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Reprint Equity, Masters Sets and Booster Pricing


Tomorrow kicks off spoiler season for Masters 25, and with one banned-and-restricted announcement, Wizards essentially guaranteed that the set will sell very well and be considered a success. While we can argue over whether Jace, the Mind Sculptor was unbanned to sell Masters 25 or because Wizards felt like Jace, the Mind Sculptor was a good addition to Modern and took advantage of the impending release of the Masters 25 reprinting to unban it, regardless of the motivation, there's no doubt that Jace, the Mind Sculptor being unbanned is a good thing for the sales of Masters 25.

At $60 and without any demand from Modern, Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a fine (if somewhat unexciting, considering it was already in Eternal Masters) reprint in Masters 25. At $150 (making it the most expensive card in the Modern format) and with a ton of Modern players waiting patiently to get their hands on copies of the best planeswalker in Magic's history, Jace, the Mind Sculptor is the best Masters set reprint since Tarmogoyf appeared in the original Modern Masters. Players are going to crack a ton of Masters 25 packs in search of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, which is a good thing for Wizards (because they'll sell a ton of packs) and a good thing for players (since it will increase the supply of the other cards in Masters 25, making them cheaper and more accessible). 

This being said, things are far from perfect in the world of Masters sets. So today, we are going to take a few minutes to discuss not just what the unbanning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor means from a more meta, reprint equity perspective but also Wizards' announcement that future Masters sets will be based on themes rather than formats. What does the future really hold for Masters sets, and what do the big moves from Wizards over the last couple of weeks really mean? Let's break it down!

Jace and Reprint Equity

Back in November, we discussed the future of Masters sets and how Wizards was slowly but surely running out of expensive cards to reprint (probably better know as reprint equity). Wizards' savings account is getting low on funds. Wizards can't make new, expensive cards as quickly as it wants to reprint expensive cards, and the lack of expensive cards to reprint would necessitate changes to increase the amount of reprint equity if Wizards intends to continue reprinting cards at anywhere near the pace that it has been for the past year or two. At the time, we discussed two possibilities: Wizards reprinting less cards, which seemed unlikely, since reprint sets are low-effort (compared to building an entire new world from the ground up for a Standard set) ways to add money to the bottom line; or Wizards finding a way to create more reprint equity (with the most likely being to support a new Frontier-like format at some point in the future, which would increase demand for a lot of new-ish cards that aren't quite good enough to be Modern staples). 

While Wizards was clearly thinking along the same lines, the approach it's taken so far to increasing its reprint equity is interesting. Step one was unbanning Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Modern. With a stroke of a pen and a banned-and-restricted announcement, Wizards—almost out of thin air—created a $150 card (with a ton of demand and hype) to sell a Masters set. 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

The problem with using unbannings to create reprint equity is twofold. First, it's a very short-term fix, like cracking a fetch land to get a fresh draw against Jace, the Mind Sculptor's fateseal ability. Sure, you get to see a random card, but you're still going to lose to that Jace. While the banned list in Modern is long compared to that of most formats, it's not that long, and the number of cards that could potentially be unbanned and would also be expensive and hyped enough to sell a Masters set is very small (it actually might just be Jace, the Mind Sculptor). While unbanning something like Stoneforge Mystic or Umezawa's Jitte would create a bit more equity and provide another solid reprint for a future Masters set, none of the other cards on the Modern banned list would be nearly as hyped or as expensive as Jace, the Mind Sculptor). Plus, a lot of cards on the Modern banned list essentially can't be unbanned because they would assuredly ruin the format. 

The second problem with creating reprint equity through unbannings is that it's a high-risk strategy. For Modern Masters sets to matter at all, you need a lot of people playing Modern. Unbanning an extremely powerful and controversial card like Jace, the Mind Sculptor has the potential to hurt the format as a whole over the long term, which could mean that the short-term gains from selling a lot of Masters 25 will be outweighed by an overall decline in the format if the metagame devolves to Jace decks verses anti-Jace decks.

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

Now, you might think this second problem is an easy fix because if things go wrong with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Wizards can simply reban the card. In theory, this is true, but the fact that Wizards tied the unbanning to the release of Masters 25 and didn't issue an explicit warning about the possibility of rebanning the planeswalker in the future if things go wrong means that rebanning Jace, the Mind Sculptor in the near future (within the next year or two) will come at an extremely high cost. Not only will players who spent $600 on a playset of Jace, the Mind Sculptor to play Modern be extremely mad (people get outraged over Standard bannings that might cost them $50—I don't even want to imagine what happens when a somewhat large group of players finds out their $600 playset of Jace is rebanned and worth $100), but rebanning Jace, the Mind Sculptor would reinforce the idea that the unbanning wasn't about the health of Modern but purely a money grab designed to sell Masters 25 boosters. That sentiment has already been lurking in the darker corners of the Magic Internet, and if we end up with a sequence that looks like unban Jace, sell Masters 25, reban Jace, the perception that Wizards cares more about short-term profits than the long-term health of the game would be quite problematic for Wizards. Even if selling Masters 25 was the furthest thing from Wizards' mind when it made the decision to unban Jace, the Mind Sculptor, the optics would be pretty bad if a reban is needed.

