Monday, August 22, 2005

Game Store Confidential ~ Legends

It was a bright, beautiful June morning in 1994. Deciding to ride rather than drive was a no-brainer, so I took my Moto Guzzi SP1000. Most Moto Guzzi owners tended to leave their bikes stock, but that was impossible for me to do, just like not buying more games was impossible. In addition to a few minor tweaks, such as a hotter cam, bigger Del’Orto carbs and a nice, flat black set of unbaffled pipes, I had lowered the bike 2 inches and added a few little cosmetic goodies to set it apart. Not that there were any other bikes like mine in Idaho anyway, since the guy who had owned the dealership was doing 5 to 10 for selling cocaine and had forfeited the dealership to the Feds.

Coming down 9th street I saw a crowd of about 20 people loitering in front of my game store.

Holy crap! Don’t they know UPS never shows before 11:30?

This was Wednesday and every Magic player within 100 miles knew full well that the Legends expansion was due to arrive that day. My nearest competition, a store that had been recently opened by a band of Magic players who wanted to buy their stuff at wholesale, had already received and sold their entire allotment, which I heard was 90 boxes. Since there were somewhere between 9 and 15 owners of that store and since each was definitely buying no less than four boxes apiece, their customer base was going hungry for the new expansion.

Joel, the guy who had rescued the competition from early failure by dumping more money into it, had called me on Tuesday, crowing about how he and his partners had driven a van to Berkeley on Sunday, picked the booster boxes up at 12:01 AM and then driven back and sold them all on Monday.

“Excellent for you buddy”, was pretty much all I could think of to tell him when he called me.

“Yeah, well, sorry about that DW, but business is business and I suppose getting beat out of the gate might piss you off a little bit.”

I explained to Joel that since Legends was a one shot, limited edition release, he could have saved the 1200 mile round trip and they’d still have sold everything they bought. He just chuckled and said, “Hey, it’s nothing personal DW. I know you hate losing but business is business you know.”

“Sure Joel.” I didn’t say anything else because I was wondering what the call was really about. “So DW. How many boxes are you getting?”

Bingo. He wanted inside information. I knew Joel's store had only been allocated 90 boxes so I figured what the hell, I have nothing to hide. “550 total boxes, not counting the extra case of 10 I ordered for me.”

I waited for at least 30 seconds and when he didn’t say anything I congratulated him for kicking my ass and told him I had to get back to work. And now it was Wednesday and I was staring at a crowd that was growing dangerously large on the sidewalk as I locked up the bike and headed for the front door.

Everybody wanted to come in with me. I announced to them that since the store was only about 700 square feet that they ought to come back at maybe noon or 1PM, after UPS arrived. The more persistent gamers ignored me and came rushing in after me, casting about in the corners, peeking into the back room and just in general hunting for the cases of Magic cards they knew I must have hidden. One guy stood at the counter and told me that the owner of the game store in Pocatello had also driven to Berkeley and that the night before someone had broken into the store and stolen all the Magic cards. About $10,000 worth.


By the time Harry the UPS driver arrived, there were 50 slavering MTG Geeks crowded around and when they saw the Big Brown Truck they started oozing towards the curb like a humungous slab of Gelatinous Goo. Harry took one look at them, slid his door shut, locked it, and started honking for me to come out. I worked my way through the crowd and he told me that if I wanted the boxes I was going to have to bring them in myself, there was no way he was going to get out of the truck. So I asked him to take off and come round to the alley and the back door. You should have seen the looks on the Geek’s faces when he pulled away. You’d have thought someone had run over their dog or stolen their dice or something.

Marshall, my son, had arrived by then so I sent him out back and when Harry appeared they both carted in the 56 cases of Magic cards.

Do I need to tell you what the rest of the day was like? Sure I do. It was a frickin’ zoo. Marshall had to bring the big garbage can in and it filled up with empty Magic wrappers and boxes. The Geeks who had pre-paid grabbed their boxes like hungry refugees, some heading out the door, hunched over their bags protectively, and many trooping upstairs to our small gaming loft. The noise was almost unbearable and even though June isn’t hot in Idaho the temperature inside rose to 95 degrees. The smell was, well, it was gamy. Like that rotting cheese the French are always foisting off on us unsophisticated Americans. Between the cash register ka-chinging and the customers trying to connive a better deal and trade with each other and people sitting on the floor and others arriving all afternoon, my little hole-in-the-wall game store reminded me of a market alley I had stumbled into in Marrakesh in 1968... just after they had butchered a few goats and hung some chickens up to bleed out.

I sent Marshall to the bank three times and when we closed the till out that night we had grossed just over $20,000 in cold, hard cash.

Me and the boy loaded every Magic card in the store into his old Benz after we closed and we took them home where we could protect them. We had plenty of weapons and dogs at the house, so what happened in Pocatello wasn’t going to be repeated in Boise.

That night I logged onto the internet and the Usenet marketplaces were alive with Legends deals going down. Boxes, which had an MSRP of about $90, were selling for $150, then for $200 and by Thursday morning at 8AM I saw them at $250 per box.

Holy Crap! Don’t these people know these are just small cardboard rectangles with ink?

I guess you can figure out what I did. I left about 100 boxes for the store and we enforced a 6 pack per visit maximum purchase. No box sales. All at MSRP. Other store owners were sending their kids in one at a time buying cards from me for weeks, then taking the cards back to their shops at selling them at $5, $6 or more per pack. I wrote a personal check to the store and bought over 200 boxes for myself and began the ugly, but important job of pillaging the faraway MTG conclaves from South Africa to Australia to Singapore and all the way to distant Poughkeepsie. The last 10 boxes of Legends I sold went to a store in Portland Oregon for $900 a box.

