Note: The rest of the series does not require or rely on this post, so it can be safely skipped. Original version of this post contained a gigantic false assumption. I understand how I made it, but it was still pretty bad, and if I had a SlateStarCodex-style mistakes page it would be my first entry. The post has been updated to reflect the new information, and may be updated further as more implications are thought out.
VII. Card Rebalancing, Pack Supply, Pack Value and Economics
What happens when a game periodically rebalances its cards?
There are several distinct effects.
In the second post, I considered the question of card collection and ownership. This section is partly reiteration of key points from there, then expands upon them. I want to get the economic aspects out of the way now, so the remainder of the series can consider other factors.
If cards are frequently altered for balance reasons, or to shake things up, then a card becoming valuable and worthwhile creates a large risk that its value will be diminished or wiped out by a future change. This transforms the long term payout expectations, forcing the value to lie mostly in shorter term utility and severely hurting long term collectibility. So that’s potentially quite bad.
The good news is, you can choose how much to care about that. Both as a game and as a player. In Slay the Spire, ownership wasn’t a thing, so changing the cards up was totally cool. If you use the dust system of Hearthstone, cards cannot be transferred, and are created and destroyed for fixed amounts. As long as you offer full refunds when changes occur, which is cheap to do, it’s hard to get too angry about changes.
One could certainly argue that a player chooses to create and aim towards a variety of cards in order to build a deck, and killing one card in the deck could kill the whole operation and leave your collection crippled. But a new set often does the same.
At the time I fully supported Artifact’s decision to have a true marketplace: a fully collectible, buy-packs-and-trade-cards economy, when cards were not going to be rebalanced and card ownership was at a higher level.
I still strongly believe that the marketplace model is good for the right game, with the right supports. I am still planning to use it, but it requires extensive supports and has to be central to what you are doing, at least as much as in paper Magic: The Gathering.
This can break on multiple levels.
I believed when first writing this that prices have now dropped dramatically, across the board, since the announcement, and that the change in ownership level was the cause.
That turns out to be completely wrong, and is the mistake noted at the top. There was basically no adjustment in prices in response to the announcement, other than for the modified cards, and even those cards didn’t move much.
Prices are still down a lot versus before their early peaks when there were more players, and before (presumably) a bunch of players dumped their cards. But that is to be expected. Given the timing observed, it’s a pure oversupply and not enough demand story. McCarthy’s model in the comments is a good way of thinking about it, and fully compatible with my description.
Given that a large decline in card ownership did not in the short term hurt prices much, does that mean the two are actually fully compatible, and I was far too worried about this issue?
That certainly needs to be considered. My current view is that rebalancing cuts off key potential sources of value, especially the possibility of super high long term value. In the long term that will impact prices a lot. But in the short term, other factors can easily dominate.
To give an idea of where prices are now, I will show prices as $Bid/$Ask.
Drow Ranger is 3.5/4.5, and Axe is 6.5/8.7. They remain the most expensive heroes, despite becoming worse, because Artifact bought so many of them back, and they are now rarer. Everything else has taken a tumble. Only three other heroes, Kanna, Lich and Tinker, cost over $1, with Kanna highest at 2.3/3.2. The only item worth more than $1 is Horn of the Alpha at 1.5/1.9. The only red cards are Time of Triumph at 2.6/3.6 and Spring the Trap at 1/1.4. Green has Unearthed Secrets for 1.2/1.7 and Emissary of the Quorum for 1.3/1.7. Black’s most expensive non-hero card is The Oath for 0.8/1.1. Blue has Annihilation for 4.1/5.5, Bolt of Damocles for 1.1/1.2, and Conflagration for 1.1/1.2.
Most rares are worth pennies. There is not a single bid for a common or uncommon that is higher than the $0.05 you get for breaking them down for event tickets. Legion Commander is uncommon. She used to cost over a dollar and be the second best red hero. Now she is the best red hero and has a buy cost of $0.09.
Pack value certainly looks well below the $2 base cost, even with multiple rares in many packs, as there are only five cards whose buy cost is over that price. You can turn twenty commons into an event ticket, but that only gets you about $0.50 at best you need the rest to come from somewhere.
If you don’t, you have the issue that has plagued Magic Online for years. Why would anyone ever buy a pack?
No one smart ever buys a Magic Online pack in the store. Ever. Same with Artifact, now. Much, much better to buy the singles you need.
