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Fixing Friday Night Magic (FNM) Promos


This week, Wizards announced the Friday Night Magic (FNM) Promo for February: standard all-star Fortune's Favor. Unfortunately for Wizards (and for the community), Fortune's Favor is essentially unplayable, being supplanted by Glimmer of Genius as the four-mana, instant-speed blue card-draw spell of choice for competitive decks in Standard. As a result, it seems unlikely that anyone will be especially excited about attending FNM at their local game store to get their copy of Fortune's Favor

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Of course, bad promos will happen. Predicting what cards will be good months or years in advance is an inexact science. As a result, Fortune's Favor, in and of itself, isn't a reason to cause too much of a stink. The bad news is that is Fortune's Favor seems to be part of a trend; to put it bluntly, Wizards has done a horrible job of printing playable and exciting FNM promos over the past couple of years. Before Fortune's Favor, we had Noose Constrictor (which is a fringe card at best), and before that Call the Bloodline, which isn't exactly lighting the format on fire. 

You might think that this doesn't really matter—FNM promos are essentially free value, so anything is better than nothing—but this isn't exactly true. The idea of FNM promos is to give players a reason to attend FNM, and how well the promos do their job is dependent on the promos themselves. I know many players who, when there's a good FNM promo (either playable or valuable), make attending FNM a priority. When it's Fortune's Favor, they may do something else instead, at least on some weeks, but when it's a card they really want, they'll clear their schedule and make sure they are in their local game store every single Friday night. As a result, not only is having quality FNM promos a huge boon for players, but they also help local game stores by increasing attendance and, in the long run, help Wizards as well by introducing new players to the game and keeping old players involved. 

So, today, we are going to be talking about two things. First, we are going to look at the problem and examine how FNM promos use to be high-quality, playable cards but have gone severely downhill in recent years. Second, we are going to talk about how Wizards can fix the FNM promo problems for the betterment of not only players but local game stores and itself. 

The History of FNM Promos—The Early Years

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FNM promos started all the way back in 2000, and while many of the cards from the early years are incredible, they can't really tell us too much about modern-day FNM cards because Wizards was working under far fewer restrictions. Today, nearly all FNM promos feature Standard-legal commons or uncommons (with rare exceptions for special releases like Modern Masters, for example). For the first decade of FNM promos, Wizards just printed whatever it wanted, which meant that Wizards had a ton of flexibility to work back through some awesome cards, which is how we ended up with not only the above cards but also Cabal Therapy, Cabal Coffers, Counterspell, Brainstorm, Mother of Runes, and many more as well. While I can't state with certainty just how excited people were for these cards back when they were being released, there is little doubt that the best promos from the early years of FNM promos were far better than any FNM promos we've seen recently, and that even the worst of the early-year promos are about on par with the typical FNM promo of today. 

The Mythic Era

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Around 2010, FNM promos took on their current form: 10 or 11 promos each year that focus exclusively on the Standard format, with one or two focused on older formats. You'd think that this shift away from the "anything goes" philosophy of the early years would lead to some lacking promos, but this couldn't be further from the truth. For the next few years, Wizards hit it out of the park with its FNM promo choices, with nearly every card being Standard playable, many being Standard staples, and a good number that still see play in Modern to this day. We'll do a year-by-year breakdown in a minute, but the biggest takeaway from these years is that Wizards has (or at very least, had) the ability to print FNM promos the way they do today but not print endless chaff that no one cares about. 

  • 2010: 2010 was sort of the transition year, with only eight of the 12 promos featuring Standard cards, but the choices were insane. Seven of the eight see play in Modern to this day, including the now-banned Bloodbraid Elf along with Wild Nacatl, Tidehollow Sculler, Qasali Pridemage, and Gatekeeper of Malakir, and even the one "miss"—Anathemancer—saw plenty of play in Standard, making the hit rate 100%.
  • 2011: 2011 had 11 promos that were focused on the Standard format, and eight were legitimate Standard staples like Wall of Omens, Squadron Hawk, and Savage Lands. Even the misses weren't really bad misses, with Artisan of Kozilek being a flavorful representation of Eldrazi, Jace's Ingenuity being somewhat playable in Standard, and Contagion Clasp being one of the best options for featuring the proliferate mechanic. Even discounting these three cards as "misses," the hit rate from 2011 was still a respectable 72%.
  • 2012: 2012 might have been the best FNM promo year of the mythic era. All 12 promos were Standard legal, and every single one was Standard playable. Fully half of them—Lingering Souls, Gitaxian Probe, Dismember, Ancient Grudge, Tectonic Edge, and Glistener Elf—see Modern play, giving 2012 another 100% hit rate. 
  • 2013: 2013 was another year of all-Standard FNM promos, and while it couldn't quite keep up with 2012, it was still a solid year of selections. The only real misses of the year were Dimir Charm and Call of the Conclave (and this is partly because Wizards wanted to have an FNM promo for each Ravnica guild, which limited options), and Call of the Conclave may not have been a miss at the time Wizards picked it—or at the very least, I would consider Call of the Conclave a good miss. (To me, "good" misses are misses that are more about the inexactness of predicting the meta months in their future than about Wizards slacking at its job. At the time, LSV ranked Call of the Conclave as tied for second most constructed playable in the Selesnya guild from Return to Ravnica, which means that even though the card didn't pan out, it was possibly the right choice when the decision was made). 
  • 2014: 2014 was almost exactly the same as 2013: all Standard cards, with nine of the 12 being Standard playable, and the misses including Tormented Hero (which may not have been a horrible choice at the time), Fanatic of Xenagos (which was also highly ranked during set reviews), and Encroaching Wastes

