Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Picking Up An Old Hobby..... D&D and Magic The Gathering Past and Present

A while back I decided I wanted to start playing, and collecting, Magic: The Gathering again after almost 17 years of not touching a deck, let alone buying a pack of cards. this was pretty much an impulse buy. I had bought the new Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition core books, luckily getting them with a $10.00 discount each, but still feeling a pain in my ass check where my wallet was on fire! $120.00 dollars, just for the Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and Monsters Manual, and if I hadn't have gotten a discount from the local shop. (thank you Moes at the intersection of Rt. 160 and Hw. 80 in Knott County, Ky)I eventually bought the box set for learning and teaching 5th Edition, and the DM Screen which was probably on of the best and most useful items, but still very overpriced compared to what the games USED TO cost. Yes, D&D was also me attempting to pick back up on an old hobby. Knowing what the 2nd Edition stuff cost, and working at Comic Universe my teenage years, also knowing the discount that TSR then Wizards gave on D&D merchandise, the price hike from $20.00 per core book and for most box sets, to the $50.00 per core book price is uncalled for and, to me, could limit the number of new players or players wanting to return to the game.
I don't know what the discount is NOW, but back in the 90's-early 00's, the discount was %50 on most TSR products! So when your local games shop owner gave you $5.00 off each book, reducing your core price from $60.00 to $45.00, you felt good, and they knew that if you became hooked, they would more than make up for that $15.00 with the first two Campaign or Adventure Box Sets you purchased. Everything after that, they where more than likely doubling their money on, and this enabled them to give heavy discounts and move large amounts of product while making the customer feel like they got a really good deal. The entry level money was not out of the range of the average teenager, especially if you worked like I did, and could purchase much of your gaming collection at cost or just above.
The cost of this new set only makes sense if the discount is still %50 for retailers. Then it reflects a company wanting to make 20 or 25 dollars per book as manufacturers. This would allow the retailer to still give a discount for even the newest materials, however it does make it much much harder to hook those players who are completely new to the tabletop RPG experience. If I had never played 2nd Edition and wanted to teach my daughter D&D I would never have paid such a high price per book for the newest version of a game where I can almost repeat every rule from 2nd Ed from memory after a decade of not even picking up a set of polyhedral dice. EVEN A BIGGER KICK IN THE NUTS! I have yet to put a group together to learn and begin playing 5th Edition..... Hopefully that will all change soon but that is another story.
So after buying the new D&D Edition, I started to think back to my days at Comic Universe and the good times I had playing, selling, trading, collecting, and deck building/testing my Magic: The Gathering cards back in the day. I had seen on Vice News a short documentary on the popularity of MTG now days, especially tournament play. It seamed that the hobby was bigger than ever, and at its core remained the game I had loved almost 2 decades ago. My first play at MTG with newer rules came from my PS3. 2014's Duels Of The Planeswalkers, it showed me the core of the game had remained like I thought, pretty much unchanged except for some new rules in the way of abilities that they didn't have years ago, and the renaming of some abilities over the years. This got me wanting to play the real game against a REAL PERSON again. So I went out and over the course of the next month or so I purchased a couple of pre-built decks, one of the Gift Box sets that Wizards produces now, several packs of cards, and a couple of boxes of commons/uncommons and lands for an extremely low price. I even found a pre-built deck from back when I played at a yard sale for just a couple dollars. I got The Swarm deck from the Tempest expansion in 1997 for a couple dollars and it was in like new shape. Obviously someone had bought it and never gotten to play it.
I am determined to teach my daughter to play, if only to have someone to play and collect with since nobody that lives close plays. I was surprised after my D&D experience with Wizards of the Coast pricing now days, that MTG pricing for packs and cards hadn't really went up all that much. A person could spend $20.00 and have two decks that were well balanced, and competitive against casual players.
Those last two words are important. As I looked more and more into MTG now days and tried to build a decent deck from my cards, I wondered about the local gaming scene and what it took to actually play in the tournaments that took place regularly at the bigger stores in Perry and Pike County. That's when I found out about WotC prime money making strategy, and how/why MTG prices where still fairly reasonable, while D&D prices had been jacked threw the roof. It comes down to the two products and how game play with each is different both in tournament and casual play.
D&D, as a game, could be played with nothing more purchased besides replacement dice for the ones you throw, and loss, after a bad roll with just the purchase of the core books and nothing else ever. If you had a good imagination, and didn't want to play pre-made adventures, all you purchased where those three books named earlier, and nothing more, ever. Which most players do pick up additional books, weather it be for rules enhancements, campaign settings, or a really really well constructed adventure module, the likes of which from the 80's and 90's names have become legendary among players. Even then, if a person didn't want to buy the books, but wanted the material anyway, piracy in the form of .PDF files is rampant across the internet and you can have every book WotC produces the same night they come out to scroll threw and play if you wanted. The DM need only have a laptop sitting in front of him instead of a stack of books.
