fredag 13 januari 2017

Magic: The Puzzling

According to scientific consensus, the causality dilemma of the chicken and the egg has a clear answer. The egg came first as most of the arthropods, vertebrates and mollusks in the history of known life have been laying eggs. At some point a "not-quite-a-chicken-bird" laid an egg containing the first chicken. So what came first of the playing card and the playing card sleeve?

Back in the dark ages of 93/94, we ain't had no fancy ass sleeves. We played our cards straight on packed snow while eating soup with our hands. When night fell we used the least water damaged ones as kindling to keep playing until the soup ran out. It was a simpler time, apart from the banding rules.
I'm getting there.
In early 1994, Japji Khalsa and Jeff Brain came up with the idea of making play mats. That turned out well. But sleeving playing cards was still under the radar for a long time. The closest thing were the "top-loader" and the penny sleeve created for the sports card industry. They were respectively a pair of sturdy plastic sheets bound together and a thin, flimsy thing that couldn't possibly be shuffled for an extended period without breaking.
Enter the pro's.
In 1995, when Magic was two years old, Ultra-Pro entered the CCG scene with their Deck Protectors. Deck Protectors were made of tougher polypropylene and were the first sleeves specifically designed for playing cards. But there wasn't a sudden revolution. Few people used them initially, and still years later it wasn't unusual for players to play un-sleeved constructed decks at high level events. It could be worth noting that during the first years of sleeves, all of them had clear backs. Before opaque sleeves eventually took over the market, they were frowned upon or outright banned as they hid the product logos.
The first sleeves made to conceal play wear.
So Ultra-Pro realized they needed to give players some extra incentive to buy their product. When Khalsa and Brain first sold their play mats, they included a booster pack of Arabian Nights with each purchase (a first edition Khalsa-Brain mat and a booster pack of Arabian Nights would be quite the bargain for the $10 they charged btw). Stuffing each pack of sleeves with a booster would be a daunting task, but maybe they could do something even more cunning, something that would hook players into buying loads of product? What if buying enough sleeves could get you a Black Lotus?
The Black Lotus Quest.
In the packs of 60 individual sleeves and the eight-packs of binder pages, Ultra-Pro put a puzzle piece. The nine pieces of each puzzle were the size of an ordinary card, so if you placed them correctly in a binder page they would depict either Black Lotus or Chaos Orb; two of the most iconic and sought-after cards of the time. And if you did just that and mailed the puzzle to Ultra-Pro, they would give you money to go buy a real copy of the alluring card.

Back in 1996, the $100 rewarded for the Chaos Orb or the $250 for the Black Lotus would cover the expense to buy an Orb or a Lotus respectively. Today, 20 years later, you wont find a Lotus for $250 anymore. But if you managed to complete a puzzle you could still easily trade it for the card depicted. In fact, for far more than that.
Let the hunt commence!
A 60-pack of individual sleeves or an 8-pack of refill pages wasn't that expensive in 1996. Let's say that maybe $2.50 of each sale at a store went back to the manufacturers as profit. If buying 18 packs would have you complete the puzzles, that would have been a pretty bad marketing strategy. When you sent in both puzzles, you’d receive $350; $250 for the Lotus Puzzle and $100 for the Chaos Orb puzzle. The expected value of just the puzzle piece in each pack would be $20, and Ultra Pro would technically lose $17.50 for each unit they sold. The idea of treasure hunting and laying puzzles was enticing, but to make the sales promotion viable they had to load the die.
This idea had been used before. Perhaps most famously by the McDonald's Monopoly promotion held around the world since 1987. Customers at McDonald's would get tokens corresponding to property spaces on a Monopoly board with food purchases. Gathering certain combinations of streets would grant you different prizes, with cash rewards ranging up to the millions. But for the most desirable combos one of the tokens was almost impossible to find.
The odds of finding #621 (Park Place) are 1 in 11. #622 (Boardwalk) are 1 in 513,591,720. I.e. a 99.999997-0.000003 split giving the owner of Park Place 3 cents of the million dollar price would still be mathematically unfair to the owner of Boardwalk.
So Ultra-Pro took a page from that book and made one corner-piece of each puzzle rare. No, rarer than that. Even rarer. You know how they estimate that there were only 1,100 Alpha Lotuses and Alpha Chaos Orbs ever printed? That's not even the ballpark here. If you remember seeing a complete puzzle in your younger days, odds are that you remember wrong.
I might spitball a guess to which pieces are missing.
Collecting the eight "common" pieces of each puzzle is doable for most people so inclined, though not really a cakewalk. The average sales price of the eight common Chaos Orb pieces at places like still totals above the $100 you got for sending the complete puzzle to Ultra-Pro back in 1996. But for the few "completists", it's all about the rare pieces. For those who deal with the rare pieces, the other eight are often viewed as trivia or throw-ins, and usually not even mentioned in the price for the rare piece.

