Mastery of the Invisible

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Author’s note: Today’s article is not to be treated as a standalone piece, but rather a continuation of last week’s focus. If you have not already, please read last week’s article here.

Do you know why Homelands failed? Part of the reason was that the set was terrible, but most of the sets of that era were pretty bad. The set was also massively overprinted, and compounding this with the fact that, as I mentioned, the set was terrible, caused demand to drop off quickly. But why was it overprinted?

When Alpha was first sent off to print, Wizards made what it thought would be six months’ worth of product. To the company’s delight, it instead sold out in about six weeks. Based on that information, WOTC ran a second, larger printing (Beta), which was intended to last six months. It sold out in one week. Seriously.

Fast forward a year or so, and demand for Magic is surpassing the ability of its printers. Store owners and distributors learned quickly how to play the system: if you wanted six cases of Legends for your store, tell Wizards you want ten or twelve. You wouldn’t get what you actually requested, but you would end up getting the amount you secretly wanted the whole time. As more stores wanted more and more Magic, however, they had to get more aggressive in their estimations.

In between The Dark and Fallen Empires, however, Wizards gained the ability to print on a much larger scale. Fallen Empires had a printing of between 350 and 375 million cards, compared to only 75 million for The Dark. After Fallen Empires was Fourth Edition (when Wizards experimented with new US-based printing companies) and then Chronicles.

In October 1995, Homelands was only the second expert-level expansion to get the big-printing treatment, and stores were still overestimating what they needed to request to get what they wanted. This time, though, most of the stores got exactly what they asked for—unfortunately, what they got was Homelands. Homelands: the set so bad, WOTC had to force people at the pro tour to play cards from it.

Homelands Constructed

Now, in the twenty years since, Wizards has gotten much better at both understanding demand and scheduling printing. Homelands was a failure in many ways and along several metrics. Players hated it because the best card in the entire set was probably Serrated Arrows. Wizards hated it because it didn’t sell well enough, and that’s a key point to understand. There have been cases like Avacyn Restored, where Wizards loved the set because it sold well, but enfranchised1 players hated it. There has also been one case of the opposite happening, which lead to the discovery of the primary focus of our article.

The Invisibles

Here is Mark Rosewater from Drive to Work episode 96:

“…Future Sight had come out. Time Spiral block had come out. And for the first time, we had this weird statistic. Up until Time Spiral came out, we would look at sales and we’d look at tournament organization, like how many people were playing in tournaments, and they tended to be lockstep. Meaning if tournaments were doing well, sales were doing well, and it showed this tight-knit bond between the two.

But Time Spiral did this weird thing that we’d never seen before, in which sales were down but tournament attendance was doing fine. I don’t know if “up” is the correct term, but they were not trending on the same line. And that was very different. We’d never seen that before.

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And that’s when we realized—at the time we called them The Invisibles, but the idea was, there are people who play who don’t participate in organized play, that are hard for us to see because they’re not somewhere that we can easily monitor.

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But for the first time, because there wasn’t a lockstep between tournament play and sales, we knew that there’s this group that wasn’t being reflected in tournament organization, but was obviously being reflected in sales.”


It’s jarring at first to realize how significant these “Invisibles” are to Magic’s overall sales. Time Spiral, to the enfranchised players, was considered a tremendous success. I know I was personally buying a lot of sealed product and singles during that time, and playing in tournaments at least two to three times a week. If we assume that “Invisibles” are spending less money on Magic per person than enfranchised players, then there have to be so many more of them in existence that they are still able to guide the course of a format’s fiscal success.

tarmogoyf

In my (brief) time working behind a game store counter, I have encountered some of these “Invisibles.” These are the people who will come to a game store but not bring decks or trades. If you ask them what formats they play (as a kind way to guide and hopefully grow sales), they will either politely or brusquely state some iteration of “We just play for fun” or “We only play at home.”


