for all its warts and wrinkles, however, this is a bittersweet moment.

While Vintage online will surely bring more attention and perhaps a larger player base, without any sort of indication from Wizards to solve the problems of online Eternal formats (sans Modern, which Wizards regularly holds sanctioned events for), Vintage will run into the same exact problems that Classic has, albeit with a corresponding paper equivalent. I suppose in this way it will likely mirror online Legacy.

Prize Support

While it’s unreasonable right now to expect Wizards to offer a solution to this long-time issue when they don’t know exactly when or how the Power 9 will be released, it does not hide the fact that this will be the largest problem facing online Vintage in the future. Paper Vintage tournaments pay out much more than 12 Standard-legal digital packs for winning/going undefeated. Even Premier event payouts, if they ever fire, will pale in comparison to what is typically expected in a Vintage tournament. Yes, the buy-in for such paper tournaments is typically higher than $6 for a Daily Event and $10 for a Premier Event (or 6 and 10 tickets, respectively, online), but all things considered, the overhead cost for hosting a paper tournament is much higher than a digital event, not to mention the cost of awarding prizes in paper versus just creating prizes that are essentially 1′s and 0′s.

I’m going to go out on a very short limb and say that Wizards will be unable to scale the entry costs and/or prizes for Vintage online due to some convoluted gambling law(s) that most likely the lawyers that wrote said law(s) in the first place couldn’t properly explain. That said, I imagine that the initial interest revolving around having the Power 9 online will lead to quite a few events firing early on. Over time, however, I don’t see much hope for anything slightly better than what we have already online with Legacy. For a few weeks this fall, Legacy was firing an event each day, usually between 16-24 people. My expectation is that this will be the best-case scenario for Vintage once the initial fervor dies down, and assuming the prize structure remains the same.

Once people realize that their expensive Vintage collection can only pay them back a few tickets each week barring a winning streak rivaling the 1972 Miami Dolphins, disappointment will set in. This leads me to the next pressing topic…

How much will the Power 9 cost?

This is impossible to guess at the moment since we don’t know exactly how they will be released. Much digital ink has been spilled about the way with which Wizards can release the Power 9, so I won’t go into incredible detail here, but I will outline some of the more realistic possibilities. There may, however, be something that hasn’t been considered, such as a reward for all users to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the game (similar to how they awarded players for the 10th anniversary of MTGO earlier this year). All that being said, Wizards has indicated that they wish to keep the Power 9 “mythical” in nature, which basically means that they fully expect them to have some after-market value which should be higher than most, if not all other cards online (yes, Force of Will is a curious case).

1. Draftable Product – Naturally, the best way for Wizards to monetize the Power 9 is to release them in a draftable set. Master’s Edition 5? Vintage Matters? Whatever they call it, it will be a huge cash grab for Wizards, especially if they space out the release as they did with the pre-Mirage sets. If they chose to go down that route, and spread out their release over multiple products (to further maximize revenue), the order that they release them will be the key to the price.

Even if the drafts are as terrible as Masques Block drafting, the allure of the Power 9 should carry significant weight. Whereas there were just a couple of “good” cards in Masques Block, the Power 9, plus whatever else gets thrown in, should be enough to fire these events as often as Wizards can host them. I fully expect that people will be falling over themselves to grab as much Power as they can find and always going for elusive foils.

In terms of maintaining the mystique of the Power 9, a draftable product is the best way to make each and every piece of Power desirable. Drafting is inherently addicting and satisfying when you pull out a Standard-legal mythic; imagine the euphoria when you see a Black Lotus in your draft pack, or better yet, a foil one!

2. From the Vault: ?? – Wizards has released a From the Vault set each year since 2009. Until they say otherwise, we can expect that there will be another in 2013. Conveniently, nothing has been announced yet as to the theme of the set, which leaves open the possibility that the Power 9 could be included in the next iteration. The problem lies obviously in the fact that there has been an equivalent paper release each year and the Reserve List prohibits such a product from happening in paper. However, there is no steadfast rule whereby Wizards has to release only 1 FTV-style set for digital purposes. They could keep the same theme and simply call it something else altogether. They could even throw in 6 other expensive cards to make an even 15. This could bring down the cost of cards such as Force of Will, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Rishadan Port, Wasteland, Lion’s Eye Diamond, and Tangle Wire or other similarly expensive cards online.

