The Helvault – My Letter to Wizards of the Coast

A bunch of people had asked me to post this before and I was considering it. Then the original version got destroyed for all time by the beauty of Yahoo mail’s shitty programming. I had to rewrite it, and the rewrite is simple not as good. I had no intentions of ever posting this, but I was discussing the Helvault with Jay Boosh earlier and decided that I’d rather put up the sloppier, less complete version of this than have to type everything for a third time in 140 character increments. Most of the key points are all still there, so..yeah. I dunno what else needs to be said, so here you go:

“As I said on Twitter, 140 characters is far too few to discuss what happened with the Helvault. As you’re seeing now from the feedback rolling in, to say the Helvault was met with mixed reactions might be being generous. I’d like to discuss what happened from the original idea through the conclusion of the prereleases. Unfortunately as my original draft was lost, I’m sure I’m going to miss some of the points I originally made. I was very happy with the original letter, but can only hope this one is coherent and inclusive.

While I can’t know for sure what happened inside the walls at the Wizards of the Coast offices, from outside it appears that you started with the idea of creating a different and exciting promotion for the Avacyn Restored prerelease. Ideas like this are always welcome, especially because the player base feels that they are owed something since the termination of the Magic Player Rewards program. That concept may sound ridiculous, but it is the sentiment of the (I would wager overwhelming) majority of players.

From this idea, the Helvault was born. The concept and physical design of the Helvault were brilliant. “A box of unknown goodies that everyone needs to work together to open” is the best promotion since the priceless treasures in Zendikar. This was much more in-depths, however, and also created excitement about the storyline of the set since they were heavily linked.

Up to this point, everything was going well. I’d like to look at the promotion and execution of the Helvault now though, as that’s where things went wrong.

The promotion of the Helvault was extremely effective. A lot of hype was generated, especially with the extreme emphasis being placed on preregistering for events. The perceived message was that you did not want to miss this once in a lifetime opportunity, and that events would all reach capacity. However, the writer (or writers) of the original Arcana fell into the same trap that a lot of overzealous Magic writers fall into when trying to sell people on their new tech: deckbuilders will use the “God Hand,” or best case scenario, as their baseline for describing how a deck is supposed to work when they should really be looking at the average case scenario. That is precisely what happened here. You had the benefit of knowing about the premium Helvaults, and knew that for some people the message being perceived by the public would be true, however the average case scenario was that players would receive a Helvault without a single tournament legal Magic card in it.

As a side note, while some people had unrealistic expectations, the Helvault didn’t need to have 54 foil Avacyns, Griselbrands, and Command Towers. If there were alternate art (preferably foil) Pillar of Flames inside, people would have thought the Helvault had been over sold, but at least they’d have a special promo card that they would likely have a use for.

A little over a week before the prerelease, stores started receiving their Helvaults. This is where things started going downhill. As I’m sure you knew would happen, two or three stores opened their Helvaults and posted the contents online. As far as everyone knew, the secret was out. And most everyone was disappointed. Players tend to like tokens and dice because they’re useful, but even most hardcore Commander players don’t use oversize cards as the mechanics of the game require you to still have a normal version anyway. People were disappointed that there wasn’t a single tournament legal Magic card inside. Players started canceling preregistrations, and stores that had been foolish enough to charge more for the Helvault events were being vilified and labeled as “scumbag stores” that players should never visit again.

Prerelease weekend hit, and people had stopped caring about the Helvault. Early prerelease attendance was as expected, but then someone reported the first premium Helvault. It was met with natural skepticism, but then more and more reports and cell phone pictures kept rolling in. The premium Helvaults were confirmed. I missed when it happened, but Helene even said she mentioned that they existed that day on Twitter. Now people only cared about the Helvaults and the potential of receiving incredible prizes. Our 10 am Saturday prerelease attendance was unaffected by our Helvault because no one cared, and our 6 pm prerelease was less than half of what it should have been because everyone wanted to go to Helvault events. Our Sunday Helvault event was better than normal, but it was too little too late. While other stores benefited, our overall attendance was only 80% of what it would have been had the Helvault not even existed. I’m sure that worldwide the attendance numbers were the same or higher than normal, but many stores were hurt by this. By contrast, the priceless treasures had the same chance of being opened anywhere by anyone, and it was an ongoing promotion. Because it was ongoing, everyone benefited from it. The Helvault was a one shot deal, so it was do or die from the vendor perspective.

Having to write a large check for product that we now can’t do anything with for a week stings a little, but this is a minor concern thanks to Avacyn Restored being such a good set for both competitive and casual constructed so I’m sure we won’t be sitting on it long (If the set were to initially sell like, say, Morningtide, then we might be a bit more upset about this). The real concern, however, is the reaction from the players. Players went from being apathetic about the Helvaults to being disappointed, angry, and feeling ripped off. As organizers and judges, we were the ones in the trenches receiving the majority of their complaints. A player who was at an event with a premium Helvault received prizes that were worth as much as 15000% more than players with nonpremium Helvaults. While the secondary market isn’t and shouldn’t be your main concern, it is important to be aware of it. In the last two or three years, Magic finance has really started to take a front seat and is heavily discussed and written about. While I disapprove of this for tangentially reasons, it is important to be aware of the phenomenon and these people’s line of thinking.

