by Miles Atherton
A year ago, each new premiere expansion for Magic: the Gathering hit shelves via roughly a dozen unique products, including four distinct types of booster packs. Starting with Murders at Karlov Manor early next year, that number drops to two. What happened?
This morning, Magic’s lead designer and retired sitcom writer Mark Rosewater shared a 3,500-word article introducing “Play Boosters”, which will take the place of both Draft Boosters and Set Boosters. The article is meaningfully transparent about the incentives that led to this decision, but misses some important context that we’d like to dig into.
To start with, it’s important to state plainly that Play Boosters are essentially Set Boosters. The compromises being made here are minimal on the Set Booster size, merely increasing the number of cards in the booster to accommodate for limited play and decreasing the frequency of art cards. Play Boosters are intended to be draftable, and sets will now be designed around making games of limited Magic best suited to the increased volume of higher rarity cards and elevated variance in an effort to reduce the negative impacts on drafters. While this has interesting and complicated implications for draft going forward, that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Here’s a quick run-down of Mark’s explanation for why Draft Boosters are going away:
- Set Boosters eclipsed Draft Boosters.
- The split causes inventory problems.
- This change will generate more revenue overall.
While there are additional issues identified within the article, the rest fit nicely into one of these three categories, and we’ll be approaching them within this structure.
People Don’t Buy Draft Boosters
Draft Boosters, or as people who stopped playing Magic in early 2019 would call them, “booster packs”, have been the default way of purchasing randomized Magic cards for the bulk of the game’s 30-year history. However, starting with Collector Boosters with Throne of Eldraine and quickly followed by Set Boosters in July of the following year, the product lineup for each new expansion increased to satisfy the ever-diversifying needs of players, contributing to the game’s revenue more than doubling between 2019 and 2021.
According to Mark Rosewater in his article introducing Set Boosters, “substantially more than half of all opened boosters are not used in Limited play”. The people who primarily open Magic booster packs do so for the sake of opening them, and the sales data in the years since bears this out, as you’ll see below. The underlying tension between the two boosters, however, is an issue of Wizards of the Coast’s own creation: if the primary means of players engaging with booster packs of any type is to open them outside of limited play, then the booster type that optimizes for that is certainly going to make up the lion’s share of sales. In solving one problem, another arose.
Additionally, while this is not explicitly said in the article, Mark acknowledged on X (previously known as Twitter) that this decision was made to ensure a draftable booster pack was available.
“If we didn’t do anything, draft boosters were going away. This whole change was to save drafting (and other limited formats).”– Mark Rosewater
Using data from the last year of Premiere sets (Dominaria United through Wilds of Eldraine), we found that on average, Set Boosters sold 3.3x more units than Draft Boosters across Amazon and eBay. Because of the higher price point of Set Booster Boxes, this means that Set Boosters generate 4.3x more revenue overall.
As mentioned in the infographic’s sources, the data is aggregated from several sources of sales estimates for Amazon and eBay, which represent what we believe to be between 8-15% of net sales of sealed product for any given expansion. While Amazon and eBay are not necessarily representative of purchase patterns at large, these patterns conform with trends reported by individual game stores — and are frequently even more exaggerated in their difference between the booster types.
And this trend has been consistent without exception. In an article from earlier this year, we examined the sales breakdown using the same methodology and shared the following set-by-set breakdown:
Wizards of the Coast instructed players (and thus retailers, and then distributors) to purchase Set Boosters if they weren’t interested in drafting them, and Magic players clearly obliged.
Too Many SKUs
A frequent complaint about Magic: the Gathering in the last several years, both from audiences and from retailers, has been the unbelievable magnitude of new products, something that is countenanced by Chris Cook’s remarks from their Q2 2023 Earnings Call, where the Hasbro CEO remarked that having only four releases over 3 months made the release calendar “light”. So how does Wizards continue to produce more Magic products that hit different audiences without flooding shelves with near-identical SKUs? Simplify.
Beyond the market confusion and misaligned incentives for which booster pack a given player should purchase discussed in Mark’s article, having multiple SKUs for what is essentially the same product creates a great deal of overhead. It requires more careful planning on the part of Wizards of the Coast, distributors, and retailers. It creates additional inventory costs that are a challenging burden for low-margin businesses like game stores to bear. It creates additional work and inefficiencies both across the supply chain and for the retailers who most players purchase their products from.