Assuming that all Power 9 are released in this way, the after-market cost for the Power 9 will initially be quite low so long as there is no strict limit to how many can be purchased or there is a short window to purchase them (such as 2 weeks). Over time however, without any other way to get new cards into the system the prices should rise, but I fully expect that the prices will remain quite low in comparison to their paper counterparts.

However, the mystique of the Power 9 would be lost when releasing them in one fell swoop without so much as needing anything other than a credit card to acquire them. The odds of this happening are quite low, in my opinion.

3. MOCS Prizes – Wizards can easily find 3 other cards that will be on par with the theme of the Power 9 to make an entire year’s worth of MOCS prizes geared towards Vintage. Force of Will, Vampiric Tutor, and Mana Crypt would be a great start. Releasing the Power 9 as MOCS promos will also limit the number foil copies in the system, which would make them perhaps the most sought-out cards ever released online (perhaps only a foil promo Force of Will would be in more demand since only 8 playsets would exist). Obviously, this would create a massive problem as speculators would likely buy more of these promos than would actual players, leading to massive price gouging, though I’m not sure that won’t be the case if Power is released in a draftable set either.

4. MOPR Rewards – The simplest way would be to offer the Power 9 as MOPR rewards. This will allow everyone the ability to access them if they enter enough events and/or buy enough tickets to “earn” them. It does lead to some issues with distribution since it will be difficult to hand out a Mox Emerald as a Tier 3 and 4 reward while saving Black Lotus for Tiers 7 and 8 or higher.

What is an acceptable price for the Power 9?

Perhaps more interesting than speculating about what the Power 9 will cost is this: What is a reasonable price that the Power 9 would need to be before they are viewed as “too expensive”? We already know what Classic has had to endure from those that believe it is too expensive; imagine what Vintage would look like. Clearly, there would be a much larger player base interested in Vintage than an online-only format such as Classic, but the cost premium for that level of interest will likely be relatively modest.

The line in the sand is clearly Force of Will. Players have opined for years that the cost of a playset of Forces was too high. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen the card climb as high as $150 and as low as $80 (temporarily during the recent Master’s Edition celebration). It’s steadily held its value around $95-115 tickets in the last 12-18 months. Since a playset of Black Lotus (Loti?) is 1, one can assume that a $400 Lotus would be viewed in much the same way that that a playset of Forces would be. However, this would be ignoring the total cost of acquiring all 9 cards plus Forces, plus all the other cards necessary for competitive Vintage (dual lands, fetch lands, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and so on).

My best guess for the price of the Power 9 that Wizards would be comfortable with, would be probably $400-500 for the set. That would mean that Black Lotus would be about $100, Ancestral and Time Walk would be about $60-70 each, the Moxen would range from $35-60 each, and Timetwister would be around $35. Taking into account the current prices for Classic decks, Blue-based Vintage decks would be well in excess of 1,000 tickets online. Besides the current crowd of Classic players, which I would imagine adopt Vintage at a greater-than-80% rate, how many current non-Eternal players would pick up online Vintage when it would cost upwards of $2,000 to build most Vintage decks? This is a problem for sure.

What about those Classic players that are already maxed out on their budget?

This is a big concern that not many people consider to bringing Vintage online. It’s generally assumed that even those with modest budgets in Classic will scrounge up the money to acquire the Power 9, but I’m not so sure that everyone will be able to do this. Right now, Dredge and Workshop decks are generally cheap to build from scratch in Classic. I’d imagine there are a few players who play in events but only have Dredge, Workshop, or even Hate Bears decks available to them.

It would not be a stretch to see those people abandon not only Classic, but Eternal as a whole, if they don’t believe they can afford to pay for the Power 9 and the Power 9 is viewed as a requirement for competitive play (which is basically is). While this is not true for Classic versions of Dredge, which is nearly card for card a Vintage deck adjusted for metagame factors, this will not be true for Workshop decks. Workshop decks will require Power, or at least the Moxen and Black Lotus.

What about Affinity players? That deck is incredibly cheap to build in Classic and it is competitive. With Vintage, I’m not sure that deck will survive. Same goes for Merfolk, Goblins, Elves, and other fringe Classic decks that will be obsolete the second people can build decks with Power.

What should Classic players do now that Vintage is imminent?

