The Buy-A-Box program, and specifically Nexus of Fate, is such a hot-button topic in part because it feels like uncharted territory. It mostly is. Magic has dabbled with distribution in ancillary channels in the past (more on that later), but having a card so short-printed be Standard legal and then appear in a format-defining deck is without analog. Without it appearing in a booster release, it is unclear what the future is-does Wizards ride it out? Put it into the next set? Send a bunch to stores to distribute some other way? It isn't clear what answers Wizards finds necessary or practical, or how agile they can be in their response. This adds to the agitation and uncertainty.
Before delving in further, I'd like to mention that I've worked in the game industry for over a decade, working primarily on trading card games. I am also no stranger to programs like Buy-A-Box. The now-defunct World of Warcraft Trading Card Game leveraged these types of programs to a much greater degree than Magic ever has. Some programs were direct sales promotions, some were tied to organized play. I was in charge of final design for several years, and was responsible for how the cards went out the door. The call to action from superiors was always some variation of "make it good enough that people want it, but not good enough that if people can't get it, they aren't mad," which is of course impossible and obviously so with about two seconds of critical thought, but such was my charge. I was never responsible for a Nexus of Fate, but I didn't bat 1.000 either.
I've also played Magic for over twenty years. My first sets were The Dark and Revised. Several cards that never appeared in booster packs predate my involvement in the game-Nalathni Dragon, Sewers of Estark, and Mana Crypt. The Dragon was distributed with some sort of convention, while the other two were acquired by sending in the UPC to a Magic-themed novel, or something. It was hard to gather an underlying philosophy from these three cards-Sewers and Dragon are transparently unplayable even by the forgiving standards of the mid-90s, while Mana Crypt was and is one of the most powerful cards ever printed-but I don't recall having much of an emotional reaction to them. Boosters of the older sets were scarce even then, and so these cards didn't seem altogether different from those in Legends or Arabian Nights. If I put in some effort I could probably flag one down, but I wasn't likely to stumble into them by accident.
Wizards took a long break from tournament-legal promotions until relatively recently, with Standard-legal cards appearing in the Standard precons and the Commander products being broadly legal in Eternal formats. The Standard-legal cards, and especially the planeswalkers, are very conservative designs, and with good reason. Standard is intended to be a jumping-on point for newer and lapsed players, and is supposed to be the format with the most local support. Encountering cards that you don't know, and don't know where they came from, can be a deeply destabilizing experience that can engender more frustration if it turns out you actually need to go get them. There's little harm in the novice at your store playing a card you don't know if it's simple and not very good, but pushing past that point is very risky for dubious gains.
The Commander cards are more explicitly pushed for Legacy, but there are good principles behind that. First, it's very challenging to shake up Legacy in a way that doesn't ruin Standard; the only proven recipe is "this card works with Polluted Delta somehow," and you can only hit that note so many times. The card pool is so vast that even experienced players aren't intimately familiar with every legal card; how much does it matter if it came from Commander 2016 or Antiquities? And the format can be prone to stagnation and a lack of novelty; it is probably net-upside for someone to get blown out by a Fiery Confluence they didn't know existed so long as that experience isn't happening too often.
Against this backdrop of modest success with creating legal cards outside of booster packs, I'm not surprised that Wizards dipped their toes in the water with something more adventurous. And wanting to give love to local game stores is an admiral goal. Where did Nexus of Fate go wrong?
It is telling to contrast Nexus of Fate with Firesong and Sunspeaker, the first Buy-A-Box promo that debuted with Dominaria. It isn't just a question of rate, though Firesong and Sunspeaker is appreciably weaker. The card is an appealing read, but there are so many six-cost creatures and planeswalkers that even if it hits, you're creating more competition with future sets. Also, the abilities of Firesong and Sunspeaker call out to particular mechanics, which you can be conservative with in future releases if you have reason to believe the card went out the door more powerful than it should have. In short, you have "backstops" among multiple fronts-the nature of the card is such that it's hard to imagine it being the best thing going for six months straight even if the rate was pushed hard, which it wasn't.
Nexus of Fate has none of those backstops. Wizards doesn't print that many Time Walks, and since Time Walks stack up for the appropriate decks, the answer to it hitting can't be "make a better Time Walk." And there are other things going on at the edges-"shuffle into your deck" is about the same thing as "exile" but reads much better in the "honest" usage case, but is problematic when someone is trying to do something abusive. The current Standard metagame is ripe for Fog. Teferi, Hero of Dominaira is itself a card that encourages all sorts of rancid behavior, and it slots in very effectively here. In short, I think Wizards made a bunch of small, bad bets and caught the downside risk on all of it.
There is an emotional experience that I believe is different about Buy-A-Box than even the Commander or Standard-legal decks. I was told a quote once that was attributed to Magic bigwig Aaron Forsythe (hopefully this isn't a lie) that went something like: "Why is Pearled Unicorn a 2/2 for three? Because there is a place called Dominaria, and on that place Pearled Unicorn is a 2/2 for three."
What Aaron is expressing is the idea that sets are creations of a world, both mechanically and narratively. They are something close to an album, with each individual card constituting a song, or even a note. And even my most beloved albums contain some moments I'm not that fond of. That isn't the point, though. The point is how the different elements create a whole that can be digested and experienced and shared, pulled apart and put back together again. And some of that wonderment and artistry is dampened by busted mythics and articles about how the Play Design team wanted certain cards to be powerful. But it is still there regardless. Even the Commander and Standard products are decks, the creation of which represents some sort of curated experience.
None of that exists with Buy-A-Box. It is a naked commercial transaction, devoid of any nuance or plausible deniability. It is the expectation that you will like A Thing enough to buy Another Thing (or in this case, be compelled into thinking you need to own A Thing). At least in the case of Firesong and Sunspeaker, it is a legend that promotes a set that cares about legends; it is at least somewhat connected to the mechanics of the set. Nexus of Fate has nothing to do with anything; it feels like a widget that was dropped from outer space. Within that context of isolation, it feels exploitative and artless. And for people who gravitate to Magic because of the artistry, of the feeling of it being an experience that the user discovers and defines for themselves, having all of that laid bare as fiction can create a dissonance that is hard to process. This is awfully flowery language to describe the person on Twitter saying "This is stupid," but I think that's often what's being tapped into.
I'm not sure what the path forward is, and I don't want to discount the very real benefits that programs like this can have on the local level. I suppose I hope that Wizards is more mindful-more mindful of rate, more mindful of creating effects that can't easily invalidate, more mindful of acknowledging the set structure in which the card ostensibly exists.
That is somewhat secondary to my larger concern-Magic, at its best, is art that happens to be a commercial product. Buy-A-Box is a commercial endeavor that aspires to masquerade as art. A small boost in local sales can easily be undone by the long-term ramifications of stripping away at the core elements of the experience. I think there is a way to thread the needle, and I'm hopeful that Wizards can come away from Nexus of Fate with the knowledge and fortitude to make it happen.