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Commander's Not-So-Secret Crisis

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AUTHOR'S NOTE: The nature of publishing is such that I wrote and submitted this article several days before it was posted. The topic discussed below has the potential to evolve rapidly and the situation could indeed be quite different between now and publication time.

Wizards of the Coast just can't help itself.

Less than a week after I spoke about the fact that Magic, as a game, is showing signs of long-term trouble, it seems someone at Wizards and Hasbro decided to prove me right. Since I don't write about Standard, we'll forego discussion on the decision to ban Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath only, a choice instantly and loudly decried by most players yet the one I could have told you they'd make. It doesn't matter that Omnath, Locus of Creation and, to a lesser degree, Scute Swarm are the real problems in Standard right now. They're moving a ton of shiny new Zendikar Rising product. They aren't going anywhere.

No, we're going to focus on what Wizards announced immediately afterward. We're going to focus on this.

That's right. Magic and "The Walking Dead" are crossing over. If this were like other crossovers in the past, such as the ones involving "My Little Pony" and "Transformers", much of the community - myself included - would simply keep scrolling. I am not a "Walking Dead" fan, I never have been, and so I have no emotional impetus to buy this product. And not for nothing, but that show hasn't been a cultural phenomenon for quite some time and has rapidly descended into "oh really, that show's still on?" status.

The problem here is that this isn't like the previous crossovers. From Wizards (emphasis mine):

The cards included in this very special Secret Lair drop will be completely new to Magic, depicting the iconic characters of the long-running and critically acclaimed TV series. These are mechanically unique cards that will be legal in Eternal formats. Commander players especially should look forward to bringing their favorite characters from The Walking Dead to life on the tabletop!

Oh yes, Sir Paul. These cards are black-bordered, brand new cards which makes them intrinsically legal in Commander and other Eternal formats. Playgroups could Rule 0 the "My Little Pony" cards in, but these "Walking Dead" cards are automatically in. Plus, you can only get them from Wizards for the arbitrary price of $50, never mind the fact that given the history of Secret Lairs they may not ship until the middle of 2021, and you can order them only for an arbitrarily limited period of time. If you live in a country to which Wizards won't ship Secret Lairs, you can't get them at all.

We'll get into all the things that are wrong with this - well, maybe not all, because there is a lot wrong with this - but first let's sort out a few things.

The problem here has very, very little to do with "The Walking Dead" itself. As I said, I'm not a fan, so seeing this show and these characters represented on cards does absolutely nothing for me. This product would be a bad idea regardless of the IP. If you're a fan of the show and you're excited for these cards - awesome! I mean it. If you're excited, be excited.

Additionally, the cards themselves don't seem to be overpowered on their faces; that's good. They are playable, however, at the very least. And this one looks quite good!

If that were a regular old Magic card in a regular old Magic set, I'd be stoked to build around it. It certainly doesn't seem too pushed, but it's pretty solid.

That's a problem. If these cards were bad, it wouldn't be. But they're not bad. Players are going to want to build around them and include them in their decks. Some won't be able to because they can't afford the product or can't have it shipped to them.

Wizards doesn't care.

I've been critical of Secret Lairs since the first one was announced. Squarely a product that's "not for me", there's a lot I don't like about them. I'm not a fan of Wizards selling singles directly to consumers and the precedent that set. I'm not a fan of the completely arbitrary pricing which should, to anyone paying even a tiny bit of attention, shatter the insulting illusion that Wizards doesn't acknowledge the secondary market. If it didn't, the Lair containing fetchlands would cost exactly the same as the one filled with basic lands rather than costing ten times more, if you get a good deal and can find one at all.

All of this is infuriating to me as a consumer of the Magic product. I said last week that consumer confidence is in serious danger and stunts like this are one big reason why. But no matter how much these Secret Lairs have annoyed me, ultimately, they'd been harmless. They were reprints. If you didn't want the cards, didn't like the art, or both you simply skipped the product and lost nothing.

Secret Lairs are no longer harmless. They're now a clear and present danger to Magic and, distressingly, to Commander in particular.

I've seen quite a few people opining that these unique "Walking Dead" cards are no different than new cards printed into Commander preconstructed decks. With all due respect, I find that laughable. Commander precons are widely available at local game stores, big box stores, large online Magic retailers and, yes, directly from Hasbro. While supply does eventually dry up and the decks climb in value, for the last few years they have reliably been easy to find for several months after their release, consistent with the distribution patterns of most mass-market Magic products.