I’ll turn to the Amazon and eBay data for one more piece of context: Dominaria United.
If you were a retail buyer and you were looking at this chart, it would be easy to look at your already-crowded shelves and skip Draft Boosters and Set-Specific Jumpstart Boosters from your next order if there wasn’t some outside compelling need to complete the product line-up. And it looks like Wizards of the Coast has now done that for you.
More Revenue for Wizards
As previously mentioned, in addition to selling at a significantly higher volume than Draft Booster Boxes, Set Booster Boxes have a premium price tag and 33% fewer booster packs per box. That’s nominally justified by the novel contents: the guaranteed foil, the chance for an additional 1-2 foils per pack, the 25% chance for a card from “The List”, etc. — and now all of those elements are joining Draft Boosters, causing the “price” to go up to the Set Booster price point.
Play Boosters match the cost of a Set Booster, not a Draft Booster, which will result in Limited environments going up in cost slightly.– Mark Rosewater
While there’s no longer MSRP on Magic: the Gathering products, we can work out what we should expect to pay per box roughly based on this. Using the same data from Amazon and eBay to find the average prices people paid for booster boxes in the last year, we can suss out what the new “Play” booster boxes will cost:
|Avg. Box Sale Price||$104||$122||$147|
|# of Boosters||36||30||36|
|Est. Price Per Booster||$2.88||$4.08||$4.08|
While many have focused on the increased costs of drafts at your local store, I think the biggest place where Magic players will start to get sticker shock is with the price of a total box. Yes, it comes with 16% more booster packs than a normal Set box, but there is a (reasonable) psychological reaction long-time players will have to seeing the typical box price go for nearly 50% more than what they’ve been paying for the last 15 years, no matter the promise of extra rares, foils, and “Special Guest” cards to help ease that pain.
But on that “15 years” point: minus a small increase last year, booster packs have been shockingly static in their price. This is relative to other hobbies, to food, to other luxury goods, and to the value of the dollar. Magic boosters have, in real terms (i.e., the % of the median income it would cost to purchase one), gotten much, much cheaper.
Since 2006, when the MSRP of a Magic booster rose from $3.69 to $3.99, the cost to distributors has only changed the once in 2022, and then, it was only by approximately 11%. Had the cost of booster packs continued to rise with inflation in the United States during that time, the expected cost for a single inflation-adjusted Draft Booster in 2023 would be $6.03 — 36% higher than the current price to buy a booster today. From a Wizards of the Coast perspective, they’re paying an average of 36% more for inputs without seeing corresponding revenue.
Interestingly, this is a dollar more than the price I would expect a single Play Booster to sell for if the math described above bears out. Boosters typically are $1 cheaper if you buy them a box at a time; Wizards of the Coast is still being somewhat conservative with this action based purely on inflation.
So is this a backdoor way of raising the price of the booster? Certainly, retailers and consumers alike are (comparatively) much more friendly to raised prices when it’s associated with a new product. As we’ve covered before, Wizards of the Coast is the most profitable segment of Hasbro on a dollar-for-dollar basis, generating in excess of 60% of all operating profit while pulling in roughly a quarter of gross revenue, and Magic makes up an estimated 80% of Wizards’ numbers. Why would Hasbro possibly want to let consumers get their prize product at an increasingly lower price point in real terms each year?
I hope this context has been valuable for you. Personally, I’m still of many minds about my own feelings as someone who has loved almost every draft environment of the “booster fun” era, but the great Sierkovitz’s thread on the topic has soothed my concerns. From a business perspective, this makes all the sense in the world — I assume you agree looking at the numbers yourself — but Magic is not just a business, it’s a game!
Thanks so much for reading. We have basic land coverage on the regular as well as new Magic: the Gathering infographics and analysis every week, so if you’ve enjoyed this article, sign up for our newsletter and be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Threads!!
Miles Atherton is the editor-in-chief of “Cardboard by the Numbers” and has been playing Magic since 2006. Since studying Agricultural Economics at UC Davis, he’s built a career as an award-winning marketing executive in the entertainment industry with a love of data journalism. He’s also written for Anime Buscience and Crunchyroll News, serving as Executive Editor of the latter from 2016 to 2021.
Editor’s Note: This article previously erroneously listed that Set Booster Boxes contain 24 booster packs, and thus the math estimating the price of Play Boosters was similarly mistaken. The number is 30, and the article and its calculations have been updated accordingly.