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Rotation and Redemption: Times They Are a Changin'


Over the past couple of weeks, we've had some significant changes to the game of Magic, both on Magic Online and to the paper game, and this isn't even considering things like the addition of the Masterpiece series to every set, which didn't happen all that long ago. Between the Pro Tour and everything else, I haven't really had the chance to write about the changes until now. At first, I thought this was a problem, but with the announcement of the changes to Standard rotation just a couple of days ago, I'm now glad that this article is happening now because we can see the full scope of the changes. 

As such, today we are going to be talking about the two big changes announced over the past couple weeks: the return to the once-per-year rotation schedule for Standard and the massive cut in redemption times on Magic Online. While both of these changes will have major impacts on the game all by themselves, they also interact with each other in a very important way. So, let's start by breaking down the changes to Standard rotation; then, we'll talk about about why redemption matters to paper players and what the change in redemption times means for both paper and online players, before wrapping up with a discussion of how these two changes interact with each other in a couple of scary ways. 

Rotation Changes

The changes to Standard rotation are actually pretty simple, and we have a pretty good idea of what they will do to the game, both as far as gameplay and card prices, because instead of being something brand new, this change actually reverts things back to how they were in the not-too-distant past. Instead of rotating twice per year—once when the fall block (i.e., Kaladesh) is released and once when the spring block (i.e., Amonkhet) is released—Standard will go back to rotating just once per year, alongside the release of the fall set. What this means for the immediate future is that Battle for Zendikar block gets another six months in Standard because it will now rotate when the yet-to-be-named fall set releases in September 2017 along with Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon, rather than this spring when Amonkhet hits the shelves. 

Things I Love about the Change

Most importantly, the switch back to one rotation each year is great for budget players and more casual players (and since there is some confusion about the definition of casual, by this I mean pretty much anyone who isn't regularly playing SCG- / GP-level events). We've talked before during our Budget Magic Updates article about how playing Magic on the cheap isn't just about buying inexpensive decks, but also playing them for as long as possible. While keeping a deck intact when a new set releases is one thing (typically, you can do this by just switching out a handful of cards), keeping a deck functional through rotation is another issue altogether. Sometimes it's possible, but it usually requires significant changes (during the last Budget Magic Updates article, there were some decks where we had to change 20 or more cards, which is a large investment to keep a budget deck legal). Now that we're back to the once-a-year rotation, you can buy a deck in the fall and play it for at least an entire year with minimal additional expense, when with two rotations the shelf life for a deck was often closer to five or six months. While this might not seem like a huge deal, over the course of time, these small savings add up, and this isn't even considering non-budget reasons you would want a deck to remain legal (for example, you just really enjoying playing a deck). So, in this sense, going back to one rotation a year is a win for everyone who isn't a tournament grinder. 

Second, and nearly as important, going back to one rotation per year simplifies the financial aspect of the game. Maybe the most frustrating aspect of having two rotations a year was that it made it extremely difficult and time consuming to keep your collection up-to-date for rotations. Simply knowing what cards are Standard legal and what sets rotate at what time was a challenge, not to mention trying to figure out when to sell your Standard cards before they lose all their value at rotation. 

While this might not be a big deal for financially minded players, I know a ton of people who just want to play Magic. They don't want to be watching their calendar to see when they need to sell their Standard cards or counting down the days until they should buy the newest hot mythic. They just want to play Magic without losing a ton of money in the process. With two rotations per year, you have to do twice as much work to keep your collection up-to-date. Instead of just selling everything that's going to rotate all at once, one time per year, you have to sell Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch at Pro Tour Kaladesh and then do this again with Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon at Pro Tour Amonkhet. The process becomes extremely time consuming, but unless you just want to swallow a huge loss of money, you don't really have a choice but to put in the extra work. 

