Wizards of the Coast is pushing towards the release of Magic: The Gathering Arena, with the Closed Beta currently in progress. They've spent some time streaming Arena content on Twitch, which you can find archived videos (like this one) on the Magic Twitch channel. For anyone heavily invested Magic Online, MTG Arena poses serious questions—Is MTG Arena a replacement? A threat? Or something else—an addition, or perhaps even a better option for players?
To understand how the two interrelate I spoke to Chris Clay, Principal Game Designer, about what Wizards' see as MTG Arena's target audience, how its economy works, and what the future holds for Magic players, digitally speaking. It was clear Wizards had designed and built MTG Arena with professional play and eSports in mind, so that's where our discussion began.
"Part of the eSports mentality is designing a game that is as fun to watch as it is to play." Chris explained. "MTG Arena takes the core Magic experience, makes it more accessible, and as fun to watch as it is to play. Our target audience is anyone with 10 minutes and a computer. Making MTG Arena fast, fluid, and still very readable is a major goal. We're really happy that in the Closed Beta, players are already able to play a full game of Magic in seven minutes."
For anyone who's played Magic Online, where seven minutes can be chewed up just in passing priority, the current benchmark is great to have, especially as the team is already talking about further improvements that can be made. But if MTG Arena is being built as an eSport platform, does that mean it'll hook into professional play?
"We eventually plan to have MTG Arena as part of professional play. In the short term, we're just focused on delivering an amazing game." said Chris. "We are working on ranked and constructed play, Draft, and then later Sealed. Single match constructed play is in the Closed Beta right now, and we're also working on a best-of three mode. There are other ideas in the works that we're not ready to share yet. And we're also listening to Magic players telling us what they want. That is helping inform our long-term plan."
For me, that MTG Arena will place in professional play is a big deal. Magic Online has hosted the MOCS, which awards Pro Tour invites, for several years. Having a second pathway to the Pro Tour via MTG Arena will be huge for Pro Tour hopefuls. So, given that currently all digital competitive play currently occurs on Magic Online, I asked whether Chris expected that audience to migrate across to MTG Arena?
"Some players will prefer the MTG Arena experience and make the shift to playing it." replied Chris, "That said, there will always be a contingent of Magic players who will prefer Magic Online and its ability to provide nearly everything Magic has offered for the last 25 years. We expect many Magic Online players to keep playing Magic Online, whether or not they dive into MTG Arena as well. That said, Magic Online's community is bigger and stronger than ever, with 2017 being a record year for player numbers, which is a testament to the strength of the community."
Chris heavily emphasised Wizard's position that Magic Online wasn't going anywhere, but I find it hard to see a long-term future where both exist, especially if MTG Arena has professional play. MTG Arena will start with two paths of competitive play: Limited (both Sealed and Draft) and Standard Constructed. To be frank, if MTG Arena offers a better play experience it's hard to see why EV-centric competitive players wouldn't instantly migrate across.
The big up-front hurdle are the investment people have in their collections. Collections are the anchor that holds firm the wider Constructed formats - everything from Vintage to Pauper to Commander. I realise that sounds like a trivial point, but MTG Arena is going to have people establishing a second collection digital pretty quickly. If MTG Arena was simply a Duels replacement this wouldn't be a problem. Duels is a firm 'casual' version of Magic. However MTG Arena will offer competitive play. Competitive play means competitive decks, and competitive decks means collections that have inherent value. Maybe there's a narrow thread that Wizards can weave where players are prepared to build their pet deck on both MTG Arena and Magic Online, but that's a needle that's doing some hard, hard work.
If there's one truism about competitive Magic players, it's that they will follow the best EV—expected value. I'm a dedicated Limited player on Magic Online (though admittedly a little less dedicated that when I used to grind out EV). A draft on Magic Online costs similar to its US paper equivalent, three packs plus two tickets. So the million dollar question is - what's the expected price point of a draft on MTG Arena? Unfortunately Chris wasn't able to reveal that just yet.
"What I can say is that we're working diligently to figure that out and at this very moment." Chris explained. "We're testing the free-to-play economy with Closed Beta players and getting their feedback. And we're going to continue to test and refine with player feedback until we get it right. Balance is a delicate thing so we're going to collect way more information before we make any final calls."
Like many mobile games, MTG Arena are has two economic pathways: a free-to-play economy based on earning gold, and a paid economy based around buying gems. Gold allows players to buy booster packs, join competitive game modes and purchase cosmetic items. Gold will be earned by completing quests, winning games and participating in special game modes.
As anyone familiar with mobile games will recognise, the paid economy allows you to "skip" the time to grind out resources that the free-to-play economy requires. However, Wizards is also considering that the paid "gem" economy will provide access to exclusive cosmetic items. Gems haven't hit the Close Beta yet so Wizards' focus has been on testing and tuning the free-to-play economy.