The point of all this is that, even with the newfound focus on printing (almost) exclusively Standard-legal cards as FNM promos, Wizards managed to hit an amazing amount of the time between 2010 and 2014. During this time, 55 Standard-legal promos were printed, and in my estimation, 47 were at least Standard playable (which, from my perspective, means they were fine choices for FNM promos). This means that over the course of a five-year period, Wizards "hit" on 85% of its FNM promo choices. 

The Last Two Years

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The last couple years of FNM promos have been downright embarrassing. In 2015, there were 10 Standard FNM promos (with the summer featuring two Modern cards—Path to Exile and Serum Visions—to celebrate Modern Masters 2015), and only half of them were hits. Here, we are using the word "hit" loosely to including any amount of Standard playability. Hordeling Outburst is arguably the best of the bunch, followed by a handful of utility spells like Ultimate Price, Roast, Anticipate, and Disdainful Stroke, which aren't especially exciting in the historical context of the game but were Standard playable, considering the lack of good removal in the format. On the other end of the spectrum, we have stuff like Frost Walker, Orator of Ojutai, and Abzan Beastmaster, which were not only utterly unplayable but also unexciting. Missing with Artisan of Kozilek is one thing, because Artisan of Kozilek is good for other formats and popular among casual players. Missing with Abzan Beastmaster and Frost Walker is an entirely different story—there isn't a group of Magic players in existence that wants these cards. 

Not to be outdone, 2016 (and the first two cards of 2017) has been like 2015 but somehow even worse. In total, there were 13 Standard FNM promos over this time, and only five of these cards are "hits." Once again, this is using a loose definition of "hit." We aren't talking about Bloodbraid Elf, Elvish Mystic, or even Sin Collector; instead, the best FNM promos include cards like Nissa's Pilgrimage, Clash of Wills, and Fiery Temper. Meanwhile, we have an endless stream of jank like Fortune's Favor, Crumbling Vestige, Call the Bloodline, Rise from the Tides, and Blighted Fen. Plus, remember back in 2010 when almost every FNM promo ended up being Modern playable? Over the past two years, only a single card can make that claim (Sylvan Scrying). 

Looking over just how bad these promos have been over the past year made me think that, perhaps, there simply weren't good options available. The community has made some noise about the lack of good cards at lower rarities in recent sets (at least, compared to past years), so maybe Wizards' hands are tied and it just doesn't have enough good uncommons and common to make into FNM promos. If this is the case, we still have a problem, but the problem is much bigger than FNM promos themselves and more about set design in general. So, let's take a look back over the past couple years of sets and see if this is true. As such, here's a list of eligible cards (meaning commons and uncommons) from past sets that could have been made into FNM promos. I will admit that this list has the benefit of hindsight. Looking back at cards and realizing they are good is much easier than looking forward, but this said, many of these cards were heavily hyped during spoilers and the idea that Wizards simply didn't realize they would be playable seems somewhere between silly and downright insane. 

As you can see from the list of cards, there have been plenty of good options available for FNM promos over the past two years, but in most cases Wizards has simply made the wrong choice as far as which cards from each set end up as FNM promos. Of course, as I mentioned a moment ago, we are looking at this with the benefit of hindsight, which definitely makes the job easier, but even if we try to put ourselves back in time to when the cards were being picked, many of the choices are simply baffling. 

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Take Khans of Tarkir, for example. I went back and read over some set reviews published before the set was officially released, and while many people underrated the power of Become Immense, Treasure Cruise, and even Monastery Swiftspear, everyone knew that the trilands would be heavily played in a three-color format, and LSV picked Murderous Cut as the single best card for constructed from the entire set. So, perhaps missing on delve is understandable, but going with Disdainful Stroke and Suspension Field over Murderous Cut is lunacy. 