Secret Lairs are available for a short window of time directly from Hasbro - no help for your local game store which is almost certainly still struggling just to survive this year of absolute hell. They cost... whatever Hasbro decides they cost. Commander decks are 100 cards for $40 or less. "The Walking Dead" Secret Lair is $50 for five cards. They are not remotely the same thing.

Remember that worrisome precedent I mentioned earlier about Wizards printing singles directly to consumers? This is why I was worried. I knew all along that there was nothing stopping Wizards from using this product to print whatever it wanted and slapping a completely made up price tag on each one. That's why I wasn't surprised at the fetchlands being included here - an absolutely awful way to provide desperately needed reprints to players in numerous formats but, alas, a great way to goose the bottom line - and why I was stunned but not necessarily shocked to see these new, mechanically unique cards.

Perhaps the biggest reason I hate Secret Lairs is the predatory and manipulative nature of its marketing to consumers. Yes, all marketing for consumer products is manipulative by its very nature, but this is next level. The community has long joked about or dismissed the addictive nature of Magic and its many similarities to video game loot boxes, which currently face intense scrutiny from governments around the world. Secret Lairs embody all the worst things about the reality that the game we love is made by a massive, multibillion-dollar company that's always looking to milk the cow a little drier. The tagline of "miss a drop, it's gone" is disgusting right off the bat. It's preying on the fear of missing out at a time when a great many players are in dire financial straits, or who just got done spending a bunch of money on Zendikar Rising and Double Masters and thought they might have a chance to breathe before Commander Legends releases in November.

The only reason these products are available for a limited time is because Wizards wants to pressure you to buy the cards at the expense of everything else. There's nothing stopping Wizards from re-releasing previous Secret Lairs. And, as we now know, there was nothing stopping Wizards from releasing Secret Lairs containing cards available nowhere else for a limited time.

As a consumer, I'm insulted. All of us should be.

But as a Commander player, I'm upset for a different reason. Wizards printed these cards with black borders explicitly to appeal to Commander players which now puts the Commander Rules Committee in an extremely difficult position. Within moments of the product reveal, tweets and articles and Discord discussion began raining upon the RC, with the bulk of Commander players begging the committee to ban the "Walking Dead" cards.

I never envy the RC, but man, I really don't envy them this week.

First, why the calls for a ban? It seems most pro-ban players, myself included, see a preemptive ban on the cards as a powerful signal to Wizards and Hasbro that they will not, in fact, be able to manipulate our format and its players quite that easily. I do believe that to be a message Hasbro needs to hear, but it carries some risk. I don't know what arrangement exists, if any, that has allowed the RC to continue to manage the Commander format, and I don't know whether Wizards could simply decide one day that Commander is now a sanctioned format under the company's purview. If Wizards can do that - and it seems, at least, quite possible - then a pre-ban on these cards is a massive risk for the RC.

I believe it's a risk worth taking. As I wrote last week, nothing Wizards does will ever kill Commander, even if Magic writ large dies along the way. A hostile takeover, so to speak, of the format would have little practical effect. I'm one of countless players who would keep playing Commander the way we always have and cheerfully ignore whatever Wizards decided to do with it. Wizards would almost certainly institute a new banlist, which I and many others would not acknowledge in our day-to-day lives, but which would become relevant again whenever large in-person events like Magic Fests and Command Fests resume. (It could be many months, or even an additional year or more before that happens.)

But you know what? Screw it. This is a message that needs to be sent. Wizards and Hasbro have finally and correctly realized Commander is what's keeping Magic profitable, and now they're going to exploit that as much as we allow them to. Money is the only language the decision makers in Renton and Providence comprehend. Having this Secret Lair fail to live up to sales expectations would be the only way to deter this from happening again, and banning the cards up front is a pretty easy way to keep Commander players from buying them.

Now, some would say it's not the RC's job to tank Secret Lair sales, and they're right. That's our job as consumers. We vote with our wallets. Don't buy this Secret Lair or any other containing new, mechanically unique cards. Make Wizards and Hasbro understand that they have crossed a line, and that we will not be preyed upon and taken advantage of quite so easily.

Stand up for the soul of Commander. We love this format because it's ours. Let's show them how seriously we take that. Let's make them realize their mistake and prevent it from ever happening again.

This is our format. It won't be destroyed or taken from us without a fight.

Dave is a Commander player currently residing in Reno, NV. When he's not badly misplaying his decks, he works as a personal trainer. You can bother him on Twitter and check out his Twitch channel.

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