Thus, all packs now come from the initial packs for new accounts, and the packs granted as rewards from play and from prize queues. These packs then are partly dumped onto the market for peanuts, the bot traders take their cut, the game and steam take their 15% cut (which is the big change in Artifact versus Magic Online, and the main reason the markets in Artifact are so wide), and constructed players buy the singles for play.
If this system fails to dump enough cards into rotation, prices rise until you hit the soft upper bound and packs are worth buying again. If the system dumps in too many cards, increasing fractions of all cards go down to worthless, or redemption-for-tickets value, as we see today.
This new balance is very bad news for Valve if it is looking to sell packs. It is very bad news for existing collectors.
This new balance is very bad news for those who play the prize queues, because the value of their prizes diminishes. With packs worth pull price, prize queues in Artifact return most of their entry fee, making them a great way to keep players engaged and motivated. With packs down by half, the break even point becomes sky high, and the average player will not get much reward. Add in the appeal of getting cards via grinding or purchase, and the appeal of prize queues for non-competitive players seems quite weak.
This new balance is great news for players who want to play the game cheap, and now face mostly minor hassles rather than major expenses.
Now that cards are going to be rebalanced, players have expressed preference for a different type of play loop, prices have dropped and card ownership is at a lower level, that has a lot less appeal. The economic model was, in this context, an error. It is superior to the Hearstone-style freemium model, and time will bear that out.
A better solution, I now think, would have been the living card game. Players buy the game, its sets and expansions for fixed fees. Further purchases would be for chromatic items only. It would not be easy, for many reasons, to get there from here at this point, but I think there would be a very good payoff if it could be done.
What we do not have, it turns out, is any evidence that card ownership levels impacted card prices. Players did not, in the short term, think like that or let it impact their purchasing or selling decisions. I still believe strongly that it will have long term impact, but the results, and having my assumptions about what happened turning out to be so off the mark, has to give me pause. Is the rate of change of the player base and the resulting card overhang the only thing that makes that much difference in the end?
It might be. In that case, card rebalance would continue to help prices, so long as players like it.
A thought experiment: What would happen if cards were rebalanced frequently, but all cards had to come from purchased packs, or supply was otherwise kept low enough that there weren’t enough cards to go around?
Players would still be reluctant to collect and save cards, due to risk of changes diminishing value both of particular cards and in general, and the overall decline in quality of ownership. That makes this scenario harder to get to without severely restricting card supply. It also means that if you do get to this scenario, you have a situation where cards in this short supply would otherwise ‘want’ to be much more expensive, which would translate to lots more packs sold and cards available, assuming packs are for sale at all.
However, if supply were sufficiently credibly constrained relative to demand, I think this would work.
Consider a world with fixed supply. We issue 100,000 copies of each of 100 rares, 300,000 of each of 100 uncommons, and 1,000,000 of each of 100 commons, plus unlimited copies of 50 basic cards. And that’s it, distributed in some fashion and with a market. Every two weeks, we change 5-10 cards in the biweekly patch, 1-2 of which change completely the way Cheating Death did, with the aim of shaking things up. We commit strongly that there are never new expansions, and we will never print meaningfully more copies of anything beyond a fixed amount held in reserve (or we do so only to replace cards that are ‘lost’ in permanently inactive accounts and so on).
The value of a full set is now mostly a function of the popularity of the game, with some weight on how many of the quality cards are rare, and some weight in how much everyone wants the same cards. All weights act as multipliers on the effective size of the player base.
If we have 50,000 players (and collectors), all cards will be almost worthless. If we have 500,000, perhaps not. If we have 5,000,000, definitely not. The risk that the value would be redistributed periodically does not seem able, in this thought experiment, to hold the value back by that much. Again, provided supply is constrained sufficiently.
Another way of putting it is, we’ve cut collection value by some factor, but it is a finite factor, and laws of supply and demand still hold. We just need to ensure sufficient demand relative to supply. To do that, we’d need to not have enough cards for the players, making them choose what to own and when and actively manage these questions, so the number of cards in circulation relative to player count has to go down quite a bit. It can be done, but it hurts.
It is also incompatible with a generous (or likely, even a reasonable) reward system for initial purchase and for playing. We can’t have too many ‘surplus packs’ in the system, or be injecting them into the system periodically, or be expected to do so in the future. The combination leads to the worthless-pack world, and the worthless-prize world.
Which is fine! Potentially. As long as the revenue can come elsewhere, and the motivated play loop come elsewhere, such as from tournaments organized from the outside. As I write this, I intend to at least start a qualifier for one such tournament later today, if only to see what such play is like.