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Another set that is particularly frustrating is Magic Origins, where Wizards not only missed on power level but also managed to go with some of the least flavorful options. If a promo is going to be bad, at least make it bad in a way that appeals to some segment of players. Elves are an incredibly popular creature type among casual players, and a card like Shaman of the Pack—even if Elves miss in Standard—will at the very least be popular with new and casual players looking to play with their favorite tribe. The same is true with cards like Whirler Rogue and Thopter Engineer for Thopter tribal and tokens decks. Instead, we ended up with extremely bland, second-rate removal and counters like Clash of Wills and Smash to Smithereens (which would have been more exciting in a world without Destructive Revelry). 

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Last but not least, we have Eldritch Moon, which is likely the biggest offender of them all because spoiler articles suggest that Wizards knew that at least some of the cards it chose not to make into promos would be important to Standard. Incendiary Flow received a ton of hype upon its spoiling, half of the community thought that Unsubstantiate was the second coming of Remand, and in the Reddit spoiler thread for Blessed Alliance, just about everyone declared that the card was playable. As for the cards we did get, Noose Constrictor is a justifiable choice considering its pedigree (as the second coming of former Standard all-star Wild Mongrel), but Fortune's Favor was mostly dismissed as soon as it was spoiled by a large part of the player base. Plus, Wizards knew that Glimmer of Genius was on its way, and Glimmer of Genius is going to be better in all but a very small percentage of decks. 

Fixing FNM Promos

So far, we've seen that FNM promos have without question become significantly weaker over the past two years, but we've also seen that Wizards has the ability to choose good promos if it wants to, because before 2014, its track record of printing FNM promos that were (at the very least) Standard playable was sterling. This suggests that Wizards has the ability to fix the problem if it wants to, which is a good thing. We've also discussed the importance of FNM promos bringing players into local game stores and potentially turning these people into regular players. Basically, having good FNM promos is not just a problem but a problem that is both fixable and meaningful.

Before talking about some ways Wizards can fix FNM promos, I should make it clear that my goal here is to be realistic. If Wizards wanted to, it could make each FNM promo a chase mythic like Emrakul, the Promised End or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, but when you look at the big picture, this isn't necessarily in Wizards' best interest because it could reduce the sales of boxes and packs. As a result, our primary focus isn't on card value. While I think Wizards can afford to include a bit more value in its FNM promos, I'm running off the assumption that most FNM promos are going to be relatively low in value, which is fine. FNM promos don't have to be exceedingly expensive to be good; they just have to be playable or desirable to some segment of the Magic-playing population. Anyway, here are some ways Wizards can (and should) fix the FNM promo problem.

#1: Decide on an Audience

What's the goal of Friday Night Magic promos? Is Wizards hoping to draw new players into local game stores or to make sure that existing Magic players clear their schedules to show up on Friday nights? What type of players is Wizards trying to bring in—casuals who are going to pick up some packs at their local game store or big box store, or aspiring Spikes who may transition from FNMs to their GP circuit? The type of promos Wizards chooses for Friday Night Magic should be dictated by their audience, and part of the failings of the past two years has been that Wizards' aim isn't clear. Worse yet, many of the promos of the past couple of years have been so inexpensive and bland that I'm not even sure they have an audience at all. Most Spikes are not going to attend FNM to get a copy of Disdainful Stroke, but Disdainful Stroke doesn't really appeal to casual players either, which begs the question: why make it a promo?

#2: Move beyond Standard

As we talked about before, during the golden age of FNM promos, Wizards didn't restrict itself to Standard-legal cards; it just printed sweet cards regardless of the format. While having the primary focus on Standard makes sense since the format is typically the gateway into Magic, having 90% (or more) of promos be Standard cards is likely excessive. Typically, Wizards prints three FNM promos for each Standard set that's released. If Wizards would drop this number down to two each set and use the extra slot to print a card for another format (Commander, Modern, even just sweet casual cards), the benefits would be twofold. First, four times a year, Wizards has a ton of flexibility in choosing a sweet promo, and there are a ton of awesome possibilities, especially for Commander. Could you imagine Thought Vessel, Bojuka Bog, Swiftfoot Boots, Burnished Hart, Commander's Sphere, and Return to Dust in foil with alternate art? Even though all of these cards are under $1, I'd show up at FNM to get them, and I'm sure a lot of other players would too. Second, reducing the number of FNM promos for each set means Wizards can focus on picking the two best cards from each set instead of hoping to "hit" on a long shot. Speaking of hitting on long shots:

