The last five years have seen historic growth for Magic: the Gathering. With a reported 40 million players according to Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks during a Fireside Chat last December and annual revenue that’s more than doubled since 2019 to break the billion barrier (covered in much greater detail in our article here), the game has required dramatic changes on virtually every front to achieve these financial wins. One such change that’s frequently discussed is the the direct distribution of Magic product on the behemoth retailer, Amazon.
For those of you who are familiar with direct-to-customer distribution channels but not as entrenched in specific nerdy hobbies in the US, this may seem like both a non-controversy and a surprise — if anything, it seems like Hasbro division Wizards of the Coast could be negligent for having waiting a quarter of a century to open up the biggest e-commerce platform online to their line-up. However, that’s missing a critical element of how a community-driven product like Magic: the Gathering behaves, and parallel channels it grew from.
Magic: the Gathering grew from a grassroots campaign from those same mostly-independent comic book and gaming shops, eventually expanding to stores focused primarily on Magic that cropped up with the rising popularity of the game. These local game stores (frequently shorthanded to “LGS”) have since served as the gateway to the game, providing a structured and supportive platform to buy cards, make friends, play games, enter tournaments, and everything else a Magic player would want to do.
For a game as initially complicated as Magic, this distributed system works extraordinarily well, and having just a few key distributors that carry products not just from WotC but from the gaming world at large makes purchasing stock a much saner process than a world where local stores had to reach out to every games publisher individually, as well as creating a host of other efficiencies along the way. While any store owner can rightfully cite issues that arise from the distributor-LGS model and many talk fondly of being able to order direct from Wizards in years past, this model is relatively efficient.
When Wizards of the Coast announced in late 2019 that they would be launching the above Amazon storefront as a direct sales channel, the impact was clear. Even if Amazon kept prices in line with Local Game Stores and took a larger margin on Magic: the Gathering products, most of the cut that would normally go to a distributor was still available. While one would expect the additional revenue on each unit to go entirely to Hasbro, that’s not quite what happened: quickly, people realized that sealed Magic product of all types were on Amazon for less than most Local Game Stores, even before considering the benefits packaged in with America’s favorite subscription service, Amazon Prime.
In the five years since this shift, many game store owners have cited the drop in profitability of Magic sealed products like booster boxes and pre-constructed decks, both relative to prior to 2019 as well as compared to other trading card games. However, the trend being identified here is not as defensible as one would like: it’s simply pulling from anecdotes — uncontested they may be! — that have been shared online and in physical game stores. What’s also challenging here is the immense growth of the game that’s happened at the same time, which one could even argue is due in part to the increased accessibility of Magic products on Amazon.
Our solution? Look at Amazon – and auction site eBay as well, which has seen an uptick in card game sales demonstrated most clearly in their 2022 acquisition of TCGPlayer, North America’s largest platform for buying and selling trading cards. How much of an impact have these sites actually had on Magic: the Gathering in terms of sales?
To be clear here, there is no perfect way to measure these things: very few people outside of Amazon and Hasbro know the exact answers, and anyone who does have those numbers is certainly not at liberty to share them with the curious. However, using an aggregation of estimates from industry-leading research platforms like ZonGuru, Terapeak Research, Helium 10, and Jungle Scout, Cardboard by the Numbers would like to present you with numbers we feel reasonably good with.
Our primary constraint: data is only available for the last year using most of these tools. Next, we’ll need context: the easiest is to use reported numbers from Hasbro during their quarterly reports. In their most recent address to investors, Hasbro indicated that each of the four major expansions of 2022 was on track to or had already generated $100M in revenue. With that, Dominaria United seemed like the ideal expansion to start with.
In their hunt for copies of Sheoldred, the Apocalypse, Magic players, their friends, significant others, and well-meaning relatives with Amazon credits purchased over 30k boxes of booster packs of all types, with a similar amount of Commander decks hitting mailboxes. Interestingly, draft booster boxes were the lowest-performing from a by-unit perspective, surpassed even by the poorly-received set-specific Jumpstart product.
Project Booster Fun, a Wizards of the Coast initiative to incentivize higher rates of pack-cracking for the sake of a player’s joy (as opposed to the rollercoaster of emotions brought upon when opening a booster in a draft environment), looks like an unmitigated success from this chart, with the supermajority of product being purchased intended for opening absent a game of Magic. As a Limited-first player, the scale of this difference is admittedly disheartening at first, but as Hall of Famer Luis-Scott Vargas has said on a recent episode of the podcast Limited Resources, this is a “golden age of Limited” for plenty of other reasons.
Overall, the total revenue represented here is just shy of $7M, with Amazon accounting for 77% of the amount with $5.4M in estimated sales. Assuming that Dominaria United is at the low-end of the $100M number cited by Hasbro, this means that Amazon represents just a bit more than 5% of sales revenue for this particular expansion. I suspect the actual number to be higher — as much as double due to the 3rd party tools’ challenges with projecting the upside of an item’s sales with its a category leader — but I think it’s safe to assume that Amazon and eBay are not making up anything close to the majority of sales from this.
