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The Problem with Unique Promos


This week, apart from Magic Arena, has been all about Dominaria, with spoiler season kicking off a bit early thanks to the the leak of the set's release notes a while ago. While the set looks amazing and is bringing with it some sweet things like Brawl (a new Standard-focused version of Commander), one of the stranger announcements of the week is that the buy-a-box promo for the set—Firesong and Sunspeaker—won't be printed in Dominaria proper, instead only being available as a buy-a-box promo. While we've seen unique promos in the recent past that weren't printed in Standard sets (for example, the Hascon promos like Grimlock, Dinobot Leader), Firesong and Sunspeaker is different because it's not only legal to play in Commander but in tournament formats including Standard and Modern as well. 

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Traditionally, Wizards has shied away from printing tournament-legal cards only as promos—a choice that dates back to the Nalathni Dragon debacle. If you're not familiar with Nalathni Dragon, way back in 1994, Wizards designed the card as a promo to be given away at DragonCon, with DragonCon attendance being the only way to get a copy. This might sound like the more recent Hascon promos, but Nalathni Dragon was a unique tournament-legal card. The end result was a huge uproar from the community, in part because of rampant price gouging thanks to Nalathni Dragon's low supply. Eventually, Wizards printed more copies, giving them away in The Duelist magazine while also deciding that it they shouldn't print unique tournament-legal cards as promos in the future.

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The issue with printing unique tournament-legal cards as promos is that the supply is small compared to cards printed in regular sets, which means it takes much less demand for one of these cards to cause the price to skyrocket. While the world has certainly changed since 1994, with the Internet making it much easier to sell and trade cards around the world, and while giving a card away at local game stores is certainly different than giving away a card at exactly one convention in one city, even in 2018, printing unique cards as promos carries with it significant risk because there isn't a mechanism to increase supply of the card. Normally, Standard can't get too expensive because if cards end up being $100 like Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, people can simply crack open boxes to find more copies. If a card that is only printed as a promo becomes expensive, this isn't an option. So today, we're going to talk about unique promos in general and Firesong and Sunspeaker specifically to discuss why Wizards should probably stick to its long-held belief that releasing cards only as unique promos is a bad idea, along with some ideas for how Wizards can achieve the goal it was trying to reach with Firesong and Sunspeaker without taking the unnecessary risk of printing unique promos.

Firesong and Sunspeaker

Let's start with the card in question: Firesong and Sunspeaker. Now, I'll be the first to admit that a legendary 4/6 for six doesn't exactly scream "Standard staple" in the same way something like The Scarab God might, but the combination of a very unique ability and relatively good stats means that it isn't obviously unplayable in Standard either. 

Right now, the only new cards legal in Standard that don't come from booster packs are the unique cards in the Planeswalker Decks. While we can argue about whether or not printing any unique cards outside of normal sets is a good idea, the Planeswalker Deck cards have—at least, so far—been mostly unproblematic, since Wizards goes out of its way to make sure they are unplayable in every format (including Commander). While we've had a handful of somewhat close calls, especially with Flame Lash, which did show up in fringe Standard decks now and then, for the most part, Wizards just makes sure to make Planeswalker Deck originals bad, which means they don't really carry much financial risk because they have somewhere between little and no demand. 

It's also worth mentioning that there is one huge difference between a buy-a-box promo and the Planeswalker Deck originals: much like cards from a normal set, there's still a mechanism to get more into the market if one of the unique Planeswalker Deck cards does end up Standard playable: you can always head to your LGS, Walmart, or Target and crack open a Planeswalker Deck. This means that if Wizards somehow misses high and prints a Planeswalker Deck planeswalker that ends up a Standard staple, there is still a safety valve to release more supply to meet this demand. While it isn't a traditional mechanism (opening a booster box / pack), it is a mechanism nonetheless. 

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Back to Firesong and Sunspeaker. Even at a glance, it's clear that the card is significantly closer to being playable than any Planeswalker Deck original we've seen to date. At a minimum, Firesong and Sunspeaker will be a popular Commander, giving Boros decks a unique plan of attack with cards like Lightning Helix and Brightflame that until now hasn't really existed in the Commander format. This means that there will be at least some demand for copies of Firesong and Sunspeaker from the Commander crowd, unlike Planeswalker Deck cards, which have essentially zero demand. 

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Even discounting Commander, Firesong and Sunspeaker actually could show up in Standard. As soon as it was spoiled, I started brewing a deck involving Firesong and Sunspeaker with Hour of Devastation and Star of Extinction, which was pretty close to a Standard infinite life combo deck (also not really infinite; if you cast a Star of Extinction with a Firesong and Sunspeaker on the battlefield, you can easily gain hundreds of life, depending on the board state). I'm 100% certain that we'll play this deck for a Budget Magic episode because it's super unique and fun, and actually looks fairly powerful. Is it a deck that's going to win a Grand Prix after Dominaria is released? Perhaps not (although I can see a world where a deck like Jeskai or Four-Color Control would play a copy of Firesong and Sunspeaker at the tournament level), but just the fact that Firesong and Sunspeaker is such a fun and semi-competitive build-around means there will be at least some demand from Standard as well. 

