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Does Wizards Want Historic to Succeed on Magic Arena?

While early previews and hype for Throne of Eldraine have taken over as the main conversation in the community over the last few days, Wizards' Historic announcement from last week still deserves more discussion. If you missed the article breaking down the specifics of Historic, it might be worth taking a minute or two to read it over, but I'll give you a brief rundown here. If you're not familiar with Historic, it's essentially the long-awaited "Arena Modern" format (and by that, I mean a non-rotating format containing not only cards in Standard but also those that have rotated out of Standard). While the format is currently much, much smaller than traditional Modern—containing sets from Ixalan forward—Wizards has said that it will be growing the format by adding 15 or 20 cards from Magic's history each quarter. Meanwhile, along with supporting the format with ranked play every few months along with some special events on Arena, Wizards is also doubling the cost of the format compared to Standard. Starting about a month after rotation this fall, if you want a Historic card that has rotated from Standard (or one of the special "Magic's history" additions coming soon), you'll have to pay with two copies of the proper wildcard, rather than one like with Standard. 

While there has been a bit of quibbling about the exact makeup of Historic (some players argue it should have more sets, especially since it is known that Kaladesh block and at least some of Shadows over Innistrad block are already programed into the client), the main focus of the community ever since the announcement has been the cost of the Historic format. The decision to make Historic cards cost two wildcards instead of one has been one of the least popular decisions Wizards had made with Arena, and it followed up the decision fueling the flames of disappointment by declaring on one of its live streams that the reason Historic costs twice as much is that doubling the price will somehow make the format more fun.

Even though the price of the format has been the hottest topic, the plan of adding old cards to Historic—15 or 20 at a time every few months—is also worth discussing and might actually be more important to the format's long-term health than the wildcard cost. So today, we're going to take some time to talk about Historic. Along with discussing what the announcements could mean for the future of the format, we'll also try to get inside Wizards' head and figures out why it decided to head out of the gates by leading the format in such an unpopular direction.

Why Historic Matters

"Our intent for sure is to have Arena's Standard Plus format. We don't have any details to share on exactly what that looks like but don't worry, players will still be able to use all their cards that rotate out." - Elaine Chase, Vice President of Esports at Wizards of the Coast, December 6, 2018

Arena has done many great things for digital Magic. It offers a free-to-play option that hadn't existed before, drawing new players into the game (along with "lapsed" players who used to play Magic). It offers a mostly sleek, shiny client with flashy animations for players who have a hard time dealing with the stripped-back, spreadsheet-esque feel of Magic Online. The fast, fun gameplay offers the perfect short burst of Magic, where players can sneak in a game in as little as 5 or 10 minutes thanks to the best-of-one format. 

However, for all of the great aspects of Arena, it does have one big flaw: so far, the client has been almost exclusively tied to Standard. Yes, there are special events every now and then, and we do know that more formats (Brawl along with Historic) are on the horizon, but the Standard focus of Arena means that Arena is good when Standard is good, but when Standard is bad (and Standard, based on its design of a set release every quarter and a rotation once a year, goes through bad—or at least, boring—periods on a regular basis), there isn't much for a Magic player to do on Arena outside of draft. Historic should—or at least, could—be a solution to this problem, giving Arena its own version of Modern that will allow players to keep playing Magic during the dead / boring / bad times of Standard rather than dropping Magic for another game and then (hopefully) return after the next set release or rotation.

The other reason why Historic is essential to the success of Arena is the game's economy. For reasons still not fully understood, Wizards decided to stray from the tried-and-true path (not just of other games but of Magic in paper and on Magic Online) of trading and dusting in favor of the wildcard system, which locks cards into your account forever. While there are benefits to the wildcard system, the drawback is that once rotation hits, all of the cards that you spent time and money to earn or buy will suddenly become valueless. Historic was originally billed as a way for players to keep playing with their cards after they rotate from Standard, which is key to making players feel safe (or at least, safer) spending money and time on the wonky Arena economy.