So how many puzzles are out there? My network of high-end Magic archaeologists is by no means all-encompassing, but it has grown to be fairly extensive, so I hope I can give a decent estimate.

I'd previously heard some off-the-cuff rumors that the total number printed in 1996 were just 12 for each of the rarer pieces. But after more digging even that seemed to be high. A certain European high-end collector, who is the only confirmed person to own both puzzles, said that 12 each surely was an exaggeration. He had been puzzling for two decades, and the only Lotus puzzle he had seen apart from the one he owned had been donated directly from the director at Ultra Pro. He had heard about a third one, but hadn't seen it himself. Chaos Orb is possibly a little more common, but still just ridiculously rare. The best estimate I've found is six copies of Orb piece #7 in circulation (the German collector had previously owned two of them by the way, but sold one in 2003). Additionally, I know of one Chaos Orb puzzle that was completed in 1996 and sent in to Ultra Pro for the $100.

It seems very possible that there were fewer Lotus puzzles made than Chaos Orb puzzles. It could also be possible that there are fewer total Lotus puzzles out there than Chaos Orb puzzles simply due to a few more Lotus puzzles having been redeemed as the reward was higher and players hunted them more fiercely. I've tried to get in contact with Ultra Pro to clear some of these things up, but I haven't been able to draw any answers yet.
But yeah. To put it in perspective; the number of known puzzles is less than the number of known Summer Magic sets by a good margin. As for how many were made? Let's try on the shoes of an executive at Ultra Pro. When they do these kind of give-away promotions, the rare pieces control how much money they are willing to donate to the cause. Sleeves weren't particularly popular in 1996, and they probably didn't earn that much per unit sold. So a few thousand dollars perhaps? I would be surprised if there ever existed more than 18 of the rare pieces total, probably skewing towards a few more Orb #7 than Lotus #9.

Many players seems to remember that these puzzles weren't that rare and want to recall that "friend of friend" who completed it. History and research seem to indicate that that is wrong. But I am still positive that one or another real rare piece is being tucked away in a collection somewhere, the owner being oblivious to the fact that this piece has a far higher price tag than an actual Black Lotus:
Luckily the rare piece is the least exciting one.
If someone bought sleeves for the cards in 96-97 they probably bought Ultra Pro, and the puzzle quest was a popular promotion. It is not unlikely that a random collection from the mid 90s will contain a few of the pieces. Perhaps even a rare one. There have after all been a non-zero number of cases of a player realizing that what he thought was Revised cards in his collection were in fact Summer Magic. It's "a needle in a haystack" to quote one of the German collectors. But if you have a haystack laying around, might be fun to look for some needles every now and then.
Like a major collector in Sweden did a year ago. How's that pic for an Easter Egg btw ;)

5 kommentarer:

  1. Cool stuff! I had no idea these things were so rare, except for the hints you dropped a while back in some post.

  2. A pleasure to read, as always! thanks MG

  3. Those black shield Deck protector boxes is super nostalgic to me, thanks for a good read //Jhovalking

  4. Thanks for the nice comments :)