This means that the comparison to Planeswalker Deck originals doesn't really fit. Demand is the primary driver of the prices of Magic cards (especially for non-reserved list cards; cards on the reserved list are weird). Planeswalker Deck originals have essentially zero demand, while Firesong and Sunspeaker has some amount of demand. Exactly how much remains to be seen, but it's a non-zero number. Printing unique and tournament-legal cards outside of Standard sets can work, but only if those cards are utterly unplayable (so they have no demand). When a unique card is even somewhat playable, there is the potential for Magic problems.

The Problem

The potential problem with Firesong and Sunspeaker specifically and with printing playable, tournament-legal cards outside of normal sets in general is that if these cards end up having a high level of demand, they will become prohibitively expensive because there is no way for supply to increase. 

Buy-a-box promos are distributed in a unique way: each store gets an allotment based on its Wizards Play Network status. Small stores get 20 copies of Firesong and Sunspeaker, medium-sized stores get 40 copies of Firesong and Sunspeaker, and the biggest stores get 60 copies, and these copies are the only copies of Firesong and Sunspeaker that exist. Once they are gone, they are gone forever.

Considering that on average you'll open one of each mythic in a set every 3.33 booster boxes, we can get a rough equivalence. A small store will release the equivalent of 66.67 booster boxes of Firesong and Sunspeaker into the wild, a medium store 133.33 boxes worth of the card, and the biggest stores about 200 booster boxes worth of Firesong and Sunspeaker. While this might sound like a lot, when you take into account all of the booster boxes sold online and the fact that the biggest stores sell far more than 200 booster boxes, the supply of Firesong and Sunspeaker is going to be meaningfully less than a typical mythic rare and perhaps even similar to a Masterpiece.

Of course, it could be that this isn't a problem specifically in regard to Firesong and Sunspeaker. Maybe it ends up being only slightly more in demand than a Planeswalker Deck original, failing to show up in Standard and being a third-tier Commander card. This would mean that the supply would be large enough to meet demand, prices would stay relatively low, and in the end, all of the worry about Firesong and Sunspeaker was for nothing. This is a realistic outcome. 

On the other hand, this isn't the only possible outcome. It's also possible that Firesong and Sunspeaker ends up being one of the most popular Boros commanders, the Budget Magic deck ends up going 5-0, and people start posting finishes on Magic Online and SCG events with a copy or two of Firesong and Sunspeaker at the top end of their decks. If this happens, players will start buying copies to build these decks, supply will dry up, and the price of Firesong and Sunspeaker will skyrocket because people can't simply open a box or crack a Planeswalker deck to find more copies. 

The thing here is that, whether or not Firesong and Sunspeaker itself ends up being a problem, if Wizards keeps heading further and further down the path of printing unique tournament-playable cards as promos and in weird supplemental products, the odds are that we'll end up with a problematic card sooner or later. Printing unique cards in this manner is Wizards playing with fire, and even if Firesong and Sunspeaker isn't the card that ends up burning Wizards, sooner or later Wizards will get burned. 

The Burn

To understand why Wizards will get burned eventually if Wizards keeps down the path of printing unique promos by printing a Standard-playable card that ends up being ungodly expensive, we first have to talk about why Wizards is printing Firesong and Sunspeaker as a unique promo in the first place. 

Wizards' motivation for printing Firesong and Sunspeaker is good: the goal is to encourage players to purchase a box of Dominaria from their local game store rather than someplace else (like a big online vendor), and considering how rough the last year has been on local game stores, having Wizards show its support is a great thing. The problem is that for the buy-a-box promo to actually convince players to purchase a box from their local game store, it has to be at least somewhat playable—a horrible card that no one wants isn't going to drive sales in any meaningful way. As such, the very nature of the promotion pushes Wizards toward walking a very fine line: making Firesong and Sunspeaker good enough that players will buy a box to get a copy but not so good that supply dries up and the card becomes absurdly expensive, which would lead to endless complaints. The challenge is that this is a pretty small window to hit.

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We've seen in the recent past that hitting the right power level on cards is more art (with a bit of luck mixed in) than science, as evidenced by a ton of cards being banned in Standard over the past year. Wizards clearly didn't print Smuggler's Copter thinking, "This is going to be so good that we'll have to ban it"; Wizards printed Smuggler's Copter thinking, "We need a pushed vehicle to make sure our new mechanic can sell Kaladesh, and this is the one!" This goal—to push a card enough to make a product desirable but not so much that something goes wrong and there are negative, unintended consequences—is very much the same as what we are seeing with Firesong and Sunspeaker. It has to be good enough to actually sell the product but not so good that it causes problems. In a perfect world, this power level would be nailed every time and there would never be a problem, but Magic has so many moving parts that it's really hard to be that exact with the power level of cards. 