The good news is that things are back to being simple. We have tons of data about how the old rotational system works, so here's what you need to know. Typically, Standard cards peak during the winter months, sometime between December and March. What this means for this year is that the high points for not only Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch but also both Shadows over Innistrad block sets will likely be this winter. After March, we typically see all the cards that will rotate in September start a slow and steady decline. While there will be occasional spikes here and there, this is the general trend for all of the cards in the sets. By the summer (July or August), many cards will already be near their lows. So, keep this trend in mind if you are looking to play Standard for as cheap as possible. Sell rotating cards in the winter and spring for maximum return (of course, you'll probably have to hold some cards you are playing with, but don't just leave binders full of unused cards sitting around; you'll lose a ton of value). 

Things I Dislike about the Change

I should start this section by saying that, all things considered, I believe the switch back to once-a-year rotation to be a huge positive. It provides significant benefit to a huge number of players, which, from a meta-perspective, makes it a good change. This said, very few changes are all upside, and there are a couple of aspects of once-a-year rotation that I don't especially like. 

First off, it makes sense that tournament players don't like this change, because it means fewer exciting, new formats. Magic is an interesting game because there are so many ways to play it. For the more casual crowd, one of the biggest issues impacting their ability to play the game is card price and card availability. On the other hand, many tournament players don't really care about either of these things; they often have sponsorships allowing them to borrow cards, or a big group of friends/grinders on the tournament scene that can loan them the cards the need to play an event. As such, having prices go up or down often isn't a huge deal; instead, these players want the metagame to be as healthy and enjoyable as possible, and rotation offers a chance for a boring (or even bad) format to change into an exciting (and potentially) awesome format. Because of this, having more rotations a year is likely preferable for most pros and players grinding away at the SCG / GP level. 

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The second thing I really dislike about the change impacts everyone: when a format is broken, unfun, and horrible, we are stuck with it for a longer period of time. In just the past couple of years, we've seen the utter dominance of cards like Siege Rhino, then Rally the Ancestors, and then Collected Company, and the only thing that stopped these cards / decks was rotation. With two rotations a year, mistakes rotate out of Standard faster, which means we can get back to playing fun Magic more quickly. With only one rotation a year, we are going to be stuck with broken, horrible, unfun formats for longer periods of time. Actually, I'm pretty sure I can already see the next one coming.

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Think about this for a second: at Pro Tour Kaladesh, more than 25% of the field was playing energy decks, which are essentially one-set block-constructed decks. If you look over the lists for the Aetherworks Marvel and Electrostatic Pummeler decks, you'll see that a huge majority of the cards are from Kaladesh because both decks are primarily concerned with making as much energy as possible. If these decks can be a quarter of the field at a Pro Tour a couple of weeks after their release with only one set of cards to draw from, can you imagine how broken and oppressive these decks can be with Aether Revolt providing another entire set full of energy support? Right now, I expect that six months or a year from now, we may be looking back at energy as one of the greatest design mistakes in the mythic era of Magic, and I wouldn't be surprised to see either or both of these cards end up being the next Rally the Ancestors / Collected Company

Under the old rotation system, this would be annoying, but at least we could look forward to the fact that they would be gone from Standard in April 2018. But now, going back to just one rotation, we have to look forward to the dominance of these cards for the next two years (until September 2018). While this might not sound like a huge difference, Standard formats already tend to get boring as they near their end, and it becomes doubly boring when one card / deck / archetype dominates the format. I love watching Magic coverage, and I skipped several Standard tournaments this summer simply because I knew that Collected Company was going to be the best deck in the field—everyone knew that heading into the event. The same thing was true last winter, when I decided to enjoy my weekend rather than watch Rally the Ancestors destroy another tournament. 

Even if I'm wrong about Aetherworks Marvel and energy in general, this will happen again in the not-too-distant future. Something always rises to the top, and with fewer rotations, the format will change less frequently and the "best deck" will remain in power for longer periods of time. Someday soon, I'm going to research and write an article about how Wizards has stopped printing answers (graveyard hate to fight Rally the Ancestors, for example) and how the lack of these answers makes Standard less fun. Since we are going back to one rotation a year, printing strong answers is going to be imperative (a great example of what I mean is printing Stony Silence in Innistrad to "hose" the artifacts from Scars of Mirrodin block) for the format to be fun and interesting. Here's to hoping that Amonkhet will contain something to fight vehicles and energy, because if it doesn't, we might find ourselves pining away for a quicker rotation. 