On the Monday following the arrival of my store’s Legends allotment I rode down from the foothills on the Guzzi and pulled up in front of the store, parked and opened up the door. The first person through was Joel, the owner of the multi-partnered game store that had driven to California to beat me to the punch.

“Hey Joel.”

“Hey DW.”

Joel wandered around a bit and finally got down to brass tacks. “You got any extra boxes of Legends?”

“Sure do Joel. Right there behind the counter. Only there’s a 6 pack per customer limit per day.”

“No, I mean full boxes. I was thinking maybe you could sell me a few.”

Oh man. Talk about sweet. I was loving this already. But I do have a soft spot for old gamer buddies and Joel was, after all, a former customer and had even spent many a Saturday night up at the house gaming until 3AM. Part of me wanted Joel to swing in the wind for a while, another part of me was feeling like I could spread the wealth just a little in special cases like his. My natural empathy for the plight of fellow gamers won out.

“I’ll tell you what Joel. Since we go back a ways I’ll cut a couple boxes out for you as long as you agree to not sell them locally. How’s that?” Joel nodded, not really an appreciative nod, more like an I’m-getting-what-I-deserve-you-ignoramous nod.

I walked behind the counter, grabbed two sealed boxes and rang them up. “That’s $187.50 including sales tax.”

“What? You’re charging me retail?”

“This is a retail store Joel.” As I reached down to grab a bag to put the boxes in I heard the door slam shut. I looked up, the boxes were still sitting on the counter and Joel was disappearing down the sidewalk.

Oh well. I hated losing the sale, but business is business you know.


For those who missed the early days of the Magic:The Gathering insanity, MTG was typically sold on an allotment basis by major distributors. While every distributor had their own rules, most applied a similar strategy: if your store had been doing business with them before MTG and if a significant portion of your purchases were board games, RPG’s, miniatures and other game supplies, your allotment was higher. They also factored into their arcane little formulas such things as how much MTG you had already bought and even punched extra in for favored accounts. My two suppliers both told me that each had had in excess of 1,000 new account applications in the first 6 months of 1994, since the MTG Christmas boom of 1993.

Several years later at Origins in Columbus I was sitting in the hotel bar with a bunch of Game Geek people playing Lunch Money and getting plowed. Pete Adkinson, who was the boss at Wizards of the Coast, was in the game and the conversation drifted to the glory days of MTG. When I mentioned I had received 550+ boxes of Legends Pete looked at me and informed me that if that was true, my store had received more cards than were allocated to the entire state of Texas.

I was lucky, not smart. If I’d been smart I’d have flown home and sold the store that week. But I didn’t. Man, I think I need a career change.


gamesgrandpa said...

What a great story! Beautifully told. Neat memories, eh?

I didn't even hear about MTG until probably '96 or '97, to show how out of the loop I was. A co-worker of my wife gave her to Starter packs which he had received free in a promotion somewhere, which she brought home to me, in case I had any interest. I read the rules, looked at the cards, and kissed hundreds of dollars goodbye. This summer, I gave my son-in-law and grandson the couple of thousand cards I had accumulated and wished them good gaming.

Joe Gola said...

Great story!

Jeff Coon said...

I was an early MtG adopter. Our local game store in Edmond, OK had a guy come out to do a demo using the alpha / beta black-border cards. We were so excited for the next couple of weeks before Unlimited hit the shelves. I played through Arabian Nights Antiquities, Legends, etc., all the way through the Ice Age sets. I played for 3 full years and invested a lot of money in those cards. At the end of my playing days, I sold off the lot of my cards and made a $400 profit. Three years of gaming bliss, and I got paid $400 to do it. Magic, love it or hate it, is an interesting part of gaming history.

Coldfoot said...

Thanks, DW. I now have a reason to look forward to Mondays.

My hubby enjoys reading your stories, too, and he's not even a Geek!

Janice said...

There's a commercial on t.v. - I forget what it's for - where people call in to a call center, describe something funny that's going on, and wait for permission to laugh.
I'd say this one was good to go for the next several years.
Thanks so much for sharing.

Kratrina said...

I have to confess that I never understood the draw of MTG, but perhaps that's because I didn't get into back than and only heard about it late 2000 or so.

Good work DW, can't wait to see another.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Dw: You are the best.

jens.hoppe said...

Ah, nostalgia. Those were the days... :) Limited allotment of boosters. Legends had those beautiful multi-color cards for the first time. Broken cards galore... I loved it back then.

Luckily for me, having started with beta edition (just before Arabian Nights came out), I ended up with a nice collection. Sold it all over a few years and ended up with a very nice profit. :)

Phoeniix said...

Excellent story. I did not start magic till '95 and that was when Legends was going for like S$60 (about US$35) a pack at my local gaming store. The first thing that came into mind was "wft??". I ended up buying Fallen Empires instead because it was way much cheaper. Played M:tG for a year, gave it up and decided that boardgames are a better way to go =)

Btw, has anyone ever told you that you're one hard hard man? hahah.

Thanks for the story.

Steve said...

ah, the heady days of M:TG. I thankfully didn't buy into that craze, but I remember the gamers at lunch hour back in '95.

Whatever became of the Guzzi?

DWTripp said...

It's nice that many of us share similar memories and experiences. Glad ya'll liked my tale.

The Guzzi went down the road to another biker buddy. I have returned to the Harley camp in recent years. Better resale value. Chicks know what they are. Two major benefits eh?