Standard Is King

Sadly, it is starting to feel like Wizards views Historic more like a necessary evil (to keep players buying Standard cards year after year by minimizing fears of loss of value at rotation) than an essential part of the Arena experience or a format that deserves support on its own merits. In many ways, this makes sense, at least from Wizards' perspective: thanks to its consistent set release and rotation schedule, Standard is Wizards' bread and butter. Historic, much like Modern in paper, allows players to use the same cards forever, which means Historic players don't need to consistently buy new cards from new sets or build an entirely new collection after rotation. This means that, at least in theory, Historic players will make Wizards less money. 

This leaves us in an awkward position: Wizards needs some way for cards to be useful after rotation or risk players opting out of the Arena economy altogether since it can be quite expensive, especially when rotation hits, so Wizards made Historic. At the same time, Wizards needs to make sure that Historic isn't too successful, or it could actually end up hurting Wizards' bottom line as players realize it makes more economic sense to invest in a Historic deck you can play for years, rather than join the rat race and constant churn of Standard. 

The end result from Wizards' perspective, I believe, is that it wants Historic to be just good enough to make players feel safe investing in Standard cards that, without trading or dusting, will become valueless (outside of formats like Historic) after rotation but not good enough to siphon players away from Standard. Basically, Wizards wants all Arena players to be Standard players, with Historic being a way to keep players buying into Standard year after year by minimizing fears about rotation (and also pushing players to buy cards while they are legal in Standard to avoid the increased cost of cards after they rotate).

The Cost of Historic

This bring us to the x2 wildcard cost of Historic. In the context of what we've been talking about, it seems clear that the real reason for the high cost of the format isn't because it somehow makes the format more fun or that it splits the player base too much but because Wizards wants to make sure that Historic isn't a competitor for Standard, or anything close to it. 

It's here that we see the biggest disconnect between the player base and Wizards. Many players viewed Historic as Arena Modern and even hoped it would be a Frontier-like, post-Modern format that would make its way into the paper world with enough time. Meanwhile, Wizards seems to view Historic more like the special events it puts up every once and a while, like Momir or Omniscience Draft: as an additional way to keep the player base engaged in the game enough to keep buying Standard cards and packs. 

If Wizards wants everyone on Arena to be Standard players but has to add an additional format to keep rotating cards at least somewhat relevant, to not risk people opting out of the Magic Arena economy altogether, how can Wizards make this happen? By making Historic prohibitively expensive, which is the path we seem to be on, considering the x2 wildcard cost of the Historic format. The goal seems to be to make sure people stick with Standard rather than jumping ship for Historic. And if you do decide to drop Standard for Historic, you'll have to pay so much money to Wizards that it'll come out ahead anyway, even if Wizards mostly loses you as a Standard player.

Some people seem convinced that the x2 wildcard cost is an intentionally unpopular announcement from Wizards as part of a master plan where, a few days or weeks in the future, Wizards can walk back the price hike and look like heroes. To me, this seems unlikely (and perhaps even less likely, now that another State of the Beta has been published without any mention of the cost of Historic). A much simpler explanation is that Wizards doesn't really want Historic to succeed, since it fears Historic will be a threat to Standard and cost Wizards money.

New Cards in Historic

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At least from my perspective, the announcement that Wizards will add 15 or 20 new cards each quarter to the Historic format seems to support the idea that Wizards isn't interested in Historic taking off and being a legitimate format. As a player who likes changes in the metagame, I think the idea of Historic being an ever-changing format sounds fun, but from an economic perspective, these cards will make it even less practical for players to buy into Historic. 

While we don't know exactly which cards will show up in November (the first batch of new Historic cards), some of the examples from Wizards included Dark Confidant, Wurmcoil Engine, and Brainstorm, all Modern or even Legacy staples. These are cards that are of such a high power level that Wizards will likely never reprint them in Standard, but will they be okay for Historic, which will be significantly smaller than our current Standard format when it first launches, with just nine sets?