BRIEF ANECDOTAL ASIDE: I had this interaction with some customers once, and their response was “Oh, we just play Legacy.” “You do?!” My heart skipped a beat—Legacy players are extremely rare in Florida. “Yeah, but just at home, we don’t play in tournaments or with tournament decks.”. My heart LITERALLY shattered.


These are, again in the small sample size of my personal experience, not the players likely to spend serious money at your local game store. They aren’t buying more than enfranchised players in singles, they aren’t paying tournament entry fees, but they love Fat Packs. I think the last time I bought a fat pack it came with a book2. I see people who I’ve never seen at my store before come in, buy some number of Fat Packs, and then leave.

I have to also think a sizable portion of Invisibles are kids. If you first got into Magic when you were young, you or someone you knew likely bought packs from a major retailer and then played some strange interpretation of Magic at school or on the bus. Even though my first exposure to Magic was in grade school, I wasn’t lighting the tournament scene on fire until high school. Oh no: I was an Invisible!

Applying Knowledge

So how can we profit off these rubes? Well, the honest answer is that we probably can’t. However, the more we can learn about them, the better we can predict how their preferences can and will affect the market. When you encounter Invisibles, make sure to present your game store as a friendly and accommodating environment. Offer events or game nights that cater to all types of players, not just the tournament-grinding Spikes. Put a tracking tag on their ears, like endangered species or that computer Professor Xavier has (note: please don’t actually do this). 

The truth is, a lot of the presuppositions we apply to “casual players” ought to be more correctly applied to Invisibles. Not every Commander player is going to rush out and build a dragon tribal deck today just because Dragons of Tarkir is available. However, dragons have for a long time been considered a “prestige” creature class, in the sense that inexperienced and disenfranchised players are likely to seek out dragons more than Lhurgoyfs or Splinter Twins. “Dragon” holds a captivating allure to players that are slowly familiarizing themselves with the game, which is why Shivan Dragon was the first real chase rare (that, and creatures were terrible pretty much up until Y2K).

I mentioned Avacyn Restored before, and almost every finance writer on the planet has made some comparative correlation between AVR and DTK.

Avacyn Restored, to players, sucked. However, the set was a huge success to both Wizards and game stores, and the set is considered in finance to be a slam dunk. You know what set Invisibles also liked? Rise of the Eldrazi. I noticed this trend a while ago: my store was selling out of Intro Packs and all the weird pre-con stuff that usually just collects dust. That set has a lot of value tied up in Emrakul and Ulamog, sure, but It That Betrays is also more than $10. That card saw absolutely no legitimate Constructed play, interacts poorly with formats that have singleton restrictions, and is still expensive! Khalni Hydra and Nirkana Revenant are each $15, Lighthouse Chronologist is $10 and freaking Bear Umbra is almost $5! While the value of that set is largely tied to its three headliners (and Linvala), there are plenty of, “No way, really?” prices in there that are based on eclectic demand.

I haven’t done a set review, and a part of the reason why is because so many people do a better job than I could ever hope to. I will, however, be going deep into my thoughts on the set next week.

Here’s a little homework assignment until then (don’t worry, I’ll be doing it too): look at the cards that are valuable in Rise and Avacyn that aren’t the obvious headliners (Emrakul, Avacyn, etc.). Do you see any cards in DTK that resemble them? What kind of effects seem to be popular? Nirkana Revenant feeds a very particular type of strategy with an effect that is not terribly common, but is always popular. See anything like that in Dragons? I’ll report my findings next week, feel free to share yours in the comments below.

Best,

Ross

1 I say “enfranchised” here rather than “competitive” or “casual” because either of those demographics is likely more connected to the game than the “Invisibles.” EDH players will never be on the pro tour, but the enfranchised ones are still moderately to very cognizant of what is going on in the rest of the Magic world.

