Three Seasons of Foil

They can’t all be winners.

You don’t have to look far to affirm this time-worn, resigned acceptance to the inevitability of mediocrity. In Magic, for instance, if it wasn’t so, then we’d all still be playing with updated versions of earlier releases like the Beatdown Boxed Set (2000), Deckmasters: Garfield vs Finkel (2001), or our recently-examined Rivals Quick Start. Rivals is a particularly compelling case, since it’s reception was apparently so poor that the next two products in the Quick Start product line — and the line itself — were quietly shuttered.

The market can be a powerful (if unforgiving) voice, and if consumers aren’t buying a product, Wizards naturally will draw it to a close. It’s important to note that that doesn’t make them necessarily bad products, with perception of quality being a relative thing. As Head Designer Mark Rosewater often says about cards, if you don’t like a particular product, it might just be that it’s not a product with you in mind. Still, you can’t expect Wizards to support an unpopular product line indefinitely.

Today we’re going to be looking at one such attempt, the Premium Deck Series, which drew to an end five years ago this month. During its time, it was an annually-released product that saw three releases hit the shelf before being discontinued. Remarked Rosewater, “not enough of you loved it,” and Wizards filled the slot in the Magic release schedule with something a lot more folks loved instead: Commander.

But to find the genesis of the Premium Deck Series, we have to travel back to the early days of the game. By 1999, Magic had been out around five years, and Wizards was exploring ways to increase sales by appealing to the collector — without negatively impacting the player. By this point, Magic was just one game out of a number of them, which included Legend of the Five Rings and Decipher’s Star Wars CCG, and it was important not to be complacent.

Lightning Dragon
Players who had attended the prerelease for Urza’s Saga the previous Autumn got a hint of what was to come, as their promo foil Lightning Dragon was done up in the now-familiar foil “premium” look. Once Urza’s Legacy hit the shelves, premium Magic cards were a done deal, and were ultimately embraced by the Magic playing community — perhaps not universally loved, but certainly loved well enough to embed in the game’s DNA.

For the next decade, premium cards were simply an added “bonus” you might find in your regular booster pack of Magic. The next evolutionary leap of the premium product came about due to an unusual interaction between Wizards’ marketing department, and one of their game designers, Ken Nagle. Nagle, who had come aboard as a result of the Great Designer Search 1 in 2006, once recalled that the Premium Deck Series was designed entirely in reverse. Ordinarily, ideas for new products comes out of Wizards R&D. Once settled, that kicks into motion all of the usual and customary actions that exist between concept and retail sales, such as contents lists, product titles and descriptors, and packaging.

In this case, however, it was the packaging that got the ball rolling. The creative team inside Wizards had come up with an idea for some very dynamic and attention-grabbing packaging, a clear box with some of the cards fanned out on display. As Nagle relates, it was dropped off at his desk, “with the ultimatum to find something compelling to put inside it.”

Nagle held some brainstorming sessions with other members of R&D, and they soon arrived at the idea of a sixty-card constructed deck, done fully in foil. They did some internal polling to see what the best themes might be for the deck, opting out of other tribal offerings that had seen recent releases (such as Elves and Goblins from the initial Duel Deck, or Dragons with the release of From the Vault: Dragons).

And so Premium Deck Series: Slivers was born, and the deck contained foil versions of the following decklist.

Crystalline Sliver
The Slivers deck was a five-color deck that pulled in Slivers from different releases and brought them together in a cohesive whole. Nagle specifically looked for ability overlap, where there was either negative symmetry (such as Crystalline Sliver and Opaline Sliver) or redundancy (Fury Sliver versus Talon Sliver).

The reception to the Premium Deck Series launch was not an overnight success. Indeed, developer Tom LaPille earlier that month had included a poll in his Latest Developments column asking what new Magic product readers were most excited about. Slivers came in fifth out of six options with 12.7% of the vote, perhaps ironically edging out only the ill-fated, all-foil Alara Premium Booster Packs.

The doomed Magic the Gathering — Tactics computer game and Deck-builder’s Toolkit both came in a few points higher, while Duel Decks: Phyrexia vs The Coalition and “None of these Excite Me” were neck and neck winners. Nagle might have correctly tabbed Slivers as something the players would get excited about, but the all-foil concept was a tougher sell.

Still, the initial Premium Deck Series reception convinced Wizards to make a go of it, and the following year (2010) saw the release of Premium Deck Series: Fire & Lightning. This time, it was Aaron Forsythe and Zac Hill at the helm, and here’s what they came up with.

