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Wizards’ MTG Secret Lair change is great news… for scalpers

Magic: The Gathering's Secret Lairs are switching to limited print runs - while presented as an upgrade, for most fans this is anything but.

MTG Secret Lair art showing a phyrexian glissa

Wizards of the Coast announced on Tuesday that it is switching from a print-to-demand model for MTG Secret Lairs to a limited print run, where a certain number of copies get made and once they’re gone, they’re gone.

It claims this will “expedite shipping”, and allow Secret Lairs to reach buyers more quickly. This is true, but the change will make the Secret Lair experience far worse overall. The only ones benefiting, aside from Wizards itself, will be scalpers looking to make a quick buck.

Print-to-demand is a great model for the consumer because you can take your time coming to a decision, and everyone gets what they want. It is a slower process – Wizards can’t make its MTG Secret Lairs until after all the orders are placed – but it’s far better than the alternative.

MTG Secret Lair art showing ulamog eating cereal.

With a limited run, you’ll have to rush to the store as soon as a new Secret Lair is announced. Instead of sleeping on it, you’ll need to hurriedly grab your wallet if you want any chance of getting hold of pretty MTG cards.

Posterity shows that Wizards of the Coast is not good at handling products with limited print runs. The fiasco launch of the 30th Anniversary Countdown Kit from 2022 is the best case study. This advent calendar, containing a variety of special Secret Lair cards, was announced in November that year. It was released in a limited print run for the sake of speed because, as Mark Rosewater said, “There was no way to both print to demand and have it arrive before December”.

It was a disaster. The calendars sold out within a single hour. The store page was laden with glitches. The website froze, orders were dropped repeatedly, and many fans ended up buying the wrong number of countdown kits by accident. And then there were the many scalpers snapping up 30 copies apiece, to try and flip them for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Hopefully Wizards will have had enough experience to be able to handle things better now that this limited approach is becoming the new normal for Secret Lairs. The limited supply Commander decks didn’t have anything like the same crisis as the advent calendar, with Cute to Brute, for instance, not selling out for a couple of weeks.

MTG Secret Lair art showing nissa jumping

And the Magic team certainly sounds pretty confident. “While popular Secret Lair drops may sell out fast, we now have four years of Secret Lair sales to base our print-run numbers on, and we’re aiming to get as close to overall demand as possible,” explains the article.

But likewise, we can be pretty confident in saying that even if most Secret Lairs have zero issues, as soon as there’s something unexpectedly high value or hype-driven, or if Wizards gets its estimates wrong just once, the scalpers will be out in force, and regular fans who can’t drop everything and hit the store immediately won’t get a look in.

Another downside, and something that will only fan the flames of the FOMO, is that now it’s going to be hard to get Secret Lair cards if you miss the boat the first time round, or are just interested in a single card. Right now, even the most popular Secret Lair cards aren’t that expensive on the secondary market. Because more orders were placed for them, more copies were made. Now that won’t be the case, and it’ll be Wizards that decides how many Secret Lairs of each type get released.

Overall, sure it’ll be nice to get Secret Lairs more quickly. (It’ll also be great for scalpers, who can now pop their Secret Lairs up on eBay before the hype has died down.) But I’m not sure this was a problem that needed solving. Among the many, many criticisms leveled at Wizards from Magic’s cynical fanbase over the last year, I’d be surprised if the speed of Secret Lair shipping cracked the top 50.

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It’s hard not to assume there’s an ulterior motive at work here. With the number of Secret Lairs increasing each year (there were 54 in 2023) these special art Magic cards don’t feel so special anymore. As Tolarian Community College’s excellent value breakdowns illustrate, they’re getting less and less worthwhile as well. So it’s quite likely the profits brought in by SLs have dropped.

Whether or not that’s the case, what’s almost certainly true is that a limited print run will save Wizards money. It’s logistically easier, you can be upfront with printing companies, and Wizards can make exactly as many Secret Lairs as suits it. Overall, while exploiting FOMO and helping scalpers, this Secret Lair change is also a worrying sign – in case the mass layoffs didn’t tip you off – that Wizards of the Coast is in full-on cost cutting mode.