The second step to creating more reprint equity came just a couple days ago, when Wizards announced that moving forward, Masters sets will be built around themes rather than formats. While this move seems unlikely to directly create any reprint equity (although it could, if expensive cards from Portal and other weird non-Modern sets can be reprinted more easily without the "Modern" in front of "Masters"), taking the focus off of Modern specifically will gives Modern staples some room to breathe and, assuming the format and game keep growing, slowly increase in price until they are eventually exciting and valuable reprints once again. While broadening the scope of Masters sets is another short-term solution (it doesn't create much additional demand; it just spreads the reprints over a larger pool of cards, which means Modern staples in general will decrease in price more slowly because they aren't being reprinted quite as often, with more Legacy, Commander, and perhaps eventually Pauper staples picking up the slack), it does make the current pace of reprintings viable for a bit longer, which buys Wizards some time to figure out what its next move will be in terms of creating more equity (with this week's announcement bridging the gap to the Modern 2.0 / Fronter-like format that is rumored to be coming with Magic Arena in a few years).

Of course, the underlying problem still remains: Wizards has already reprinted a significant portion of the expensive cards in Modern (and second / third / fourth reprintings are less valuable and exciting than the first), and the most exciting reprints for other formats are on the Reserved List. In fact, of the 50 most expensive (non-Standard) cards in the Modern format, 38 have already been reprinted in Masters sets (or, in rare cases, other supplemental products) at least once, and this 76% reprint rate will likely increase as Masters 25 spoilers roll out starting tomorrow. Unbanning Jace, the Mind Sculptor and moving the Masters set focus away from Modern don't solve this problem—not by a long shot—so expect bigger, more impactful changes in the next few years (like the creation of a Modern 2.0 / Fronter-like format).

On Masters Set Booster Prices

The other important Masters 25 topic for today is booster pricing. With Masters 25 following Iconic Masters into big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target, the time has come for Wizards to reevaluate the $10 price tag for Masters set boosters. While Masters 25 specifically will probably sell either way thanks to the Jace, the Mind Sculptor unbanning, as Masters sets continue, we're likely to see more Mana Drain-like chase cards, which are expensive because they are extremely low in supply rather than high in demand. One thing we learned from Iconic Masters is that these cards aren't necessarily enough to sell a Masters set at $10 a pack. Players are wising up to the fact that some cards are expensive simply because there are so few of them in circulation, and with Masters sets being printed in such high supply, these types of "chase" cards lose a lot of their luster because the massive influx of supply means they lose much of their value.

Let's look back at the history of Masters sets for a minute: the original Modern Masters had a MSRP of $7 a pack but was extremely limited in supply (and high in expected value), so boosters actually sold for about double their MSRP. This made Modern Masters great for local game stores, which got the product on the cheap and were able to make a huge profit, but not that great for Wizards, which saw the difference between MSRP and actual sales prices going into the pockets of LGS owners rather than its own coffers. 

Wizards' solution to the problem was to raise the MSRP of Masters set boosters to $10 a pack, which allowed it to pocket an extra $3 per pack (the difference between $7 and $10). As the supply of Masters sets slowly increased, going from inaccessible to somewhat accessible, the $10 price point seemed about right for the next couple of years, with booster packs and boxes selling for around MSRP or slightly below.

Then, with Iconic Masters, Wizards decided to change the very foundation of Masters sets by pulling out all the stops in terms of supply. Rather than being sold exclusively through game stores, Iconic Masters was (and still is) on the shelves of Wal-Marts and Targets, and the end result is that the value of sealed Iconic Masters product plummeted to unprecedented levels. At one point, booster boxes of Iconic Masters were selling for about $120 online—which has to be near cost—and even today, you can pick up Iconic Masters boxes for about $130 on Amazon. 

While we can debate whether or not selling Masters sets at big-box stores is a good or bad thing, one thing that's beyond debate is that the $10 price point for a Masters set booster is no longer working the way it was intended (by putting the excess value from Masters sets into Wizards' pockets rather than someone else's). It made sense to up the price when Masters sets were selling for far above MSRP and was fine when they were selling at MSRP, but now, with boosters sold at Wal-Mart and Target and prices so low, having the MSRP so high is a huge negative. There simply isn't any extra value left in Masters sets, and with prices so low online and so high at Wal-Mart and Target, at $10 a pack, it doesn't make any sense to ever purchase a booster of a Masters set from a big-box store. 

In some ways, this is probably a good thing because it means Wal-Mart and Target are less of a threat to local game stores, which will almost certainly have better prices than the competing big-box store. On the other hand, with Masters sets selling for so far below MSRP and being in such high supply, it might be time to Wizards to consider dropping the price back down to $7 a pack. While decreasing the MSRP of Masters sets would have an immediate negative impact on Wizards' bottom line, it's possible that Wizards will make up whatever it loses by selling more product. In the past, it was impossible to simply sell more of a Masters set because there was a hard cap on the number of Masters sets boxes produced, but the fact that Iconic Masters is still so readily available and cheap suggests that Wizards is having difficulty selling the set, even at a price that's significantly below MSRP.

