I started going to prereleases when we were first introduced to Mirrodin. Since then, I can count the number of prereleases I’ve missed on one hand:
- Saviors of Kamigawa (Not interested)
- Coldsnap (Not interested)
- Eventide (Married a few weeks before)
- New Phyrexia (Other obligation)
- M13 (Out of town)
For those of you counting at home, that’s 28 of 33 prereleases since Mirrodin that I’ve attended. I’ve seen changes such as the introduction of Mythics as promo cards to have them be just Rares again. I used to go to the large prereleases until WotC stopped supporting them and now prereleases are held in local gaming stores (This is not the time to talk about this). Needless to say, I’ve got some experience when it comes to these events. Since I don’t do much competitive play, the prerelease is one of the only times scheduled on my calendar that gets priority over almost everything else (PAX is right there too).
They all had the same basic set up: you get 3 packs of the new set and 3 of the large set in the block (or 6 packs if it was the large set). In the past several years, WotC has pushed the prerelease to be an event, not just an opportunity to get the cards early. You can see this in the three “gimmicks” that have happened in the past three years:
- Mirrodin Besieged: “Choose Phyrexian vs Mirrian”
- Avacyn Restored: “Open the Helvault”
- Return to Ravnica: “Guild Box”
All three are based on the same aspect: the opportunity to experience part of the storyline. With Mirrodin Besieged, there were more players, not just Vorthos’, caring about the storyline than any other point in the game. With the Helvault, people were wondering what was inside for the swag we were going to get.
That was the worst prerelease experience I had ever experienced.
While some of this was mostly due to the local game store (One judge for two Helvault flights going on at the same time, we waited for two hours after getting our product to play the first round, the Helvaults were opened during the rounds), most people were down about prerelease. The contents of the Helvault were spoiled online so all of the anticipation of our “unknown” swag was deflated. Players felt like they were owed something more (and of course this escalated after it was discovered that some stores received extra stuff in their Helvault). It wasn’t about the new cards in our hands, it was about the stuff we were going to get and why we should be disappointed.
But let’s move back to the Mirrodin Besieged prerelease. Players were picking a side and had a generally fun time trying to beat their enemy for the good of the war. Only the most die-hard Spikes didn’t really care about this aspect, but it brought a unique element to the prerelease. Being invested in a side made you care more, brought people together (Sitting across from me during my flight was a Mirran father and his Phyrexian son), and it gave you an identity.
Players do this all the time by professing their love for a color, calling themself a Timmy/Johnny/Spike, that they play a certain format over another one. Our game is made up with a ton of identities. People want to feel like they belong to something and tapping into it can make an experience more enjoyable.
This is where we get into the Return to Ravnica prerelease. With the creation of the Guild boxes, players were able to choose an identity, and fight for their side. At our LGS (The same one I attended for the Avacyn Restored; this time it was run a hundredfold better), we were separated into our guilds for deck building. We were told to help each other build our decks, something that had never really been said out loud. For the Selesnya, it was easy to help each other out; I can only imagine how the people at the Rakdos tables went about it.
And that’s the key. We had an identity. I came into the prerelease with my Selesnya guild shirt/pin from PAX, my Temple Garden playmat, and White sleeves in my Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage deckbox. I wanted a Selesnya deck box to play that guild. It didn’t really matter what I opened (though money/good cards are better than not), it was the ability to play something I wanted to and identified with instead of just any cards that my sealed pool would give me.
While there were people that just didn’t care what guild they were, some are patiently waiting for their guild to come out in Gatecrash. While not everyone got into it as much as me, there was that identification there of being part of something. A kid was running by me to go sign up saw my Selesnya shirt and playfully said “Selesnya sucks. Izzet rules.”
Players were talking to each other about which guilds they identified with and were happy when they found someone in the same one. The TO’s were keeping track of which guild had won the most and cheers went up from the winning guilds. Players were trying to sign up for other flights so they could try out other guilds. For flavor, it was a smash hit.
Though, the other key part of this “gimmick” was the guild box. Besides helping to identify what you were, included was a guild pack. A special pack constructed that was just for your guild. Each of the guilds had their own promo and for the first time ever, you got to play with them.
And this is where all future prereleases gimmicks should start with.
You were guaranteed a “bomb” rare in your pool. Sometimes, your prerelease experience is defined by your sealed pool. If you get nothing in your pool, you could end up having a bad time. Not everyone who attends one of these is a pro and can play with junk; sometimes players think the cards they pull dictate the experience.
While the guild packs were semi randomized, the fact that it had one constant card that you could possibly base your deck around I think gives players an experience that is wholly unique. Throw in some random semi-synergistic cards with the promo card, and you can make the prerelease an experience not to be missed. It isn’t just offering more swag that players could be disappointed about, it’s the different ways you can get them to play (or deck construction) without making it too awkward.
Yes, this means sets might need to be designed slightly different, but it’s a good start for sets that work on theme. Imagine Lorywn with “Tribal” boxes: Treefolk, Faeries, Merfolk, Goblins, Kithkin, Elementals, and Giants. While it wouldn’t be all of them, it would give players a place to start and be excited to play in the prerelease, rather than just “Oh, I hope I open something good.” You could even make it “Intro Deck” style by focusing on the mechanics (which is all that the guild boxes did, honestly).
The prerelease is one of the only times that sealed is played and WotC can continue to make it an experience by giving something that players can rally around. It won’t mess up the limited format, and it plays into the casual crowd who doesn’t come out all that often for tournaments. It doesn’t have to be five colors every time: the faction packs for Mirrodin Besieged were a great example that this non-five color concept. If/When the Eldrazi came back, there could be the Eldrazi pack and the non-Eldrazi pack. Obviously there’s some power issues there, but it’s just a concept.
Maybe there’s a few Legendary creatures (Rare, not mythic) that WotC could pick to base the pack/promo around. Innistrad would’ve been perfect for this as people could’ve picked their “tribe”. Avacyn Restored could’ve been Angels (White), Humans/Soulbond (Red/Green), and the Loners (Blue/Black). This play experience is important to WotC, and to give players something more unique than just 6 booster packs can be huge for enjoyment.
The boxes and contents (the spindown die, the letter from the guildleader, the sticker), were all cute and added to the flavor of the event. It looked better being handed a box than just having 6 packs tossed onto the table in front of you. All of that is gravy, and I hope that the effort WotC put into this rather than just shipping out booster boxes is worth it. Players got something to identify with, and I think that’s as important as the pack itself.
If you did, or didn’t, like this prerelease concept, please let WotC know. It’s easy on Twitter (@maro254, @Wizards_Magic, @AaronForsythe, @ElaineChase), or at the bottom of Maro’s column every Monday (Yes, he does read all of those and will pass them along to whoever they need to go to). Personally, I believe this was a huge success and it was one of the funnest times I’ve had at a prerelease. And while my guild won’t be at Gatecrash, I bet I’ll still enjoy picking a guild and building a deck around it.
I hope this is the start of something new. I hope this is the blueprint for future prereleases. I hope that I can identify with something and be ale to play it in the future rather than hoping for something worth playing.