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Posted by on Dec 20, 2012
Posted by on Dec 20, 2012 in Articles | 20 comments

Magic Online Redemption: In Wizards We Trust

Magic Online Redemption: In Wizards We Trust

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.

Survey Says

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.

In Wizards We Trust?DigitalRedemption1

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.

DigitalRedemption2I 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.

Digital Deflation

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)

  • dave78pdx

    I can only speak for myself when I say that set redemption is the reason I am willing to spend serious $$$ on MTGO. I play limited events to collect cards from the current in-print sets, play those cards in casual constructed games, then make one big redemption order each year at rotation. Those paper cards I receive in the mail get integrated in to the rest of my paper collection and go in to EDH decks, Cubes, or trade binders. Whether I crack a pack in a draft or trade with other users/bots, I always take in to account both the online and paper values of a card.

    • MrVigabool

      dave78pdx So do you just redeem one set for EDH purposes or does it vary by expansion?
      Very interesting, thanks for your comment!

      • dave78pdx

        I redeem as much as I am able to collect in the time the set is standard-legal. For ZEN block, SOM block, M11 and M12, I redeemed one set each. Currently, I have two complete sets of ISD block, 3 of M13, and 4 of RTR online.
        Since becoming a parent, I’ve had to change how and when I play MTG/MTGO. This change in my spending habits is well illustrated above. I used to buy booster boxes at the LGS, now I only play prerelease events. Every once in a while, I get to sit down for half an hour at the LGS to play a game. I have a couple EDH and modern decks that I keep in my bag for those occassions. My MTGO time usually happens after the kid is in bed for the night, or an afternoon nap on th weekends.

        • MrVigabool

          dave78pdx Kids sure have the tendency to do that, don’t then? It’s interesting that redemption is helping you get the cards you would normally have opened from boxes. Sounds cheaper for sure! Thanks for sharing your experiences!

        • dave78pdx

          Just wanted to add… I do buy/trade for non-redeemable cards on MTGO. I bought FTV Realms and all five Commander box sets. Lots of unique cards in those sets that will hold their value. Being able to play EDH on MTGO really enhances the overall experience. Only needing one copy of a card in your collection and being able to have it in as many decks as you want is a big advantage.

  • dave78pdx

    I also have to say that I am guilty of “redemption drafting.” Kind of like rare drafting, when you take the money card from the pack regardless of playability in the event… Except, it’s a card I know I need to complete a set so I can redeem. :)

  • Fenaris

    Source for the Modern number on cost (~$800).  Last Modern GP top 8 had 3 $1200 Jund decks, followed by 5 decks that didn’t surpass a TCGPlayer average of ~$600.

    • MrVigabool

      Fenaris That number, and the link was for MTGO. I agree that paper is definitely more expensive.

  • livewithfrank

    So how much does it cost to redeem a full 4x set of one expansion? 
    Here’s what I got based on the explanation given: 4 x 5$ + 29.99 shipping + tax % x 200$

    • MrVigabool

      livewithfrank $20 for four redemption requests, $29.99 shipping to Canada, plus taxes and fees. I’m not sure what those are for you.

  • MrVigabool

    Some answers to question #6 of my survey “Any comments on set redemption you’d like to share?””Redemption seems to be one of the core reasons why MTGO “product” is pegged to IRL MSRP. Given that so few people actually pay MSRP for product (via online purchases or shop prices) or events (due to reduced cost for events), this is bananas. While I’m aware that there’s an ecosystem of people that do redeem a large number of sets and help fuel the MTGO secondary market, I think it’s in everyone’s best interest if MTGO is no longer pegged by real world prices for “product” that doesn’t actually exist in any physical form.””It’s nice if you only play limited and have no interest in building an MTGO collection.””Look at the back of your redemption invoice. If WotC sends you a defective set then you have to pay the return shipping and wait 4 to 6 weeks for a replacement. Last week I got a foil RTR set that was missing cards. Now I had to pay $15+ dollars for shipping and insurance to send it back. 4-6 weeks from now I should have a replacement. Customer service was sorry but said they have no control over the policy.””I think set redemption is good for Magic Online and acts as a good reason to invest their money into Magic Online.””Set redemption is the safest way of taking cash out of Magic Online (barring a friend buying cards/tickets).””Huh?”
    More comments later!

  • MrVigabool

    More great comments from question #6 in my survey!:“The idea that set redemption exists is more important that set redemption itself.”“When you buy a $3.99 comic from Marvel they give you a code to redeem for the equivalent digital product. I’d like to see Wizards do the same for a booster, etc and then remove the idea of Redemption.”
    “Collecting an entire set is pretty tedious for me. I’d definitely redeem cards if they made it easier.”“I only heard about MTGO a few months ago and have been hesitant to start up, especially having been listening to HeavyMeta and the Eh Team podcasts. I have a fairly large paper collection and I have a fairly good group of friends I play with weekly. However the ability to redeem an entire set, for probably far less than it costs to buy one from a trader is of interest. I have heard you can only do it once, yet people talk about doing it for multiple sets, maybe they have multiple accounts, not sure.”
    “I wouldn’t have started to play without set redemption, but I ended up not acquiring cards frequently enough for it to be worth redeeming sets myself. I do benefit from set redemption, though, because it creates a market for digital objects that I acquire during drafts.”
    “Redemption is a mixed bag. I hate that I have to “lose” my online cards to get them IRL. For someone struggling to get a playset of an expensive card for both online and IRL, it is quite the conundrum.”

