Insider: Magic: The Gambling

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Avacyn Restored is upon us in all its Angelic and Demonic glory. It appears Wizards of the Coast has hit another home run with this set, at least with casual players.

An Angel collector myself, I was even compelled to purchase a fat pack and try my luck at nine packs of Avacyn Restored. What I found inside, however, was utterly disappointing.

Within these packs were nine normal rares: Angel of Jubilation, Harvester of Souls, Captain of the Mists, Conjurer's Closet, Gallows at Willow Hill, Descendants' Path, Slayers' Stronghold, and two Druids' Repository.

Utterly dismal, these packs likely have trade value on the order of eight dollars and it really frustrates me that Wizards can’t at least ensure there is at least one Mythic Rare in each fat pack.

But this article isn’t completely about my anecdote, although it is certainly related. Instead, I want to dive into a deepening dichotomy Wizards has created through multiple questionable decisions they’ve made.

Do I Feel Lucky?

I have commented before how opening Magic: The Gathering packs have become analogous to scratch-off lottery tickets. The introduction of the Mythic Rare and Planeswalkers has compounded this result. While the inconsistent payouts to purchasing packs may be rewarding and even addicting to some, it has really dissuaded others from ripping open random sealed product.

The result is the first step towards the dichotomization I alluded to. Much like the purported dwindling of the middle class within the United States, many people have identified sealed Magic product containing middle-of-the-road value a thing of the past.

My most recent experience is a microcosm of this observation. Statistics may be the underlying body governing what people open in their packs, but at times the numbers appear suspicious. Even if I accept the fact that my luck was perhaps particularly poor this last fat pack, the general trend remains the same. And, given the psychology that my own experiences frame my perceptions on random distributions of events, I am left with a saddening conclusion: opening packs is feast or famine. The feasts are far outweighed by the garbage rares distributed throughout packs.

My hypothesis is further supported by fellow Tweeters who were quick to either commiserate or counter-argue with my own experience. Here are two examples, which occurred nearly simultaneously within the Twitterverse:

I realize statistically this sample size is insufficient – this I cannot argue with. But my individual perception is absolute and cannot be refuted. In this moment, my perception is that opening fat packs is like playing the lottery.

I have not had success playing the lottery in the past, so why do I continue to open packs? I may need to stop. After all, everyone knows the best way to obtain desired singles is to purchase them directly. Opening packs is monetarily inefficient as dictated by statistics.

Well Do Ya, Punk?

As I discussed last week with Hasbro’s recent earnings results, this strategy of feast or famine has clearly been successful. The makers of Magic: The Gathering have identified a way to legalize gambling for all ages. A 13-year-old can purchase a pack of Avacyn Restored for four dollars, open up a foil Cavern of Souls and proceed to sell it for forty dollars – a lucrative day at the local hobby shop.

On a related note, the recent Helvault experience magnifies the gambling experience.

What am I alluding to? The recent publication [confession?] of Wizards, which explained the distribution of jackpot Helvaults throughout the world:

We wanted to provide a unique Magic play experience for our players, so we made some Helvaults with special contents. Of the roughly 6,000 Helvaults we sent out, we selected 30 Helvaults to get this special treatment. We picked randomly from our Advanced level WPN stores and sent the Premium Helvaults to their new home. These stores received Helvaults which had the following inside:

• 54 Foil Oversized cards of Avacyn, Angel of Hope, Griselbrand, Sigarda, Host of Herons, Bruna, Light of Alabaster, Gisela, Blade of Goldnight
• 108 Foil Double-sided Angel/Demon tokens
• 54 20-sided spindown life counters
• 54 Promo Foils thematically tied to angels or demons

Do you realize what this implies? There was a 1 in 200 chance of opening the special Helvault! What was inside? Only a handful of promo foil cards arguably rarer than Beta Black Lotus!

Considering the fact that foil tokens are averaging $70 on eBay and the foil oversized promos are even higher, the result was the random giveaway of thousands of dollars worth of cards in each special Helvault.

In fact, assuming each oversized foil promo is $100 and each foil token is $70, we can readily calculate that the value of a special Helvault auctions for at least $13,000!!! Talk about hitting the lottery!

Now the payout for attending your local Magic events is beyond even the lottery tickets you buy in the form of booster packs. With special events like these, a whole new level of gambling is created based solely on which event you attend and where. Anyone could have walked out of a hobby shop with hundreds of dollars in cards after an event like this one.

Magic players are known to grumble and groan when they shouldn’t. After all, it was generous of Wizards to create this giveaway – they certainly did not have to shell out the thousands of dollars it costs in printing, distribution, etc. for running a promotion like this. By having this drastic dichotomy in relative payouts, however, Wizards has only watered the seed that is the entitlement Magic players feel they deserve.

For Me, Always Assume There Is a Sixth Bullet Left

If you don’t get the reference, check this video out:

What I am implying here is the perhaps painful message to Magic players around the world that we are NOT entitled. When you buy a scratch-off lottery ticket, you certainly do not expect to win, right? In the same vein, when we purchase a pack of Magic: The Gathering cards, we are only entitled our fifteen cards and one rare. We are never guaranteed to earn value back on packs.