Redemption Changes

While a lot of paper players have a misconception that this is a Magic Online issue, you are very wrong. Just in case you're not familiar, redemption is a mechanism built into Magic Online that allows players to trade in a complete set of digital cards for a complete set of paper cards. Under the old system, each set was redeemable for nearly three years (often until a year after the set rotated from Standard); under the new system, the sets from one block will only be redeemable until the next block releases. 

For example, as of this month, we could still redeem most of the sets from Khans of Tarkir block, but Kaladesh will only be redeemable until Amonkhet releases in April (about seven months of rotation redemption time), and Aether Revolt will only be redeemable for a very small window (maybe 2.5 months). This change has several extremely significant impacts, some to Magic Online, and some to paper, so let's look at both issues separately. 

On Magic Online

The biggest issue on Magic Online is that this change shakes confidence in the digital market. Redemption was designed to give people confidence in investing in digital objects back when people weren't used to spending money online, and it did a very good job of achieving this goal. I personally have thousands of dollars in my Magic Online collection, and I can tell you from my personal experience that one of the primary reasons I could justify spending $1,000 to buy a deck like Legacy Miracles or Modern Jund on Magic Online is that I believed I could get that money back out of the program if I ever wanted to (exactly the same as buying paper Magic cards, where people spend $20,000 on a Vintage deck because they know they can sell those cards to have a down payment for their house someday). With this massive nerfing of redemption, this confidence is dwindling. 

It's become pretty clear that Wizards (and most other people) would be happier with a version of Magic Online that is more like Hearthstone, with a limited economy and cheaper prices. In a world with more competition, new players have a hard time justifying $12 for a draft when a Hearthstone Arena is only a couple of dollars (although these people miss out on the fact that Hearthstone is a sunk cost—you can never get that money back, while Magic Online offers you something of real value beyond X hours of entertainment). The problem that Wizards has is people like me, who have been investing into the program for a decade or more. They know there will be a riot if they simply say, "Your cards are no longer tradable. Thanks for giving us money for the past 15 years. Sorry you lost X thousand dollars," so changes like the nerfing of redemption almost feel like Wizards' way of devaluing cards to intentionally make people like me sell out of the program by making it unsafe or even foolish to have a lot of money invested in Magic Online. Then, if they get enough of us to sell out (or devalue our cards enough), they can simply switch to the Hearthstone model and bypass a lot of the anger (or at least spread the anger out over a longer period of time so it doesn't look so bad on social media). 

Conspiracy theories aside, the more widespread problem with the redemption changes is that it will make playing Standard less affordable for Magic Online players in general (while being especially problematic for new players). There are estimates that redemption accounts for at least 50% of Standard-legal card prices on Magic Online (meaning that without redemption, cards would would lose half of their value immediately). Under the old redemption system, this was acceptable, because redemption ended after rotation and players know to sell cards before rotation anyway if they want to maximize their value. Under the new system, we are (likely) going to see huge, massive drops in Standard-legal card prices right during the middle of a Standard format, which leaves us with an incredibly frustrating, no-win equation for Standard players. 

Let's say you want to play Standard on Magic Online and you need a playset of Smuggler's Copter. Right now, this playset will cost you about 54 tix. Under the old rotation system (assuming you wait until the set has been opened for a few weeks), we'd expect that, barring huge changes to the format, Smuggler's Copter should more or less maintain this value for its entire life in Standard. So, you buy your Smuggler's Copters now for 54 tix, playing with them for the next 18 months, and then as we get closer to rotation, you sell your Smuggler's Copter for around 45 tix and use that money to buy your next Standard deck. 

Under the new redemption schedule, we should expect that Smuggler's Copter (and ever other Standard-legal card) will lose perhaps half of its value when redemption goes offline in April. So, what does a competitive Standard player do? If you want to play Smuggler's Copter, you have two choices. You either bite the bullet and spend 54 tix for your copies, knowing that you are only going to get 20 tix back when you sell them (meaning you are going to have to put significantly more money into the system with every single deck you buy, thereby making Standard massively more expensive), or you simply don't play Smuggler's Copter until this spring as you wait to buy in until after redemption goes offline and prices drop (leaving you at a huge disadvantage if your goal is to win tournaments). And remember, we are just using Smuggler's Copter as an example—this pattern holds true for all Standard cards moving forward forever. 