Beyond the gold and gem economies, Wizards is trying out a few new concepts for digital card games: the "Wildcard" and the "Vault" mechanics. The Vault is a special resource you earn progress towards—eventually filling up a "Vault Meter" to 100%—which grants rewards, and can be repeated ad infinitum. The Vault encourages time and investment in MTG Arena, providing consistent, long-term rewards. Currently Wizards is testing both how quickly the Vault reaches 100% to unlock and award cards, how many cards players receive when it unlocks, and the types of cards it awards. The Vault is effectively a separate reward system to gold and booster packs, and provides Wizards the ability to "feed the machine" of the constructed environment.
The second mechanic, Wildcards, seems like a smart choice by Wizards. There are common, uncommon, rare and mythic Wildcards. Each Wildcard can be used to "swap" the Wildcard for any card of the same rarity. For Constructed Magic players, who invariably need to collect four of each card, the Wildcard mechanic is a huge boon. I asked Chris about why Wizards didn't use a Hearthstone-style Dusting system, where a player can "dust" a card by destroying it for a resource, then use that resource to create cards they don't have.
"We considered the common dusting-style system for MTG Arena but we didn't like multiple parts of the economy it creates." said Chris. "We didn't like that the system turns cards into currency, we didn't like that players are encouraged to destroy their collections, and we didn't like the barrier to entry that destroying cards to craft cards creates.
"We believe that Wildcards reduce the barrier to entry by allowing players to focus on crafting their perfect deck. When you open a Wildcard it is just pure possibility. It removes the risk/reward that comes with destroying cards from your collection in order to craft a deck you may not even like playing. If players don't seek out that knowledge in a dusting system, they can be left with a deck they don't like and no back up collection to try something else. We created The Vault to make every card you collect valuable, even if you already have four. By giving you Vault progress for opening packs, as well as playing in limited events like Draft or Sealed, we feel it creates a compelling goal for players that goes beyond just opening Boosters."
On Magic Online, savvy players generally buy the cards they need from a marketplace of "bots" that buy, sell and trade cards with scripted automation. Currently on Magic Online a competitive Standard deck costs around $100 to $200, quite reduced from its paper equivalent. Given that price tag, I asked Chris what a player might expect to build a competitive deck for on MTG Arena.
"A goal of MTG Arena is to make sure players can get cards without spending real-world money." Chris said, "That's one of the keys to making Magic more accessible. Part of balancing the economy is perfecting the Wildcard, Individual Card Rewards, and Vault systems. These will be a great way for players to get their hands on whichever cards may be eluding them. Until we're confident that we've nailed the free-to-play economy, though, it's hard to answer price questions."
One of the benefits of Magic Online is that as the Standard season ends, players can either liquidate their Standard cards to the 'bots or keep certain cards for play in a wide range of other formats, including Modern, Legacy, Vintage, and Commander. All the talk around MTG Arena has been about Standard which poses the thorny question: What happens once cards rotate out of Standard? Is it possible to liquidate current cards for Wildcards? Is the intention to grow the range of possible constructed formats on Arena?
"We understand that this is an incredibly important topic, and ensuring that players are always happy with their investments—whether it be time or money— is paramount in a good long-term game experience." Chris said "For now, I can say that we don't want players to dread rotation, or feel like they've lost anything, and that's in our minds as we work this out. To be clear, we have no plans to remove cards from players' collections once they rotate out of Standard. Now, the question becomes how players will get to keep playing with those cards. We have a few designs, but they're still in the works. We'll have more information about this later in the year."
"Right now, we are still early in the Closed Beta, building the game in front of fans and gathering feedback. Draft, best-of-three modes, and Sealed are some of the milestones we are working towards. Each will release when we think it is polished enough to put a good foot out there and get player feedback. We want to get the game right and be flexible to react to feedback, rather than publicly commit to dates at this time. With that said, it's going to be an exciting year for MTG Arena."
Although the interview ended there, there's a lot for invested players to chew on. What excites me the most is the possibility for MTG Arena to provide a pathway for competitive play. I've argued before that the Wizards Play Network (WPN) needs to be consolidated across paper and digital play. Wizard's moves to link everything to a sole WPN number is a good start for that, but it hasn't hit Magic Online. If the center of gravity for Limited and Standard Constructed play shifts to the stream-friendly MTG Arena, Wizards can proactively tie achievements to a WPN account. Likewise we could see cross-promotional events such as redeemable MTG Arena codes in paper booster packs, something that Magic Online is capable of, but has rarely been used.
It's almost certain that MTG Arena will be more attractive to stream-viewers than Magic Online, which never truly escaped its 2002 roots. Wizards has been on-again-off-again about whether Magic is an "esport" but MTG Arena cements it firmly into the "yes" camp—at least theoretically. There's plenty of ingredients required to hit the esport lighting-in-a-bottle.
