Magic: the Gathering cards have value and often carry a lofty price tag; Thragtusk is currently selling for around $20 and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, will set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of $95. Other cards, like the infamous Power Nine, are worth hundreds of dollars a piece. You can collect Magic cards, trade them, and sell them anywhere to anyone willing to buy.
The value of digital cards, on the other hand, is somewhat less clear. They have value because there is demand; people want them and are willing to pay. You can still play, trade, sell, and collect them, but only within the Magic: the Gathering Online application and only for as long as the servers keep running. Now, Magic Online is not shutting down anytime soon, and you could make a persuasive argument that the future of Magic is a digital one. Today, however, players are used to paper cards and trade binders, and to many, digital cards are ultimately just code in a computer program.
Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Magic: the Gathering, addressed this problem through a service called redemption. I was aware of redemption when I started playing Magic Online, but only in an abstract “the sky is blue because light wavelengths are doing different things” kind of a way. I knew that I could, with some effort, swap my online cards for paper ones, but not much beyond that. What exactly is redemption and how does it work? Does it make people more likely to start playing Magic Online? What is the impact of cards moving from bits and bytes to cardboard on the Magic: the Gathering economy? These are the questions I set out to answer with this article.
The Paper Standard
To address the question of digital card value, Wizard’s created the Magic Online redemption program. The game of Magic grows and updates through a number of card releases each year. These releases are called “core sets” and “expansion sets.” To make things simple, we’ll just call them expansions. If you collect one of every card in an expansion online you can exchange them all for paper copies of the same cards. I like to call it the paper standard for digital cards. Much like the gold standard once guaranteed the value of paper money in many countries around the world, including the United States, Wizards guarantees the value of digital cards through the ability to trade them for paper ones.
I was curious about what the Magic: the Gathering community knows about redemption. Do most Magic players know more about it than I did? Did they take advantage and redeem sets? Was its existence a factor in their playing Magic Online? I created this survey and asked people to respond to it via Twitter and by posting it on ManaDeprived.com when KYT was not looking. More than four hundred people responded.
Let’s get one thing out of the way about this survey: it is not scientific, not even close. It is skewed heavily toward people who are active on the Internet, specifically those who use Twitter (and in particular those who follow me, follow people who follow me, or follow people who follow… well, you get the idea) and visit ManaDeprived.com. This couldn’t be helped. KYT, the owner and operator of this fine parcel of Internet real estate, rejected my perfectly reasonable request for a sizeable grant to hire a team of pollsters and statisticians to build and administer a poll that would properly account for demographic differences and ensure a low margin of error. Sad day, I know, but I shall do my best without them.
Most of the respondents, 82%, play Magic Online and over 90% had heard of redemption. Like me, 14% had heard of it but were a bit fuzzy on the details. To be on the safe side, let’s get grounded in the facts before we continue.
Just the Facts
To redeem your digital cards for paper ones you must collect one of each card, including the basic lands, in a Magic Online expansion set. The cards must either be all foils (a Premium Foil set) or all normal (a Standard set). You can redeem multiple sets at once, and when you are ready, you have to purchase a $5 “Redemption Request” at the Magic Online store for each set. Shipping will set you back $2.99 per order in the United States and $29.99 outside of the U.S., and you can redeem multiple sets in an order. You will have to pay any applicable taxes and fees for your state and country of residence on a value of $50 per set.
Once you’ve submitted your redemption requests, your cards will be removed from your Magic Online collection during the next application downtime and cannot be recovered, so make sure you really want redemption. It will take up to 10 days for your requests to be processed and 1-3 weeks to ship.
Redemption generally starts one month after the digital release date for an expansion; this is the date the expansion becomes available in Magic Online. Redemption will be available for until the “Redemption Guarantee Date” for the expansion. Wizards will continue to redeem an expansion, while supplies last, until its “Redemption Cutoff Date.” Check here for the dates for current expansions and here for the official Wizards redemption support page.
Now that we all understand what is meant by redemption and how it works, let’s tackle the next question: who uses it? I’ve theorized that the purpose of redemption is to offer peace of mind to players shelling out their hard-earned cash for cards that exist only as code. Does it work? Do people pull their cards out of Magic Online for the comfort of paper they can hold?
Survey says… not many. Most respondents have never redeemed a set, and only 8% have redeemed more than five sets.