Hammer of Bogardan
Right away, you can tell they went for a tonal shift. The flagship Premium Deck Series went tribal — and one of the most parasitic tribes in the game, at that. While that was great for Slivers fans, you didn’t have a ton of reasons to shell out $34.95 for the box if you weren’t. By instead choosing a tactical theme — Red burn — Wizards positioned Fire & Lightning for a more broad-based appeal.

It didn’t hurt either that they were bringing back some classics of the type. Hammer of Bogardan, an old tournament staple fondly remembered by many active during Mirage or subsequent Core Set reprintings. Ball Lightning. The glorious Fireblast. Jackal Pup. Figure of Destiny. A playset(!) of Lightning Bolts. And hey, a nice Jaya Ballard, Task Mage sure to appeal to the EDH set. When Tom LaPille put it directly with a new poll, Do you plan to buy Premium Deck Series: Fire & Lightning, a full quarter of the nearly 8,000 mothership respondents replied in the affirmative, with another quarter on the fence. That seemed to be progress!

And this attention wasn’t just down to a change of scenery. Co-designer Zac Hill has said that they looked very closely at the lessons of the Slivers release, particularly about having a sense of identity. As he wrote:

My most important takeaway from Slivers was that, if we were going to follow it up, the next product we created had to be designed as a cohesive experience. That is, every single element of the product—the theme, the deck list, the treatment, the packaging, the game play—needed to be tied together in a way that made sense. Slivers, to me, succeeded in giving people who wanted a Sliver deck a Sliver deck—but I didn’t understand why all the cards were premium, or why it was a “Premium Deck” in the first place. I didn’t understand what made it compelling.

Hill set four gals for the release’s design. First, it had to perform reasonably well as a deck (naturally). Second, the individual cards selected had to have some meaning or evoke sentiment from players that would make their purpose immediately graspable. Third, it “needed to evoke a premium concept.” The deck had to do something splashy and powerful. Finally, the deck needed to convey an all-around experience.

These were good lessons learned, a way to build upon what had come before, and the result was a construction that was an absolute fiery blast to play. And while we don’t have any access to actual sales data to put a number on it, Fire & Lightning, as Slivers had done before it, shifted enough units to convince Wizards to do another.

There’s a sad irony that the death of the product line would come following a release focusing on the graveyard, but in 2011 that’s precisely what happened with the final installment, Graveborn.

Sphinx of the Steel Wind
This time around, the deck was designed by developer Dave Humpherys, a former pro player who had been inducted into the Magic Hall of Fame in 2006. Humpherys, who enjoyed recursion and reanimation decks to strong success as a player, was delighted to take on the challenge.

Although Humpherys in his write-up for the mothership did not reference Hill’s list of questions that went into the design process, it’s fairly clear that Graveborn had much more in common with Fire & Lightning than Slivers. Like its predecessor, it focused on a theme (graveyard reanimation), and packed in some iconic cards to support it. Cards like Sphinx of the Steel Wind, Inkwell Leviathan, Avatar of Woe, and Verdant Force. The perpetually rules — thorny Animate Dead had been solved and reprinted, taking the place of Lightning Bolt as the set’s Vintage centerpiece, and came with recursive staples like Entomb and Exhume.

Like Fire & Lightning, Graveborn was a lot of fun to pilot, and you have to think that it was the all-foil gimmick of the decks that ultimately did them in, rather than poor deck-building. It occupied a somewhat awkward intersection of Magic’s demographics, given that the foil market is often dominated by either high-end players who like “pimped out” decks, or casual Commander fans who are happy to buy singles and shine their deck over time. There just wasn’t a lot you could do with a flashy all-foil deck that warranted the pricetag, and following Graveborn the plug was pulled.

It went with a whimper, not a bang. A year later, a reader put the question to Ask Wizards, the occasional feature on the mothership. When are you going to announce the next Premium Deck Series?

Currently we do not have any plans to bring the Premium Deck Series back. We know it has a loyal following by many in the community but it did not perform as we hoped over the three-year run so we are exploring new products that will create new unique experiences for our audience.

That new product would ultimately be the Commander’s Arsenal, which marked the alignment of Wizards of the Coast’s November product slot with the rich and lucrative Commander market. There had already been a Commander product released that same year, with the original shard-based decks in June, but at that point their evergreen role had not been settled. November of 2012 saw the limited-release Commander’s Arsenal take the place of the Premium Deck Series, and November has been the annual home of Commander decks ever since.

For those who enjoyed the ability to procure a large number of foil cards or some intriguing Preconstructed decks, though, the three-year period of 2009-11 is one to remember. We’re unlikely to see its like again.

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