Entry Points Onto the Autobahn
This is the third in a series of posts about retraining myself in how I watch for trends and preferences in the gaming community.
The Autobahn is the federal highway system in Germany. If you’ve never heard of it before, know one thing about it: it has a reputation for being fast and full of aggressive would-be F1 drivers. Overall, the general, uninitiated perception is that it’s really intimidating for newcomers.
If you’re looking at getting on the “fastest highway in the world” for the first time*, you may do well to take some advice from a native.
That native is not me. Go talk to these guys.
Many games are the same way. Games with high complexity and depth almost always go hand-in-hand with a high barrier to entry, and the initial view can look a lot like full-speed highway traffic from the shoulder.
If you’ve been reading the other posts in this series, it should in no way shock you that I’m now going to talk about Magic: the Gathering — this time specifically about the ways players experience it in their earliest stages of introduction into the Magic “lifestyle”. It’s a game I know well, and while my own entry into the game was back in 1994 (at risk of making it awkward, I’ll admit I’ve loved the game longer than I’ve loved my wife), I’ve seen and helped other players find their way into the game hundreds of times now.
For first-timers, Magic is often a surprisingly social game. The richest aspect isn’t actually the depth of card interactions, it’s the depth of interpersonal interactions. Magic is a game that thrives because of the tight-knit communities that form around it. Ironically, as close as the smaller communities are – often defined by the games/comic stores they meet at — these groups are almost modular or interchangeable in their structures; since the language and “customs” of the game are the same everywhere you go, it typically doesn’t take long for a player to migrate from one store/community to another.
Magic as a brand has recognized this for a long time, but has recently begun to put even more special emphasis on it, shifting some of the “outreach” efforts from promoting large, high threshold things like the Pro Tour and Grand Prix events back to the local shops where people congregate. The Magic brand has seen and encouraged a return back to its grassroots-style person-to-person viral origins.
The large-scale events are still around and thriving — the 2017 World Championship event alone paid out $350,000 in prizes, and prize payouts for the 2017-18 Pro Tour season total $2,600,000 over 8 events. The Magic Pro Tour requires players to qualify for events through a series of qualifiers, limiting the field to a global elite, best-of-the-best pool.
Mid-tier events like the Grand Prix tournament series are open to all Magic players of any skill level, and carry prize payouts in the hundreds and thousands of dollars, as well as Pro Tour invites and points that can be accumulated to qualify for inclusion on the Pro Tour for top finishers. Each Grand Prix is a massive weekend-long convention-like spectacle, with a main event surrounded by dozens of smaller side tournaments. 2018 will see 60 Grands Prix held all over the world. Any one of these can attract well over 1,000 players, there for games, prizes, trading, celebrity appearances, exclusive Grand Prix souvenirs, and more.
The Pro Tour and Grands Prix have spawned side industries like websites that stream tournament coverage with full, professional production crews and commentators. These sites often sponsor teams of pros, and roll that visibility into selling content subscriptions, accessories, and single cards used by players to build better decks with. Magic, even outside of the sphere that Wizards of the Coast inhabits, is a multi-million dollar engine of commerce.
This is the fast lane of Magic. Getting here is certainly doable, but the first-time player can come in facing an overwhelming cacophony if they attempt it without a guide of some kind. One does not generally attend a Grand Prix hoping to learn the game from scratch.
Pulling onto this Autobahn begins at the first game of Magic someone plays. In all likelihood, it’ll happen at a kitchen table or in one of those aforementioned thousands of shops with small grassroots communities. And with the depth, complexity, and history of Magic, even that can make for an intimidating view. Just learning the game in the first place is an undertaking best done with a living, breathing person there to teach you. Wizards of the Coast has embraced this rite of passage by creating an events schedule aimed at the local scenes, where new players can meet and learn from other more experienced local players. Building upon the weekly “Friday Night Magic” series held at participating shops, players can now jump into the game through novice-friendly events like Open Houses, Prereleases, Draft Weekends, Leagues, and Store Championships.
