How Chronicles burned Wizards

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Come with me, back in time.

Step into the Wayback machine, set for November of 1994. Magic: The Gathering has taken the gaming world by storm with its gameplay, portability, and fun. Stores cannot keep product on the shelf, and Wizards of the Coast has been plagued with problems as it tries to meet demand. People who run stores ask for 100 boxes and get ten, meaning that no one knows how much product they will get. Prices fluctuate wildly based on availability, local metagame, and the lack of centralized information.

Fallen Empires was supposed to fix all of that. Magic, for about the first 18 months of its life, was unable to stay in stock. Alpha, Beta, Unlimited…all of these had bigger and bigger print runs that they thought would keep up with demand but really, all it did was make players hungrier as the game grew and spread.

Stores would order what they thought they could sell, and then Wizards would only be able to meet a portion of those orders. By the time The Dark was printed, this was the practice stores had settled on: Order a whole bunch, and get only a part of that.

Well, Wizards had finally figured out how to meet demand, and when Fallen Empires came out in November 1994, they gave every store as much as they had asked for…and lots of stores couldn’t pay for 10 cases when they were only expecting one. Fallen Empires remains the gold standard for overprinting sets for this reason.

The next expansion was part of a three-sets-in-four-months run that Wizards is going to try again this summer. April 1995 saw Ice Age, June brought Fourth Edition, and then July had Chronicles.

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Personal aside: I was a sophomore when Ice Age came out. I remember seeing that a new  Counterspell was all of a sudden in the nickel bin at my LGS, and I bought four for a quarter, and I thought, “Someone really messed this up!!”

Ice Age had a small number of reprints, stuff like Icy Manipulator and Hurricane, but the other two sets were all reprints, all the time, and Chronicles specifically picked on things that were Rare or Uncommon. This was a game-changer, as some prices took a huge hit, as the number in circulation went up by an estimated factor of 10-20, according to Ben Bleweiss.

We have to remember how we found out about price changes back then. There were two main magazines that collected price data: InQuest and Scrye. Prices updated once a month when these bad boys hit the streets.

There was no shadowy #mtgfinance cartel orchestrating buyouts; this was opening a magazine and finding out that your rare $20 Killer Bees from Legends, the scourge of Hoover High School and a card with an ungodly number of kills…is now a dollar card thanks to being printed as an uncommon in Chronicles. Also, his Bees were not the only Bees to be reckoned with anymore, as we all had died to that card and now we all wanted to rack up kills with them!

What I want to think about is how the overprinting of Fallen Empires and Chronicles has made Wizards extremely hesitant about how they approach reprints at this time. We have some unofficial data about scarcity of Fifth Edition through Tenth Edition: They did not sell well, as evidenced by their low prices, aside from a few key cards.

It’s hard for me to express what it was like back then. There were boxes and boxes of Fallen Empires sitting on shelves, their six-card packs offering pump knights and the hope of a Breeding Pit. There was almost none of The Dark or things previous.

Contributing to the problem was that the packs previous to Ice Age were searchable. We knew the rare (or uncommon 3, or 2, or whatever system was in place) was the last card, face down. A little patience could tickle that card upward enough to expose the name, at which point the semi-transparent white plastic of the pack would yield the name of the card and whether it was worth buying…so the only older packs left on game store shelves were not going to have the cards people wanted most.

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I’ve seen this trick done and it is disheartening in the extreme. Do not, ever, never, under any circumstance buy a loose pack of anything previous to Ice Age, when opaque foil started being used on booster packs. It’s been checked for duals/power/expensive cards already and while you might make a little money on the uncommons you have no hope of snagging the chase cards.

Chronicles was meant to make the game accessible for those who hadn’t had a chance to buy cards during Magic’s early days. Because Wizards had sorted out the printing problems and could meet demand, it was theorized that everyone would be happy having lots of copies of the stuff that wasn’t available early.

There were indeed a lot of people who were stoked to have lots more copies in circulation, but there were lots of others who saw the value of their cards drop like a rock. This very vocal group of people continued to make noise at the company over reprints, to the point that Wizards tried to mollify them almost immediately with the creation of a reprint policy. This locked down the rares which had not yet been reprinted and prevented any rare printed between Ice Age and Urza’s Destiny from being reprinted more than once. That ‘one time’ is why you get Judge Foil versions of things that weren’t allowed to be reprinted.

Say what you want about what exactly Wizards does in response to player outcries, but they have never failed to deliver a response, even if that response boils down to ‘calm down and wait,’ as evidenced with the outbreak of Modern Eldrazi. Wizards reacted swiftly to the outcry and decided that they were not going to devalue collections instantly.

This decision is at the heart of Wizards’ support of non-Standard formats. They have made a conscious and deliberate decision to attempt to lower prices gradually. Even big Standard reprints like Thoughtseize and fetchlands have not hit those prices too hard, and those are top-tier, four-of tournament staples.

I admit, I gave up trying to predict Wizards’ future behavior after they put Iona, Shield of Emeria in Modern Masters 2015 and then with the same art in the From the Vault set that same summer, yet the Reserved List makes a certain amount of sense. Some things are safe, everything else is fair game. You might not agree with this policy. Mark Rosewater doesn’t. Lots of people don’t, but as has been stated, it’s a policy and a promise that Wizards intends to honor.