With all the random promotion giveaways Wizards decides to organize, we are receiving free product. Rather than point fingers at the next guy over and accusing Wizards of showing favoritism, we need to remind ourselves that this is the reality of randomness.

Of course, this gambling experience the creators of Magic have fostered may not be appropriate in general. For most true games, the question of profit only becomes relevant with professional success. As it always has, Magic falls within a very unique category by containing aspects of both a game as well as a gamble.

My approach to this realization will remain firm from this point forward. I never purchase scratch-off lottery tickets because I anticipate losing. In the same sense, I will refrain from purchasing booster packs and fat packs because I do not wish to spend my hard-earned dollars on bulk cardboard.

My most recent fat pack experience solidifies this. With thirteen Angel creatures in Avacyn Restored, some of them even commons and uncommons, I was convinced I would open at least a few. Instead, I was punished with opening only two: Seraph of Dawn and Angel of Jubilation. At the price of $40 plus tax, this was a very poor outcome and highly reflective of the gambling nature of this game.

When odds are increased, and you are looking for simple commons and uncommons from a given set, opening such poor fodder is an even more fateful dagger. My message to Wizards and the broader Magic community: until this dichotomy is removed, I vow not to open another sealed pack of Magic outside of Limited tournament events. Who is with me?

-Sigmund Ausfresser

14 thoughts on “Insider: Magic: The Gambling

  1. I love the feeling of being in control I get from buying singles and knowing how much sealed product I would have to open to get those same cards. The only time buying singles rubs me the wrong way is when a new set is released and cards are overpriced. No way am I buying a playset of Tamiyo for $160.00 or Tibalt for $100.00 right now! Buying booster boxes of a new set while singles are overpriced is the only time I think it would make sense to buy large amounts of sealed product. But it seems like once the newness of a set wears off, you would be paying a sort of gambler’s premium on sealed product. Overall the market for Magic cards is much more kind to the buyer of singles than to the buyer of sealed product. Better to let the gamblers buy the sealed product and wait for them to unload their playables onto the market at attractive prices.

    1. I'm with you there! I'm done with the gamble – I used to think Fat Packs were a fun way to get some new cards, get a nice box, a spindown die, etc. But really, when you open like $5 in value from a $40 Fat Pack, it's just not worth it.

      Next set I think I'll just stick to buying singles a month or so after the set is out. Since I don't play competitive Magic much these days, I really am in no true rush to acquire the cards – other than just my human impatience 🙂

  2. I have been buying at least 1 box per small set and 2 boxes per large set for years (I think since Fifth Dawn if not before that) and half that since Apocalypse. I almost always buy in preorder. The only time I've been disappointed was when I opened 2 boxes of Shards where the rare distribution, including the foil rare, was extremely similar, there were only 2 rares I had an uneven number of copies of and even then value wise I had done well enough.

    If I'm going to have to buy all the commons and a large chunk of the uncommons, then get the rares and mythics I want as well all as single cards it's going to get very expensive. If I buy enough boxes to approximately cover the (un)commons at least I avoid that cost, then I keep what I want to have from the rares and mythics and trade the rest. Of course I will not get everything that way and so I will need to buy some cards as singles, but on the whole I seem to open enough to cover the cost of buying the boxes.

    Buying and opening boxes is worth it to me and a fun experience to boot.

    It may not be worth it to you, you might be looking for fewer cards from the set than I am for example.

    1. This set is the first one in a long time where I anxiously want more than 10 cards, since I need all the Angels for my collection. I enjoy opening packs, but when they contain such fodder it's really demotivating. It's not unlike gambling – I love playing blackjack, but after losing a few times I really don't want to play anymore even though the game itself is fun. I just don't like losing so much money!

  3. On average (excluding foils) you'll get the following out of 1 Booster Pack = 11 commons, 3 uncommons, 0.875 rares, 0.125 mythics. Your Fat Pack results in 99 commons, 27 uncommons, 7.875 rares and 1.125 mythics.

    2 out of 101 commons are Angels -> 1.96 Common Angels / Fat Pack
    3 out of 60 uncommons are Angels -> 1.35 Uncommon Angels / Fat Pack
    4 out of 53 rares are Angels -> 0.59 Rare Angels / Fat Pack
    4 out of 15 mythics are Angels -> 0.30 Mythic Angels / Fat Pack

    If you were trying to get some of the Angels, why buying a Fat Pack ? 8 out of 13 are Rare/Mythic!

  4. 1.96+1.35+0.59+0.3 = 4.2 Angels, so he did open less than expected, though I doubt it's significantly less. He did manage to open an angel that's not even in Avacyn Restored 😉 (I'm sure you meant Seraph of Dawn Sigmund).

    1. What really bugged me was that I opened 0 of the common Angels!! I mean, come on, I think in 9 packs I should have gotten at least one of them, right? Of course it's all random – but that's my point. I'm just burnt out from losing the random game.

      Oops, nice catch on the typo. I opened Archangel, not Seraph. My mistake.