The tournament scene is in itself a product, carefully designed to create comfort zones for players of all types and draw them more securely into the fold. That’s about the brand though. We’re here to talk about the design of physical products.
When I recently interviewed for a job at Wizards of the Coast with Mark Globus (as discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this article series), one of the questions he asked me was how I might improve an existing product aimed specifically at new-ish Magic players in the early stages of learning how to build a Standard-format deck. I admitted that I’d never purchased a Deck Builder’s Toolkit, as the product first launched in the spring of 2010 — a full 16 years after I first learned how to play and build decks for Magic — and I never really had a need for one. I’d looked at the product several times at retail though, and was generally familiar with what came in them.
The Deck Builder’s Toolkit (or DBT) has undergone some changes from its first version almost eight years ago, but the overall makeup and purpose are essentially the same. It’s aimed at players who are just beginning to build their own decks, rather than using borrowed or pre-made decks. The goal of the product is to present the player with enough cards to build a deck that can be brought to and played at a typical Friday Night Magic Standard event. While the specific components vary across the editions, all of them contain a pre-selected set of semi-randomized and fixed content comprised of common and uncommon cards, four booster packs from recent sets, a stack of basic lands, a “learn to play” guide, and a storage box. Recent DBTs have scaled back on the amount of random card content and include small “seeded” packs of cards that all fit a specific theme to give users a choice of visible paths to start with.
Beyond this, I didn’t know much about how well the DBT actually jump-started a player’s collection or deck building stock. I asked Mark if I could take a few hours after the interview to refresh myself with the product and send him some written notes on improving it.
With such a short turnaround time, setting up online polls or directly interviewing players at a local shop wasn’t going to be a viable means of research. Google pointed me to several video reviews on YouTube, including some from Tolarian Community College. The Professor’s a pretty watchable guy, and his reviews are consistent and well-balanced. After running through a couple of videos in which he examined the whether buying a DBT was worthwhile (the videos each cover a different edition of the DBT), I had a pretty good idea of what was going on inside the product.
Overall, The Professor’s assessment was that some of the DBTs were worth the $19.99 MSRP when looking at the individual contents (four booster packs purchased individually would cost someone $16). That judgment varied slightly from year to year, as the expected return value of the sets represented by the packs rose and fell based on the secondary single-cards market. When he looked at whether the DBTs provided new players with a viable entry point into learning how to build a deck — evaluation based on effectiveness in its purpose — his findings were less promising. In his estimation, it was very unlikely that the contents of a single DBT could provide a player with anything resembling a competitive deck that would keep pace at a Friday Night Magic event. Further, he noted that by including packs from multiple sets, it meant that at least a quarter of the cards in any given DBT would be obsolete within a very short time, which would almost certainly prove frustrating to new players.
The problems presented seemed to me to be the exact place to start building in improvements to the product. My gut said that by narrowing the range of the cards and packs in the product, players would get a more focused set of thematically and mechanically linked cards and packs. This would mean losing some of the DBT’s ability to reflect the breadth of the current Standard environment, but it would keep more cards relevant within that Standard environment longer. And in fact, after writing my recommendations to Mark later that night, I went back and watched more of The Professor’s reviews. In fact, it turned out that he had drawn some very similar conclusions in his other YouTube reviews.
What I’ve learned recently though is that, much like with movies, the opinions of the reviewers and the opinions of the masses are not necessarily simpatico with one another. Just because The Professor and I were seeing the DBTs along the same wavelength didn’t mean our takeaways matched those of the larger audience. Our opinion came from the perspective of two Magic veterans who weren’t actively in the process of supplying a new player with the tools to construct their first deck. So I turned once again to the community within the Magic: the Seattling Facebook group to see if the “narrow DBT” plan resonated with other players. I was particularly interested in seeing what an experienced player would recommend to a friend whom they were introducing to Magic for the first time.
In an effort to minimize any skew that might come from respondents whom had preconceived opinions on the DBTs, I shifted the context by looking almost solely at the makeup of the booster packs. In retrospect, I realize that my posed scenario used six packs rather than four, but I have no reason to believe this error had any significant impact on the poll results.
