Episode 609: The Curse Of The Black Lotus : Planet Money Faced with an asset bubble, the creators of Magic: The Gathering came up with a plan—a plan to once and for all conquer the science of bubbles, and make a collectible toy that could live forever.
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Episode 609: The Curse Of The Black Lotus

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Episode 609: The Curse Of The Black Lotus

Episode 609: The Curse Of The Black Lotus

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ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

All fads start out the same way - with this feeling inside that you just - you got to have something that everyone else already has. For Zach Hill in fifth grade, that thing was a tiny plush animal filled with itty-bitty beans.

ZACH HILL: The Beanie Baby was named Garcia. It was a tie-dyed teddy bear. I was in the Hickory Ridge Mall in Memphis, Tenn. I think I was trying to impress a girl or something, and I bought a Garcia for like seven bucks with some allowance money.

SMITH: Zach didn't know that he was at the beginning of a Beanie Baby bubble because bubbles always seem harmless at the first stage, just a simple fad. Then someone figures out they can make money by reselling that thing.

HILL: I ran into my friend Drew, and Drew really wanted a Garcia 'cause he was swept up in the craze like I was. And he's like I want that, I want that, I want that. I'm like, dude, you know, go to this store. So he goes to the store, and they weren't selling it. And he's just telling his mom how bad he wants it. And she says, like, hey, like, will you sell me that? I was like, yeah, like, 15 bucks? And she said yeah. And I just realized I made, like, a profit on this, and I was like this should probably not be the last time that I do this.

SMITH: This was stage two of the bubble. No matter how much you pay, there is some chump, like Drew's mom, out there willing to pay more. And so little Zach Hill, fifth-grader, went into business buying up stuffed animals on the Internet - Tabasco the Bull, Swoopy the Pterodactyl - and unloading them on desperate schoolmates, on parents. He says he even did a big business with teachers. Zach was a full-on speculator.

HILL: I made a lot of money as a fifth-grader selling Beanie Babies on eBay.

SMITH: Wait, did you?

HILL: Like $40-50,000.

SMITH: Are you kidding me?

HILL: (Laughter).

SMITH: You know how this story ends - the way all bubbles end. Stage three - too many Beanie Babies. The market crashed.

HILL: I think I have, like, a Tupperware tub in my attic with, like, you know, a few dozen or something.

SMITH: And Zach, like every other kid, moved on to the next fad. He started getting into a card game called Magic - little pieces of cardboard with pictures of dragons and orcs and fairies and angels. Kids collected Magic cards, they traded Magic cards - this was the 1990s. It was a stage-one bubble all over again. And everyone thought these cards were going to go the way of Beanie Babies - stacks of them up in the attic. Except the folks who sold Magic cards had a plan - a plan to once and for all conquer this science of bubbles and make a collectible that could live forever.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith. And today on the show, how a company that makes little pieces of paper with nerdy illustrations went to battle with the speculators and kept a fad going for 22 years.

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SMITH: Now, I have to admit something. I do not know a lot about the card game Magic. I was vaguely aware of it back in the 1990s. I was just starting in radio, and our studios were actually right above a card store that specialized in selling these Magic cards. And when you went down there, the place was very Dungeons & Dragons, lots of teenagers hanging out, but it was definitely this big fad. And NPR - NPR, back at the time, gave it the full-series treatment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Americans by the millions are discovering a new card game. It's called Magic: The Gathering. It's one of the fastest-growing games in the country. Magic is played with elaborately illustrated cards and a complicated set of rules.

SMITH: Now, I had assumed that this whole fad completely disappeared because I hadn't heard anything about it recently, but then one of our producers here in the office, Quoctrung Bui, said to me.

QUOCTRUNG BUI, HOST:

This game is alive and kicking. There's so many people that play this game. I'm a huge fan myself. I'm actually going to play it this Sunday. Me and a group of friends of mine, we're going to go out to a bar, and we're going to play.

SMITH: So Bui explained to me that basically these cards are like baseball cards - he's translating it for an old man like myself - and they have these creatures on them and, basically, statistics about how powerful they are. But unlike baseball cards, you can actually do something with them. You can actually play a game.

BUI: Yeah, it's kind of actually really funny. You're like a wizard and each one of these cards is a spell in your deck. And the trick to this game is that you have to assemble enough spells in the right combination so that you can beat your opponent.

SMITH: It is supremely nerdy, and I mean that in the best possible way. It was designed by math graduate students for people who eventually might be math graduate students. We tracked down one of the early employees of Magic, a math and physics grad student named Skaff Elias, and he says from the beginning, they suspected that these cards would be addictive.

SKAFF ELIAS: Every game you played was different. You know, you immediately thought about - wow, if I could change my deck, if I could take this out or I could put that in, it would play a different way strategically.

SMITH: But there was one hook to this game that would come back to bite them, and this is the economics part. They sold the cards in packs. You'd pay, like, $3 for pack and get a bunch of random cards. But occasionally there would be a rare and powerful something in there - a dragon, an angel. It was like a little lottery ticket.