Basically, Planeswalker Deck cards have mostly proven safe because Wizards has intentionally stayed really, really far away from making these cards anywhere near playable. The impulse to walk as close to the line as possible just isn't there because the selling point for Planeswalker Decks is that they are fun intro-level products that you can battle with on the kitchen table, not that they are tournament playable. Buy-a-box promos don't have the luxury of being completely unplayable because if they are, they won't fulfill their purpose of encouraging players to purchase a box, and by the law of averages, if you walk the line between just barely not playable and playable for long enough, sooner or later you're going to trip, step over the line, and have to endure the consequences of the fall. 

The Solution

There are actually a couple of different ways Wizards can make sure that it never crosses the line with a unique promo while still trying to encourage players to buy a box from their local game store (which the old buy-a-box promos were presumably not doing well enough). The first is pretty simple: don't print cards where the only supply entering the market is the promo printing. If Wizards wants to do something similar but without the risk, it could print Firesong and Sunspeaker as a unique buy-a-box promo but also make it clear that a boring, normal non-promo version will be printed in Commander 2018 later in the summer. This still incentivizes players to buy a box from their local game store—the reward is they get to build a Firesong and Sunspeaker Commander deck before the rest of their playgroup—but it also makes sure that the safety net of more supply is still in place, so that prices will be kept in check when Wizards eventually misses high on a promo, at least to some extent, by players knowing that more copies will be coming in a few months. If The Scarab God were printed only as a buy-a-box promo, it would still have a massively negative short-term impact on Standard (because it would be absurdly expensive—likely hundreds of dollars a copy), but at least the negative impact would be short-lived thanks to the Commander deck reprinting. 

Another possibility would be to simply make it so the unique buy-a-box promos are not Standard legal. Having non-booster, non-set Standard-legal cards causes confusion and unneeded complexity anyway (see: Welcome Deck cards, which constantly cause problems in terms of players knowing what is legal in Standard at any given time). This would reduce some demand for the card and help make sure there would be enough supply to go around. Plus, if the card did somehow end up expensive, at least players wouldn't need to spend a ton of money to get a random promo to compete in Standard. Of course, this idea isn't without downside. If something like True-Name Nemesis or even Oloro, Ageless Ascetic were printed as a buy-a-box promo, just the demand from Commander and eternal formats could cause the price to be quite high. Plus, giving away a card that isn't Standard playable to new players who purchase a booster box of a Standard-legal set could cause some confusion.

Finally, Wizards could simply use the buy-a-box promo as a way to reprint sweet cards in unique ways. Imaging that for buying a box of Dominaria, you got a textless promo Cryptic Command or perhaps a powerful Commander card like Captain Sisay with the new legendary frame and sweet new art. These cards would probably do just as much (or even more) for encouraging players to pick up a booster box from their local game store as a Firesong and Sunspeaker, although (like our last idea) this option does come with the downside that the promo wouldn't be Standard legal (although if Wizards were careful about the cards it picked as promos, it would be possible to declare the reprinted card Standard-legal, which would help to minimize supply problems, since there would be previous printings of the cards available on the market). 

Wrap-Up

At the end of the day, it's possible that the Firesong and Sunspeaker situation will work out fine. As weird as it sounds, the best-case scenario at this point is that the card is close to unplayable, has little demand, and has a relatively low price (although I'll do my best to make sure this isn't true because it seems like a super-fun card to build around). Even if this ends up being the case and Firesong and Sunspeaker doesn't cross the line, hopefully Wizards realizes that it dodged a bullet and reevaluates its trend toward printing tournament-playable cards outside of Standard-legal sets. While the Planeswalker Decks are tolerable, there is still some amount of risk, not to mention the confusion they cause over which cards are legal in Standard. Moving forward, Wizards should at the very least minimize the number of promos and cards from odd supplemental products that are legal in Standard, and ideally eliminate them altogether. 

If Wizards continues down the path of printing more and more of these cards, it's only a matter of time until something goes wrong. The window of "good enough to sell booster boxes but not good enough to be truly playable and cause massive price spikes" is simply too small for even the best designer to hit every single time, especially when they are taking this tricky shot several to many times a year. 

Thankfully, Wizards' heart is in the right place. Local game stores do need more support, and while the execution of the Firesong and Sunspeaker promo is risky at best, with some of the solutions we mentioned, Wizards should be able to achieve the same goal of selling tons of booster boxes and supporting struggling local game stores but without the danger of causing a public relations nightmare by having an exclusive buy-a-box promo end up as a $250 Standard staple. 

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think of Firesong and Sunspeaker? Is there any chance it actually breaks into Standard? How popular do you think it will be in Commander? Does the fact that you can get a copy change your plans as far as buying a box of Dominaria? How much do you think copies will sell for on the open market? 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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