Design Class – How Much Fetch Could a Fetchchuck Fetch, Ohh, You Get the Idea

Admit it, you'd pay $30 for this card.
Admit it, you'd pay $30 for this card (or at least your #1 Dime)

Editor’s Note: Some of you might have read some of this before. I accidentally hit publish when I was still working on my draft. Sorry about that. Here is the full post. Also, I hate Jeremy Fuentes for picking the best title ever (Stop Trying to Make Fetch Happen).

Fellow blogger Kelly Reid runs the amazing blog Quiet Speculation about his love affair with a certain Judgment uncommon instant the financial value of Magic. On his blog he recently ran a letter complaining about the horrible effects that Fetchlands have on the Game of Magic, both from a financial and play standpoint. Mike wrote this:

I recently bought a box of Zendikar cards: $85 bucks paid partially in store credit and partially in cash. I’m working my way though the packs slowly and so far, in about 8 packs, I’ve opened up two fetchlands. A quick search of the internet tells me that this small portion of my packs is worth a little under $40.

See, like you, I’ve been making a lot of decks in preparation for the new standard format. I’m trying to be realistic with what I can spend money on, and the last thing that I want to do is spend $80 per playset of lands in order to just get my deck off the ground…

…To say it more briefly, fetchlands are boring. Dual lands are boring. Mana fixing is boring.

What if mana fixing was all in the uncommon slot? Sure, there could still be rare lands like Oran-Reef the Vastwood or Mutavault that have additional effects, but what if the foundations of deck building were more readily available?

This is a very interesting idea; making something like that uncommon. There are two facets to this issue, as a business model and as design.

Magic started off as a collectible card game (Hence, the CCG). Dr. Richard Garfield created a game to be played in between sessions of D&D, where he got the fantasy influence. Never in his wildest dreams (alright, maybe in his wildest wildest dreams) did he ever think that Magic would become so popular, that 17 years later people would be dropping hundreds of dollars every few months. So, he took an idea from D&D when making the game: different rarities.

The closet thing to Pre-Magic was baseball cards. Baseball cards are produced in runs where non-insert cards have the same rarity as everything else. The odds of getting an Albert Pujols (Black Lotus) card are the same as getting a Yuniesky Betancourt (Chimney Imp) card. Even though baseball cards are collectible (like Magic), it isn’t a game. The only time that this “baseball card” effect was used in Magic was the purple rarity in Time Spiral; you had an equal change of getting a Squire as an Akroma in one card slot. Imagine a whole pack like that.

If you take a look at baseball card prices (the non-insert ones), you’ll find something interesting: most of the cards have around the same price. Except for an Albert Pujols, or Ichiro, most of them are under a dollar. Rookie cards are the most sought after cards that aren’t inserts because they’re the most rare (You only get one rookie season); it’s the rarity that drive up the prices.

Rarity might seem like a “duh” concept now, but back then it wasn’t as obvious. Garfield created the CCG genre. Magic was the first card game that didn’t have all the cards in one box (like a deck of playing cards), and that came at different rarities. But why the rarities? For flavor. If you’re going through a dungeon and find treasure, you may not always get something exciting. Sure, you’ve heard stories of the “Awesome sword that kills everything” but you can’t find it; it’s “Rare,” not everyone has one. But what is pretty “common” is a sword that every adventurer carries around. Scarcity breeds demand (a principle in economics).

Because the fact that you would get an equal shot at every card in all 15 card slots in all the packs, you don’t get your money’s worth. Rare cards aren’t “rare” because they’re “common.” Sure, it might be great to open up a Black Lotus in 5 consecutive packs, but they would be the same price as a Squire since they’re gotten so easily. You wouldn’t have the investment to keep buying the packs over a period of time.

What is he trying to grab with his right hand?
What is he trying to grab with his right hand?

Back in 1994 when I was in elementary school (Grades K-5), there was a craze going around the young men of the school to collect Fleer Ultra X-Men trading cards. Some days after school I would be able to go and buy a couple packs and bring them to school the next day. Kids (alright, mostly boys) brought binders of cards trying to get the full sets and even the rare foil chase cards. While this is a walk down memory lane for me, I just explained what everyday is like at school, bringing cards to school and trading during recess.

Somewhere in my pile of stuff I think I still have the full set of cards I traded for as well as some of the foils. You know how much the full set of cards are going for on eBay? $20. Because there was an equal chance of getting all of the cards (and because all you could do was collect them), the law of diminishing returns happened and you didn’t have a need to keep buying more packs. Next year happened and they released a new set. The problem was that most of us who bought those cards didn’t buy the next years since there was nothing we could do but look at them and they eventually stopped printing the cards since people stopped buying them.

