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Arena's Economy Is a Mess, Especially for Supplemental Products like Kaladesh Remastered


Last week, we had the long-awaited return of Kaladesh and Aether Revolt to Magic Arena in the form of Kaladesh Remastered. The set has already had a massive impact on the Historic format, with cards like Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Aetherworks Marvel, Scrapheap Scrounger, the fast lands and more almost immediately seeing heavy play in the format. 

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Normally, the release of a new set is a time for celebration, and in one sense, this is true of Kaladesh Remastered. Players seem legitimately excited to play with the new-ish cards, both to revisit old Standard decks for a sweet hit of nostalgia and to build brand-new archetypes within the unique Historic card pool. On the other hand, much like past supplemental releases on Arena, there is a big, dark cloud hanging over the release of Kaladesh Remastered: the set is absurdly expensive, making it extremely hard for free-to-play (or mostly-free-to-play) players to enjoy the set in a meaningful way and costing whales a ton of money to get cards that have relatively limited utility on Arena since they are only legal in Historic and, on occasion, Historic Brawl. 

Because Kaladesh Remastered is sort of a greatest hits set featuring cards from both Kaladesh and Aether Revolt, it has significantly more mythics than a typical set. Even discounting the buy-a-box promo Sculpting Steel, which technically isn't in the set proper, there are 22 mythics in Kaladesh Remastered. So far, I've opened roughly 150 packs of Kaladesh Remastered (buying 90 pack bundle and a 45 pack bundles with gems and having some random gold left around for the rest) and spent all of the mythic wildcards from those packs on cards from the set. Here's where my collection currently sits:

After spending $150, I'm just over 1/3 of the way to completing a set of Kaladesh Remastered mythics (33 of 88, which works ut to 37.5%), which suggests that to actually complete a set of Kaladesh Remastered, I'd likely need to spend semwhere around $400. Hilariously, this is more than it would cost to buy a playset of all 22 Kaladesh Remastered mythics in paper, which would be $236 at current TCG mid prices, and magnitudes more than it would cost to get four copies of each Kaladesh Remastered mythic on Magic Online, where it would be a shockingly low $17 to own all 88 mythics. 

This is despite the fact that, in terms of gameplay, these cards are arguably worth significantly more on Magic Online or in paper than they are on Magic Arena because the cards can be played in Commander (a format not on Arena and unlikely to ever come to Arena), Modern, Legacy, and Pioneer as well as casually. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: owning cards in paper or Magic Online is more valuable in another way as well: you actually own the cards and can resell them, either for cash or in trade for other cards. 

And this doesn't even consider the duplicate card problem on Magic Arena. While (thankfully) this problem doesn't involve any of the mythics from Kaladesh Remastered, it does hit on some of the lower-rarity cards in the set. Take, for example, Rishkar, Peema Renegade. The rare was just added to Arena from Jumpstart a couple of months ago, so I already have four copies from opening Jumpstart packs, in a futile effort to get the cards I needed to play from that supplemental set. Now, Rishkar, Peema Renegade is back just a few months later in Kaladesh Remastered. Because cards on Magic Arena can't be traded or dusted, instead being locked into your account forever once you open them, this means that as I open Kaladesh Remastered packs to get the cards that I do need from the set, I get to look forward to opening four blank packs where a literally worthless Rishkar, Peema Renegade shows up in the rare slot. Whether rightly or wrongly, opening a pack where you get a rare or mythic that you already have four copies of feels a lot like being robbed. You give Wizards money for the chance to open a card that has some amount of value (because you can use it to build and play decks that you couldn't before), and Wizards gives you nothing in return because your fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth copies of Rishkar, Peema Renegade do nothing but take up room on your collection screen. 

Now, I know there's a counterargument to all of this: Magic Arena has a free-to-play option, which is missing from both Magic Online and paper Magic. I don't want to diminish the upside of someone on a tight budget (or new to Magic) being able to their time, rather than actual money, to assemble a deck. It is a big deal, although it doesn't really apply all that much to supplemental products specifically since you don't earn Kaladesh Remastered as rewards, which means if you're going to try to free-to-play your way into a supplemental product–infused Historic deck, you're going to have to rely almost exclusively on earning packs of other sets as rewards, opening those packs in hopes of getting wildcards while also slowly filling the wildcard wheel, and then eventually spending those wildcards on a Historic deck. While I'm sure it is technically possible to free-to-play your way into a set of Kaladesh Remastered cards, it seems like it would take years to earn enough wildcards to make that happen (while in the meantime, a bunch more supplemental products will have been released, which will require more wildcards and more grinding). Basically, while having a free-to-play mode is a huge upside of the Arena economy for Standard play (at least, for a certain group of players), this upside doesn't really apply to supplemental products or playing Historic, which are our primary topics today.

