Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Counter Culture: Wizards of the Coast is At It Again

Today, Wizards of the Coast released a Trailer for their upcoming expansion to Magic: the Gathering, Throne of Eldraine.  The trailer is pretty darn cool.

However, there are two problems I have with the Trailer. 

One, at the end it very specifically advertises Magic: the Gathering Arena. Two, you can start playing with the cards in the Brawl format on Arena right now even though they don't release to us until the end of the month.

It truly seems that in the last few years, Wizards of the Coast's M:tG department has it in for local game stores. You know the guys that have kept the game going in the dark days between Fallen Empires and Lorwyn. They stopped distributing to us to focus on distributing to Amazon, Target, and Walmart.  They abolished MSRP so the big box stores can charge whatever they want. On top of that, they seem to be focusing on M:tG Arena, their new digital platform. 

What doesn't make sense to me is that for nearly two decades Magic: the Gathering Online shared the MSRP as the physical product, they wisely didn't discount their own product as a digital investment. That was ingenious. They didn't compete against us and their singles market often had very different prices than the physical singles market. It had to be a win-win for WotC. People come into my tournaments every week and meanwhile, if they can't sleep, they jump online and play there at the same price points.

I hear quite a bit about e-sports from WotC's new CEO. I understand it's a growth market, I do. But what has driven down Magic: the Gathering's attendance at tournaments of all levels has more to do with the health of the current economy (many new and returning players started up during the Great Recession because they were foolish enough to think it was an inexpensive hobby) where people are spending their money in different ways again. Other factors include poor quality control, poor playtesting, a really weird replacement for Pro-Tour Qualifiers, and a phase where WotC encouraged new stores to open in an existing markets. Generally speaking, players are either willing to play everywhere or play at only one store. WotC's been around long enough to remember that new stores might bring in 5 to 15% of new customers, however, those new stores break up the diehard players into smaller chunks and the whole market in an area collapses, with hopefully one or two stores surviving the process. They have seen this before and I guess just think they are smarter now, but they are not, these lessons are pretty clear to anyone doing this stuff long enough.

Another problem is a new tournament software that lets players at home run sanctioned tournaments without all the hoop-jumping that brick and mortar retailers go through to run do the same thing.

All of  these problems are impacted by the fact that WotC seems to resent the singles market because they don't get a slice of that pie. But a healthy singles market is necessary for a successful trading car game and they know this. They know this.

I'm sure Arena is solid profit center, there is no physical production costs and they get all the money. I'm a capitalist, I get it. But WotC isn't Blizzard and M:tG isn't Hearthstone. I'm sure their player bases overlap, but that doesn't make much difference. The culture of each product has been shaped for different customer expectations.

Then WotC breaks it's own street date while the retailers that support tournament play how can they not expect to have retailer dissatisfaction? Understand, Target and Walmart are renowned for breaking street dates but we have no recourse for that and now does it really matter if the manufacturer is doing it themselves?

For a few months I've been trying to figure out who they expect to run tournaments and I've come to realize they don't care about that because they have Arena and their physical players can buy their cards in the mass-market and they don't need us anymore because of the new tournament app. And that is okay, because I've been doing this long enough to plan for things like this. I don't have to fully support Magic: the Gathering for my stores to survive, I do that for my customers. Now I'm preparing for the day where they are not necessary for us, mostly because they already are preparing they day where we aren't necessary for them.

However, I think they underestimate the social value for their players. The Great Recession seemed like a good value for your money. You paid anywhere from $4 to $16 and you hung out with like-minded people for 3-5 hours every week. It was as cheap or cheaper than a movie and the players built relationships.

The path that WotC is taking won't end well for them, but this time they might not have their direct market to lean on when things go sideways.

1 comment:

Scott Anderson said...

It’s not about the money. Email me and I will explain. But not here.

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