  • Ben Storm

    Hearing that you can redeem 4 sets to have a complete playset makes MTGO seem more sensible (as a paper player). Though I’m worried by the comment from qu 6 below that you are responsible for returning the set so they can resend the items. Posting items back and forth to America from the UK is not cheap!
    Great article Nick, this kind of information is so valuable, especially as there is very little information out there to find easily.
    If you are taking requests for further articles, I’d really like to know more about ‘byes’ in tournament play. I hear it a lot on the Eh team, and have managed to infer some things from context, but there is no full explanation anywhere out there, even reading the WotC rules on how to use byes.

    • MrVigabool

      Ben Storm Hi Ben, thanks for reading and your comment. I’m happy you enjoyed it! I certainly take requests if folks are interested in a topic. Tournament byes seems like a worthy one. 
      As for the comment about having to pay for missing/damaged cards in the redemption set, I’m not really sure about how exactly that works. It seems like it might be cheaper to just buy singles of the missing cards at that point, so long as it’s not the chase rare or mythics.

  • MrVigabool

    More great comments from the survey:“Set redemption is not the main reason I play. I play MTGO to draft, and set redemption just gave me an out. I find it less viable now, only because there are so many chase rares and mythics in RTR that I can get good value selling my cards, and not redeeming them.”“Much better deal for those that live in the US. Need to redeem a bunch of sets at once to make it worthwhile in Canada, but processing and shipping is very prompt and I’ve been impressed with it as a way to get full sets.”“Haven’t completed any sets yet, but plan on redeeming a couple from the most recent sets. I would be much more hesitant to buy cards online if I didn’t have the chance to redeem for actual cards.”“I just got back into Magic this year and bought some sealed product and singles from Innistrad block and M13, but decided to go a different route for RTR. I’ve played exclusively online since the set’s release and have been able to save up enough copies to get a full playset of the entire set with enough online cards left over to keep the decks that I like to play online intact. It was a lot easier to do than I had first thought and I think that I’ve probably saved a pretty considerable amount of money and time compared with collecting the set in paper form first.”
    “The more I learn about MTGO set redemption, the more appealing it is starting to sound.”“I only play limited on MTGO. Part of me wonders if I’d get more value saving my cards, redeeming and then selling the paper cards, but I’m generally pretty lazy and just sell my rares for tickets to keep the draft train rolling.”
    I loved hearing what you guys had to say about redemption from the survey, thanks much for your participation and comments!

  • urtv667

    Excellent article sir, and one very relevent to my particular situation.  I’m currently serving in the millitary, at the tail end of my deployment.  I ended up nabbing a full playset of RTR with the intention of converting it to paper and having it shipped home to meet me there.  However, now that the end is in sight, I’m wondering if I should actually go through with it.  Back home I don’t play MODO nearly as much as I do now, but I’m also in a position where I can’t guarantee there will be a local gaming store near me within the next couple of years, so I may find myself wanting to grab another playset somewhere along the line.  This may illustrate a somewhat obvious point that the value of redemption changes drastically depending on your location and/or playgroup.  Chances are I won’t pull the trigger and I will end up keeping my digital RTR well past its guaranteed redemption period, but regardless, this article gave me a timeline and allowed me to think contextually about the redemption process, and for that, I thank you.

    • MrVigabool

      urtv667 I’m glad you liked it! You bring up an interesting point that I didn’t touch on. Over time, it seems like people will prefer to keep their cards in digital form because in many cases they get more use. There are other pluses like being able to play the same card in a bunch of decks without having to track what deck it’s in and going through the resleeving process. 
      So will you keep all the cards of your sets or trade higher value ones prior to rotation to get something back? 
      Finally, thanks for your service, best of luck in the remainder of your deployment, and get back here safely!

  • KevanTaylor

    i have done a ton of set redemptions and think the system is decent the only thing i dont care for is we pay pretty much full price for our boosters online but can only redeem complete sets leaving us with thousands upon thousands of extra cards that we would have to spend a ton of money on in order to get the paper cards i would really like to see them come up with a redemption system where we could get physical copies of all our cards without the need to collect a full set. i will add i have come to the point where i play most of my magic online and usually only redeem at rotation . i also go and spend a couple hundred tickets on filling out sets when i do redeem. the last few redemptions i have done i have redeemed for 6+ sets at a time and once i redeemed 16 sets in one downtime. makes for more fun then xmas when my parcel shows up. also i am looking for a fun way to play limited games with a full redemption box with my friends when they show up for now complete sets just get open and packed into my collection binders which are the envy of many friends. good article though thanks for sharing. and when can we expect to see an MDOS event in alberta

  • Nathan Hall

    Nice article, well-written! It sort of reads like a college paper but I liked it.

  • Coby

    Is there any difference between MGT cards that are redeemed, and those that are bought in packs in the real world?

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