…Bring Them All, And In The Darkness…
In case you haven’t heard, Wizards of the Coast is putting a 1 of 1, truly unique version of The One Ring from its upcoming LOTR set into boosters (“into a booster,” singular, I suppose).
I have some questions and concerns about what this will mean for me and my fellow Magic players and collectors. Let’s run through them:
Will there be transparency in the odds we have to open the 1/1 ring? (it will bring them all; how dark will it be?)
We’ve seen “golden ticket” type givaways before such as the Zendikar hidden treasures, but a 1 of 1 really is fundamentally different in a few important ways. Most importantly, it will be to the financial benefit of Wizards of the Coast to have the 1/1 Ring “unfound” for at least an initial period of time (I don’t want to say as long as possible, because there are two ways to get paid on this – it drives frenzied pack sales while it hasn’t been found, AND it generates publicity and broad reach once it’s located and potentially auctioned off). But if it’s just opened on day 1 of the set’s release, you don’t get as much of the first benefit – frenzied pack purchasing to try and open it. Wizards of the Coast produces and releases product on a rolling basis for most releases. The normal release process is in this case combined with the fact that this situation involves a unique, novel process for printing the 1 of 1 card and getting it into a pack. So how will a customer buying and opening packs on day 1 of the release be doing so under assurances, rather than false pretenses, about the odds the 1 of 1 ring was seeded into the production run they’re purchasing?
Is it gambling? If it is, is it fair and transparent and regulated?
This 2nd question will dovetail with the first. I’m not going to write my state Attorney General and ask them to evaluate this product as an unregulated lottery, even though I’ll leave the reader to draw their own conclusion about what my viewpoint would be if I were the Attorney General. In general, legal gambling is like any other legal vice – perhaps not ideal but difficult to solve with prohibition. Instead, ground rules and regulations that ensure fairness and transparency are typically the best approach. But I’m getting ahead of myself – is this even gambling?
Legal definitions don’t decide moral, ethical, or common language usage questions, so regardless of what US laws technically have to say about this thing, you better believe this is gambling.
As Bryan Gottleib said in a recent Arena Decklists podcast about this set (which I recommend), (paraphrasing) booster packs themselves are already not necessarily the most fair and healthy way to sell game pieces. When you add a 1 of 1 card likely worth life changing sums of money, you’re no longer at the borderline, you’re running a lottery.
If it looks like a lottery, quacks like a lottery, results in compulsive spending with the psychological and financial results of a lottery, well, I don’t really care what the courts and Attorneys General around my country have to say. That’s a lottery.
But if you play the Powerball Lottery, for example, you have oversight from the government because it definitely is regulated gambling, that ensures everyone buying a ticket has the same odds. Here, if WotC decides that seeding the card into the 2nd wave of sealed product will maximize their return, just to use a not-that-farfetched example scenario, then everyone buying wave 1 packs has been defrauded. They’ve purchased lottery tickets that at no point during the purchase preparation or sale had a chance to win.
If WotC does something truly “blind” to seed the product, doesn’t that imply a fixed production amount? Have they announced that? Will they? If they haven’t and don’t, and the 1 of 1 ring ends up a sealed box a collector hasn’t opened, will they announce that subsequent production runs are different and have no chance of containing the 1 of 1 ring?
Will there be an order cancelation and general user-experience quagmire once the 1 of 1 ring is opened?
If I order a box on Monday, and the 1 of 1 ring is opened on Tuesday, I’m probably significantly financially incentivized to try and cancel my order or return the product, if permitted. Even if that’s not possible, I now am waiting on the arrival of something that’s way less exciting than it was when I ordered it. I guess that’s just how this goes, but I’m wondering whether this will actually be a positive experience in total for retailers and consumers, and how much of that depends on timing of when the 1 of 1 ring is found.
There’s also a strange user experience associated with 4 or more booster pack types, only one of which (in only one of the available languages) could contain the lottery winning numbers. I guess someone might still prefer to spend $9 on 2 regular packs instead of 1 English collector’s pack (numbers made up), but will they really? Will the collectors packs immediately sell out everywhere because they’re so much more exciting and addictive than the normal packs, until the 1 of 1 is opened (if it is opened)? Strange times may be ahead of us, we’ll see.
What will it sell for?
High profile 1 of 1 sportscards have sold for a wide range of prices from thousands to millions of dollars. I think this one will end up over $1 million. LOTR reaches into a collector base beyond gaming, and it only takes 2 collectors to start a bidding war. How rich and how motivated those last 2 bidders will be in unknown, but even if it was ONLY content creators bidding for the right to buy the card then destroy it on their channel for publicity, you still might get into high 6 figures or even into 7 figures, and obviously there are many types of bidders potentially in play, not just content creators or collectors or LOTR superfans.
Checking in on the Golden Goose
Magic 30th Anniversary Edition, followed by some downgrading of Hasbro stock based on how aggressively they have mined their consumers of late, did create some very visible indicators that the golden goose (printing cardboard cards for real money) could maybe be in trouble. I think when this 1 of 1 stuff comes and goes the Goose will be on life support. Still alive, still producing those golden eggs, but really not very far at all from the type of collapse that results in nearly everything printed during this boom cycle being oversupplied and underdemanded in a way that all of a sudden makes the new set hard to sell. The bubble hasn’t burst yet, but we’re headed in that direction. The sky has been allegedly falling for a while now, so we’ll see. But you won’t see me buying any high-end cards from recent sets unless I really need to for a tournament (i.e. nothing that’s expensive for reasons other than it’s playability - base versions for me thank you very much; proxies if using for cEDH).
How to engage with Universes Beyond - The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth if you are or might be a problem gambler
Stay on the sidelines. Sit this one out. But perhaps more practically, if you do want to participate, please find slow ways of purchasing this product, such as online shopping and shipping, not fast ways like sitting at the counter of an LGS and cracking packs while your tab runs up. There will be other times and ways to support your LGS, I promise, you don’t need to put yourself in a truly difficult position, if you do have problem gambling tendencies, to support your LGS. If they want your money that way, they don’t actually deserve your support.
Please trust me on this, if you’ve found yourself in the past compulsively buying and cracking packs at or around prerelease time, do it from home this time or skip it altogether. Situations are powerful. You have to keep yourself out of the situation that was designed to trigger your compulsions and get you spending in an irresponsible and out-of-control way. From within the situation, it may be hard to keep yourself on track.
I’m saddened to have to give this advice in my Magic strategy column, but it may be the most important advice that ends up here.