I also asked, “Was digital card redemption a reason you started playing Magic Online? If you do not yet play on Magic Online, does it make you more likely to start?” Redemption is or would be a factor in the decision to play for 23% of those responding. That’s a sizable chunk. It seems likely that many people do not choose to redeem sets but like knowing the option is available to them.
The Invisible Hand
Redemption isn’t just a paper standard, guaranteeing the value of digital cards; it is also a major force in the Magic Online economy. The first taste Magic Online players get of a new expansion is during online prerelease events. These initial tournaments are accompanied by the hype and excitement that surrounds the arrival of most expansions. Players want to acquire and play with all of the hot new cards, so demand is very high, but comparatively few booster packs are opened during these events, so the supply is low. This is a recipe for high prices for cards.
When the expansion is officially released the card supply increases, but lots of players are building and testing decks and still in need of cards to do it. Prices don’t change much until Limited events start. Limited is a type of Magic game where players build decks from an allotment of booster packs containing cards from one or more expansions. Limited players open lots of booster packs, and many sell the cards in those packs to Magic Online retailers in exchange for event tickets (“tix,” the currency of Magic Online), which they use to subsidize future drafts and other events. Limited players flood the online market with cards, dramatically increasing supply and, in turn, reducing card prices.
The majority of redemption is done by businesses that buy the less expensive digital cards, redeem them, and sell the pricier paper cards for a profit. These professional redeemers keep an eye on falling card prices for an expansion and start snapping the cards up once it is profitable to do so. The increased demand for cards, along with the reduced supply as redeemed cards are removed from Magic Online, offsets the continuing increase in card supply from limited players and keeps prices relatively stable.
So what would happen if Wizard’s turned off set redemption? Demand would still start out high for a new expansion, riding the wave of hype into the Magic Online release. Eventually that would subside, and without a path to paper to keep it in check, the supply of digital cards would quickly outpace demand as limited players do their thing and continue to open more and more packs.
With so much supply and so little demand, prices would fall and cards would become much, much cheaper. We see this happen today when redemption for an expansion ends. Prices drop significantly and quickly. This would happen much earlier without redemption, leaving a much larger supply of cards for the expansion in the game.
Constructed Magic, games where players build a deck using cards of your choice rather than being limited to what you get in booster packs, is expensive. Popular Magic Online decks for the Standard format can cost players $400 to $500-worth of event tickets. One popular Modern deck will set you back close to $800. Cheaper card prices sound great, right? Before you grab your pitchforks and storm Wizards’ headquarters shouting, “Down with redemption!” let’s consider the real economic impact.
First, there would be fewer retailers buying and selling cards on Magic Online. Lower prices mean less profit. Less profit means less incentive to operate a business, which means fewer retailers and automated card selling programs (“bots”) populating those outdated classifieds that serve as Magic Online’s marketplace. The Magic Online economy would shrink, reducing your options to buy and sell cards.
Second, limited events would become more expensive. If prices are significantly lower, limited players will get significantly fewer event tickets for the cards they sell. To make matters worse, without redeemers there would be far fewer people to sell cards to. Lower prices and lower demand mean a much smaller draft subsidy and a higher cost to play.
Third, the price of paper cards would increase. It’s hard to know exactly how many sets of digital cards are redeemed for paper ones. A few hundred each week is a conservative estimate. That’s a few hundred new paper copies of each card of an expansion every week. This becomes significant when you start talking about the already expensive mythic rare cards. Redemption is providing a few hundred more copies Bonfire of the Damned; Tamiyo, the Moon Sage: and Thundermaw Hellkite each week. If redemption ended, that supply of cards would end as well. The price of cards, especially the rarest and most sought after, would increase considerably.
The Closing Bell
Redemption is an important part of Magic Online. It provides a paper standard, a guarantee that if you’re willing to spend money on digital cards, the value of those cards will be backed by paper cards. This gives peace of mind to some players, about a quarter of those I surveyed. More importantly, redemption keeps card supplies and prices in check so that the digital marketplace can function and players can buy and sell cards.
I’d like to thank the following people for answering my questions and providing input for this article: Heath Newton from MTGOTraders.com and Cape Fear Games, TheCardNexus.com, Matt Beverly, and Mike Grote. I’d also like to thank those of you who responded to my survey. I got some interesting responses to the last question, “Any comments on set redemption you’d like to share?” and I will be sharing some in the comments of this article.
Thanks for reading.
Nick Vigabool (@MrVigabool)