With the creation of MTG Arena, there has been a major push to bring Magic: The Gathering into the esports world. At the video game awards last week, there was an announcement that $10 million dollars would be put into the Mythic Championships that bring the tabletop Pro Tour together with Arena to create a unified professional circuit that additionally offers $75K contracts to the top 32 players in the world across the two platforms. While this all sounds like a worthwhile direction for Magic to take given the popularity of esports, I believe there is one giant missing component in their current vision for Magic's place in the digital world. That giant missing component is a three-dimensional multiverse.
It appears to me that MTG Arena is an attempt at combining Magic Online with Hearthstone. The Hearthstone platform is more aesthetically pleasing and user friendly than Magic Online and incorporates elements to itself that are unique to a digital product that cannot easily be replicated as a tabletop game. In contrast, Magic Online is essentially attempting to replicate the tabletop version of Magic as closely as possible. In other words, Magic Online is an attempt to be able to play tabletop digitally and nothing more. The clock and the removal of draws are about the only features of Magic Online that separate itself from tabletop Magic.
MTG Arena doesn't really offer anything that is not offered by tabletop Magic. Like Magic Online, it is still merely a digital way to play the tabletop version of Magic. The only elements it draws from Hearthstone are aesthetic and user-friendly elements. The collection is managed differently than MTGO, including wildcards and the absence of an economy, which is another element borrowed from Hearthstone. This, however, still mostly mirrors tabletop Magic. No extraordinary difference exists between MTG Arena and tabletop Magic. Like MTGO, it is simply an attempt to play tabletop Magic digitally.
The vision I have for the future of digital Magic combines MTG Arena with The Elder Scrolls. Bethesda Studios and other top video game producers have developed video game technologies that allow users to interact in vast three-dimensional worlds. The graphics are state of the art and lifelike, creating a visually pleasing aesthetic for users. The worlds also provide a tremendous amount of freedom for users to explore the vast landscapes and interact with the many characters in the game, including going on various quests. Magic should hire some of these video game designers to create the Magic multiverse from Magic's storyline.
This multiverse should be closely aligned with the storyline of Magic's history, beginning in Dominaria and extending to all the other planes of the multiverse. The characters, landmarks and overall "world" setting should mirror as closely to Magic's actual storyline as possible to capture as much of Magic's unique flavor as can be captured. For instance, on the plane of Dominaria you would have all the different regions, each region containing the characters associated with that region in the storyline. For instance, in the forests of Llanowar you would have Llanowar Elves, in the mountains of Shiv you would have the Shivan Dragon, and in Urborg you would have all the swamp-dwelling creatures that reside there.
Each region would mirror the topography of that region, drawing not only from Magic's storyline but also its art. There would be an underwater world of Leviathans and other sea-dwelling creatures and characters, including a Merfolk region (Coralhelm?), that separate the different land regions. And there would be underground caves with regions that include Goblin tribes and other underground dwellers.
Once we have the multiverse set up, including a topography that matches the storyline and all the different characters associated with each region, then we are ready to add planeswalkers. Users should be able to choose which planeswalker they want to be. I'm imagining a setup similar to Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat where you have a screen of all the different characters' faces and you select which planeswalker you want to use. But instead of choosing between Blanka and Chun-Li, you're choosing between Karn and Chandra. Over the past decade Magic has been promoting planeswalkers as the flagship characters of the game. This fits perfectly with the multiverse setup I describe since the planeswalkers will be the actual users whereas every other creature and character in Magic are part of the landscape that these planeswalkers traverse.
So far, we have the multiverse setup complete with regions containing topographical features true to the game's storyline, along with the creatures associated with each region in the storyline. Next we add unique places from the storyline associated with each region or with the characters that inhabit that region. For instance, there might be a Castle Sengir, a Maze of Ith, a Treetop Village, etc. These places can be locations for quests and incorporate bosses you must defeat at the culmination of the respective quest. For instance, the Goblin King might be the endboss of the Goblin Cave after you've defeated all the other goblins in the underground network of tunnels leading up to his throne.
Now that we have the landscape of the multiverse, the inhabitants of each region, unique places associated with those regions and/or inhabitants and planeswalkers to traverse all these regions and planes, we are finally ready for the part where we converge MTG Arena with this three-dimensional multiverse. And to do this, we look back at Magic's first attempt to go digital, namely Shandalar. In Shandalar there was a world of characters walking around on a map and whenever you crossed paths with a character in the game, they would challenge you to a duel. You could either pay them off (essentially concede) or you would accept their challenge and play a game of Magic against them. If you lost, you lose your ante card, but if you win, you collect cards and gold and whatever other valuables they have, which are then added to your collection or inventory.