How representative is Dominaria United as an expansion, though? Examining just the main three booster products from the major releases in the data’s date-range, we found the following results:
Examining these five sets, Dominaria United certainly looks to be typical in terms of scale, if somewhat unimpressive. Corroborating with implications made during investor reports, The Brothers War is the weakest performer of the bunch, in line with the prior set released in this new November window, Innistrad: Crimson Vow. The significant story relevance of Phyreixa: All Will Be One and March of the Machine contributed to record-setting interest for Magic according to Google Trends and social listening tools, so their elevated sales in comparison don’t seem wholly anomalous, except perhaps the scale of Phyrexia’s popularity.
One of the greatest benefits to this kind of analysis is to identify trends in the community that may not be represented in online spaces with the game’s most enfranchised players. While it was hard to see on Twitter or Reddit, Phyreixa: All Will Be One resonated extraordinarily strongly with casual players, and the data suggests that’s absolutely the case, as the set did not hit it off nearly to the same degree with competitive players or commentators. As someone who did not necessarily adore drafting this one, it is somewhat strange to see ONE as the leading seller of draft booster boxes, though.
The estimated revenue from these three products for Tales of Middle Earth is $17M USD — four times that of The Brothers’ War.
Most notable here is the Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle Earth expansion, whose numbers will likely overtake those of Phyreixa: All Will Be One once the set has been on shelves for a similar amount of time. What makes the success of Tales of Middle Earth so impressive is the average price of each of the releases, each box settling at about double that of any of the other sets listed here. From a revenue perspective, Tales of Middle Earth generated at least $17M from sales of these three booster box types alone on Amazon and eBay, a full $6M more than those for Phyreixa: All Will Be One and four times the estimated revenue attributed to The Brothers’ War.
It should not be a surprise that the biggest IP in fantasy history was able to do so much for Magic revenue within just its first month of release! But with Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle Earth, the sales data is particularly compelling, as we have another established data point to give us even more accuracy in our projections: the total number of Collector Booster Boxes that were created in English. Working backwards from the legally-required published odds of opening the 001/001 The One Ring, there are approximately 3.33M English-language booster packs, resulting in approximately 250,000 Collector Booster Boxes. So how many of those were sold on Amazon and eBay (and TCGPlayer, just for fun)?
For Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle Earth Collector Edition Booster Boxes using this framework, Amazon accounts for 6.7% of all units sold, a similar ratio to that of the total revenue brought in by Dominaria United above. TCGPlayer has a smaller impact than I would have anticipated, coming in below parent company eBay by a third.
While there’s no reason to assume that players bought this particular product from Amazon in the same exact proportion as the sales revenue assumed from the Dominaria United analysis, that the two data points are within bounds of one another on such different metrics represents a mild validation of this entire process.
What does this all mean?
The eBay data is secondary here, because like on TCGPlayer, much of it comes from local game stores and individual sellers who operate in a similar fashion. The inclusion of eBay in this process should be treated similarly to TCGPlayer in general: a curiosity. It’s not terribly compelling as a point of reference except to say that unit sales are quite closely correlated, which makes us trust the Amazon estimations slightly more, and as benchmark to compare the much-bigger Amazon to.
The Amazon data, on the other hand, tells a story. Contrary to some popular belief, the traditional channels of distribution continue to make up the clear majority of sales, even with the hyper-competitive pricing present in Besos’ behemoth. The key implication of that, though, is that Local Game Stores are necessarily taking a hit to the already-small margins offered by Magic: the Gathering sealed product to stay competitive and keep this high share of sales.
Whether they’re doing this through better customer service, working to build a community through events and outreach so that their players make the effort to support that store in particular, or simply by keeping the pricing tied to what Amazon offers, it has an impact on the bottom line that was not present prior to 2019 when Wizards of the Coast began to sell through Amazon. Nothing in business is free, and the lessened impact of MtG sealed product to the LGS ledger means that pursuing other avenues for sale become necessary to maintain the same earnings and to grow.
Because of their necessity to the health of the game, particularly for those who transition from casual to competitive and/or enfranchised players, I am somewhat heartened by the results of this research, because I feared that Amazon was having an outsized impact on the sales of Magic. It may be a large sales channel all the same, but it seems that most Magic players are pursuing their local store for sealed products than many may have guessed.
Again, the methodology of these third-party sales estimators are not perfect, so all of this analysis must be taken with advisement and caveat, but I hope you feel as heartened as I do, while still understanding that even the estimated 5-10% share Amazon has does have myriad considerations for everyone else in the market.
To wrap up, here’s a bonus chart that shows the week-by-week sales of Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle Earth Collector Booster Boxes before and after the 001/001 version of The One Ring was found:
Thanks so much for reading! We’ve got some Cube analysis coming in the next few weeks and new Magic: the Gathering infographics and analysis nearly every week, so if you’ve enjoyed this article, please sign up for our newsletter to find out first and make sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and now, Threads!!