PAX Unplugged was last weekend, and I had a complete blast. I had the opportunity to play games on stream with some of my childhood design heroes, receive some invaluable playtesting feedback, and see many of the wondrous friends and colleagues I’m privileged to know.

I also missed most opportunities I’ll have to play with Iconic Masters, a set that released this weekend. Huh?

…and it’s gone!

Iconic Masters may have the shortest shelf life of any Magic booster product in recent memory. It just came out and yet there are barely any Iconic Masters events in New York City or its environs. By missing release weekend, I seem to have missed almost every opportunity I’ll have to play the set at a store. I had the chance to play the set at HasCon (where I rather enjoyed playing the weird set four times) and got in a draft at PAX (cons aren’t my preferred locale for drafting—Magic’s easy enough to play and cons have so many unique opportunities), and that might be all I get to do without buying a box.

Speaking of which…

That Price, Tho

Iconic Masters has the lowest box price of any Masters product ever. At release. Where previous Masters products have sold rather stably at $200 a box, if not more, and often began retailing in the $220-$240 range, Iconic Masters is available for $160 a box. The value of Masters products has declined since the underprinted, value-packed original MMA2013, but not this steeply.

I’ve bought more than my fair share and variety of booster boxes in my time, and there are two factors that make product cheap: low value and a poor Limited format. Two of the worst offenders, Dragon’s Maze and Fate Reforged, have not only been cheap for years, they’ve dipped into the unheard-of $60 range because of how undesirable they are. Iconic Masters looks to follow in their footsteps before anyone even had a chance to play with the set.

A Product without Life

I don’t believe that Iconic Masters is a doomed set, but I’m not enthusiastic about its chances. What factors led to this point?


It was fantastic to play a blind prerelease. People excitedly exclaimed cards they were delighted to open and everyone was surprised with them. A fun time was had by perhaps a few thousand people. Then two months went by and all the excitement was gone. Just as the New Phyrexia godbook spoiler depressed sales of that product, Iconic Masters had three days to build hype and two months to watch it subside.

The Market Adjusted

Normally when a Masters product comes out, it’s chock full of highly desirable reprints. Once packs start getting cracked, the value of those cards—particularly singleton, niche, or Legacy/Vintage cards like Mana Crypt, Karakas, and Mana Drain—plummets as availability jumps. Retailers drop prices on any original versions of those cards to compete with the new supply. The market adjusts and suddenly the Masters product isn’t quite so valuable, but that tends to happen once people have been playing with the set for a week or two. This time, the market had two months to adjust (instead of the normal 1-2 weeks), so the value of IMA packs dropped before any were sold.

Masters Fatigue

Masters sets were initially biennial to give Modern Masters the ability to keep pace with new releases. Three years later, in 2016, Eternal Masters made Masters products annual (in a summer overstuffed with product releases). One year later, we now have biannual Masters releases. I’m not convinced that the player base can handle this many Masters sets. Furthermore, I’m not certain that biannual Masters releases can maintain the quality or value of steadier releases.

I see that Wizards had maintained Modern Masters as biennial and inserted different kinds of Masters products to fill the gaps, but Iconic Masters is the first such release not tied to an existing format. It’s not clear just who this product is for.

Crunched Releases

The summer 2016 release schedule was exhausting. It was a three month-long spoiler season spanning Eternal Masters, Eldritch Moon, Conspiracy: Take the Crown, and Kaladesh (with some Duels Decks thrown in for good measure).

Unstable was delayed to December 2017 to avoid the crunch that Conspiracy 2 suffered (as soon as it released, we were in Kaladesh spoiler season). Instead, Unstable crunched Iconic Masters, which released right in the middle of Unstable spoiler season.

In fact, there are five product releases within one month: Duel Decks: Merfolk vs. Goblins, Iconic Masters, Explorers of Ixalan, From the Vault: Transform, and Unstable. I won’t pretend that all of these products are meant for the same audiences, but I can’t imagine they’re not competing with each other for hype, basic awareness, and dollars.

What’s the point?

I was quite excited for the release of Iconic Masters. However, everything I’ve been reading online—particularly on Daily MTG—has trained my focus on Unstable, a delightful-looking product that isn’t intended for me. I’ve lost my hype for IMA when it should be just tapering off from its zenith after release weekend.

I already had most of the cards I need from IMA. I don’t play Vintage or Legacy, so the allure of a discounted Flusterstorm or Mana Drain is muted, and the Mishra’s Baubles I could pick up are now available for a steep discount. There is no Grand Prix to prepare for, so there’s little reason to get good at the format. The Limited format has proven interesting, but not so fun that I’ll drop $160 on a box that folks might not even want to draft or that I can buy for even less as a potentially overprinted product needs to be cleared from retail shelves.

Looking towards 2018

It feels like the past two years have had many missteps. Splinter Twin, Eye of Ugin, Smuggler’s Copter, Emrakul, the Promised End, Reflector Mage, Felidar Guardian, and Aetherworks Marvel were all banned. The entire block structure was restructured, then partly undone, then blocks were eliminated. We’ve seen lackluster Limited formats and lopsided Constructed formats, owing to different design and developmental mistakes. Magic Online’s fate is uncertain, and as Magic: the Gathering Arena prepares for open beta, its fate uncertain as well. Players were both enthralled and exhausted by the most ambitious release schedule even seen in Magic.

Ideally, 2018 is a fantastic year to play Magic. With luck, Dominaria will be an amazing format, kicking off the new blockless paradigm with a bang. The varied Pro Tours will spark interest across formats and prevent Standard from withering under an unceasing spotlight or lack of sufficient answers. Masters 25 will be the best ever Masters product and MTG Arena will be just as satisfying an online experience as Hearthstone and Eternal can be.

It’s certainly not impossible or even that unlikely. But at least let’s hope 2018 is a better, more inspiring year than the last two have been. I love this game, and it hurts my love of the game when products I should enjoy like IMA seem to be created to fail.

—Zachary Barash

Zachary Barash is a New York City-based game designer. He works for Kingdom Death: Monster, has an MFA in Game Design from NYU, and does freelance game design.

His favorite card of the month is Guard Duty. It’s half of a Pacifism in every sense of the word, except for word count.

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