Magic Arena already has the AI built in to accomplish this feature. It's perfect for what I am suggesting. What separates this Magic Multiverse game I am describing (or whatever they want to name it) from games like The Elder Scrolls is that instead of it solely being a video game where your character interacts in the three-dimensional world with the other characters, it is two overlapping games in one. You actually play games of Magic as you traverse through the multiverse.
I started playing Magic in 1995 when the game was only a couple years old and I started playing Shandalar shortly thereafter. I also grew up playing video games and other computer games. Shandalar was legitimately one of my favorite video games. It combined my interest in video games with my interest in tabletop Magic. The game I am proposing as the future of digital Magic will aim to accomplish that same objective. Not only will it be a great game in itself, offering something that no other game offers, but it will also get people interested in tabletop Magic that otherwise would never become interested in it. Tapping into the video game market as a whole instead of just tapping into the esports market is a huge plus.
Now that the big picture vision is in place, let's consider some possibilities for how to fill in the details of the program.
By adding this multiverse dimension, there are new avenues that can be explored in the esports world. For instance, there could be teams of five or six players competing against each other, whether it is head-to-head or more than two teams competing at the same time. Each team chooses their planeswalkers, perhaps even introducing the element of being able to ban an opposing planeswalker, and then the two teams fight against each other while traversing the multiverse and attempting to accomplish particular quests.
When it comes to deck building, you have some options. You could have a finite mode where you start with a rudimentary deck and must defeat characters and succeed in quests to build your collection and improve your deck. Or you can have an infinite mode where you have a full collection and can build any deck with various restrictions. For instance, maybe you can choose different formats on the infinite mode.
My suggestion is to have each planeswalker start with a deck that mirrors the flavor of that planeswalker. For instance, Liliana has a mono-black deck, Chandra has a mono-red deck, Teferi has a blue/white controlling deck. There can be different modes for this option too. For instance, if Modern were added then Karn could start with a Tron deck and Nissa can have an Elf deck – but I think it would be more fun to just have a finite mode where each planeswalker begins with a deck on the power of a pre-con deck that reflects the flavor of each planeswalker. As you defeat opponents and complete quests you get to keep adding to your deck.
One restriction I would suggest here is that instead of gaining and losing "ante" cards or earning random cards as loot, you acquire cards that specifically improve the deck associated with your planeswalker. For instance, if I am Chandra and I defeat a Merfolk in a duel, I would gain Lightning Bolt to add to my mono-red deck instead of gaining Spreading Seas or whatever. This would keep people's decks on-flavor of the planeswalker they chose. And given that users have the freedom to choose whichever planeswalker they want, this would add to the expectation of the user as they go on quests with the chosen planeswalker. In other words, playing Chandra would always feel like Chandra whereas playing Gideon would always feel like Gideon.
An upside to this suggestion is that the game will have a ton more replay value. For instance, let's say there are 32 planeswalkers to choose from (or however many actual planeswalkers there are in Magic these days). If each planeswalker starts with their own deck that aligns with the flavor of that planeswalker and enhances that deck with each successful duel or quest while maintaining the overall concept and flavor of the deck, the user experience will be very different for each planeswalker. I'd want to "beat the game" once with each planeswalker because each experience is unique. In contrast, if I acquire random cards with which to enhance my deck (like in Shandalar), then no matter which planeswalker I start with, ultimately I will converge to the same "best" deck by the end of the game. That would significantly detract from the replay value of the game.
Another option would be to give users a choice between cards to collect as loot whenever they successfully defeat an opponent or complete a quest. For instance, if I am Elspeth and I defeat a Hurloon Minotaur in a duel, instead of just giving me a Healing Salve, give me an option between Healing Salve, Savannah Lions or Disenchant. That way I have more freedom to customize my deck the way I want it and less frustration over duels being "pointless" when the loot is something the user doesn't care about.
There are lots of possible directions to go with this idea when it comes to working out the details, and it would be impossible to cover them all in a single article. The main point I wanted to make here though is that creating a three-dimensional Magic multiverse that mirrors the game's storyline is the missing component to making Magic truly a successful video game. Magic is an awesome tabletop game, but there are additional resources at our disposal when we go digital. The vision I outlined in this article incorporates a key element from many of the most successful video games (a three-dimensional world) and joins it to the MTG Arena platform that is being so heavily invested in as Magic's digital future. Given the vast video game market that has thus far been largely untapped by Magic, creating this Magic Multiverse game would not only be the best thing we can do for Magic's digital future, but also perhaps one of the best things we can do for tabletop Magic's future.