#3: Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit

In recent years, we've had some super obvious choices for FNM promos that Wizards had passed over for no apparent reason like Murderous Cut, Incendiary Flow, the trilands, Wastes, Silumgar's Scorn, Shaman of the Pack, Stormchaser Mage, and others. For some reason, it seems like Wizards would rather attempt to go against the odds and hit on a long shot than make the most obvious choice and give players (and local game stores) a promo that will almost certainly be good. This shouldn't even be hard for Wizards. All it needs to do is look at its spoiler articles. When you have someone writing 2,000 words about an uncommon, it should probably be on the short list for possible FNM promos.

#4: Expand the Parameters

Last but not least, it may be time for Wizards to drop the "uncommons and commons only" rule in relation to FNM promos. As I mentioned before, we aren't going for high value, and I don't think that Wizards should be printing Smuggler's Copter or Sylvan Advocate as FNM promos, but there are a ton of spicy and fun (but low-value) rares that Wizards could (and should) use as FNM promos. Think of a card like Diregraf Colossus. It isn't worth any more than a good uncommon, and no one is going to buy a booster pack because they are hoping to open a copy of the pseudo-Zombie lord, but casual players love Zombies, and I bet that, with sweet alternate art, including some flavorful but low-end rares would drive attendance to FNM much more than random, semi-playable utility spells like Disdainful Stroke and Ultimate Price

Along the same lines, if Wizards is going to miss with FNM promos as far as power level and playability, it needs to err on the side of flavor. If a card is only going to be fringe playable (or even completely unplayable) in constructed, Wizards might as well just forget about the Spikes altogether and go after the Vorthos crowd. Remember back in 2010, when Contagion Clasp and Artisan of Kozilek were counted among the "misses?" These cards are examples of how Wizards should miss if it is going to print FNM promos that aren't especially Standard playable. If playability isn't a priority, at least make sure to miss on the flavor, instead of missing on both. 

Putting It All Together

Ideally, the solutions to the FNM promo problem will use a combination of our suggestions, which should give Wizards a ton of flexibility in printing cards that will bring players into their local game stores on Friday nights, increase attendance, and support the stores themselves.

What I'd like to see is this: a change to a schedule where, for every set release, Wizards has one FNM promo that is a rare from the newest Standard set (hopefully one that is either on point story-wise, like Call the Gatewatch or Geier Reach Bandit, or playable in Standard to some extent); one promo that is literally the best possible uncommon from the newest set, so whatever uncommon (or common) it hypes most during spoilers; and then wildcard month that can either be tied to a non-Standard set release (for example, Ashnod's Altar to promote and celebrate Eternal Masters or Commander's Sphere to promote Commander 2016) or just a playable card from Modern, Legacy, or Commander.

These cards don't have to be $10, but including some cards that are not complete bulk every now and then could be a good idea. I know a lot of people who attended FNM last summer when the Path to Exile and Serum Visions FNM promos offered free value, so if Wizards is really serious about increasing attendance for Standard events, it might need to loosen its purse strings a bit. Maybe the easiest way would be by using the "wildcard" (i.e., non-Standard) card slot to reprint some cards with a little bit of value. This way, Wizards isn't cannibalizing its booster box / pack sales, which means that printing some semi-valuable old cards as FNM promos comes at very little loss to themselves, considering Wizards is unlikely to use these cards to sell Standard-legal sets and most individual uncommons don't have the power or price to move a supplemental product by themselves. 

The bottom line is this: healthy and thriving local game stores are necessary for Magic to be a healthy and thriving game, so it's in Wizards' best interest to support its game stores in whatever way it can. One of the easiest ways Wizards can do this in the short term is by improving the quality of the FNM promos to bring more players into stores. Plus, the more players who show up to play Friday Night Magic, the more players end up buying Planeswalker Decks, booster packs, and booster boxes in the long run.

Additionally, Wizards is already putting out X dollars to print Friday Night Magic promos. When it comes to printing costs, there's no difference between a Black Lotus and a Fortune's Favor, so the only real concern from Wizards' perspective is not using up too much of its reprint equity by giving cards away for free, and this is easy enough to avoid with careful card choices. Imagine Friday Night Magic promos being a cross between the old Player's Reward promos and the current FNM promos. Local game stores would be packed on a weekly basis, and even though Wizards would be spending a little bit of its reprint equity, I expect that it be returned fourfold thanks to the goodwill this change would generate and the influx of players it would bring into local game stores on Friday nights. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive, or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com. 


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