ELIAS: So that anticipation of, did I get the best one of those 100 rare cards, is - yeah, that's super exciting for people.

BUI: And Skaff's right. You know, you go to the store and you buy pack after pack after pack, looking for that rare card.

SMITH: And they expected this when they started the game, but what they didn't quite plan for was that once people got those rare cards, they would start to resell them for a lot of money. The rare dragons and creatures and even rare flowers started to go for more and more money.

BUI: Some of these cards that nominally are $3 a piece 'cause they're the one rare card that comes in a $3 pack, eventually those become $10 cards and $15 cards and then $100 cards and then $500 cards, and this all happened in the first year.

SMITH: This should start to sound familiar. This is a stage-two bubble. And from a business perspective, it was a gold mine. I mean, the company that owned the Magic cards, which is a company called Wizards of the Coast, was literally selling pieces of paper that some people thought were worth a fortune. Speculators would buy cards by the ton trying to find these rare cards.

BUI: People at the company, a lot of them, wanted to push that side of it - produce more cards, produce rarer cards, keep the print runs limited.

SMITH: For many people, the symbol of this craze was something called the Black Lotus.

BUI: The Black Lotus.

SMITH: No, you got to say it like the Black Lotus.

BUI: It wasn't a monster; it's not a dragon. It's just a flower, but it gave you this special ability. It let you have extra power sooner than anyone else, which meant that if you had enough of these, you could beat your opponent really fast.

SMITH: And this card ended up being worth what?

BUI: It was worth thousands of dollars.

SMITH: And to show you how exciting this card was, we're going to play you a YouTube video going around of a man who was opening up a pack of random Magic cards. He's flipping through them, and he finds a Black Lotus.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And then the other one is (imitates explosion noise). Holy boosh (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That's a freaking Black Lotus.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my gosh. Where's my sleeve? Where's my sleeve? I did it. Holy mackerel. It's right there.

SMITH: Magic was well on its way to being the next Beanie Baby, but Skaff and his fellow designers saw a big problem here because remember Magic isn't just a collectible thing, like a Beanie Baby you put on your shelf; it's also supposed to be a game. It's supposed to be a fun game that you play with your friends - a cheap, fun game. But all of a sudden there were these rare, powerful cards that you could buy if you had enough money that would allow you to beat your friends senseless.

BUI: You know, at first, it doesn't sound so bad, right? But imagine you're playing a high-stakes poker game and you can go to the store and buy just 10 aces. Nobody would play poker.

SMITH: Nobody would play that game. This is what the Magic folks were worried about. Skaff and some of the other math guys looked around and said, you know, this bubble is going to pop hard. This is going to be like Cabbage Patch Kids or Star Wars figurines or Pogs. Now, being a math guy and working with other math guys, they actually went out and graphed the life cycle of a fad. They used research into comic books and baseball cards to figure out how much time they might have.

ELIAS: The stuff we looked at had its height, like where it was sort of white-hot, would be around a two-year time span. At some point you realize, wow, I just spent $1,000 and there's only $25 worth of comics here that I actually want to read, and that hits you like a ton of bricks. And as soon as enough people believe that, that the momentum in the market changes - and then there's a big problem.

SMITH: Skaff and his friends made an argument to the rest of the company - sure, you could make a lot of cash in two years. You could burn this whole thing out and walk away with millions of dollars, but he said, perhaps, we should see if we can make Magic sustainable. If we can make less money in the short term but keep it going for five years or 10 years, perhaps, he said, we can deflate this bubble without popping it.

BUI: So the first thing they had to do was bring back the price of Magic cards to a normal level so that an average person could buy them again. So they fired up the printing presses and basically printed a slew of new cards.

ELIAS: We just printed so many cards of the new sets coming out. We warned people that we were going to do that. But what that meant immediately from the get-go was even though people could still make money on the secondary market of the older cards, the speculators would no longer touch a new set of cards coming out.

SMITH: And they had a pretty neat trick to doing this. They would basically print a bunch of cards, then they would go out to the card shops to see what the packs were selling for. And if they were selling for more than retail price, they would print some more and some more and some more, and eventually even the most stubborn speculators gave out. They were able to push the price of each pack down to what they really wanted to sell them at - about 3 bucks. The collectors were not pleased.

ELIAS: We heard from so many people that we were destroying the game back in 1994 and then '95, over and over again. Like, this is the end. You guys have screwed everything up with much more colorful language.

SMITH: And they had just started because they had a second problem - all those old cards. Remember the Black Lotus, the Black Lotus, the rare dragons? They were so powerful that you couldn't just print a lot of those because that would still ruin the game. And they were worried about pissing off fans even more than they already were. You imagine this kid who saved his allowance for a year just to get a rare card. They didn't want to say like, ha ha ha, it's worth nothing now.

BUI: So they came up with another solution. They tried to ban the cards from play.

SMITH: And that didn't work.

BUI: That didn't work at all because players wanted to play the way they learned how to play. They came up with a really interesting fix - they created the pro league.

SMITH: A professional Magic card league.

