MTG Arena's closed beta non-disclosure agreement has been lifted. Wizards of the Coast is ready to show off their product to the masses. This doesn't entirely mean they're ready to ship and show the world, as the game is still in closed beta. This NDA lift allows them to gain loads of feedback from a wider audience than just beta testers before anything is set in stone.
I watched an interesting video by Hearthstone streamer Kripparrian about his take on MTG Arena after 15 hours of gameplay. This was really informative, as this was from the perspective of a MTG player who MTG Arena is specifically aimed at: someone who might revisit Magic if it became digital and accessible.
After seeing that video, I remembered the overwhelmingly negative feedback I saw Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, and Kenji Egashira make. Jon even suggested that it would be better to just scrap the entire project than continue. I had previously written an article partly about Arena; it seemed like a good time for me to weigh on on the matter. My previous article wasn't particularly well received, even though it was more about the scope of bannings in digital space. Notably, some readers called me a Wizards of the Coast shill. I wanted to make more of an open dialog of the state of Arena, so for absolute clarity I went with more of a vlog post:
We've got a few dialogues here: Kripp with a much more positive endorsement than I expected, albeit with some caveats. On the other hand, we have the most prolific MTG players in the world expressing some severe distaste.
I tend to agree with the latter, but while it's the exact opposite of what Wizards of the Coast wanted to hear I feel as though there are actions to salvage the project. The silver lining is this feedback is aligned with what appear to me to be their goals with MTG Arena: They need to tap into the Magic players who currently are not playing or considering playing Magic Online.
The Kripps of the world are much more important than the Finkels for MTG Arena to be successful. They aren't offering anything new in MTG Arena (yet) in regards to the rules and systems in games of Magic. Ultimately it's clear their audience is among players who have quit or consider themselves casual players, likely players who have even just barely touched the game who never ended up sticking with it might jump on the arena train. This eventuality could be achieved with the ability to play Magic on your phone. That is the huge step they are looking to take.
After all, we've seen Mark Rosewater reveal that there are 12 million Magic players as of November last year. This is much different from Wikipedia, which displays three citations of 20 million players. [Editor's Note: Wizards of the Coast has not publicly clarified between the two numbers, but the reddit discussion on this discrepancy notes in 2013 Hasbro stated there were 12 million active players as well. The exact methods different sources use for counting "active" and "players" are not public.]
How does Magic retain and develop that missing 8 million—in theory, people who played but no longer do? I'm not here to split hairs over these numbers as they could include people who never really dove too deep or are completely out of touch with the game since they played two times in high school. How do they tap into this market while also providing a new avenue for many current players? How do they cater to a younger generation of gamers who are social gamers, but specifically on a mobile platform?
The answer is a slam dunk: MTG Arena… in theory. So far, it seems like Wizards of the Coast is struggling sideways. Now that the NDA is lifted, it's up to all of us to provide feedback in order to right the ship. Finkel suggested it would be better to completely scrap it, but could we do much better and fix it. Let's look at some specifics:
• MTG Arena will be able to be played on mobile.
• It will, if it isn't already, make Magic more accessible to people. It will let you play on your PC or phone, and the barrier for entry will be lower.
• While it's far from perfect, it will (hopefully) eventually become more visually appealing and digestible than Magic Online.
• Did I say a lower barrier of entry? Well, because of the same rules engine as Magic the barrier is still going to be huge, and a younger generation of players is unlikely to try it out or stick with it. I would love to see the data on youth playing Magic as I can't imagine it's compelling. We're way beyond a tabletop gaming era game being appealing for kids.
• Your most famous players already hate it, including people who stream Magic for a living. One of the major goals is to make a more watchable Magic, and we're off to a real bad start.
• While the game is still in beta, it's unlikely that a polished look close to Hearthstone is achievable.
• While you might be able to play MTG Arena on your phone, Magic will never truly be able to be played on your phone in terms of gameplay and cards that have already been designed. While they may only make current and beyond cards playable in MTG Arena, it also means that reservations may have to be made in the design process to ensure health for MTG Arena. I would totally support it, if Wizards would just commit one way or another.
• Last but not least, there is nothing new here. Nothing to break into the space, and no new or extra gameplay modes for current players. There is no hook, or even an attempt at one. There is tons of work, preparation, money, careful planning but we are in the exact same place we've always been.
While hopefully this feedback helps Wizards launch MTG Arena, it's hard not to be frustrated as a longtime player. From my perspective, Wizards has failed in many ways. Timidity in the market and low confidence in the ability pursue building the brand leaves Magic in a constant stagnant state. This may be due to being Hasbro's cash cow that is continuously tapped year after year, without any leave to do go new places and and do awesome things.
Imagine if Google bought Wizards of the Coast? Could the Magic universe have stood and took a place among household names like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or Marvel? Maybe. But certainly not if there is no attempt.
The reality is Magic is 25 years old, and was created in a different time. We see many games change, adapt, and correct themselves where Magic has stayed the same. Markets shift and gamers change. Magic has been exactly what it is for a long time, which is certainly impressive. While I'm thankful that Magic has been around for so long, I'm even more disappointed thinking about what it could have been.