So, let's tie this all together: getting cards from supplemental products on Arena is significantly more expensive than it is to get those same cards in paper and hilariously more expensive than it is to get those cards on Magic Online, even though Magic Arena cards offer less utility (since Arena has fewer formats in which cards from supplemental products are legal) and less value (since you can't trade or sell your Arena cards, while you can in paper and on Magic Online). While this is bad in and of itself, Arena somehow manages to make the already disturbingly expensive and player-unfriendly system even worse by making you open worthless extra copies of cards that you already have a playset of in your collection.

I currently have 16 copies of Duress on Arena, 12 of which have the exact same art with the set symbol being the only difference between the cards. It's possible to have up to 20 Duresses. You only ever need four copies.

To me, this seems unsustainable. Wizards has made it clear that its goal is to at least get Pioneer onto Magic Arena, which means we're going to need a bunch more Kaladesh Remastered–style sets in the coming years. Pioneer starts with Return to Ravnica, which means we'll likely need Return to Ravnica Remastered, Theros Remastered, Khans of Tarkir Remastered, Battle for Zendikar Remastered, and Shadows over Innistrad Remastered. And this doesn't even really get us to full Pioneer since there are also a few Core Sets, and Remastered sets don't include all of the Pioneer-playable cards found in each block, which means we'll likely need at least a few—and possibly many—Pioneer Masters sets as well. And this is just to get Pioneer—a relatively new and small format—onto Arena. If Wizards ever decides to make the push for Modern or Legacy, you'll be better off buying an Alpha Black Lotus than trying to maintain a collection on Magic's supposedly accessible "free-to-play" digital client. 

It's becoming increasingly difficult for me to justify the cost of playing Historic on Magic Arena, and I'm incredibly lucky to be able to write it off as a work expense and have Goldfish pick up the tab. For the average player without these advantages? It's hard for me to imagine that spending $300 or $400 on a set like Kaladesh Remastered is a reasonable financial move in an absolute sense, even even less so right now with a once-in-a-century pandemic crushing the economy. Even if you have that in your Magic budget, you could be using that money to play basically any deck in any format you want on Magic Online through a loan program or putting together a new Modern or Commander deck in paper. 

And remember, this is all about a single set. Just this year on Magic Arena, we've gotten Theros: Beyond Death, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, Core Set 2021, and Zendikar Rising, along with two Historic Anthology releases, Jumpstart, Amonkhet Remastered, and Kaladesh Remastered. While Standard sets are much easier to grind out in free-to-play mode, if you aren't willing to wait months for the cards you need, it generally costs around $200 a set to get everything right away. That means the four Standard-legal releases add up to $800. Each Historic Anthology is $20 of gems if you buy them from the store, so that's another $40. Add in three supplemental products at a conservative $300 per set, and you're looking at $1,740 for one year of Magic Arena releases. And outside of the fun you have playing games with the cards you get from these sets, this is a sunk cost since all $1,740 of those cards is untradable and locked into your collection forever. 

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$1,740 is an absurd amount of money to dump into a game with zero resale value on a yearly basis. For that same amount of money, you could fuel a $250-limit loan program on Magic Online that would let you play every Standard deck, many Pioneer decks, and some Modern decks for more than four years and a $500-limit loan program account that would let you play essentially all Standard, Pioneer, and Modern decks and most Legacy and Vintage decks for more than two years. Or, you could buy a new $150 budget Commander deck in paper every month. 

The more supplemental sets that are added to Arena, the more painful the Arena economy becomes to players. While Standard is good at the moment, its track record over the past couple of years hasn't been great, which makes Historic (as the only other non-Brawl format available on Arena at all times) extremely important to the client's overall health and success. Sadly, Wizards is not only pricing free-to-play players out of the format but also doing its best to price whales who are willing to spend a lot of money to play Magic Arena out of the format as well. 

For Arena to succeed in the long term, it needs Historic and, hopefully, eventually other eternal formats as well, not just to exist but to thrive. For non-Standard formats to thrive, Arena needs to fix its economy in general, but especially in regard to supplemental products. Giving players agency to control their own collection with some sort of dusting or trading system is the ideal solution, although this was the obvious and ideal solution back when Magic Arena was created a few years ago, and Wizards chose to go another, much less player-friendly direction, which probably means it's unlikely for Wizards to change course now. If dusting and / or trading is off the table, then at the very least, Wizards needs to expand duplicate protection to cover reprints and either lower the cost of non-Standard sets or greatly increase the amount of free rewards for such sets (rather than reducing them, as we saw with Kaladesh Remastered, where the promo code TryKaladesh only offered a single booster pack, rather than the traditional three). 

Something needs to change with the Magic Arena economy. There are more and more digital TCGs / CCGs being released. The level and quality of the competition keep increasing. While Magic has the advantage of 25 years of history and a very dedicated player base, this will only keep players playing (and spending insane money on) what is likely the most expensive card game on the market for so long, especially considering that Magic Arena is not just competing against outside non-Magic games but also against other ways of playing Magic that are significantly cheaper and offer significantly more utility and value to players. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.



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