MTG is completely different. The entry price is much lower, however, to remain competitive among more serious players, one almost has to buy the newest expansion. At least until the player has whatever cards they want to build the deck in your head. But where the real MUST BUY for the newer expansions comes in is from tournament play. To play in MTG tournaments now days, you have to have a deck built from only the latest core set, and or latest expansions. You can play "Unlimited" tournaments, but these are much more rare, few and far between. Even then, and I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure the word "Unlimited" is not completely true, the cards in your deck still have to be from the Magic expansions released since a certain date.
That, and the fact that you just can't pirate MTG cards, makes it a bottomless pit of a hobby if you actually do start playing it as a "hobby". A hobby, meaning something that you keep up with and play fairly frequently and competitively at least among your friends. It's easy to pick up a pack of cards for $4 or $5 bucks, and before you know it you've spent a couple hundred dollars, and look only to see ANOTHER new expansion has just been released and you are still searching for a choice few cards from the last one to complete your deck. Of course then you hear about the awesome new cards and reprints of rare cards from previous expansions coming out in the NEXT Expansion..... you start chasing the dragon.... literally.
And just like real drugs, MTG is addictive. I would sell anywhere from $100, to upwards of $300 dollars a day in high school of packs of Magic cards. This was every day. I had a separate locker for boxes of cards, and usually kept 2-4 different expansions on hand with the older packs selling for $5 or $6 dollars a pack. It was the best seller of any kind of collectable cards that I sold, and I sold everything from baseball, and basketball cards, to sets of cards put out by different comic book companies back in the day. I even had porno cards for the likely not to loss their virginity any time soon. (Keep in mind this was the late 90's when access to porn wasn't as readily available and most people who did have the internet only had 28.8 kbps modem, or if they had a high end comp. a 56k modem. So video was not easily streamed even if you could find it) When MTG outsells PORN to HS boys, you know it is hitting the reward center of the brain in some way, and if you have ever pulled a really rare, and expensive card from a random pack you KNOW it slams that reward center with a sledgehammer!
An example is a friend of mine bought a pack of 5th Edition cards from me one day. Back then core sets weren't re-released as often, and when they where there was always a few rares that were cycled in and out. One of those every player wanted in my day was the red powerhouse Shivan Dragon. It was, at the time, a BEAST of a card, that made your red deck a step above others if you could draw it. Most people didn't have the money to afford more than one, especially having to get it in a pack at random, and back then even hobby shops for the most part didn't deal in singles unless it was something extremely valuable like the Black Lotus and Mox(gemstone) cards from the earliest sets. SO one day when my friend bought a pack I reached in the box, handed him the un-open pack a few packs down from the top and just said in jest, "That's got a Shivan Dragon in it." Not thinking twice I turned to the next customer and asked what they wanted. The next thing I knew my friend started cussing in a "Holy shit!" way. It caught my attention as he turned around and held up his newest prized possession.....a mint Shivan Dragon. He immediately bought 3 more packs and everyone started asking me to pick their packs for them instead of them picking it out, which most liked to do just as a superstition. I sold out of 5th Edition that day, and sold the next two wax boxes I got at a record pace.
When I decided to get back into MTG I told myself, you are not going to get into this hobby like you used to. At most, I told myself, I would only buy a couple packs or pre-made decks from the new expansions when it struck me as being really worthwhile, or if I wanted to compete in a game night and needed a deck. I don't think I could ever collect to the point of actually being able to compete in the serious level of MTG play. I have other things to spend my money on that are more important, like any parent worth a damn will admit. If Madison started to pick up the hobby, certainly I would spend more, but until she does all I can afford is the few and far between deck, and impulse purchase pack of cards here and there. My point is that now that I have seen the two different strategies from WotC, the price hikes of D&D over the years make a little more sense. TSR was always in financial trouble, they where releasing new material ALL THE TIME, but much of it was not really high quality. They would release entire campaigns and support them with modules, box sets of lore, books of alternative and optional rules for every conceivable thing a persons imagination could wonder about. To get retailers to even hope to keep up they had to offer the huge discount, and players where inundated with shit they never would play. Who ever actually got a campaign of Red Steel, or Birthright off the ground?
During the days of 1st Ed. the adventure modules where pretty sparse as far as fleshing out the dungeons the presented. They expected players to use their imaginations to build upon the material they where provided with. That's why no two players ever had the same experience! Because the DM, even if he started with a well known module such as White Plume Mountain, or The Tomb Of Horrors, would all have their own style, and ways of making the material come to life. TSR however noticed that with a product this popular among cash strapped high school and college kids, that they couldn't raise the prices much. Since they couldn't raise the price of material, when 2nd Ed. came out and hit big, the strategy changed to releasing more and more campaign settings, which allowed for more adventures and accessory books to "flesh things out". Which is why it rubbed many 1st Ed AD&D players wrong and many refused to buy more than the core rules, or at most a box set for their favorite campaign setting such as Forgotten Realms or Ravenloft. They got the games, they weren't about filling up shelf space, they where about having an imaginative, fun, exciting, game nights with your buddies. If you had a good DM, they wouldn't need more than the campaign setting and then only if they wanted to run the setting something close to what the novels and such presented. So with the flood of shitty worlds and CD adventures hitting the shelf, players (CONSUMERS!) lost confidence. TSR lost money, and after awhile it got so desperate they where bought out by WotC. Over the next two editions Wizards had to learn just what a hole TSR had dug themselves into.
