Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Reserved List

Today I'm going to argue about the reserve list. It's one of those magic issues that comes up every so often. Magic as in the collectible card game. Let me start with some background.

When Wizards printed the Magic expansion Legends in the mid 1990's, product was flying off the shelves, selling at double the MSRP right off of the truck, or so I'm told. Legends singles were expensive, and rare. Then, a few months later, Wizards printed the set Chronicles which contained reprints of a number of popular cards from Legends, the elder dragons for example. The price of singles tanked. Predictably, this made a number of collectors and dealers unhappy. Very unhappy. To assuage fears of further card devaluation, Wizards introduced a reserve list, which listed cards that would never be reprinted. Ever.

As time goes on (and it always does when this sort of story is told) the Reserve list seems more and more short sighted. Historically, when cards get reprinted a few years after they last saw print it tends to drive their value upwards, rather than down. You'd think that increasing the supply would decrease the demand, but the fact that the cards are now standard legal tends to make more people want the cards, enough so that the demand outstrips the supply. And if the card itself loses value, the other cards in the decks it fits in tend to gain value.

That's only true for cards that make it into decks; a bad card that gets reprinted wouldn't have the demand bump that increases it's price. The thing is though, a bad card is a bad card. People playing the game (as opposed to just collecting the cards) have no use for an unplayable card. If the card isn't going to see play in standard, it isn't going to see play in legacy or vintage or EDH or casual (with exception for different metagames, but still) and you'll be able to pick that card up cheap online regardless of it's reserve list status. For example, look at Kaervek's Spite. It's a pretty bad card, a 50 cent rare even though it's on the reserved list. I found one in a penny commons box not too long ago. Being on the reserve list isn't protecting it's value.

The other point about the reserve list is that it's effectively restricting entry into some of the larger formats. The supply of reserve list cards is pretty much fixed. If demand for those cards increases (players trying to get into Legacy, or building EDH decks), then the only thing that can give is the price; the price of those cards goes up until enough people are turned away. Now some of those cards are always going to be expensive, no matter what we do with them. I don't care how many sets Underground seas get reprinted in, they're never going to be budget cards. But there are other cards where reprinting them would decrease their price and allow people into the older formats.

For example, take Null Rod. In vintage, you're either a deck playing the moxen and other artifacts, or you're a deck hating on them. If you want to make a budget vintage deck, you're going to need to build a deck with artifact hate, of which Null rod is some of the best. Null rod already costs about $10, it's hard to argue it's a budget card in any other format. Imagine Wizards stuck Null Rod into the next core set. It wouldn't see much play in standard because standard doesn't need the dedicated artifact hate. It would increase the supply, driving the price down, which would make it easier for budget conscious vintage players to build themselves a budget deck. This would allow more people to join vintage, which has a largely stagnant player base due to the high cost of entry. More people playing in the tournaments is good for Wizards, and good for the game. So why don't they do it? Null Rod is on the reserve list.

The Reserve List is highly unpopular amongst the player base and amongst the people at Wizards. Nearly anyone you ask about the issue will tell you that they would be happier if wizards had never implemented it. So why is it still around? Wizards made a promise. A promise to be held in perpetuity. Naturally, nobody wants Wizards to treat that like a temporary convenience, to be discarded whenever the mood hits. The thing is, the reserve list has lived well past it's usefulness, and as important as it is to all of us that Wizards generally keeps it's word, there's a large segment of the population who would be happy if Wizards broke their word in this specific occasion.

In my opinion, the highest duty that Wizards has is to make Magic the best game it possibly can be. (Ok, I'll allow them to work on their other games too. This is all in the context of Magic.) I guess you could make the argument that they should be attempting to increase shareholder value, but they aren't contradictory goals. If the game does well, Wizards sells more cards, if Wizards sells more cards, Hasbro makes more money and the stock goes up and the stockholders are happy. But back to my original point.

Wizards should act for the good of the game. Other goals are at best secondary to that. In this context there are a number of competing demands for the good of the game. Wizards should pay attention to the price of singles, because a healthy secondary market aides the game. Wizards should try to increase tournament attendance. Wizards should encourage new people to play the game. Wizards should attempt to retain the old players. Wizards should keep making money hand over fist because that money pays for the R&D members who keep making this the best damn game since the first Indian Raj carved his first rook. And, exceedingly germane to this discussion, Wizards must maintain it's credibility.

Now, there are several kinds of credibility. To demonstrate this, I'm going to kick around Nixon a bit:

"A man isn't finished when he's beaten, a man is finished when he quits"
-Richard Milhaus Nixon.

Thus sayeth the only President of the United States to resign from office. Now, we've all seen enough Futurama to know that Nixon is a fundamentally untrustworthy sort of guy; you don't leave him and a jar of pennies in the same room if you ever want to see your pennies again. The thing is though, Nixon has a lot of credibility as a fighter. If Nixon thought that ninjas were coming to steal his pennies, you can bet that he'd stand there and fight them off with his own two fists if necessary. (In other news, I'd totally watch that movie.) I'd be willing to be that Nixon never gave up on anything in his life, except for that one thing. And frankly, at that point the decision wasn't really his. For the good of the nation he had to step down, however much it rankled for him to give up. I don't think I'm going to offend anyone's politics if I say that Nixon really needed to go.

The point of all that rambling there is that I still impute to Nixon enormous credibility as a fighter even though he quit. In much the same way I impute to Wizards of the Coast enormous credibility where it comes to doing what's best for the game. Take the M10 rules changes for example. I'm still annoyed at the loss of damage on the stack. Even so though, I'm willing to wait and see (and three quarters of a year later I'm still waiting and seeing, no reason to be hasty) to decide whether or not the changes overall are a good thing.

As drastic as the changes were, I'm certain that hours and days of forethought and arguing about them happened behind the hallowed walls of Wizards R&D. I have no doubt in my mind that they were striving for the good of the game, even if we might disagree in the particulars on it. I have great amounts of trust in Wizards' devotion to the game, and to making it the best game possible. And they've shown a willingness to make the difficult decisions when it comes to the long term health of the game.

Which is why I think they should do away with the Reserved list. The major argument for keeping it is that Wizards will lose credibility if they break their promise. But I care a lot less about wizards keeping their word (as important as it is) than I do about them making the best game possible. Which means that Wizards can break their word in this particular instance without taking a serious hit to their credibility; yes I'll be less likely to trust them in the abstract but in the concrete "Do I think the game will be around long enough to make me buying this booster pack worthwhile" sense I'll not worry one bit. They love the game more than I do; and I'm not exactly middlin' fond of it myself. Why would I worry that they'll make a decision that'll threaten the long term health of the game?

For reference, if you feel like reading them, I'm gonna link a bunch of articles about the Reserved list:
Reexamining Reprints (Note: they've since reprinted a number of the cards discussed)
Should Wizards do away with the Reserve List?
Mr. Bleiweiss goes to Washington
Reprinting Phyrexian Negator Note, the deck in question does have Phyrexian Negator
The Reserved List, the New Policy, and Budget Players
Revised Reprint Policy

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