2 Actually, the last Fat Pack I bought was with my best friend Byron. We opened a Tarmogoyf!

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16 thoughts on “Mastery of the Invisible”

  1. I am one of those Invisibles and I think they are pretty common in my region. The reason for this is that in Dresden (Germany) there are only few places to play MTG and those places are comic stores or so-called Kellerclubs (“basement clubs”). And (no offence) most of the guys who show up there are really weird. So MTG is connected with freaks and nerds and deemed “uncool” here. I even stopped playing because of this, because it was embarrassing to meet up with such people. For a while we just played with friends and then didn’t see much sense to buy expensive stuff anymore. This was after Fifth Dawn.

    But for me, Magic was always more. I read all the books (well, almost all) and loved them. I started collecting the legends who show up in the books. And just recently a friend of mine sparked my interest. So here I am again, spending money for MTG and STILL rarely playing in tournaments, because the people are REALLY mostly weird dudes (there is a slightly obese player with MLP-shirts and a strange pigtail… and he stinks), but rather with friends (who are far less freaky).

    Sorry for the long text, I just wanted to point out how (unfortunately) most Germans perceive this awesome game.

    1. So what you’re saying is that someone who moved from the US to Berlin or Frankfurt or another large German city to open a lgs with a bar and restaurant attached (much like Cafe Mox in Seattle (http://www.moxboardinghouse.com/ballard/)), that person would be meeting a need and filling a niche market? Interesting…

      1. I suppose so, but can’t say for sure if it would work. But I’d rather play surrounded by a serious (“normal”) ambiente, than an Otaku’s wet-dream-paradies or a basement-dweller dungeon. Maybe this would also get the attention of other Invisibles. The best course of action could be to open a “games-bar” where you can play a multitude of other games as well, while also hosting MTG-related stuff. How to balance this is beyond me, though. The size of the community varis strongly from town to town with Berlin and Munich being the biggest (as far as I know). If MTG could somehow lose its “freak”-image here, it would blossom like in the USA.

  2. “Oh no: I was an Invisible!”

    Being an Invisible myself, I don’t see why it carries such a negative connotation. It’s actually pretty sweet.

  3. Thank you for an interesting article. I’ve been commenting on some of the mtgprice articles presented and picking the writer’s brains about the inherent and potential value in this set. I thought Guo overestimated the price of the elder dragons (I believe he commented that u was even undershooting) but the one thing I wasn’t sure of was the “Elder Dragon” creature type and it’s effect on collectibility and value/price.

    As you mentioned AVR seems like a good comparison. During prerelease there were a lot of unhappy players, the limited format did not seem much improved over FRF KTK to them. I personally didn’t mind it although I thought it was a bomb dependent limited format…there also seems to be little to no eternal viable cards and the elder dragons don’t seem like good commanders. So in your opinion (and u can tell me to wait for your next article) is this set going to follow Dragon’s Maze pricing, Avacyn Restored, or something totally different from this set that seems to have only “invisible” player appeal??

  4. Beware The Invisible; we don’t appreciate being called rubes and we are not here for you to profit from. Many of us have collections of staggering proportions and hold an untold number of valuable early print cards that have been missing from the market for a long time.

    1. Sorry for the confusion, I know not everyone reading me here has read my other work, but the section you are referencing was meant to be firmly tongue-in-cheek. 🙂

    2. Don’t take offense to the rubes bit. This is a blog about FINANCE. Making money off of MTG cards. Maximizing profit is what we’re all about here.

  5. True, I have larger collection then vast majority of many players even though they played longer then I have. We could unleash a shock on the markets if we’d stopped only playing with our friends and let our collections loose on the markets, how many moats, gaea’s cradles or dual lands could we unleash ….