If you have a product where people need to keep buying it, then you’ve got a good business model. You can play with Magic cards, which means you can do something besides look at them in a binder (though people do that, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all). It’s a game that has constant changes to it, so people need to keep up. It’s those chase cards that sell the set, almost no on buys the cards for the commons. That’s the business side of making Fetchlands rare.

But from design standpoint, Fetchlands are rare because they’re at a power level that shouldn’t be any lower. Here’s what MaRo says about spreading power cards across rarities:

Richard Garfield made a decision very early in Magic’s design that the game’s rarity wasn’t supposed to be about power. Richard believed the game would be more accessible if players had the ability to build cheaper decks. As such, Richard wove into R&D’s philosophy the idea that the good cards needed to be spread across all three rarities. R&D has held onto that vision to this day. Why? Because we want to make the game as accessible as we can to the largest group of players.

Yes, the Fetchlands are good; yes, the Fetchlands are powerful. But take a look at all the standard non-rare lands that can make multiple colors or go get multiple colors:

Terramoprhic Expanse (M10)
Panorama Lands (Shards of Alara)
Shard Lands (Shards of Alra)
Rupture Spire (Conflux)
Ancient Ziggurat (Conflux)
Unstable Frontier (Conflux)
Refuge Lands (Zendikar)

And the block before that had the Vivid lands and Shimmering Grotto. For the budget player there’s never been a better time to build multi-color with the lands we’ve been given. Wizards has seen that and given it to us in commons and uncommons. The foundations of deck building are there if you look past the most recent set. I could build a fun, semi-competitive deck with non-rare lands. Would it be the best deck in the world? Most likely not, but it would be fun and you play it with your friends and at FNM.

But here’s the thing, the Fetchland cycle is so popular that it spawned the common Panorama cycle in Shards and the Terramorphic Expanse in Time Spiral. All 6 of those cards are common, and all are less powerful then Fetchlands. The Fetchlands can go get any land with the subtype “Forest” while the Panoramas and Expanse can only get basic Forests. That’s a big difference. That’s why they’re rare. And it’s alright to have cards like that to be rare if there’s a reason.

Not on the Reserved List
Not on the Reserved List

Could Fetchlands be uncommon? Actually they are. Yes, most newer players don’t know that Mirage has Fetchlands. The power level between the commons and rare Fetchlands fit exactly where the uncommon Mirage ones are. If you look at them in a cycle, they make sense:

Common: Pay 1 mana, go get basic Forest, it comes into play tapped.
Uncommon: It comes into play tapped, go get any Forest.
Rare: Lose 1 life, go get any Forest.

If you look at it like that, it makes perfect sense to have the Fetchlands that you know and hate, be rare. The question shouldn’t be: why are Fetchlands rare, is should be: why hasn’t Wizards reprinted the Mirage Fetchlands?

In the current Standard environment you can’t search up any non-basic Forest and put it into play with the Fetchlands. The reason why they are so good are for the older formats. Could Wizards bring back Flood Plain and it’s ilk? Yes! If all you’re doing is playing casual and don’t care about format, the Mirage Fetchlands are  not more than a dollar a piece.

But what does all of this mean, the financial and the rarity issue? First, the more valuable cards you own, the more you’re invested in the game. The articles by Patrick Chapin, Ben Bleiweiss, and Stephen Menendian on Star City Games (All premium articles, sorry. It’s actually one of the only things I pay for online, so that tells you how much stock I put into them) all talked about how if a person actually owned more valuable cards, they would be more involved in the scene. While a $200 card is much different then a $20 one, it’s the same principle. It’s why I put that weird tangent in there about the X-men cards; I was not really invested in the collect, so I didn’t continue.

As for the rarity, it’s all about design. Having mana fixing at uncommon because you think it’s boring is not a good reason. I think the Lords (Elvish Champion, Goblin King) are boring designs, should we make them uncommon (The Lorywn ones are different just like artifacts were different in Mirrodin)?  The design of cards needs to spread to all levels of rarity, as told by the MaRo quote above. It doesn’t matter how boring you believe the cards are, it matters on how well they fit together as a set.

Do I think Mike is wrong? No, he has a valid point about how expensive the game can get.  But this is also a hobby, and there are other ways to play Magic (EDH, Pauper, Pack Wars). If you want, trade away those Fetchlands you pull for other things you do need. Right now, they’re a great bargaining chip if you’re willing to depart with them. In fact, I think I might be able to dust off a binder of X-men collector cards for your Misty Rainforest…

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