Yorke on Games #7 – Should Booster Packs Have Warning Labels?

Amid the spate of PTQs and PPTQs that took place over the weekend, Hallowe’en also happened. My wife and I took our two-year old daughter out trick-or-treating (for “O’Ween”, as she calls it), and she picked up the whole ‘smiles for candy’ routine fairly quickly. Strangely, all that adorable family fun got my head spinning on the topics of rarity, age-appropriateness, and addiction, which led to the title of this article: “Should Booster Packs Have Warning Labels?” Let me explain…

Tapping two black mana
Tapping two black mana

The Satiety Game

First, let us look at Hallowe’en as a game with a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement (known from the work of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner). This game has the kind of payout matrix you’d see in slot machines, or in a collectible card game (CCG) like Magic. For this game, you play by knocking on a neighbor’s door, and then receive one of the following items on a weighted random distribution like so:

[table id=1 /]

Now of course my cute meme above is an oversimplification. It’s value-laden (with my values: I like chocolate more than the other treats, and think that bigger chocolate bars are better than smaller ones), and does not accurately describe reality (it does not account for the ultra-rare one- and two-dollar coins, or the super-abundant packs of Rockets we somehow accumulated, nor the absolute scarcity of fresh fruit on offer on my street). Nevertheless, we can base a toy game — ‘The Satiety Game’ — on this model.

Different players might play The Satiety Game for different reasons, and thus value the payoffs differently than one might expect at first blush. Consider a few potential players to see what I mean:

• Player A is a health nut, and only wants apples, even though they’re the most common item.
• Player B is starving, and is playing to survive, so will eat everything regardless of rarity.
• Player C is a gourmand, and is looking for a wide variety of contrasting taste experiences.
• Player D is a collector, and will only stop playing once the giant Snickers bar is acquired.

There’s a clear analog here with the various motivations players bring with them to Magic, and how they react when opening boosters. Someone who plays pauper format exclusively [A] is not going to be terribly concerned with what rare they’ve opened, except for how they can convert it into chase commons and / or goods outside of the game. A new player [B] just needs all the cards they can get to build their collection, and may not even be initially aware of the rarity scheme. A seasoned player [C] will have an appreciation of the ups and downs of the game, and may enjoy the irony of opening crap rares almost as much as the joy of opening chase rares; at the very least, they accept that both of these experiences will happen and are a core part of the game they enjoy. Finally, the foilers [D] pursue their pet cards with an intensity that would embarrass Captain Ahab. I submit that each one of these players will have very different experiences (and thus reactions) when opening the same booster pack.

Naked Irrationality

This variance in player reactions in my hypothetical Satiety Game may explain why in reality I’ve seen grown men – otherwise erudite and mature – grumble and whine like children over opening ‘garbage’ Magic boosters. Their core values seem to be such that nothing but the best possible payoffs in the reward matrix will satisfy them. While I generally frown on this kind of griefing as unmanly, I also hold that this behavior is fundamentally irrational.

Consider the Roald Dahl story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What is it that makes the Golden Ticket desirable to Charlie Bucket? Fundamentally, it is the potential of a positive rare experience to alleviate the doldrums of an otherwise mundane common existence. If Golden Tickets came in every chocolate bar, opening one would be no big deal, and visiting Willy Wonka’s factory might eventually become rather dull, almost a chore. I’m sure the Oompa-Loompas got pretty sick of the place after a while…

My point here is that the rarity system is what makes boosters enjoyable to open, and without that system it would be a completely joyless experience. Complaining about the very thing that brings you joy, although perhaps quintessentially human, is also a nakedly irrational activity. If my literary example is unconvincing, I hope you’ll indulge me in another Hallowe’en thought experiment which cements my position on the matter. “Monte Carlo Hallowe’en” makes the act of giving candy (rather than receiving it) a game in itself.

In Monte Carlo Hallowe’en, you play the role of the host rather than the visitor. You have four bags with different kinds of candies in them on your porch, and you allow each visitor a treat from only one of the four bags. Before each guest arrives, you switch the positions of the bags so that the trick-or-treaters cannot share information with each other about the contents of the bags by their position. This (potentially) makes the act of giving candy more interesting for you, and (almost certainly) makes the act of receiving candy more enjoyable for your visitors, many of whom would replay the game if you allowed them to.

I would say that the Monte Carlo house is a more interesting one to visit on Hallowe’en than one concerned solely with fairness, i.e., making sure that each visitor leaves with exactly the same kind and quantity of candy (a typical house, in other words). Similarly, if Wizards of the Coast were to value fairness over randomness, that is, if they put an identical set of cards in every booster, they would surely lose their market share to CCG publishers who utilized stochastic elements more judiciously. Some randomness is fun, and it also makes getting what you want seem like more of an accomplishment.

Congratulations… I Guess

Generally speaking, the greater the odds are against something (positive) occurring, the greater the praise for attempting (and succeeding) to make that thing occur merits. Except if the thing is impossible — then attempting it is idiocy. If, for example, a person collected a full playset of every Magic card from every expansion, my reaction would be twofold. First, I would say:



“You’re insane.”

I would say “Congratulations” because I recognize the unlikelihood of their accomplishment, and I would say “You’re insane” because I roughly know the cost (in both time and money) of that accomplishment.

“Really impressive. Too bad you’re homeless now.”

