Recently, I called Riki Hayashi to discuss my column and where I could improve it, future topics, etc. Whether it be about Magic or writing or even sports, discussions with Riki can get very interesting. Subject matter aside, it is especially due to the fact that he sometimes answers questions with other questions, as if he was Steve Carrell hitting on “that bookstore girl.” This can be very frustrating for me when I am just seeking a simple answer, but it often provokes thought and forces me to answer my own questions. [Why does this frustrate you so much? -Riki]

Our conversation about my writing and article topics gradually evolved into one about From the Vault: Exiled and what Wizards was ultimately intending on by releasing the set. Several things were clear cut from the beginning. Wizards purposefully short-printed the product. Wizards knew that there would be an extremely high demand for the product. And Wizards was not particularly strict on how retail stores would be allowed to distribute said product, or at what cost. We wondered, “What would be the reaction of the stores, the market and the consumers?”

The consumer side, I assumed, would be predictable. There will always be customers who get mad. Always. Anyone that has retail experience knows that many customers step into a store and leave their logic at the door, replacing it with an “I’m always right” attitude. Whoever said, “The customer is always right,” deserves to be shot. Customers for the most part have no idea how your store, your inventory, your vendors or your corporation works. Of course, since they’re “always right,” they prance around like they own the place. There will always be consumers who get mad. Retailers survive though, because most reasonable folks just realize they can’t have everything they want and check around other places, price compare, and end up buying something anyway. You just have to hope in the end that you don’t end up getting a mob of illogical princesses running up in your store demanding $100 box sets for $40 and all would be well.

Overall, I felt that the retail reaction should be positive. Wizards overall probably had good intentions with the release. I thought of it as almost like a gift – Wizards charged stores X amount for a product that would normally retail for 2X but is actually worth about 5X and said they could do what they want with them. Graduating in Business Finance, I am a supporter of the Free Market. I believe that the market should be able to decide how much something is actually worth and for stores to be essentially given a discount on a very valuable product is an extremely nice gesture of support from Wizards.

On the other hand, it could turn out very bad for some stores as well. While larger, more seasoned Wizards of the Coast account holders were blessed with larger allotments of FTV, smaller stores got fewer and some didn’t get any at all. So, by design, the gift for some was a curse for others.

The FTV Problem

The discussion inspired me to do a little bit of outside research as well. I called several stores around the country to see how they handled the From the Vault “problem.” Riki also checked with some stores in his local area to gauge their reactions.

A lot of stores that got them did exactly what they did with the first set (From the Vault: Dragons) – sold it for “retail.” This meant a lucky few customers at those lucky few stores actually picked up From the Vault: Exiled for around $40 plus tax. A majority of them had some sort of preorder system; most of them simply required you sign your name and e-mail address. Customer reaction was as predicted. Though many customers turned away disappointed, they realized they weren’t on the preorder early enough and that the product was extremely limited. Other stores sold them at random prices on the spectrum, many of them basing their price on Starcity’s weekend “We’re buying FTV: E for $100″ promotion.

There were also a number of stores that followed the Superstars model – have a tournament with FTV: Exiled as the prize. Superstars held $5 Standard tournaments all weekend and gave away FTV. Several other stores were slow rolling them, replacing them as the prizes in their monthly Booster Box tournaments and such. I think that this is a great way to go. The stores give everyone a fair chance to get it (the most fair way outside of a raffle at least) so no one just turns away, head hanging and hopeless. The overall reactions from players were good. Our local tournament was cheap enough that players could afford to play multiple flights and not feel they blew their month’s allowance if they didn’t win. Other store owners reported strong turnouts for the FTV tournaments. Essentially replacing FTV with the normal Booster Box they would receive as prize values the box set at around $90-100, a great prize and incentive to play.

Everything seems fine and nice for the stores that got them. No real ill will or extremely negative reactions from the consumers at those stores. But as I stated previously, the gift for the popular stores was also a curse for smaller ones.