Well, for one, not playing with the cards that you already own is counterintuitive. Being rewarded for playing with your cards in tournaments will remain unchanged, so hopefully people don’t stop supporting the format waiting for the day that full Vintage is available and Classic is fully obsolete. With regard to the Classic League featuring The Classic Invitational, nothing will change until we get some clarity on the release of Power 9. If it somehow manages to be released before the Invitational, then we will continue with the active season and start the next season with Vintage (barring some major issues such as card availability problems). After the Invitational is finished, we’ll have to review all the information available at the time M14 is released to decide if we should move forward with another season of Classic or wait for Vintage. Hopefully, we’ll also have some clarity on Leagues, which have been promised to be available in the new client.

With regard to card values, I would be hesitant to go out and buy up Vintage/Classic staples that are already available; both for speculating and for purchasing them “while they are still cheap.” It’s possible that a Vintage Masters Edition will have reprints of all the key cards already in the client as well as those that still are not available such as Virtues Ruin, etc. and a bunch of other useless junk (Magical Hack anyone?).

I think the example set forth by Modern Masters is a great way to possibly launch the Power 9. If you increase the cost of the packs that are draftable and place a strict limit on how many you are comfortable “printing”, then you can maintain the mystique of the Power 9, help provide more access to the other expensive cards that are required for Vintage, and make a boatload of cash along the way. If I were to bet money on what method Wizards will choose to introduce the Power 9 online, it would be as a Vintage Masters Edition in the model of Modern Masters. It would also mean that they would be printing the best cards from the genesis of the game through Lorwyn Block in the matter of less than 12 months. It makes too much sense. All Wizards needs to do is work out the fine details and start the hype machine.

How big does Vintage need to be online?

I’m sure that Wizards has their own expectations on how active they would like to see Vintage online. I think they would be happy to fire events on a regular basis, certainly more than Classic already has. To them, more tournaments means more revenue, so the more, the merrier. So, how many active Vintage players would be needed to fire regular events?

My estimation is that there are about 75-100 active Classic players who either play in tournaments or own the necessary cards to play in the Tournament Practice room. Some of those who only play in the TP room don’t have any desire to play in a real tournament and are completely comfortable not doing so. That being said, I would imagine that it would take a competitive player base of more than 100 people to reliably fire events on a regular basis. The actual number might be closer to 200, however, so I’ll use that as a guideline.

I find it hard to believe that we could not add 50-100 more people to our current Classic community in order for events to regularly fire. Even if only 10% of the paper Vintage players adopt online Vintage, that is surely more than 50-100 people, right? I suppose prize support will be a big factor in keeping these players remaining active. Hopefully there is some sort of plan for a MOCS-style Eternal tournament series to attract people to the format(s). Just look at last year’s Winter Celebration. Classic was able to fire dozens of events over a 3-week period with the goal to win some amazing prizes. The old saying, “if you build it, they will come,” certainly applies here.

Sensitive Subject

The release of the Power 9 online is certainly a touchy subject. On one side of the fence you have those who want to keep the Power 9 mythical and treasured, while the other side of the fence wants them cheap to attract more players to Vintage online. I can see a happy medium, though there will always be people on the extremes who are unhappy with whatever method of distributing the Power 9 Wizards chooses.

In the end, it will be impossible to make everyone happy, and it seems that Wizards finally has come to that conclusion and will now move forward with planning the release to satisfy the highest number of players. I can’t wait to play with Power online, but I will certainly be sad to see Classic go. I will, however, continue to promote the format until the day that Wizards finally pushes Classic out the door.

Clan Magic Eternal
Follow me on Twitter @enderfall

  1. One problem with it being releases as Mopr is that only US players would be legally eligible to get them. I know a lot of people are signed up to the Mopr without living in the us. But would wotc be willing to release them as that and in a way leave all but US players out?

    I’m more in favor of the MOCS alternative even if I would hate waiting 9 months between the first til the last card… It would certainly not be good for the meta.

  2. @The rest of the world says: You are right, MOPR would place an unfair advantage for those in the US and would also expose people from around the world to breaking their country’s laws. I suppose that would be unrealistic for WOTC to do. Thanks for bringing that up, I had forgotten that MOPR was U.S. only.

  3. I like the ring of “Vintage Edition.” That would be a nice place to release the power, plus it doesn’t have the word “Masters” in it, so they could put Force of Will on it without running amock of any silly promises made on the WoTC message boards.