When faced with setting up a friend with the cards needed to build a deck for Standard format events, 86% of experienced Magic players felt that a new player was better served with the more thematically and mechanically concentrated card pool.
Several of those who responded in the comments noted that they’d prefer to simply hand their friend a deck that they’d built themselves, but I felt that this circumvented the actual question at hand. My goal was not to find out the best way to teach someone to play a proven competitive deck, or to find out what that ideal pre-built deck was. This stage of the research was purely about optimizing the tools to allow a new player to learn the process of evaluating cards for decks and building those decks. The answer seemed clear; the community agreed with the evaluation that The Professor and I had come to.
As I saw the results come in, I realized that a DBT built from just a single set began to bear a strong resemblance to a supplemental product that already had strong traction in Magic’s larger community: The Bundle Box (formerly known and now frequently mis-referenced as the Fat Pack) is a product aimed at more enfranchised players.
In the 18 years since they were first launched, Bundle Boxes have undergone numerous configuration changes to get to what we currently know them as. In 1999, when the first Fat Pack was released to coincide with the Mercadian Masques set, the product included three booster packs, a tournament pack (a 75-card box of rates, uncommon, commons, and basic lands typically used for certain tournament formats), a randomly selected foil basic land and a randomly selected foil common card, a visual guide to the set, and a paperback novel. Over time, notable changes included the discontinuation of the novels and tournament packs, the addition of a spindown life counter (see Reading the Room: Part 2), an increase in the number of booster packs, and the inclusion of a storage box capable of holding a few hundred cards.
The current configuration has become particularly streamlined: ten booster packs, an assortment of basic lands and token cards, one spin down life counter, a visual guide, a one-sheet “how to play” guide (common to all Magic supplemental products), and a storage box. There is also a smaller box that purports to be for holding dice, since it’s too small to hold actual cards. The smaller box is often maligned in reviews as less than useful, though I suspect the true purpose of the dice box has more to do with simply making the Bundle look larger on a retail shelf than with any kind of usefulness as a game accessory. All in all, while a Bundle box offers a fine return-for-MSRP value, they’re not particularly exciting in their array of components.
Ironically, there is another product in the Magic line that is effectively no more than a smaller Bundle, but that generates a ton of excitement for both new and veteran players: the Prerelease Pack (a picture of which can be seen earlier in this article). Prerelease Packs are available only at specific events, but apart from a premium foil rare or mythic rare card with the event’s date stamped on it, typically have very little exclusive content that players will want to hold onto after the event. Otherwise, the Prerelease Pack amounts to a six-booster Bundle rather than a 10-booster one. In the past, Prerelease Packs for some events included packs from two or more associated sets and/or special seeded packs that allowed for a higher concentration of cards that showcased the set’s themes. Barring any seeded content though, future Prerelease Packs for the new “single-set block” structure will have little reason to be much more than 60% of a Bundle.
Compared to the DBTs, Bundles somehow manage to promise less than and still likely deliver more of what a DBT promises. The simple concentration of card themes and strategies makes virtually any deck built from a Bundle’s pool more streamlined and potentially competitive than a deck built from a DBT. On top of this, a higher percentage of the cards acquired in a Bundle will remain playable in the associated Standard format longer than would in any in a DBT.
My polling has shown me that more than 80% of new players learn from another human being rather than through their own reading of printed materials or video game tutorials. With either product, a new player will still get more mileage from sitting down with a friend who can teach them deck building basics in a one-to-one setting than they would from simply buying the product off the shelf and reading from an impersonal guidebook/sheet. This means that, given a friend with any Magic experience to learn from, the Bundle is almost ALWAYS going to be a better value to the new player learning to build their first deck.
This doesn’t mean that the Bundle is any more apparent in what it offers a new player or the quantifiable value it provides over a DBT. The DBT talks a good game, while the Bundle more or less says “here’s a bunch of packs and a spindown”. The former sounds more instructive and function-driven, while the latter sounds flat and unremarkable. The difference comes down to external messaging.