Imagine you normally go to a local corner store to buy your MTG and play FNM. You walk about two blocks to get there and all your friends go there and that is your home store. You ask them about FTV and they said that they’re so small that Wizards didn’t send them any. You feel crushed that Wizards left your home store hanging, but you really want this box set. After all, the “Rishadan Pawnshop” recommended it as an extremely hot buy! You check out the official MTG site and find another store about fifteen minutes away that actually has the product. You decide to bounce on over there and pick one up. When you get there, you find out they’re selling them for $85, but it’s better than the $100 they’re selling them for on eBay, so you decide to get one. You see the nice, spacious store and think, “Wow, this place is a lot nicer than my home store. They sell packs for $0.50 cheaper and there are so many people playing. There’s room for us to cube draft and they even have snack machines and TVs!” Lucky for your home store, you only stop by there once and the small little mom and pop doesn’t lose your long term business thanks to your loyalty. The big store got one nice sale from you and both stores continued thriving happily ever after.

Nothing is wrong with that scenario. But if it were only that simple. Consider the same scenario. Your local shop doesn’t get FTV, but the large store does. However, the large store isn’t selling FTV. Instead, they are going to use the FTV box sets as prize support for their weekly store tournaments. “Wow,” you think. “I don’t have to spend $100 on FTV! I don’t even have to spend $40! I can just play the tournament here and win one for $15!” Now, instead of going to your small mom and pop home store for their weekly store credit tournament, you’re playing in the larger store’s FTV: Exiled tournament. A few weeks pass and you have to update your deck and buy more cards from the large shop. You get very close to winning several times, but can’t quite get there. Fortunately, you have enough store credit prize that you get to keep on playing at the large shop and can keep trying for that FTV. Eventually, you win the elusive box set, but have already built up a lot of store credit at the new large shop and have grown very comfortable playing there. You and all your friends forget all about the little mom and pop corner store and they go out of business.

The store closing down is obviously an exaggerated example, but how far out of the realm of possibility is it? The chain of events is very realistic and this limited edition box set could very well be the last straw that breaks many small stores’ backs. And who is to blame? Surely, not the large store. They didn’t do anything but grow their business through the years and continue to grow it given the tools and product available to them. They were doing the right thing by hosting a tournament for the box sets. They just wanted everyone to have a fair chance at getting them. You might think to blame the small store, but in this economy who can really place blame on an undercapitalized mom and pop for not pushing enough volume for Wizards to give them dibs on the limited stuff? You can blame Wizards, but I would like to think that it wasn’t their intention. However, while it may not have been their intention, it still may be their fault.

So why do it?

The higher ups and heads of finance and marketing had to have thought of this ahead of time. What would be the repercussions of doing a high demand, limited release box set? Is it possible they could be testing the waters for another limited, high demand release? A limited rerelease of Power 9 maybe? From the Vault: Mishra’s Workshop/ Mana Drain/ Bazaar?

Also, if they released products like this more frequently, how much negative backlash would they receive from the smaller stores who are loyal supporters of their product? How much backlash would be too much? Wizards relies on the mom and pops just as much if not more than the mom and pops rely on Wizards.

During one of my inquiries, a store owner commented that though the there were several disappointed customers due to the From the Vault release, it was nothing compared to the M10 fiasco. Apparently the store, a well known “Premier Wizards account” store, didn’t receive any M10 during the weekend of their Release events. They had a big event planned and were forced to draft Alara, Conflux and Reborn and give away those old sets as prize support. The weeks following saw the store’s tournament numbers cut in half. Half! They lost half their tournament base because of this. I was aware that the first round of M10 was scarce, but I had no idea that it was this bad. According to Riki, this wasn’t uncommon at all and many other stores don’t even have M10 to sell because they have to hold them for their draft nights. However, that is another subject for another time (next week, to be exact!)

How was your From the Vault weekend experience? Did you buy one on eBay? Your local store? Did you play a tournament for one? How happy were you with the availability of the product versus how your store handled it? What do you believe the short and long term effects of Wizards “shortcomings” will be on the game and the market? It’s a lot to discuss and we will continue next week with M10. Until next time, thank you for stopping by the shop!

Peace
Jeremy Fuentes