So what could be done to fix this? There are a few key points that you need to keep in mind:

1. You are working from the viewpoint of trying to create an exciting experience for players. No one is made you do this; you did it to reward players and make their experience special. Players are working from a viewpoint of entitlement and expect you to do things like this every so often to make up for prying MPR from their hands. (Yeah, I know. I’m not any happier about this than you are.)

2. The hype should not exceed the average player’s experience. If someone gets even more than they expected, awesome for them! If someone gets far less than they expected, they will be extremely upset.

2a. The hype may exceed the average player’s experience if, and only if, there is a known variable. GPs are hyped, but the average player wins $0. While initially secret, the priceless treasure became hyped, but the average player opened none. These are still considered hugely successful because the players knew what they were getting into.

3. The disparity in outcomes must be either known, preferably with published odds, or minimal. Examples:
A. Priceless treasures had a huge disparity in outcomes. Once the secret was revealed, the odds of opening one were published. Because this was ongoing, players remained excited.
B. The textless nonfoil MPR cards were normally not known until players started receiving them, but because the disparity between them was so small it wasn’t a big deal if someone else got a different promo card.
C. The Helvault contents were thought to be identical, but then suddenly premium Helvaults were discovered and the found out the incredible things other tournaments had received. Players started to angrily ask “Why them? Why not us? How is this fair?”
D. Had the premium Helvaults been known about beforehand, the comments when people reported these things would have been “Aw, you’re so lucky! I can’t believe your tournament was the one to get those!” (And probably “How is this fair?” because you will never be able to make everyone happy).

4. Don’t be over ambitious unless you have complete control. This is the reason the promotion was flawed from the beginning. You want the contents to be secret. However, it is absolutely guaranteed that a couple people will open theirs ahead of time to spoil the contents. But if the existence of the premium Helvaults is discovered, every greedy and dishonest organizer in the world will open their Helvault beforehand and remove the judge foils, say “Darn, looks like we didn’t get any of them!” and list them on eBay. So the odds of getting a premium Helvault have to be small enough that the spoiled ones will most likely be nonpremium. But you don’t want premium Helvaults sent to near empty prereleases where the dozen players each get one and 40 go on eBay. So you need to hype the event to get players in. And now we’ve gone in a (hopefully not too confusing) circle, because too many of these decisions were being dictated by circumstances beyond your control.

So back to the actual question of how could this have been done differently? Well with those points in mind, there are a number of possible options:

5. The contents of the Helvault are known, but not the existence of the premium Helvaults. With the contents known, there would be no reason for anyone to open them prematurely so the premium ones would not be discovered. This would ruin a lot of the mystery, but it would prevent dealers from trying to cannibalize their Helvaults for expensive foils. Because the premium Helvaults would be a secret, the disparity would have to be smaller. Instead of $100+ cards, there should be $10-20 cards. As I stated before, I wasn’t in any of the meetings about this so I don’t know how the cards wound up inside it. It is possible that the discussion was about how to disperse all the excess judge and MPR promos that were laying in around, rather than the discussion was what to fill the Helvault with. If the main goal was to find a way to get these foils into the hands of players, this option wouldn’t work.
6. Have the existence of the premium Helvaults known, but not the exact contents of either. For this to work, it would have to be known that there were three things, and all were foil in the premium Helvault. Most likely you would remove the dice and have foil tokens, oversize cards, and promo foils. This way, if a store opened a Helvault with the foil tokens and oversize cards but nothing else, the players would know that their organizer was trying to screw them over. This is probably the worst option and the announcement of such a thing would have to be written extremely delicately.
7. Make all Helvaults the same. The previous solution is worse, but this is my least favorite. It is very rare that you are able to surprise the community as happened this weekend, and it is always extremely exciting when it happens.
8. Keep the contents of the Helvault secret and the existence of premium Helvaults secret, and just drastically reduce the disparity in value.

I know there are a number of key points I’m forgetting, but I’ve taken enough of your time already. I know many of these points have been mentioned already, but I hope I was able to help shed some light on the negative feedback from this weekend. If you have any other questions, I’d be happy to discuss them via email or phone at anytime. Thank you very much for taking the time to read all this.”

That’s right, folks, I actually am capable of writing a 2000 word letter without swearing. It’s just a lot harder.


  1. Kirk Maijala says:

    I mentioned this on twitter as well, but I think a solution that would have led to a lot fewer angry players would have been to put on-theme promos in every Helvault. WotC said that making every Helvault ‘premium’ was not logistically an option, but they could easily have put in some other promos (Gateway promo Path to Exile, MPR Day of Judgment) into the Helvaults that didn’t have Judge foils. Getting nothing while someone else gets something is upsetting and frustrating. Getting a random promo card while someone else gets a better one is still a nice bonus and would have lead to less anger.

  2. Courtney says:

    Very well thought out agruement. They pushed the helvault quite hard, and that set the expectations too high. That coupled with consumer “give me give me” attitude just spells disaster. The premium helvaults are a good idea, but the execution was off.

  3. Chris says:

    I think Wizards did the right thing they made an awesome event for 0.5% of their players.

  4. […] else is listed below:– How the Helvault promotion worked (released after we recorded) – Jeebus’ letter to Helene Bergeot and Mark Rosewater – Avacyn Restored Intro Pack decklists – MTGO set release and Pro Tour scheduling […]

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