I believe that the two products could be merged into one and, with a few new features, be as attractive to — and functional for — both audiences at the same time. This is, as Magic Head Designer refers to the principle, Lenticular Design; one thing that has two different apparent purposes when viewed from two different perspectives, but that provides significant value to both. It is the ideal vehicle for both the inexperienced driver looking at the Autobahn from the merging lane as well as the fearless one doing 200 kph in the left lane.
There is no official special term for the moment when a Planeswalker (a mythical wizard-type character who can travel from one Magic world to another) actually arrives on a plane (one of those worlds).
I had this conversation with Gavin Verhey, a Senior Product Designer at Wizards of the Coast a few weeks back. What is it called when a Planeswalker gets to where they’re going? Airplanes and birds land. Cars and trains arrive. Boats dock or run aground. Planeswalkers “walk” between planes in the multiverse, and it could be easily be settled upon that they “arrive at” or “walk to” Ravnica, Zendikar, Ixalan, or any of the other planes that they may be visiting. Still, there’s no special or exciting term for that exact moment when their feet (or whatever they have) touch the matter of a new world. Gavin was as stumped by the question as I was.
That moment is a fairly significant one with different meanings for different people. As players, we each have a first experience with Magic, and it’s the biggest introduction point into the game we’ll ever have. Veteran players still experience fresh arrival points whenever a new set is released. To have a word that specifically references that experience through the eyes of a Planeswalker would be pretty handy.
It would also be a perfect name for a product meant to introduce players to a new game and/or a new setting, depending on their experience level.
For now, we’ll go with The Planeswalker Arrival Kit. It implies an entry point into the game to those new to it, while also referring to something veteran players expect Planeswalkers to do all the time.
I’ll take a second here to revisit the purpose of this article series: I’m retraining myself to look closer at how people use (or don’t use) the products available to them. It’s easy for me to explain why I like or dislike something, but when it comes to understanding someone else’s preferences, it’s easy for me to forget that there’s an underlying “why” in that preference. When I say I like “A” and you say you like “A” and the conversation goes no further, I only have partial information. It’s likely that my confirmation bias will kick in, and I’ll assume you like “A” for the same reason that I like it. This isn’t necessarily true, and recently it’s been the case that my personal preferences take some really random routes to reach the same places other peoples’ do.
That is to say, if I wanted to build a better DBT, or a better Bundle, or something that hybridised the two, I had to be sure the stuff I put in the box wasn’t just stuff I’d want in the box. Since half of the potential product I was thinking about comes from something I’d never used (or had an immediate need for), I had to get a better understanding of how other players felt about each component of the DBT. Since the Bundles have been gradually stripped down to the barest of essentials, getting breakdown data on those was less pressing; there’s very little fat on that particular steak. If there was something that players outright hated about the Bundles, it would most likely show up alongside the data I wanted to mine regarding the DBTs. Somewhere in the data was, hopefully, an ideal and exciting product that served a wider audience than either the DBT or Bundle does on their own.
Now, before we get into the nuts-and-bolts of this, please bear in mind that I’m no marketing guy. I know that specific price points and the surface area of a product’s shelf facing have an impact on the way the product is viewed by various consumer bases. I have no idea what those ideal price points or surface areas are. I make games, and I’m good at figuring out how to optimize the play experience of those games within a pre-established budget. Any product proposal that follows in this article comes purely from my ability to ask questions, apply some pretty rudimentary analysis of data, and make logical assumptions as to which components make others necessary or obsolete.
After my initial poll on Magic: The Settling regarding the mix of packs that a new player should be presented with, I decided to get a little more granular in what they felt a new player really needed in order to get going. I proposed a list of potential components that they might put into a kit for newcomers, along with typical or estimated MSRPs on those components, and asked what they’d give a friend new to the game. If the popular components were ones that veteran players also had frequent use for, the odds of making a viable Planeswalker Arrival Kit that met the needs and interests of both player subsets would go up.