Plus, there are some other benefits to dropping the MSRP back to $7 a pack, starting with the fact that it will make players happy. One of the biggest complaints about Masters sets is how much they cost, and shaving a few dollars off the MSRP (especially since the product is selling so far below MSRP already) would send a strong message that Wizards hears players' concerns about pricing and is willing to take action. 

Second, with Masters set boxes selling for $120–$130, there's a very real risk that at least some local game stores will simply stop selling the product. They can't be making any money at that price, and they are taking on a huge risk when a unsellable set like Iconic Masters comes along and cuts into their already thin margins. Even with Masters sets now in Wal-Mart, Wizards still needs local game stores (probably more than Wizards is showing with some of its recent moves), and dropping the MSRP of Masters sets could help get some local game stores back into the fold that, after the disaster that was Iconic Masters, are currently on the fence about selling Masters sets at all.

Third, at $7 a pack, Wizards might actually sell some Masters product at Wal-Mart and Target. Right now, it's really hard to figure out who actually buys Masters sets from big-box stores. New players and random casual players seem unlikely to spend $10 on one booster when they could be buying several cheaper boosters (or some sort of preconstructed deck product) for around the same price. Meanwhile, more established players probably know that Masters sets at Wal-Mart and Target are selling for close to double what you'd pay online, which makes it hard to buy a pack, even on impulse. I walk through the Magic aisle every time I got to Wal-Mart or Target, and while I occasionally buy something on impulse, I've never been able to bring myself to buy even a single pack of Iconic Masters, since I know the value is so poor, considering I could by a booster box for under $6 a pack online. 

Fourth, dropping the MSRP of Masters sets is another way that Wizards can help solve its reprint equity problem over the long term. The fact of the matter is that the less Wizards charges for packs, the less value it needs to put into the packs. Cutting $3 off MSRP would open the door to Wizards spacing out its most valuable reprints for longer. At $10 MSRP, Wizards needs to start with close to $20 in expected value per pack to make the set desirable from a financial perspective. At $7 a pack, it can start with closer to $14 in expected value and still make the numbers work. While this might not sound like a huge change, that $6 in pack EV actually adds up to almost an entire Masters set worth of value every two Masters sets. Basically, the same number of valuable cards it takes to make two solid $10/pack MSRP Masters sets could be used to make three solid $7/pack MSRP Masters sets, which would go a long way toward making the Masters-set model viable over the mid-term.

Finally, the other upside of dropping the MSRP on Masters sets is that it potentially opens up Masters sets to a new audience: drafters. One of the best parts of Masters sets is that their limited formats are typically amazing (the original Modern Masters is one of the best draft formats of all time, and most of the other Masters sets have been somewhere between above average to great in terms of their draft formats). The problem right now is that at $10 a pack, Masters sets are too expensive for many players to draft more than once or twice (if that). Reducing the MSRP would likely make picking up an extra box or two of a Masters set for drafting with friends a more palatable option for a larger portion of the player base, and assuming Wizards can continue to make the draft formats amazing, this could end up being one of the main selling points of the set. Magic Online shows us that if a draft format is really, really fun, players will play it even if the value is bad (see: cube drafts), assuming the entry fee isn't too high, but if the cost of entry is too high, players will shy away from the format even if its great (see: Masters drafts on Magic Online, which are often amazingly lacking in value, since the EV of Masters packs online is often around $2, while Wizards still charges $25 for a draft). 

Of course, our discussion here is limited by the fact that Wizards doesn't release sales numbers, so perhaps Wizards has some data showing that Iconic Masters, despite the complaints from local game stores and despite boxes "selling" for $120, was a smashing success, or perhaps Wizards makes more money by keeping Masters-set boosters at $10 even if they sell poorly. It's also worth mentioning that because of the Jace, the Mind Sculptor unbanning, this discussion might not apply to Masters 25, which might sell at near the current $10/pack MSRP based on the presence of Jace alone. But again, the unbanning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Modern is a once-in-a-generation situation—a situation that Wizards couldn't create again even if it wanted to, since there's only one Jace, the Mind Sculptor on the Modern banned list. 

Conclusion

The good news for today is that, thanks to the unbanning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Masters 25 is likely to be a smashing success. The bad news is that this success is likely unsustainable, and unless Wizards takes further action like dropping the MSRP of Masters sets, we're likely to see more Iconic Masters-type Masters sets in the future. The moves Wizards has made over the past couple of weeks show that Wizards is clearly aware of the fact that it is running out of reprint equity, especially Modern reprint equity, since it has already reprinted such a huge percentage of the expensive cards, in some cases two or even three times. These moves also suggest that Wizards hasn't decided on (or at least hasn't decided to publicly release) a long-term fix to the issues.

Anyway, that's all for today. How are you feeling about Masters 25? Are you planning on picking up a box to chase the Jace? How much did the huge influx of reprint equity influence Wizards' decision to unban the best planeswalker in Modern? Would Wizards dropping the MSRP of Masters sets back to $7 make you buy more sealed product? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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