BUI: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRO LEAGUE GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The crowd is in. What is on top of the deck? What is on top of the deck? It's Lightning Helix. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

SMITH: It may be hard to believe, but there are actual audiences who will come and watch the very best Magic card players play against each other. And the pro league had an advantage for the company that made Magic because the company that made Magic could set the rules for the pro league.

BUI: Yeah, that's right. So they set a rule that said, you could only play with the most recent set of cards - no Black Lotuses, no super powerful monster cards, just the last two years.

SMITH: And so by setting those rules, they basically say to players everywhere - sure, you could use the old cards, but if you want to, you know, do what the pros do, you should only use the new cards.

BUI: That's right. And the plan worked.

SMITH: Remember Zach Hill? The fifth-grader who made tens of thousands of dollars on Beanie Babies? He got into Magic cards as a fad, but he got good at them. And he grew up to be a big-name professional Magic card player, and eventually he got offered a job at the company to design Magic cards. And he says by the time he had gotten there, they had solved all of those early problems. They were not making the same mistakes.

HILL: We can't just keep printing more and more and more and more powerful or more and more and more and more big and splashy cards. That's why we don't make, like, the, you know - our market research shows that people like swords, angels, fire, dragons, wings and battles on cards, right? So we don't make the, like, bat-winged angel sword of fiery doom.

SMITH: I can see in your eyes though, that would be a pretty good card.

HILL: (Laugher). I kind of like it, I'm not going to lie to you.

SMITH: Essentially they figured out how to keep the economy of the game stable. And talk to people involved in the game, it's amazing how much they talk as if they are sort of a central bank running an economy. They want stable prices. They want the game to grow, but they don't want to grow too fast and they don't want to grow too slow. There's this target for growth. They managed to make a game that - what is it now, Bui, 22 years later?

BUI: Yeah, 22 years strong.

SMITH: Twenty-two years, Bui is still going to play it this weekend. And, in fact, he dragged me down to a card store the other night, Friday night at midnight, where people were lined up to get the latest set of cards.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: If you are not signed up and paid for in advance, please wait to the back of the line and we will take care of you at the end. All right, who's excited for Fate Reforged?

(CHEERING)

SMITH: And, Bui, I had no idea this existed. First of all, that there was a store like this called the Twenty Sided Store after the dice, but that people were basically going to play this new set of cards all night long. How many people were there?

BUI: They were at least 50 people there. They were all lined up to play this new deck of cards before anybody else.

SMITH: And they were packed in. They're, like, ripping open these packs and, like, slapping down their cards and shuffling them. And you can see how the company sort of has nailed this line between the sort of rare collectibles and this game that keeps playing because there was actually a rare card in the deck. It was called...

BUI: The Ugin.

SMITH: The Ugin.

BUI: It kind of looked like a blue dragon kind of floating in space.

SMITH: Nobody could really explain to me what the Ugin did, but you could tell when somebody in the crowd opened their pack and pulled one out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Oh, that's sick.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: You got a Ugin.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: We got an Ugin.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Who got an Ugin?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: We got an Ugin.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Yeah, got an Ugin.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: A dragon, man.

SMITH: An Ugin, is that cool?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: It's pretty cool.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: That is the best card in the set.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: It's like 30 bucks right now.

SMITH: All right, are you going to sell it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Maybe.

SMITH: Not this second.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Not this second. For now, I'm playing with it.

SMITH: This moment right here is exactly what the makers of Magic cards want to hear. This guy just got a rare card. He was super excited, but rather than put it in a plastic case or a frame, rather than run to a dealer and try to sell it, he decides he's going to play with it. He's decides he's going to go with the game.

BUI: And from everyone I talked to, they told me that last year, the company that makes Magic cards, they had their best year ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRICE TAG")

JESSIE J: (Singing) It's not about the money, money, money. We don't need your money, money, money. We just want to make the world dance, forget about the price tag. Ain't about the...

SMITH: I hesitate to even say this because there are so many people who know more about Magic cards than I do, but if you would like to send a comment on today's show or any PLANET MONEY shows, you should email us, planetmoney@npr.org.

BUI: A bunch of people I'd like to thank who helped us with this Magic story - Corbon Horsler (ph), Lauren Bilanko (ph), Ben Bliweiss (ph).

SMITH: And I'd like to especially thank Jim Bruso. He is a collector of Magic cards - yes, there are still collectors of Magic cards - and he showed us a very rare Black Lotus, mint condition. It was worth $25,000. Also thanks to WEKU in Richmond, Ky. Our producer today is Jess Jiang. And NPR recommends that you check out the StoryCorps podcast. It showcases unscripted stories about real life. Find the StoryCorps podcast now at npr.org/podcasts. I'm Robert Smith.

BUI: And I'm Quoctrung Bui. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRICE TAG")

JESSIE J: (Singing) It ain't about the cha-ching (ph), cha-ching. Ain't about the ba-bling (ph), ba-bling. Want to make the world dance, forget about the price tag.

B.O.B.: (Singing) Forget the price tag and take the cash back. Just give me six strings and half stack.

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