It seems like every day we’ve been hit with a new Secret Lair announcement for Magic the Gathering. I’ve been wondering, is this a product like the From the Vault series, or is Wizards of the Coast jamming out secondary market singles as quickly as possible?
Que the most recent announcement, a shock land Secret Lair (releasing in August). And guess what… these Secret Lairs contain not 10, not 5, but 3 shock lands! We might as well be buying singles at this point! The recently revealed Culture Shock Secret Lairs are proof that WOTC is fully committed to selling singles direct to consumers. They MSRP for $29.99, so you’re paying $10 per shock. A very slim discount for shock lands. In fact, some of the big MTG card buyers might not pay that much to take them off your hands.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that Hasbro has arrived at this point. It’s a public company after all and players have asked for decades, why don’t they just sell singles? The secondary market has thousands of cards that sell from $10 to $100 that aren’t on the reserved list (a special list of cards that are prohibited from being reprinted) and ripe for a reprint.
So how did we arrive at this point?
The first product. Rivals Quick Start Set
Magic the Gathering has long been on the trajectory of selling singles. The journey began in July of 1996, the date WOTC introduced its first fixed contents product called Rivals Quick Start Set. Rivals included nearly identical reprints of 4th Edition cards compiled into 4 preconstructed decks.
World Championship Decks
This idea was expanded in 2007 with a more casual twist. World Championship proxy decks were introduced in 1997 (and ended in 2004). They included gold-bordered non-tournament legal exact duplicates of decks that won the MTG World Championship each year.
The next innovation from WOTC came in November of 2007 with the release of Duel Decks: Elves vs. Goblins. This marked one of WOTC’s best-fixed products to market. Each deck had a mixture of new and old cards that were carefully curated so that they could play against each other with equal win rates. They featured their own set symbol, matching card layouts, and a few new original artworks.
Following the massive success of Duel Decks: Elves vs. Goblins, WOTC continued to release Duel Decks every year. Then something happened. After nearly a decade of two Duel Decks being released every year, it stopped in 2018. The series was likely discontinued in favor of the very popular Commander decks, which have overtaken the casual gaming space of MTG. Commander precons continued to rise in popularity and have been released every year since 2011.
Since their inception, Commander decks have included unique cards that can’t be found anywhere else. Though not directly a sale of a single, there was no way to acquire the card other than the secondary market or purchasing a Commander Precon. This paved the way for unique functional cards in crossover sets such as the Secret Lair: Walking Dead, which lead to massive player outcries over functionally unique cards sold in limited quantities that are tournament legal. A scary prospect that deserves an article on its own.
From the Vault
While preconstructed decks may have paved the way for fixed product reprints, it is a far cry from selling singles. The next major evolution came in 2008 with the release of From the Vault: Dragons. Featuring 15 limited foil dragon cards in special foiling, the series was a major hit with collectors. The product flew off shelves everywhere. I remember trying to grab a copy on release and being unable to do so. Stores received limited quantities and often marked up prices to compensate.
FTV became a great boon for local game stores. You couldn’t buy From the Vault products direct from Hasbro or at big-box retailers. Whatever allocation a store received was guaranteed to sell, and often at multiples of MSRP. Game stores profited and players were excited about the product.
Not everything was rosy. While LGS did well, many players complained of limited quantities and being gouged by their local stores. Nothing is more frustrating than being unable to secure a product even before it releases!
In 2017 WOTC discontinued the From the Vault series and created a new line called Signature Spellbook. While From the Vault sets all had 15 cards each (FTV: Twenty had 20), Signature Spellbooks reduced the card count to 9. Thus WOTC moved one step closer to selling singles.
Signature Spellbooks also targeted competitive players. The Gideon Spellbook advertised how the product contained “answers for Modern” with Rest in Peace and Path to Exile. This seems to acknowledge that the products were designed to appeal not just to casual collectors and premium product lovers, but also to those wanting reprints.
Secret Lair Mania
Finally, in 2019 WOTC took a massive step forward toward selling singles direct to consumers with the announcement of Secret Lair. They are sold directly by WOTC and feature alternate art cards of highly demanded reprints. The first 7 secret lairs were announced together. The card count this time? Down to 3 cards!
That’s right! With Secret Lair Restless in Peace, WOTC packaged a direct-to-consumer product of 3 highly competitive cards, Bloodghast, Goglari Thug, and Life from the Loam for $29.99!
Secret Lairs must have been flying off the shelf, as WOTC has since released them at a breakneck pace! Since December of 2019, a total of 46 Secret Lairs have been announced or released. That’s a record for any product ever for MTG.
Over 30 of these Secret Lairs have been brought to market within the past 12 months! That is insane from a historical perspective from Wizards of the Coast. Looking back at the history of MTG, FTV sets were typically released once a year and the same holds true for Signature Spellbooks.
The sheer number of high-demand cards released in Secret Lairs in the past year is a monumental evolution and expediency in strategy by WOTC to begin selling valuable singles from the secondary market direct to players.