  5. While I empathize with the "lack of value" gained from buying sealed product, I continue to do so for a couple of reasons. (AVR I picked up a box and a fat pack).
    1) Its an acceptable way of ensuring I have playsets of commons. While I could just order them individually, I have a feeling (haven't actually checked) that I'd get stung on shipping costs as I live in New Zealand.
    2) More importantly; I'm supporting my LGS. If all of the competitive players in my city stopped buying sealed product, I think the impact would be so major on the viability of my LGS that they'd close their doors. Which means nowhere for me to trade, and no tournaments. I like doing both of these things.

    1. I agree with you on the LGS aspect. I am a big fan (and so is Sigmund, I believe) of buying boxes, and I like supporting local stores when I do so.

      There's also something sort of fun about picking up a random pack here and there. Especially for comic-goers, throwing in that extra pack can be pretty fun. You definitely don't do it for the insurance of value, though.

      A time and place. 🙂 For Fat Packs, I've never been a gigantic fan… buying a box or a misc. pack, however, feels fine to me. I wouldn't do it if I were looking to simply collect, however… as there are more strategic ways of doing so.

      1. I am supportive of the LGS aspect as well. Maybe I should look to either buying a pack here and there or buying a box to keep sealed. These approaches may be more appropriate to meeting my goals. There is normally a thrill to opening a new pack, don't get me wrong. I've done it tons of times in my lifetime :-). But when I was younger, I was eager to play with any cards I opened (especially before the set symbols denoted rarity by color – back then, sometimes I'd get way excited about a strong common/uncommon and didn't even pay attention to value). But nowadays, with an exact value of every card at our fingertips, it's hard to ignore how poor a purchase these packs can become. Perhaps I should just purchase one or two packs for the thrill, and then buy singles for the cards I need.

        Of course, I did state that limited tournaments were an exception. I do intend to draft at the LGS on occasion 🙂

        1. To think that the 2 guys who taught me magic even quit because they started showing rarities… Those were real merciless sharks, had no calms about trading their commons for other people's rares all day. Some of my cards even went missing at their place. Some of my focus on trading probably comes from these guys even if they approached it differently from how I do it now.

          I know I was excited to open a Warrior Angel, but don't think I ever got too excited about commons or uncommons. Yeah, I liked my one Ice Age pack that had both Icy and Cap :). On the other hand, I didn't even get very excited when I opened a Mana Drain from a 5 euro repack, so maybe I'm just hard to excite.

          I tend to just buy singles or other games at the LGS, but I'm not often there. Buying boxes there is too expensive, they charge about 10-15 euros (+/- $13 -$20) more per box versus what I can find online. They also don't really organize that much in regard to Magic anymore, not even sure they still do an FNM. I understand FNM at a nearby city is thriving, but as I don't have a car it's a bit far away.

          1. I never opened a Warrior Angel, though I did once open a Mox Diamond from Stronghold. I knew I opened money there when the guy next to me in the Hobby Shop offered me $20 on the spot.

            On the other hand, I was also pumped to open Flame Wave. That's a sweet uncommon if you ask me.

            And I won't lie, when I first opened Phyrexian Walker I was so excited – it was the first time I had seen a 0-mana creature (I started playing MTG when Visions was the newest set). The rarity symbols, combined with having value information readily available on the internet, has really detracted from the pack-opening experience for me.

            1. Ow yeah, the Walker was cool, started with Tempest myself and grabbed a set from the common bin as soon as I saw them, better than Wall of Wood! 😉 Fortunately I also got some unlimited Llanowar Elves from the same common bin that are still worth more than I paid for them back then and they still see play every now and then :). I never opened the Mox, in general I didn't get that many good cards when I just got started, though I did open a Recurring Nightmare when Exodus was the new set. It and Surival of the Fittest were the hottest cards in Exodus back then. Of course I opened like 5 to at most 10 packs per set in the early days…

              Did you ever notice the surfer on Flame Wave?

              For me pack opening is mostly about reading all the new flavor text and reading all the new cards. I don't really care for the rarity. Of course once I have opened all the commons I start to only care for the higher rarities and the same happens for the uncommons at a later point. Finally I end up just quickly going to the rare or mythic and I will be disappointed if it's one I have already opened (even the 2nd FOIL Bruna was more interesting as an oddity than as the card itself, 2 of them in the 2 boxes I got, what's the chance of that happening…).

              1. I thought the same thing when I saw the Walker – strictly better than Wall of Wood!!! Plus, how cool would it be to play two creatures on turn one!?

                Before I knew rarities, I did read what every single card did and I got excited about anything that looked useful. My collection was of course tiny, so every new card looked like it could be "tech" for a deck idea. I remember when I built my Spike deck (all those 0/0 creatures from Stronghold/Exodus) and then I discovered Spike Cannibal – imagine how excited I was to try that out!!!

                Back then there were fewer chances to view spoiled cards before a set came out, too. Nowadays, I know what cards to look for when a new set comes out. If my rare isn't one of those few exciting cards, it's disappointing. Spoiler season takes away from the excitement of opening a pack and not knowing what I may pull.

                I'll have to take a closer look at Flame Wave tonight 🙂

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