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  • Writer's pictureA.J. Sobel

Magic: The Gathering and Microtransactions

As many of you have probably realized by now, I am something of a nerd (shocking, I know). As such, I’ve had more than a passing interest in the trading card game called Magic: The Gathering (MTG).

For those who have no idea what that is, the most accurate description I can give of it is this: Chess combined with math. Now if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, I just don’t know what will.

First released in 1993, it’s the brainchild of Richard Garfield, distributed by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) and to date has approximately twenty million players worldwide. It’s kind of a big deal.

Now, I’m going to try to stay out of the weeds as much as possible here; there are plenty of places where you can get more information on MTG finance (yes, that is a thing). However, there is some basic information you’re going to have to know so I can get my point across (Hopefully that won’t take too long).

Since its inception, Magic cards have generally been distributed and purchased using “booster packs.” These packs contain fifteen randomized cards that the player can use in the construction of a deck, and is the standard unit in which cards are bought and sold. It’s a model that has served the game incredibly well in the twenty-eight years it’s been around.

Got it? Good. And now for something completely different: Microtransactions.

Popularized by mobile games, microtransactions were originally used by developers to generate revenue from their free-to-play games. Small payments of two dollars or less netted the player anything from in-game currency to special items only available through the game’s store.

Since then, they’ve mutated into this gigantic monster swirling in controversy, federal investigations, and lawsuits, but that’s a different story and a different blog post. (Let me know if you guys want to know more about it in the comments, and I’ll see what I can do)

Let’s get back to Magic.

While the booster pack can be classified as a form of microtransaction, up until about five years ago, it was also a fair and reasonable way for people to get their hands on new cards – regardless of how deep the individual player’s pockets were. Obviously, the chances of getting valuable cards increased with the more booster packs you bought, but the odds of getting those cards from pack to pack remained the same.

Then supplemental products started to hit the scene.

Curated collections and custom-built decks containing rare and sought-after cards appeared, encouraging players to buy them simply for the one to two cards worth a damn.

Over time, certain product lines were discontinued and new ones were rolled in, but the idea remained the same: Small payments for exclusive material.

Then WotC upped the stakes. They began to include ultra-high-end cards with unique art in the basic booster pack. At the time, the statement they released said that 1 in every 144 booster packs contained these “lottery cards.”

Thus began their “frog in a pot” business model.

Specialty booster packs were released that might contain cards worth hundreds of dollars. However, the player had to pay double, triple, or in some cases, quadruple the price of the standard booster. Entire sets were released catered to “whales” (players willing to drop thousands of dollars on a whim).

At last, WotC dropped all pretense and released their pièce de résistance: The Secret Lair. Generally containing five to six of the best and most popular cards from throughout MTG’s history, they are rapidly finalizing the “pay-to-win” strategy that microtransactions have become known for.

The standard booster box (containing 36 booster packs), the bedrock on which Magic: The Gathering was built, has been shunted to the side in favor of a staggering array of supplemental and specialty products, each with their own chances at obtaining “rare” and “unique” cards.

Draft boosters, set boosters, collector boosters, master’s boosters, to say nothing of the prebuilt decks across all the various formats of play that MTG uses. Each of them containing cosmetic variations of the same cards and advertised as “special,” each one attached to a steadily-rising price point, preying on the individual player’s fear of missing out.

If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m not a fan of the course they’ve chosen.

The microtransaction has become one of the most devious and predatory sales tactics to come out of the consumer economy. It focuses on demographics that are ill-equipped to handle its allure and, in the case of Magic: The Gathering, upsets a delicate balance that has existed since the game began.

That being said, Wizards of the Coast is absolutely free to pursue any course of action they choose and has gone on record as stating that their products “may not be for everyone.” This includes the children the game is widely marketed towards.

Anyway, that’s my two cents, take it for what it’s worth. Six years ago, I would’ve directed anyone towards it as a rewarding and fulfilling hobby that gives you just as much as you’re willing to put into it. These days, if I wasn’t already so heavily-invested, I’m not sure it’s something I would try my hand at.


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