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The risk with adding powerful new cards to Historic every three months is that the format will actually start to resemble Standard (which is likely what Wizards wants since the churn of Standard and constant releases and rotations are how it makes money). It would be very easy for Wizards to tactically dump powerful cards into Historic that either invalidate the best / most played decks in the format or create new decks that are much more powerful than the decks currently in Historic, to force players to buy new decks and cards (at x2 the price) on a regular basis. If Wizards wants to, it could even release such a powerful batch of cards that the effect would almost be similar to rotation, invalidating the entire top tier of the metagame and forcing anyone who wants to keep playing Historic to spend a bunch of money to keep competing in the format. Remember, it's not just the special "new to Historic" cards that cost double the wildcards, it's any cards that has rotated from Standard, so if a group of powerful artifacts make Tezzeret, Artificer Master into the top deck in Historic, you don't just need to pay double to get all the new artifacts, but all of the support cards from past Standard sets as well.

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Imagine paper Modern but with Wizards dropping 15 or 20 Legacy / Vintage staples into the format every three months. Would you feel safe spending $200 on a playset of Force of Negation knowing that in just a few weeks, Wizards could drop Force of Will into the format and invalidate your investment? Would you spend $400 on Mox Opal if you knew that at any time, Mox Jet and the other original Moxen (remember, there's no Reserved List encumbering digital reprints) could suddenly be legal in the format, with no real warning, rhyme, or reason? I imagine the answer would be no. One of the reasons why formats like Modern and Commander are so popular, even though the upfront cost of entry into the format is high, is that when you build a Modern deck, you do so on the assumption that it will be good for years and maybe even decades. While buying into Modern costs way more initially than Standard, when you look at the format over the cost of five or ten years, Modern is often actually less expensive since you opt out of the rat race of needing to buy new cards and decks several times each year. 

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The other problem with adding new cards to Historic on a regular basis is that it diminishes the format's original promise as a place to play your cards after rotation. There's a huge difference between legal and playable. Right now we have maybe 2,000 cards that are legal in Standard, but maybe 1/4 of those cards are actually playable (and this might be generous), with many being strictly worse versions of other cards in the format. In non-rotating formats like Historic, it's even less likely that your rotating Standard cards will actually see play, since there's even more competition (and doubly so with random powerful cards from Magic's past entering the format on a regular basis). Once Stormbreath Dragon or Thundermaw Hellkite is added to the Historic, your Demanding Dragon (which you were forced to hold onto through rotation on the promise that you'd have a way to keep playing it) won't actually be playable. It will just be some dead pixels you'll wish you could delete from your Arena deckbuilder but can't. Once we get Wrath of God or even just Day of Judgment, your Cleansing Nova will just be a bad memory of wasted wildcards. Once Birds of Paradise hits the format, you'll likely have little or no use for all of those formerly good-in-Standard mana dorks cluttering up your collection. The truth of formats like Modern is that while technically your rotating Standard cards are "playable," (i.e. legal to play) most of the cards that rotate from Standard aren't actually playable.In paper, many players avoid this problem by selling or trading away their Standard cards before rotation strikes. On Arena, this isn't an option.

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Thanks to the new cards being added to the format, Historic is priced like paper Modern but without any of the safety that paper Modern provides its players in opting out of rotation and the Standard rat race. It's a format that costs twice as much as Standard but on a client where your cards don't have any real value outside of the fun you have playing with them (and in some ways, this is especially true of Historic cards, at least at this point, since the format lacks the constant tournament support and ranked play offered by Standard). Once you buy a card, it is locked into your collection forever. Basically, if paper Modern were managed in the same way as Historic in Modern, I don't think the format would exist. It would simply be too expensive and too unstable for anyone to spend a big chunk of their hard-earned money on the format. Without changes, it's hard to see Historic ever becoming a real format.

Fixing Historic

So far, we've mostly talked about the issues with the current play for Historic, so let's wrap up with some ways to fix the format, so it actually might have a chance at succeeding.

