I love Battlebond.
This is hardly a shocking statement. I'm a casual player who enjoys alternate draft formats and Commander. I loved Conspiracy and Conspiracy: Take the Crown. I love Unstable and the cards and draft format it provided as well. Given all that, saying I love Battlebond should not be a shock to anyone.
I am not the only one who loves Battlebond, either! While there are a few naysayers who apparently don't like the art, and a few player who love tournaments and are disappointed with any set that has cards that aren't legal for tournament play, virtually everyone else loves the set! It appears to be a success with everyone who cracked a pack of it during release weekend. Whether it is the Two Headed Giant draft format, the cool new cards that will be coming to Commander, or all the great reprints, everyone seems to love the set.
My question is whether all of this will translate into big sales. Just as the Wicked Step-Mother attempted to keep Cinderella from her chance to become a princess, Wizards seems to be throwing up barriers to keep Battlebond from being as big a success as it could be.
My concern started almost as soon as the set was spoiled. There was virtually nothing revealed about the set beyond the theme. This can be great for ramping anticipation, but it ended up being more a case of the players simply ignoring the set. Dominaria was released on April 27. The month before that was about previewing the cards and playing the prerelease. Once the full set was out and available for purchase, the popularity of the set has been great. Players have enjoying a new Standard format and/or building Commander decks with all the new legends that have become available. Given the huge popularity of the set, any discussion of Battlebond was ignored.
As a TO, I was asked to sign up for the Preview Party and Launch Party before I knew anything about the set. This is fairly common, but with usual sets you know what you are getting. With these special standalone sets, you are left to take your chances. As a store owner, do you risk agreeing to run these tournaments, then finding out they are a bust? Add to that Wizards was talking about a Preview Party, not a prerelease. What did that involve? No one knew.
For my prerelease events, I send out an email to my regular players notifying them of the prerelease about a month ahead of time. I tell them what they will be getting and set up dates and times. One month before the prerelease, no one seemed to know how many packs would be handed out. How do I set a price for my prerelease without knowing how many cards would be used? I contacted Wizards and the email back mistakenly told me that it would be six packs per person and 12 packs per team. I sent out my email based on this information and set the price for the Preview Party based on this email.
Now it was barely a week later when the promotional material was out and I contacted Wizards. They confirmed that there was an error in their email and it was in fact the six packs for Sealed and four packs for Draft that we now know. That I ordered extra boxes is irrelevant to the point; that the marketing team knew so little about Battlebond that about a month before the set's release, they believed 12 packs per team was the correct amount for the Sealed event speaks volumes for the marketing of Battlebond.
This correction meant a new email to my regulars with a new price tag for the event. I hoped this would kick start attendance for the event, but preregisters were well below usual. A typical prerelease is 50% full two weeks before the event. There is plenty of online hype about a set by that point and it drives players to sign up. Beyond Gavin Verhey's Twitter, there was very little hype.
It was also at this point that I started to discover how a Preview Party was different from a prerelease. There would be no prerelease pack, no spindown and no preview cards. The preview cards would be given out during the Release Party a week later.
The event I hadn't signed up for. Why sign up for the Release Party? The first chance to play the set would be a week earlier – it always got prerelease promos. My players love a prerelease, but were rarely excited about the release event, so I would not be getting the promos. And the window to sign up for the Release Party had long passed, so signing up at that point was not an option. My concern was neatly summarized in a couple of tweets:
There is also prize support for a prerelease, but none for a Preview Party. If you attended your store's Preview Party and the prize support was the same as usual, just know the store didn't get any help from Wizards for Battlebond.
With two weeks to go until the Preview Party, I expected the advertising to really take off. I knew cards were getting previewed, but I was looking for more. Game Knights had done a show for Unstable, so I was expecting another Game Knights for Battlebond. If a Commander-centric show sponsored by Wizards of the Coast, did a show for Unstable, then one certainly would happen for Battlebond. There was no episode.
The advertising that did happen really focused on the Release event and once I discovered that Pro Tour Dominaria was on the same weekend as the Preview Party, it made a lot more sense. Hardcore fans of a curious stand-alone format would get the Preview event to themselves, while everyone else would watch the Pro Tour to see how the pros would break down the Standard environment with Dominaria in it. It simply didn't make sense for Wizards to really hype a Preview event against the Pro Tour, so what Battlebond advertising there was focused on the Release Party the following week. Even the Pro Tour never mentioned Battlebond. There were over 20,000 players watching the Pro Tour, but not a single ad mentioned Battlebond.