    I have a friend that only plays 5c EDH slivers but he has in his vault 2 Alpha NM Black Lotuses and 2 beta ones … and he is one of us invisibles …

  6. I am one of these ‘Invisibles’. I have been a casual player of mtg for going on 18 years now, first playing when I was a mere 8 years old. I have bought at least a few boosters from every set that has come out since; essentially buying one whenever I am shopping–my collection quite literally spans everything from Alpha to DTK. Some sets I have bought booster boxes or fat packs for, when I had the spare money and the set seemed interesting. I generally then trade away almost all my bulk; so that it takes up less room. I generally play Legacy, and occasionally Vintage, EDH, or Modern… but rarely any block constructed formats. I have a dozen or so different people that I play with, to the point that I try to keep a deck on me at most times. It is incredibly easy to find people who play the game around where I live (Utah), but many of them do not actively participate in FNM. Despite being an ‘invisible’, my decks are not low-brow; several of my decks are worth thousands of dollars. Occasionally I might make my way into a card shop; but I dislike being restricted to Standard, since almost no casual players do that, and most of my decks and games are just that… casual. Furthermore, I just don’t really like the types of people that regularly attend FNM; almost none of them are well-adjusted people. They are socially awkward and have passable hygiene at best. And they are ARROGANT; when you are a new face, they act like you are a newbie. I can’t help but raise an eyebrow when someone who has played for two years starts trying to explain the game to me all diminutive. Sure, I don’t look like a ‘nerd’; but I know the game quite well… enough to remember game mechanics like horsemanship and rampage… ohhh, or how funny ‘protection from homarids is on ‘Old Fogey’.

    1. That’s similar to my opinion about the guys attending FNM, albeit I have nothing of similar worth myself 🙂 But this shows that if there would be a serious environment, a lot of players could possibly go there. No need for a store, but a bar would do quite well.

      1. I consider myself fortunate that there is a store in my area that has plenty of well-adjusted fans of Magic and other card/board/tabletop games. There are also two other stores relatively close by, one which is the go-to place for sneaky arrogant pricks and card thieves (completely serious, the store owner defends them and refuses to go after them, all the way up to deleting camera footage if cops are called), and the other for grinders and less sneaky and prickly but still maladjusted types. There are still a few jerks at the nicer store who like to rip off kids in trades (one of whom is a TO there :-/ ), but overall I’d say at least 85% of the people there are people I wouldn’t mind playing with, and 40% of whom I would be very happy to play with.

        Odd that the article says Time Spiral was a flop among invisibles. I was an invisible at the time, and I absolutely loved that set. I wonder why it didn’t do so well?

    2. Invisible here too. You’re exactly right about the arrogance. I find that irritating too. I have no interest in playing with get-a-life and/or for-the-love-of-God-take-a-shower types.

      Another group I have no interest in playing against: high school kids. I’m 42, and have been playing Magic longer than some of these kids have been alive. Being the “old guy” in a room full of millenials is thoroughly depressing.

      I have a small group of friends (all over 40) that I play Commander with maybe once a month or every 2 months. No one gets pissed off when they lose. Arguments are civil, and handled with personal humility and respect for others.

      My advice to finance guys would be this: try making a deck that is FUN to play in multiplayer/commander. Think of monsters would you like to play, but never really have had the opportunity to play: Cromat, legendary dragons from Legends, Eldrazi, etc., etc. BIG creatures. Scratch that, RIDICULOUSLY BIG or potential ridiculously big creatures with a half dozen special abilities. Those are the cards that will be big with invisibles.

  7. I flip back and forth between being invisible and not since invasion. A few years ago, there was only two LGSs within 20 miles of where I lived and they were heavily standard and draft (they usually rotated between both) so kitchen table it was.

    I live next to CFB now that runs all types of events so I go to those that I’m interested in. Sometimes its draft heavy (nearly every week during RTR/GTC because I really enjoyed that set) but then modern only during Theros since I wasn’t a huge fan.

    I play in a a few casual leagues as well (not sanctioned, no points but they run drafts weekly and ongoing sealed leagues). I would suspect the largest league I play in goes through ~1500 packs a set though (between drafts and sealed) which is pretty sizable.

  8. With Nirkana at $15, I’m still waiting for Crypt Ghast to start climbing, although the recent reprint didn’t really help out. It’s still the same effect and the bonus extort does not limit you do Black AND White decks in #cmdr so I wonder when it’ll catch on. Too bad it’s not a vampire.

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