  1. Lower the Cost: As I mentioned before, I believe that the cost of Historic is an intentional choice from Wizards and that Wizards is unlikely to walk it back in a meaningful way. However, if Wizards wants historic to succeed (and I'm not sure it does), the first step would be dropping the cost of the format. Modern in paper can survive and thrive with a high cost of entry because it offers players long-term stability and paper cards have real value (e.g., I felt okay about spending $1,000 to build Mono-Red Prison for Modern, in part because I knew if it ever came down to it, I could sell my Chalice of the Voids, Ensnaring Bridges, Blood Moons, and other staples to recoup a big chunk of the value). Giving Historic cards the same wildcard cost as everything else on Arena would go a long way toward making the format accessible and playable in an Arena economy that locks cards into your account forever. 
  2. Release Sets Rather Than Random Good Cards: The problem with releasing 15 or 20 new cards into Historic a quarter isn't that new cards will be entering the format; it's the randomness and unpredictability of how these cards will be added and what these cards would be. In an ideal world, rather than adding random cards to shake up the metagame every few months, Wizards would simply start backfilling sets, maybe one or two a year, until Historic has its own identity. I don't have any illusions that Arena will ever have full Modern, but if Wizards were to add sets back to Magic Origins over the course of a few years, it could have a fun and unique Frontier-like format that not only would be popular but would likely have paper potential as well. Going the set route would make it much safer for players to invest in the format because they would know what cards would be entering the format next before investing (x2) wildcards and be able to make an informed decision.
  3. Release Masters Edition Sets: While adding and backfilling full sets is the ideal fix to the "new card" problem, if that's not desirable or possible, taking a page from Magic Online's book and adding Masters Editions would be a good option. If you're not familiar with Masters Edition, back when Magic Online was first released, it had a very similar problem to the one Magic Arena is currently facing: the dev team needed to keep up on releasing several Standard-legal sets each year but also needed to get older cards into the client (when Magic Online was released, it was lacking many Legacy sets). While Magic Online did eventually backfill most of the full sets, this took a lot of time. So while players waited, Magic Online released four Masters Edition sets, which were basically like paper Masters sets, except the cards were new to the Magic Online client. This is how many Legacy staples (like Force of Will) first entered the client and later how the Power 9 came to Magic Online as well. Adding a Historic Masters Edition each year would not only give Wizards another product to sell on Arena but likely an extremely profitable draft format if it was designed even half as well as recent Masters sets in paper. From the players' perspective, this would make Historic much more stable. Rather than worrying that Wizards could invalidate their deck (or the entire metagame) every three months, there would be one big shakeup to the Historic format each year. 
  4. Make Historic an Evergreen Competitive Format: Let's assume that Wizards isn't willing to drop the price of the format and will refuse to add sets (or even Masters Edition sets) rather than random individual cards. What can Wizards do to make Historic more appealing under its current structure? The answer here is simple: provide a Historic ranked play (or tournament play) option all the time, rather than once in a while. If Wizards is going to make players spend twice as much money to play Historic, the format should at least have enough support in-client that players will be able to use their (very expensive) Historic cards on a regular basis. For some reason, whenever it comes to adding new events, Wizards seems to freak out about "splitting the player base," which might make sense if the game was struggling or had a small playerbase, but according to Hasbro and KeyBanc, there are already at least three million Magic Arena players, and they expect the number to grow to 11 million in the next couple of years. Magic Online usually has tens of thousands of players (a drop in the bucket compared to Arena) but manages to support somewhere between 30 and 50 different events / formats /queues at any given time. It's hard to believe that Arena has billions of games played by millions of players but that adding a Historic queue would make the entire system fall apart, especially when Magic Online supports several times as many formats and events with maybe 5% of the Arena player base. 


To answer the question in the title—does Wizards want Historic to succeed on Magic Arena?—my answer is no, I don't think that it does. Essentially every choice Wizards has made regarding the Historic format suggests that it actually fear that the format will succeed, rather than hoping it does. Speaking of hope, I obviously hope that I'm wrong about Historic and that Wizards changes course in a way that allows to format to survive and thrive. Having non-Standard play options is key to keeping players engaged with and playing Magic Arena when Standard goes through its dull or rough patches, which happen on a regular basis due to the nature of the format's quarterly release schedule and yearly rotation. Hopefully, Wizards realizes this. Even though Arena's primary goal is to support Standard play, having players play Historic rather than turning off Arena to play Hearthstone or another competitor when Standard is in a lull is a preferable option. At worst, this means those players will still be part of the game when Standard has a set release or rotation and is on the upswing, making them more likely to shell out for a fun new Standard deck rather than risk losing them to another game forever.

Anyway, that's all for today. Are you planning on playing Historic on Arena? What changes are you looking for in the format? If you had complete control of the Historic format, what choices would you make regarding its direction, card pool, and set list? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at

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