I hope the attendance figures were good at other stores, but my preview party had 30% less than the normal attendance. There were other factors that also reduced attendance, so the 30% is not completely due to limited advertising or lack of interest in the set, but when most of my players still had no idea what Battlebond was a week before the Preview Party, there was definitely a problem.
So many of the issues I've discussed here could have easily been solved by providing organizers with a little more information, especially when you are planning to do something different from your usual Prerelease/Draft Day options. Upping the attendance at both of these events can only help sell the product and a standalone product like Battlebond needs all the help it can get.
My other concern with Battlebond lies with the timing. The date of the release and how close it is to the Core Set release are both issues.
June 8 seems like a fine date to release Battlebond, until you realize that Commander Anthology 2 was released on the same day. Two products that both target the Commander audience coming out on the same day seems foolish at best, but let's take a deeper look.
Battlebond is best compared to the Conspiracy sets as both are standalone sets with some new cards and several reprints. Both sets are draftable and target Commander players with the new cards they offer. Since Conspiracy sets are draftable, much of the sales of the product came from players who would buy a booster box (or seven; what can I say, I really enjoyed Conspiracy drafts!). Buying individual packs to crack open certainly happened, but when the big push to the set is that it can be drafted, players bought boxes of the set, not just boosters. Conspiracy: Take the Crown tried to sell three-packs of cards as a lower price point than buying a box, but that would involve all the players buying three packs. For the most part, it was cheaper to have one player buy a box and have everyone else pay that player for the packs. The point is, Conspiracy was primarily sold in booster boxes.
Given this, it makes sense that Battlebond would be sold the same way. This means the average Commander player last weekend had the choice between a box of Battlebond or the $165 Commander Anthology 2 set. This isn't even a $3.99 product being released on the same day as a $165 product, but is instead two products of comparable price being released to the same target audience on the same day. Why is Wizards asking Commander players to choose between two products that many Commander players want but may not be able to afford? Certainly they could have been released on different days? How many Commander players chose the Commander Anthologies set over Battlebond?
Moving the release date of one of these products to a time when another Commander-related product isn't coming out just makes good sense. While I chose Battlebond, others may see the allure of an Atraxa deck as being too much to resist.
As you are reading this, M19 previews start in one week. The hype train for the return of Core Sets will have begun, and with it the discussion of Battlebond will die. Players who drafted Battlebond once or twice will likely never do it again as the excitement for the next big Standard-legal set takes hold. Battlebond will be forgotten by virtually everyone as even the casual players will excitedly look at the new cards and start thinking of new deck ideas and what can be done with the new legends in the set.
I say this with such assurance because that is exactly what happened with Conspiracy: Take the Crown. The set was released on August 26, 2016 and Kaladesh was released on September 30, 2016. Players loved the draft matters of Conspiracy: Take the Crown and enjoyed playing the set… once. Then the hype train started for Kaladesh and all was forgotten. Sales of Conspiracy were reduced to a trickle. I was able to buy boxes of Conspiracy: Take the Crown for very low prices as everyone had it and it wasn't selling. So when two years later, when Wizards once again releases a niche market standalone draft set barely one month before a regular Standard-legal set, it isn't a stretch to suggest that sales will soon dry up.
The solution to this problem seems simple enough. If Wizards wants to spend the time and energy to produce a product as exciting as Battlebond, then give it the space to actually sell. Move the Core Set release out a month, or adjust the release schedule so all five new sets (Battlebond and the four yearly Standard-legal sets) get time to sell.
I started out by saying that I love Battlebond, and I do. I've already bought boxes of it and I will likely buy more. I recommend you do as well! I've played the set using Sealed and Draft formats and both offer fun experiences. Wizards of the Coast has done a great job in producing a fun format. The cards will continue to be of use for you after the draft in Commander and other casual decks as well. I desperately want this set to succeed, and I hope I am wrong in my predictions. I would prefer to see Wizards move away from the evil step-mother role and offer more Fairy Godmother to try and make Battlebond the success it can be.