Basically, the changes to redemption on Magic Online has the exact opposite effect that the switch back to one rotation a year does in paper. The switch back to one rotation a year simplifies matters and makes it easier for players to buy a deck and keep playing it. The redemption changes on Magic Online make it so playing Standard is either going to be extremely expensive (as all of your cards devalue mid-season) or take a ton of work (buying Smuggler's Copter now, playing it for a three months, selling Smuggler's Copter before redemption goes offline so you don't lose a ton of money, then rebuying Smuggler's Copter after redemption goes offline so you can keep playing Magic). Basically, it's a mess, and instead of making it easier for people to play Magic, it makes it significantly harder. Standard is intended to be the entry-level format (the announcement of the change back to one rotation a year uses this as its justification), but apparently this doesn't matter on Magic Online, where changes to redemption are going to work to severely punish new players who want to play a competitive Standard deck. 

In Paper

While it might not be obvious at first glance, the redemption changes will likely have a major impact on the prices of paper cards as well. While we can't say with certainty how many sets are redeemed from Magic Online, the estimate I've heard from people behind the scenes is somewhere around 2,000 per week. More importantly, nearly all of these cards enter into circulation, since most redemptions come from vendors and stores that immediately turn around and sell the cards, rather than to individual players who redeem sets to add to their collection. 

To put this 2,000 sets per week number into perspective, this would amount to somewhere around 8,600 sets per month, but what does 8,600 sets per month equate to in terms of booster boxes? Well, when you consider that one booster box contains (on average) 4.5 mythics and one redeemed set (for a large set like Kaladesh) contains 15 mythics, one set redemption adds 3.33 boxes worth of mythics into the marketplace. As far as rares, a typical booster box will contain 31.5 while a large set like Kaladesh has 53 rares in the set, meaning that one redemption is the same as cracking 1.68 booster boxes in terms of rares entering the marketplace. This means that, assuming the 2,000 sets redeemed per week number is close to being correct, losing one month of redemption decreases the supply of mythics by the equivalent of about 28,000 booster boxes (at $100 / box, that's $2.8 million worth of booster boxes) and the supply of rares by nearly 15,000 boxes per month. This is a huge, huge, HUGE deal with the potential to increase the prices of Standard cards significantly, possibly enough to undo all of the gains that have been made by including Masterpieces in sets. 

Of course, it isn't fair to count every month as the same, because a lot of set redemptions happen early in the set's lifecycle. So, it isn't as simple as multiplying X months by X sets per month to figure out the overall impact of the change, but it's also true that about nine months into a set's life is typically the best time to redeem for profit (so, for Kaladesh, it would be this spring, sometime around the release of the second set of Amonkhet block), because this is a low point on Magic Online and is also just before paper prices increase at fall rotation. However, with the changes to redemption, this window is gone. As a result, it seems likely that prices of cards will be somewhat depressed initially as redemption comes into effect but then explode in paper heading into rotation. 

This effect will probably be most pronounced for the second sets in blocks. I mean, Aether Revolt's redemption time drops from 2.5 years to 2.5 months. The effect of this will likely be about the same as if 50,000 or even 100,000 fewer booster boxes of Aether Revolt were sold. While we don't have a great way to quantify these numbers because Wizards doesn't release print runs, I expect we'll find that it has a meaningful impact on the supply of cards in general and even more so on the supply of foils, where a single foil set redemption provides the same number of foil mythics as opening 90 booster boxes. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the addition of Masterpieces should decrease the prices of cards in Standard by between 20 and 25%—a massive savings for everyone, but particularly for long-time players who buy decks year after year. I wouldn't be surprised to find that the changes to redemption on Magic Online reverses this change completely and that we'll find playable Standard cards—but especially staple mythics—to be much more expensive than they would have been under normal redemption, and potentially even more expensive than they were in the past before the Masterpiece series. 