Based on aggregated component costs (estimated based on other products and MSRPs) over selections made by at least 83 respondents, I was able to see that the average price a player would pay to offer a friend a “startup” kit topped out around $22.90. Since the MSRP for the Ixalan DBT is $19.99, the price point arrived at through the polling wasn’t too far off the mark. The price was right, but the components needed some adjustments.
The top component selections actually bear a strong resemblance to the DBTs. However, prior polling indicated that veterans preferred to give friends a more concentrated pool of cards, and the popularity of the Fat Packs/Bundles, leads me to say that the overall product built upon this data would get more traction among both new and veteran players with a single set mix than with a multi-set “Standard” mix. I believe that by tying the hypothetical Planeswalker Arrival Kit to only one set at a time and including features that players can only get in the PAK, Wizards could have a product that would not only be giftable to new players, but would have quarterly relevance to enfranchised players looking to buy a “kit” product for themselves.
Several people who commented on the poll said they’d like to see basic introductory decks included in the product. Some recommended what amounts to an “after-market” pre-made deck product sold by local and online game stores made from cast-off common and uncommon cards, like the Card Kingdom Battle Decks. Welcome Decks (free decks given away by Wizards of the Coast as training tools or at open events) are an existing Magic product that would easily fill this role. These would allow for newer players to either play the Welcome Deck right from the box, or to modify and tune it with other cards from the included Booster Packs. Veteran players may not see the same value in such a feature, but with a few notable alternate art cards and mid-tier rare cards included in the deck, this could still have appeal for them.
Within the poll, the closest analog to a Welcome Deck is the pre-assorted mix of 120 Standard format cards. If the Welcome Deck-style feature were substituted into the build-out of the PAK in place of the 120 cards, the estimated price point could stay about the same, if not drop slightly. Alternately, the PAK could include five 30-card mini-Welcome Decks designed to be shuffled, two decks at a time, into ten possible two-color decks with a slight increase in cost.
A Welcome Pack–style component would also be a way to pack additional basic land cards — a piece that those polled felt were a critical supply for new players — into the PAK. If the cards in the pre-built decks included roughly 60 basic lands, the remainder of the 100 basic lands requested could include more alternate art or full art, providing a little more novelty and exclusive content in the product.
There are several other possible components I’ve thought of since posting the poll that I’d be interested in putting into a PAK. The most significant of these would be a sign-up form for a DCI number. This low-cost feature would provide new players with a nudge to attend officially sanctioned Magic events and reinforce how easy it is to become part of the “card carrying” Magic community.
So here is my proposal for a new DBT/Bundle hybrid product, with an MSRP coming in around the $30 mark. I offer you the Planeswalker Arrival Kit:
- 1 Card Storage Box
- 1 Plastic Deck Box with key art from the associated set (example)
- 1 Spindown Life Counter with set expansion symbol
- 5 30-Card Mini-Welcome Decks built from the associated set
- 6 Booster Packs of the associated set
- 1 “How to Play” foldout insert
- 1 “Deckbuilding Tips” foldout insert
- 40 Full/Alternate Art Basic Lands
- 1 DCI Membership Sign-up Card
If response to the price point proved too high for new players, I’d recommend dropping two of the booster packs and cutting the number of full/alternate art lands down to 20; this would push the MSRP to or below $25. The overall appeal to veteran players may drop when fewer packs are included, but part of the goal with the PAK is to improve upon the very dry build of the current Bundles with something that carries a wider variety of exciting product-exclusive features still attractive to veterans.
The challenge I gave myself was to retool one or more products into something that better serves the stated purpose — providing a new player what they need to really get started in Magic — and, if possible, still holds appeal for enfranchised players. I may never actually know if the Planeswalker Arrival Kit would do that job as intended, but once I started figuring out what it would look like, I had to see where that road would go.
On-ramp and travel lane.
* While I can’t personally speak to how scary the first approach onto an on-ramp on the Autobahn may be, I can say that if you need a more domestic thrill-ride, try US Route 6 on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. There are literally entry “ramps” that are no more than a T-intersection with a stop sign between a residential neighborhood and the 60 MPH highway.