In response to the growing worldwide threat of COVID-19, Wizards of the Coast has announced that it will be suspending all in-store play across the Americas and Europe for at least the next seven weeks. The earliest that in-store play will resume is May 10, but the suspension may continue after this date if WotC feels the risk to communities is too high.
In addition, WPN Qualifiers and Premier Series events that take place before May 10 will be cancelled; events after this date will be rescheduled. For store operators, inventory allocation for the upcoming Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths set will be based on past data, to further discourage in-store events. Promo Packs, which are usually reserved for in-store tournaments, may be used as a sales incentive, and Buy-a-Box promos may be shipped instead of being picked up in the store.
This is not the first step that WotC has taken to slow the spread of COVID-19. They had previously arranged for the organization of “At-Home Prelease” events for Ikoria. They have also started leaning more heavily into Magic: the Gathering Arena as a community tool and recommend that local stores create their own Arena community hubs. Additionally, they are launching Friday Night Magic events in Arena, and giving stores special promo codes to incentivize community participation.
Magic Untapped attempted to contact a number of local gaming stores in California's Bay Area for a comment and tomlearn their perspective on this change. In California, however, all non-essential retail businesses have been ordered to close per Gov. Gavin Newsom. This includes game stores. This also means that any game stores in states or countries with “shelter in place” restrictions are unable to feel any additional squeeze from this ruling, and, with a strong likelihood that restrictions will be extended, this may have no meaningful effect on the release of Ikoria either.
We believe it is very unlikely that the COVID-19 pandemic will be resolved before the release of Ikoria on April 24, and there is a much greater chance of additional states and countries announcing preventative measures that will be active during that timeframe. It is hard to see how this decision will do any particular harm to any game stores, more than the pandemic is already causing. With the release of Ikoria on Arena, it is hard to imagine post-release events attracting as much attention and revenue as pre-release events, but it’s not hard to imagine players eagerly returning for weekly events, weary of isolation and hungry for in-person interaction. Ultimately, the release of Ikoria will likely be written off for many local stores, but that would have been the case even if no announcement had been made. This is unquestionably the most appropriate and responsible choice for WotC to make.
WotC is already making the best of a bad situation, by pivoting even more heavily toward Arena than they had previously. The addition of community hubs and Friday Night Magic events will make the service more appealing, likely bringing in new players, and it’s hard to imagine those players abandoning Arena after restrictions are lifted, even if they go back to in-person events. WotC would be smart to greatly increase their investment in Arena during this time, and perhaps offer some timed promotions to allow more free play to entice more people. Paper Magic is going to return to normal with the rest of the world, but their gains in the Arena space are likely to stay in some form.
The real question is: what happens if major restrictions stay in place for several months more, as some experts and governors are suggesting? Core Set 2021 is currently slated for release on July 3, but if there is a strong chance that in-person play will be impossible at this time, it might make sense for WotC to delay the physical release of upcoming sets. The timing of COVID-19 restrictions made that infeasible for Ikoria, but more drastic measures should be considered for Core 2021, Zendikar Rising, and beyond. The sets could still be released on Arena at their normal time, but WotC and individual stores would both benefit from being able to hold their large release events. It could even be an interesting experiment, to see how online experience with a set changes how in-person release events play out.
The future is highly uncertain at this time, but the new announcement from Wizards of the Coast is a highly responsible act that will help to slow the spread of the pandemic. Game stores will unfortunately be hurting badly, but the closures that are already in place (and are likely to increase in number) will be what does the unavoidable damage, not this announcement. We applaud WotC for making a decision that prioritizes the health of their players over their profits., and we hope that when in-person events can resume, they are attended as enthusiastically as before.