A Decline in MTG Quality Assurance?

Currently there is a general perception that the overall quality of Magic cards has been severely declining over the years.  Perhaps this is an arrogant assumption on my part, but I'd wager that the misprint community is probably the most informed sub-culture of the MTG player/collector base when it comes to seeing the complete picture regarding the overall quality of MTG product.  For what it's worth, it is literally our hobby to collect production errors.  Hopefully I can share some of our insights into what has and hasn't shifted in this heated topic.

So...What is quality assurance?
Source: Dictionary.com

Source: Dictionary.com

Ok, so what sort of QA system does WotC and the MTG printing facilities have?

Well...they don't really go into too much detail, but here's what Cartamundi's website has to say on the topic.  We also get a very tiny insight into WotC's QA involvement with this article.

From Cartamundi's website.

Source: Building Tariel, WotC

Source: Building Tariel, WotC

Holy crap!  Like nothing should like ever be misprinted or wrong with MTG as long as there’s QA right, dude?

Wrong.  Mistakes are a natural part of production.  The more complicated the production process and the more you produce stuff, the more room there is for mistakes.  ISO:9001 is a standardized QA system that companies (in this case Cartamundi) can cater to their own needs.  What that boils down to is that Cartamundi can choose what is and isn't acceptable for the quality of their products.  As long as they meet their self prescribed quality standards and processes, they can keep their ISO certification.  This is a gross generalization of ISO, but is meant to illustrate that the level and degree of QA is a choice.

Wait a second... You’re saying that printing facilities are CHOOSING to not have 100% perfect product?

Well, sort of.  If they were physically capable of ensuring a 100% as-intended product, they would probably do so as long as it wasn't super expensive.  By setting the acceptable standards lower than 100%, they're being realistic.  Things happen during production.  No machine and no person is perfect.  Sometimes mistakes just get through.  Cartamundi's QA system just insures that it maintains an acceptable margin of error.

But, Jason, I’m seeing tons errors every set release!  So many more than what I used to see.  Surely that means they’ve lowered their standards right?

It's possible, but let's talk about something called Survivorship Bias.  Survivorship bias can be summed up as people's ability to draw incorrect correlations and conclusions based on the visibility of an outcome.  For example; "I'm seeing a ton more misprints than I used to so there must be declining production standards."  The truth is that you can draw any number of conclusions based on the number of misprints you're seeing, and none of them are more correct than than the others (unless you have inside information).

So what other factors can contribute to the perception of there being more misprints?

 I'm glad you asked!

1.  MTG is the most popular it's ever been AND more Magic cards are currently being printed than ever before. 

Let's paint a hypothetical picture where we say 1% of any set's total print run is misprinted.  Set A (nostalgically printed in 2010) has a total print run of 20 million cards (this is a hypothetical scenario with entirely made up numbers, but bear with me) which means we see approximately 200,000 misprints.  Set B (which just came out in 2017) had a 100 million card run which yields 1 million misprints.  Pretty simple math to understand why you're seeing more.  If you look at the data we do have about MTG print run size it actually correlates pretty nicely with the sets we know to have lots of misprints, but also to the severity of misprints in those sets.  Take Fallen Empires as an example.  There was a pretty large jump in production numbers (75mil The Dark > 375mil FE) and as a result FE has some super spicy misprints.

2.  There is a higher level of awareness of the misprint community. 

As of writing this blog post, the Misprints and Rarities Facebook Group has ~28,000 members, ~5,000 of which have joined in the last 6 months.  The more people that are aware of misprints the more people there are who will post them on teh iternets.  No surprise there why you're seeing more of them pop up.

3.  WotC/Hasbro/Cartamundi/The Illuminati (#conspiracyTheories) keep futzing with cards. 

Magic the Gathering is a fluid and living game.  New stuff is being done all the time.  This can be super subtle visual changes to a minor part of the card that you may never notice, to major mechanics that completely change how a MTG card functions.  Every time you add a new element, you add more possibilities for things to go wrong.  It's not just visual or mechanical changes to cards that they've been playing around with either, but I'll address this in the next paragraph.

4.  WotC likes to experiment, gauge the results, and then course correct on the fly. 

This includes the physical makeup of the cards.  We've seen subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes in cardstock and foiling processes throughout various product releases.  I don't bring this up to poo poo all over WotC for choosing lower quality cardstock (not really an argument that you can have without insider information) but rather as another element which can induce variance to the printing process, and therefore contribute to the higher population of misprints.

Dilbert gets it...

Dilbert gets it...

Ok, well that's a whole slew of factors that contribute to our perception of WotC's QA, but what's the bottom line here?  What it all comes down to is that it is extremely likely that it's a combination of all of the above.  Thinking that MTG QA standards have plummeted to the point where we need to be frothing-at-the-mouth upset with WotC is a stance that doesn't take into consideration all of the factors.  However, at the same time, we are SEEING more abnormal product than ever before.

Ok, so QA probably hasn’t shifted, but we are seeing more production errors. Does that mean misprints aren’t worth as much anymore?

Technically yes and technically no.  Misprint value, is heavily dependent on severity of the misprint.  The question is, who determines what severity of misprint is valuable and what isn't?  It's based on availability.  Our perception of what is cool and what isn't is based on what we see.  The more of a specific type of misprint we see, the less we'll value it.  In a way, the massive influx of misprints has resulted in collectors acquiring a more refined taste.  We value the more severe (rarer) misprints more.

Well...that about wraps this up.  QA may have shifted slightly, but there are many other factors at work.  What are your thoughts on MTG card quality?  Do you agree or disagree with me.  Let me know in the comments and thanks for reading!