What do Secret Lairs mean for the future of MTG?
If we look at supplemental products released by WOTC, nothing like Secret Lairs has ever been released before. The scope and quantity are in a league of their own. This should come as no surprise. Secret Lairs are incredibly easy to produce. All that is required is to find some cards players want in the secondary market that are selling for $10 or more, commission new artwork, and throw them in a box. MTG cards are already cheap to produce, and packaging is simple. This represents a huge margin and profit for Hasbro and WOTC.
Not only does WOTC reap a benefit, but players do too (at least from a price perspective). If an MTG player can buy 3 cards in a secret lair cheaper than they can on the secondary market, such as shock lands, why not buy the Secret Lair? Of course, players will buy $50 worth of cards if it only costs them $29.99 (the traditional cost of a Secret Lair).
This is the real value proposition of the product and why they are selling off the shelves. WOTC is reprinting high-value secondary market cards at a discount.
So what does this mean for the future? It means we will be seeing more Secret Lairs. A lot more! There are thousands of cards valued at over $10 that can be bundled and sold by WOTC. Not only that, we may begin to see even smaller and smaller sized bundles. Will there ever be a 2 or 1 card Secret Lair? The answer is likely, yes. The history goes as follows:
1996: Precon Decks – Hundreds of Cards
2008: From the Vault – 15 Cards
2018: Signature Spellbook – 9 cards
2019: Secret Lair – 3-5 cards
I would suspect when the time arrives, the 1-2 card variant would be a highly sought-after card with a unique foiling process that is in a league on its own.
Why do Secret Lairs Have So Few Cards?
The reason for printing fewer and fewer cards in special editions is that WOTC erodes the secondary market price less this way. And when they release cards with a high secondary market value, they hike up the price.
For example, Secret Lair Fetchlands had an initially reported cost of about $165 for 5 cards (although it sells on the secondary market for $270 today). Still, it was vastly more expensive than the 5 card Secret Lairs that sell for $39.99. Another nod to the fact that WOTC pricing and limited availability seem to reflect secondary market values.
IE, it’s unlikely you will see a competitive modern card worth $50 sell in a Secret Lair that costs $29.99. It’s going to be priced just enough below the secondary market value that buyers will purchase it. A clever way of expanding the reprintability of cards in the future, but also infuriating players who want and need reprints such as fetchlands.
What does this mean for players needing reprints?
It means a few things. Firstly, don’t expect the price of expensive Modern and Commander cards to come down much. Certainly, if there is a card that has NEVER been reprinted before such as Three Visits, it will become tremendously cheaper (The Commander Legends version sells for $4, whereas the original Portal Three Kingdoms version sells for $80+). Rare staples such as fetchlands seem destined to maintain the high price tag. Even cards like Cavern of Souls that get reprinted from time to time are maintaining a value of $50+.
The moral of the story is this, if you keep waiting for a reprint, by the time it happens, it might be much more expensive than it is now. Secret Lairs have proven WOTC is very sensitive to the secondary market price.
Do Secret Lairs hurt Local Game Stores?
In March of 2020, WOTC announced that local game stores would be receiving Secret Lairs too. Originally, they were only released directly from Hasbro.
It’s hard to say whether they have a significant impact on LGS sales. The fact that WOTC is very price sensitive when choosing which cards to include means that card values won’t be plummeting. That’s actually a good thing for LGS that are a major seller of cards on the secondary market. They need cards to maintain value so they can sell their inventory at a higher price. As long as players are able to buy Secret Lairs from their LGS, and cards are not sold significantly below market value, LGS may not be largely affected.
Final Thoughts on WOTC Selling Singles
Secret Lairs are genius from a $$$ perspective by Hasbro. It costs them little and makes a ton of money from players… but in my opinion, they don’t add much value to the game. Duel Decks are one of my favorite products ever. WOTC created interesting casual precons that I could battle with friends, and also introduced some sweet alternate art cards. Those products certainly required plenty of planning to curate.
On the other hand, Secret Lairs feel rushed more than carefully curated. New ones are spit out every few months. They rarely feel like a “secret” to me. The sheer quantity of releases undermines the idea of a premium product and questions the quality and care taken to make each one worthy of its price tag. You can buy a complete board game from Hasbro for under $29.99.
I remember buying FTV: Relics when it first came out. Now that is a well-created worthy product! It included 15 cards, 10 with new art, a unique foiling process, a spindown life counter, a fun pamphlet that detailed each card and its history and importance to MTG, and a beautiful display box. How much did it retail for you ask? $49.99, $99.99, $150??? Nope! It was $34.99, and I paid about $65 for it because my LGS marked it up because of demand. It’s crazy that we used to have such well-developed products, but now we get a generic Secret Lair box with 5 cards for $39.99.
I haven’t bought a Secret Lair yet, and I don’t think I ever will. I miss the days of well-curated meaningful products when quality was more important than quantity.