Apart from generally increasing the supply of cards, the biggest benefit of redemption to paper Magic players is it provides a safety valve of sorts for when prices get too high. Maybe the best example of this is Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. When it hit nearly $100 in paper (driving the price of a complete set of Magic Origins to about $340 in paper at TCG mid retail) you could still redeem complete sets of Magic Origins for around $150. If prices get too out of line, vendors and other financially minded folks will start redeeming sets for profit, which in turn would increase supply and help rein in paper prices. Under the new, shorter redemption system, this safety valve is off the table. Under the new system, the redemption for Magic Origins would have stopped more than six months before Jace, Vryn's Prodigy hit his peak price. In December of last year, a paper set of Magic Origins was $239, while it was $135 on Magic Online. When you consider transaction fees and the redemption tax, there simply wasn't a huge motivation to redeem the set at that time. However, as I mentioned before, this gap doubled by May, with paper set prices jumping to $340 while Magic Online prices only increased to $150, making redemption potentially lucrative. Under the new redemption system, none of this would have mattered. 

Going back to the numbers we were talking about before, if redemption for Magic Origins ended in October (like it would under the new schedule), it's likely we'd have at least 20,000 (and possibly closer to 40,000) fewer copies of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy in circulation. That's enough copies of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy to give a playset to every player at Grand Prix Providence this weekend and have enough left over to do the same thing at the next two or three Grands Prix. If Jace, Vryn's Prodigy was nearly $100 with 20,000 extra redemption copies in cicrulation, how expensive do you think it would be without redemption? $125? $150? 

Putting Rotation and Redemption Together

Both of the changes we've been talking about work together to compound the problem. Having Standard rotate less often increases the importance of having a good supply of Standard cards available in the marketplace, or prices will spiral out of control. Redemption, in the past, offered an avenue for supply to reach the market after people stop cracking booster boxes (think about it: no one is cracking boxes of Battle for Zendikar at the moment, since Battle for Zendikar is old news, but if Gideon, Ally of Zendikar spikes to $100, more supply can enter the market from redemption, and even if you don't personally redeem the set, the Gideon, Ally of Zendikar you buy from StarCityGames, ChannelFireball, or some random seller on eBay very well could have entered the market from a MTGO redemption), but now there will be almost no way for cards to enter the market six or nine months after their set releases, which greatly increases the probability we'll see massive spikes in card prices around rotation, and there will be almost nothing that can be done to relieve the pressure. This would be troubling under the two-rotation-a-year schedule, but with just one rotation (making cards' Standard lives significantly longer), it's an even bigger problem. 

The main reason this change is depressing is that, over the past six months, it seemed that Wizards was really taking steps to make Standard specifically and the game in general more accessible and affordable. They even mentioned this directly as one of their reasons for putting Masterpieces in every set. Changing redemption is simply another sign of the two steps forward, one step back problem that sometimes plagues the game, and while the impacts will by meaningful for paper players, they have the potential to be devastating for Magic Online, making Standard—the game's entry-level format for new players—significantly more expensive and harder to keep up with. 

Conclusion

Sometimes, I feel like Magic Online and the paper game of Magic are run by two different companies that have never heard of each other. At the same time that paper Magic is very publicly taking steps to make Standard friendly for new players, reduce the complexity brought about by multiple rotations, and decrease prices, Magic Online is taking steps to do exactly the opposite. In paper, we get fewer rotations; on Magic Online, we have a new pseudo-rotation (as far as how players have to handle their collections) in the form of redemption changes. In paper, Masterpieces decrease the prices of Standard cards; on Magic Online, Standard will cost significantly more (either in real money or time spent trying to manage collections) due to the redemption-caused price crash that will likely happen right in the middle of a Standard format. 

In sum, while I think the changes to rotation are great for a huge majority of Standard players, especially less enfranchised Standard players, I worry that the changes to redemption will undo a lot of the strides that have recently been made in making the game more accessible for everyone. In light of the change back to one-rotation-per-year lengthening the lifespan of cards in Standard, Wizards must reconsider the change to redemption, or all of the positive steps towards greater accessibility made over the past year may be lost. 

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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