The first thing an esport needs is a enthusiastic, dedicated and vocal player base. Wizards is fortunate in that it can leverage an existing player base, both in paper and from Magic Online, to kickstart a competitive community for MTG Arena. However the game itself needs to be, more than anything, fun. If you've followed any of the Great Designer Search competitions, or read any of Mark Rosewater's articles, you'll know how important "fun" is when Wizards develops Magic sets. But "fun" seems to have been a secondary factor throughout the development life of Magic Online, often put aside for more mundane targets such as "working" and "bug free" which are met with debatable success. Luckily for Magic Online, Magic as a game is immensely enjoyable and so many of its sins have been forgiven (or at least ignored).
But MTG Arena offers Wizards the opportunity to create a digital environment where the act of playing the game, rather than the game itself is fun. If there's anything Blizzard's Hearthstone has taught the digital TCG/CCG market it's that you can create a game where everything about the UI is fun, from way your avatar introduces itself, to the arrows that thud into a target when you're waiting for your opponent, to the lights and animations as battle takes place. Everything in Hearthstone is carefully designed to keep the player enjoying themselves.
From what we've seen of MTG Arena so far, it's heading in the right direction. It appears to play enjoyable, with far less "dead air" than Magic Online. MTG Arena is Wizard's real shot to prove it can build upon paper Magic to create something that is more than the sum of its parts—a rule set, a card set, a UI platform—to create something truly special. If it can achieve that, then attracting players is a certainty.
One of the biggest missed opportunities for Magic Online is its lack of integration with social media, in particular streaming sites. If you've ever set up OBS or XSplit to work with Magic Online, you'll know just how difficult it is to ensure the right window is showing the right content. Likewise, it's impossible to post results to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook in-app.
MTG Arena could solve this through native social-media integration. "Plug-and-play streaming" is becoming widespread in games, with the Sony PlayStation Network and the various incarnations of Grand Theft Auto 5 as prime examples. If Wizards provides players easy, effective tools to build an audience, they will take those tools and run with them. Wizards could provide a host of exportable, shareable, and extendable content such as interactive deck lists, draft recorders that allow others to "retry" the draft, gif-clips that show the last 10 plays—whatever Wizards and players can imagine. Anything that is broadcastable, fungible, or memeable will help build MTG Arena's audience.
If Wizards are planning to have competitive play on Arena, then they will need provide the ability to host and stream tournaments, replete with the usual commentary, infographics and extra content. Magic Online provides no capacity for Wizards to 'control' anything but the smallest of tournaments, often with the people in the same physical location, thereby somewhat diminishing the usefulness of a digital format.
If MTG Arena's backend is built as thoroughly as its frontend, then administrative tools that allow for "Tournament Control" could open up a host of new options for Wizards. Consider what a carefully choreographed, immaculately produced digital tournament might look like if Wizards gives itself the tools to delay the start of rounds, to replay games that have already been completed, or to instantly export-to-screen decklists for discussion by commentators. This is the type of digital competition that could smash all expectations for stream viewers.
That leaves the third critical element for eSports success.
It has to be worth it.
Here's one way Blizzard drove excitement for the 2017 Hearthstone World Championship: a $1,000,000 prize pool for 16 players. The League of Legends 2017 World Championship Prize Pool? Just under $5,000,000. The Prize pool for DOTA's International 2017? $24,787,916. Enough to make a Pro Tour player cry.
The fact is that the esports that drive esport as a credible, money-making venture, have a way higher prize structure than Magic does. If Wizards is determined to make MTG Arena into an esport machine, then it needs to fundamentally review how its competitive system works and the prize pools required to attract and retain both view interest and player talent.
Now maybe that doesn't happen immediately—though a day-one announcement of a tournament that lead to a $1M prize pool would garner some serious buzz—and maybe the paths of competitive play between MTG Arena and Magic Online don't cross for the first year or so, but eventually some rationalization will need to take place. I have concerns about what happens to Magic Online if that shift happens. People have thousands of dollars invested on Magic Online (Full disclosure: I cashed out several years ago.) and a lot of that value would evaporate if MTG Arena becomes seen to be Magic Online's natural successor for competitive play. Juggling one audience across two platforms is rarely a success. Eventually even stragglers will follow the crowd, and the crowd will follow the money.
It's clear for MTG Arena that Wizards made some smart choices around card collections, player rewards and building a pathway between Limited and Constructed play online. The question remains to be seen whether they can walk the fine line of building excitement, hype and buy-in to MTG Arena, particularly in regards to competitive play, without killing the golden goose that is Magic Online. Despite Wizards' firm commitment that Magic Online is not going anywhere, I have my doubts that both platforms can exist in parallel long-term.
But it'll be a good future if we can chant "Magic Online is dead—long live Magic online!"