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However, Wizards doesn’t want to make access to older cards too easy and too fast for the new player at the expense of the established player. This is a tricky line to walk, and I don’t think there’s a single correct path.

Wizards is aware of the pitfalls they have made in trying to strike that balance. Randy Buehler said it flat out: Chronicles was a fairly big mistake. It was overprinted. It tanked too much value too fast, and now every time there’s a set of reprints of non-Standard cards (Modern Masters, Modern Event Deck, From the Vaults, etc.) they have to reassure players that this will not be Chronicles all over again.

Wizards would rather underprint than overprint. We saw this in both Modern Masters releases, where there was a burst of product available but the demand was too high to keep prices low for long. You can find it now, but it’s going to cost you, and Wizards is okay with this outcome.

The end result is this: Eternal Masters is going to have a print run that’s relatively small. More Modern Masters 2013 than the 2015 version in terms of the numbers, and that means there will be less in circulation than you’re hoping for, especially the mythics or other cards you need a four-of, such as Force of Will.

 

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12 thoughts on “How Chronicles burned Wizards”

  1. Killer Bees wasn’t reprinted in Chronicles!

    But yes, Chronicles made me quit Magic for a few years. Sold my Elder Dragon Legend collection before it came out and then I quit. Couldn’t resist and bought a booster box of it though, it was awesome to have an Elder Dragon or similar cards in every booster pack. Too bad none of those cards (except for Blood Moon) are worth anything nowadays.

  2. Did your article get cut off? I feel like it ended with really wrapping it all up, unless the point was Eternal Masters is going to be a small print run. You don’t really mention anything about how prices might be affected.

    I have one big question, you said certain cards can only be reprinted once…is this a real Wizards policy or just something they mentioned back in the day? Specifically, is Karakas eligible to be reprinted in Eternal Masters since it has a judge foil reprint? Thank you

    1. Cards on the Reserved List can’t be reprinted. You can look the list up on the Internet, but it boils down to most rares that weren’t reprinted in Chronicles, Renaissance or 4th Edition already from sets between Alpha and Urza’s Destiny. Karakas is not on the Reserved List and thus it can be reprinted. Just like Mana Drain, Chain Lightning, Sylvan Library etc…all the valuable commons and uncommons from old sets.

  3. Not really sure how much factual knowledge this article actually imparted. Killer Bees was in 4th, not Chronicles. Fallen Empires had 8 card packs, not 6. And the Judge printings of Reserved List cards were due to a loophole, not a policy of “reprinting one time”. Labeling this as a “casual” article shouldn’t preclude fact checking.

  4. I’ll also chime in and question who the heck things MM2 was underprinted? It’s still widely available much below MSRP, in stark contrast to MMA, which was essentially never available even at MSRP.

  5. @Zeroflame: No one said MM2 is underprinted, it just has a smaller print run than block sets, no more are being printed, and you see them online for sale still because the 10$pack/ 240$box price tag is too much for most casual player so they sell alot slower. Also their below MSRP price tag you are seeing online points to they aren’t selling well.
    So much was opened especially because of GP Vegas that there are plenty of singles around online that many people dont want to risk opening when pretty much all the rares are worthless.

    Shout out to In-Quest and Scrye! I still have a huge box I need to just throw away.

  6. Multani, the availability and lower price per box of MM 2015 has little to do with GP Vegas and all the world to do with the fact that there’s very VERY little value among the commons and uncommons of the set compared to MM1. Look at the Rares of MM1 compared to the MM1 mythics even and then compare that to MM2, the value just isn’t there in MM2. There’s decent value, but MM1 just had incredible value. MM1 Uncommons and commons: (and this is off the top of my head) Lava Spike, Relic, Finks, Path, Mind Funeral, Eternal Witness, Helix, Spell Snare, Electrolyze, Manamorphose. MM2: Remand and Lightning Bolt. And one of the few chase rares just got banned to dust in Twin. It’s just not the same set…oh and people hated the packaging and it ruined unopened cards.

  7. I was in Junior High when Chronicles came out.. found out the hard way (when I played another kid who had some insanely difficult cards.) I blew all of my allowance money on Chronicles for the next several months till I ended up with all of the Elder dragons. Ah, those were the memories!

    Too bad there was no Forge or even MTGO back then.. otherwise I would’ve been glued to my seat playing Magic.

  8. Memories… I think I was 8 or 9 and in 4th or 5th grade. I was one of the ONLY dorks at my small town elementary school to have an extra deck for other people to play.

    I probably taught at least 5 or 6 kids how to play magic wrong back in those days… I was one of the young kids who was happy to see reprints and more supply. I was ALL OVER 5-10 cent cards back then… What do I need Dual Lands for when I can buy all the 10 cent cards in the world!?!?! HaHa… to be a kid again… Value is a funny thing.

  9. Two things to remember when assessing Chronicles :

    i) it was an unlimited print run that was in production for a very long time (over a year ?);

    ii) while the cards were a lot of rares and uncommons they were largely not the cards that people wanted or were powerful.

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