At first WotC thought simply issuing a new edition was enough. Of course along with the new edition came new versions of almost every book produced in 2nd edition that was worth buying. They killed some worlds but still produced far too much material. 4th edition was slightly less overwhelming as far as the sheer amount of stuff on the store shelf, but by then many players had quit, and new players where fewer and further between.
This is where the newest edition comes in and the price makes sense from a corporate level. They have to get new players, and entice old players to come back. So instead of half assing a new version of the game, and vomiting it all over the place, they worked on the rules, they refined the system to make it both refreshing and new, but familiar enough so older players weren't intimidated. They would not just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. This was all done, I hope, to regain the confidence of players in the quality of material they paid their hard earned money for. Books may cost more, but they were better, both in written quality, and material quality. The whole reason I purchased it myself was that I heard it was a return to form for all the players who used to play, and had said "Fuck this shit!" since 2nd Ed. So what at first seamed like a really bad idea, and something that would hinder new players coming along, I can see now that it is a must to keep the game alive in any form. If they couldn't charge enough to make it worth their time to write, print, advertise, and distribute, then D&D would die. Without flooding the market, or having a product like MTG where buying a pack of cards is relatively cheap, but something you will do over and over and over again, they had to make the entry price pretty high. You only buy rule books once, unlike chasing the newest high powered rare from each expansion that comes out, or just to keep a game like MTG new and exciting.
D&D is a more immersive experience, MTG is more strategic. Two different games, two different market strategies. While the barrier to entry is certainly higher than it used to be, if that means what is released is much better, and worth your money, then in the long run a player or DM, may only buy a couple books a year because they are given the tools to use their imaginations and build their own game world from the very start. I've even seen WotC release a lot more FREE material via their website. Including a crossover D&D/MTG setting, where the rules of D&D were expanded upon to bring the world in which the newest MTG expansions story is set in. It's almost a steampunk version of D&D, and they released it for free! Instead of being a teaser, or lower quality than the material produced for the retail market, it seams to be very well written and thought out.
Are they a gigantic company, who's goal is to make money? Sure. They seam to have finally understood the difference in the minds of people who play only tabletop RPG's, verses those that play CCG's. For those of us who want to play both, it can still be a expensive proposition, but its down to the individual to police themselves and only buy what they can afford. Now we can be a little more sure that what we do buy, as far as RPG material is concerned, will at the very least be useful and contribute to the DM's attempt to build his own world. With a pack of cards, your chances of finding cards you will find much use in is up in the air, while if you have looked at a D&D book prior to purchase at all, you know weather it is something you are going to use or not, and you can base your choice of what to buy on that.
It's very refreshing from the RPG viewpoint, and with all honesty more frustrating if your a person looking to start playing MTG. I can see their side of things however, and while I disagree with one from the consumer point of view, the other I agree with. It may cost me over double the price for a core book as it did 20 years ago, the game material in those books is a whole lot more useful and instead of keeping rules out, so they can print "The Complete Book Of (insert gaming term here), they give you everything you could possibly need to know to build or expand upon any world you could possibly want to build.

How I wrote what amounts to an essay this length about the different market strategies and my view point of the modern products, coming from a background two decades old, I'll never know. It is something I have thought about a lot since trying to get back into things. I miss the old days, but more than anything I think I miss the newness of playing these games all those years ago. I want Madi to have that experience, and her imagination to be blown like mine was. Maybe after I get to play some and eventually DM some, that creative side of me that would sit and build a game world all night long, drawing maps, writing lore, designing adventures will be sparked again. If that happens, no price is too high..... That's the whole reason I want Madi to learn, her imagination is already going full steam, to expand upon that could lead her to even greater heights. Completely priceless.
As for MTG I would want her to pick up that to learn the advantage of thinking strategically. Something that a ten year old just doesn't grasp or appreciate. Having her think along those lines could also lead to a big advantage in how she sees multiple aspects in her life. ALSO PRICELESS.....
So take what I have written to heart but make up your own mind. Before you buy the 3 core books of D&D, buy the Starter Set. Before you buy a wax box of MTG's newest expansion, buy a couple of pre-built decks. To play in tournaments is not something the casual player is going to be able to do anymore, but that doesn't stop you from playing with your friends, and holding amateur tournaments at your local game shop.

I've babbled on enough, if you agree with me, please feel free to comment. If you don't feel free to as well :) For all the people wondering about that cross platform WotC online D&D source book, here is the address I hope you like it and get some use out of it!