February 11, 2016

Cards Without Borders: 2016 Topps

Two thousand sixteen finds Topps in a familiar position: once again playing the revolutionary card and the catch-up card. No white borders. Heck, no borders on the front—just a half-hidden team logo design reminiscent of the 2006 MLB The Show cover art.

This is the first design for the flagship Topps set (not their other brands) in the company's 65-year history that doesn't feature some kind of border. Think about that for a minute. The design malaise of the white-bordered years (2008–2014) seems like a distant memory. Even last year's casual homage to the 25th anniversary of 1990 Topps seems quaint. Borders? That's so 2015!

Full-bleed photography is old hat for a lot of card brands, most notably Topps's own Stadium Club imprint (the brand debuted in 1991 with a bright, shiny, never-done-before design feature: full-bleed Kodak photography). But Stadium Club has always been seen as more of a premium than the eponymous brand. 

Obviously, it's a dramatic shift for Topps. But it's also a natural next step, as the company had to find a way to marry the designs of its base tactile and digital products (Topps Bunt). It could make more Bunt designs look like traditional baseball cards. Or it could make its baseball cards look more like video game cover art. They went with the latter. 

And you know what? There's absolutely nothing wrong with that decision. Though the photography looks heavily processed, the cards are attractive. Incorporating the stock-in-trade faux watercolor look Topps has long employed in its Allen & Ginter designs doesn't hurt, either. The glossy stock doesn't feel cheap, and the photos are a nice mix of in-game action shots and paused-action close-ups.

Even some of the inserts breathe with their own life: besides the trip-down-memory-lane retread (Berger's Best), the Stadium Club–esque "Perspectives" and position players as pitchers (Pressed Into Service) are fun ideas. The celebrities insert isn't bad (First Pitch), and the Cubs insert is okay, even though its subjects skew more toward the present-day roster than I would have liked (100 Years of Wrigley Field). These are all insert sets I would collect, though the Wrigley Field set gets me thinking: Why didn't they do something like this for Fenway Park's 100th anniversary in 2012? The only insert set that had me yawning was the one-two lineup punch of "Back 2 Back." The world doesn't need any more insert cards celebrating Ryan Braun. 

And don't get me started about parallels. On the whole, I think they're a waste of time, especially if they don't add anything to the design. In the packs I opened, I got a few rainbow foil parallels (not serial-numbered), a few "gold" parallels (numbered out of 2016), and an acetate "clear" parallel of Mark Melancon (numbered out of 10). The clear acetate parallel is a fun idea, and reminds me of a throwback from the mid-1990s. The other parallels, however, are not fun and remind me only that it would've been nice to receive a different card in my pack. I especially don't understand the logic of non-serial-numbered parallels. I think it would be much more enticing if the rainbow-foil cards were numbered out of 1,000,000 or whatever their print run happened to be. (Of course, the next logical step in this serial-numbering madness is for every single card to be serial-numbered. Oh, how I long for a Jered Weaver numbered 1,110,054 / 200,650,755! Every single stinkin' card would be unique...)

By elevating the look and feel of the base cards of the flagship set, Topps has done something that all 21st-century companies try to achieve: they've unified their brands. This is different from past years where all that separated Opening Day, flagship, and Topps Chrome was a logo and card stock. Base digital and tactile offerings look and feel similar, and low-end and higher-end tactile offerings incorporate similar, if not the same, design characteristics. For Topps, there's the hope that this diminishes attrition; not just losing customers to other card manufacturers, but to the company's real competition: video games, smartphones, and whatever else steals the attention and dollars of collectors.

Heavily Photoshopped cards without borders is just the beginning. Maybe the next step for the company will be an augmented reality app where you use the backgrounds of tactile cards to find "hidden" virtual packs of Topps Bunt cards in the real world. And so it may seem like a small thing, but I bet you that we won't see the return of a white—or any other color, tint, or hue—border anytime soon. 


defgav said...

Nice pull on the Mark Melancon acetate. (I don't suppose it's available for trade?)

Big Tone said...

Yeah those parallels numbered up to the current year would be more interesting
If released In the year 1 .