Now, WotC wants most of their players to collect Magic cards. Not just the insane ones. But for Magic to incorporate rarity in a way to successfully motivate their player / collector / consumer base to buy more booster packs (while still enjoying it and not considering themselves crazy), there is a certain threshold of probability and expense they cannot exceed. It has to be tough, but not impossible, to collect an entire set of cards. Hardcore collectors are free to scale that expense and difficulty by multiplying the number of sets they aim to collect. But the ordinary player should be able to feel a sense of accomplishment when they hit their own comfortable collecting threshold. However, there’s always another collecting threshold waiting just around the corner with each new expansion set…


And here we get to the issue of addiction. One might argue that CCGs are intended and designed to be addictive, and that the feeling of accomplishment that collecting brings feeds directly into this. But does this matter? Doesn’t the player want the game to be addictive? Don’t they get more out of an addictive game than one they can just put down and never think about again? Have you ever seen “Non-Addictive Gameplay” in the advertisements for any fast-paced platform shooter?

Personally, I think that addictive behavior with regard to CCGs is tied to that warm, fuzzy feeling of accomplishment related to collecting I mentioned earlier. But this must be irrational thinking rearing its head again: because opening a booster pack cannot be viewed as an ‘accomplishment’. Or can it?

This is confusing, because winning a game is praiseworthy, and the activity of collecting is praiseworthy. How can collecting and winning be meritorious, but opening packs – an activity which directly contributes to the activity of collecting and thus winning games (by allowing better decks to be assembled) – not be? The answer seems to be a matter of contrasting activities and the preconditions for those activities.

Breathing, for instance, is a precondition to a great many praiseworthy activities, including acting, but that does not valorize breathing. Nobody collects an Oscar and says “I’d like to thank my lungs for all the great breathing they did, which enabled me to give this award-winning performance!” In the same way that no Pro Tour Champion ever said “I’d like to give formal recognition to booster serial #JVK5A0G, for delivering me the Ulamog I needed to win this tournament!”

In summary, although it might look like an accomplishment to open a chase rare, and look like a failure to open a crap rare, neither of these are the case. In the same way, it is wrong to attribute any kind of virtue or vice to a lottery winner; they just got lucky, and cannot take any praise or blame for it. So the next time you curse out somebody in your draft pod for opening ‘the planeswalker’ (as if they took it out of your pocket!), please know that just as easily everybody else in the pod, or nobody at all, could have cracked one, and that it changes nothing about the physical laws of the universe or your personal pack-cracking results, you superstitious boob.

N.B.: If it helps you be zen when dealing with disappointment of opening crap rares, do what I do and consider the contents of a booster pack as being quantumly indeterminate: i.e., imagine that each pack as a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, containing both a chase rare and a crap rare up until the point that it is opened. Then you can console yourself with the thought that your 50-cent bulk rare was, at one point in time at least, quantumly quasi-mythic.

But Wait! Should Booster Packs Have Warning Labels?

Well, we now know that booster packs contain collectibles, and that collecting can be addictive. But we also know that almost anything is potentially collectible, and that the entire world is full of potentially collectible objects. So if booster packs need warning labels, then maybe the world itself needs a warning label! But that would be absurd. Wouldn’t it?


The most direct way to approach the problem would be to look at the basic criteria for warning labels, and then see if there’s anything specifically relating to CCGs that applies. Consumer durables need warning labels if:

• There is an empirically-established causal link between use of the product and some physical harm (such as smoking cigarettes and cancer).
• There is a speculative link between use of the product and some psychological harm (such as watching pornography and being / becoming a misogynist).

It’s hard to argue that there could be any physical harm arising from CCGs outside of paper cuts, so the only possible kind of harm would be the speculative psychological kind. Wizards already tacitly acknowledges this possibility in their age recommendation for Magic, which is probably derived from their liberal usage of blood, gore, and nipple slippage in the card art. Check out the ‘AGE 13+’ recommendation (warning?) on the upper right hand corner of every booster pack:


So Wizards self-polices in this regard, but this doesn’t address the question of whether they should or should not be doing so. Presumably, the age recommendation on all packs of Magic cards is neither legally-binding nor empirically tested. I don’t believe there was an actual focus group of 12-year-olds who were completely deranged by the visceral art of Dark Ascension, and another focus group of 13-year-olds who emerged unscathed. And today, any pre-adolescent can walk into their local card store with impunity and buy a booster from any expansion, no questions asked, no I.D. demanded.

Which raises another issue: How do game companies arrive at their age recommendations? Is it just a shot in the dark? Any rating system that pretends to be objective is open to serious dispute, but a general age recommendation could be tailored to mean one or more of the following things:

1. The game is ‘aimed toward’ a specific demographic, i.e. it panders to a certain market share.
2. The game is too complicated for those younger, or too simple for those older, than the rating.
3. The game has components which are easily broken or ingested by younger players.
4. The game contains themes or images which are considered disturbing to youth.

Again, only #4 looks like a plausible explanation for Magic, because WotC presumably wants players of all ages to play their game, and players as young as five years old are able to understand the basic mechanics of the game, and not eat the cards while playing. What the list above omits is the fact that putting an age recommendation on booster packs actually makes younger people want to play it all the more.

It’s a well-known sociological phenomenon that providing a barrier to entry makes participation more attractive to the excluded parties. Drinking at a bar looks like a highly desirable activity when you’re not allowed to do it. You might even get a fake I.D. in order to try it out. However, it is far less exciting when you reach, and exceed, the drinking age (the same thing could be said about voter apathy). The tension surrounding the activity has dissipated because now it is permitted.

Leave it to the marketing geniuses at Wizards to figure out that putting an artificially high age recommendation on Magic boosters would simultaneously make adults feel okay (or less awkward, at least) about playing it, while enticing pre-teen players to defy authority by buying into the game before they’re ‘allowed to’. So from a moral standpoint, boosters don’t need to have warning labels; the link to any form of harm is far too tenuous to necessitate it. But from a business standpoint, the age recommendation probably helps WotC sell Magic boosters like the “PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT LYRICS” sticker helped The 2 Live Crew sell the majority of their albums. And that’s word. Holler if ya hear me.

Tapping… never mind
Tapping… never mind