Feb 14, 2012

Subsets, Star Card Questing, and Pack Opening

What I'm about to say isn't shocking, unique, or about 2012 Topps (except tangentially).  A good card for a collector can come in a variety of flavors:
a) the high dollar, extremely rare, can you believe that? card
b) a rare card of a favorite player
c) a card of a favorite player or team
d) a card that adds to a niche collection
e) a card of a star that you don't hate viscerally
f)a card that leaves you smiling

As I was ripping through a jumbo box of 2012 Topps (there's that word combination again), the sheer enormity of the pack made it almost impossible to gauge what a "good" pack would be.  Fifty cards covers a lot of range in the disappointment to elation face changes over the course of sorting through the pack. 

As a collecting tool and set completion means to an end, the jumbo packs are great.  But if you want to measure them on the scale of collecting enjoyment as a stand alone entity, they're tough to judge.    Each are fairly similar in their construction...bunch of base cards, slew of inserts, flood of base cards with some variation here and there.  There's very little of the hope of much of those categories of what makes a good pack.  For me, it would be an insert or parallel of my favorite team.  Even finding base cards were a shrug-worthy event because in most jumbo boxes, you'll run into the all the base cards at one time or another. 

Before the world of inserts, it took some imagination to get star players into multiple cards in a release.  For awhile, there were the standard all-star cards, which were soon joined by the league leader cards (1967 version shown below)

The league leader cards sometimes even felt like they were set apart for star players; I don't recall any other cards with black borders in the 1967 set.  And with some exceptions, league leader cards did feature star players.  The presentation of the 60s and 70s versions of this subset, was all about the posed shots or head shots and usually complemented the player's principal card well.

There have been other subsets over the years, with this MVP retrospective from 1975 Topps one of the best.  The card within a card concept does work, and it even fooled me as a kid as being real old cards with the Turn Back the Clock cards from 86-90.  MVPs were generally stars and added an extra element to the star player pursuer or the collector defining a good pack just opened.

The problem with modern collectible sets is not the limitation of star cards or the lack of elements that would make a good pack. It's almost the overproliferation of them.  I never thought I would be unexcited to see a Roberto Clemente card or Mickey Mantle card (that's not actually true, I still get excited, but some are definitely not).  Of course, this is a reflection of the times, collectors want every pack to have the odds in their favor to have a potentially positive experience; who wouldn't after all?  And I can see the reason, packs are not cheap, you get a collector to buy a few where there's a positive in nearly every pack, then they're likely to purchase a few more later down the line.

Contrast this approach to 2001 or 2002 (the beginning of the ultra modern collecting era) where there was an insert maybe one in every 4 packs if you were lucky for Topps.  A relic was one in every 3-5 boxes and an auto had even steeper odds.  It was real luck to pull something amazing, and there was even a small amount of luck to pulling out a pack win on the positive experience side. 

For the base set at least, Topps has tipped the scales in the nouveau collector's favor because if every pack has something to offer, there should always be another pack waiting to be opened.  For mid-end sets, this is even more pronounced.  Check out the refractor distribution in Topps Chrome over the years or look at the insert mini distribution differences in Allen and Ginter from 2008 to 2011. 

The question is have we reached a saturation point of how much positivity we can handle?  When all the elements are in nearly every pack or box, what allows a set or a concept to rise above the others?  Does this lead to more uniformity of collectors' expectations?  If we don't experience the valleys of opening disappointment (not based on perceived and intrinsic value such as in high-end), can we enjoy the peaks as much?

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