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How Expensive Is Magic Online?

Last week, we talked about how the price of playing paper Standard has decreased to the point that it's, at the very least, at its low point for the last several years and may even be at an all-time low (although we don't have good data from 20 years ago). However, one thing that became clear is that a lot of people are also interested in the cost of digital Magic, and while we didn't have enough room or words to really get into it last week, that's our topic for today.

So today, we basically have two goals. First, we are going to discuss how much Magic Online (MTGO) really costs. While the popular narrative is that Magic Online is extremely expensive, it's worth taking the time to really dig into the numbers and look at the cost of getting an account, acquiring cards, and playing various formats. Second, we are going to put these numbers in context by comparing Magic Online to other digital games like Hearthstone, Pokémon, Eternal, and Hex. Then, we'll wrap up with some ideas about where Magic Online can improve in the future.

It's important to note that we aren't going to be judging these games by how fun they are to play. While my expectation is that, if we could have some sort of poll, most people would say that Magic is the best game of the bunch, fun is subjective. Plus, I can't speak firsthand about how good or bad the other games are because I haven't actually played most of them (Hearthstone being the main exception). Instead, our focus will be exclusively on how much it costs to start and keep playing the games. Anyway, let's get to it!

How Much Does Magic Online Cost?

Creating an Account

Let's start from the beginning—when you decide to create a Magic Online account. This process, all by itself, is going to cost $10, although it comes with some perks, including 800 cards, five Event Tickets (which is the equivalent of one dollar each—for the rest of the article, we'll convert all Event Ticket costs to dollars for easy comparison to other games), and enough New Player Points to play in a handful of new-player events. Unfortunately, the package you get when you sign up simply isn't worth $10 in an absolute sense. While the New Player Points will get you a few hours of entertainment, which is probably worth $10, from a financial perspective, the New Player Points are essentially worthless, and the 800 cards are mostly unplayable (you get two of every Standard-legal common and the Welcome Deck rares and uncommons). The only part of the package with real value is the Event Tickets, but you're only getting $5 of Event Tickets for the $10 price.

The bigger problem is that, in the year 2017, the industry standard for digital TCGs / CCGs is that creating an account is at the very least free, with many offering new players a way to earn cards without spending money. Being the only digital card game with a cost attached to making an account naturally puts up a wall for new players. First, if you want to try the game, you need to have access to a credit card, which can be problematic for some younger players; second, you have to be willing to pay $10 just to try MTGO, while you could instead try Hearthstone, Eternal, or Pokemon for free. Also problematic is the fact that simply creating a Magic Online account isn't worth the $10 cost. In theory, when you buy a video game, you pay X dollars because you believe that you get X + Y dollars of entertainment for your money. It's hard to argue that this is true of the $10 account creation fee on Magic Online.

Of course, it's possible that Wizards has this fee to keep people from signing up for Magic Online, although this seems like a strange plan when most digital games want as many players as possible. The other weird benefit is that paying $10 for an account does help position Magic as a premium game (we tend to think more expensive things are somehow better), but it's hard to imagine that these benefits are worth the cost. The cost of creating a Magic Online account likely contributes to the difference in player bases between Magic Online and games like Hearthstone. While having 70 million players like Hearthstone is impressive, anyone can download Hearthstone (and start playing) for free, while having 70 million players sign up for Magic Online would bring in $700 million in revenue (which is likely two or three years worth of total—paper and digital—Magic revenue).

Acquiring Cards

The cost of playing Magic Online is heavily dependent on how you want to play the game. Technically, you could only play player-run Penny Dreadful events and spend essentially zero dollars after you create an account, or you could spend hundreds of dollars to play competitive Vintage or Legacy. As such, to really understand the cost of playing Magic Online, we have to break things down by format. 


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We talked a bit about Standard in last week's article, and much like paper Standard, Magic Online Standard is extremely cheap at the moment. The average cost of the top 10 decks in the format is $167.50, with only two of the top 10 decks being over $200 (much like paper, Mardu Vehicles is the most expensive, coming in at $242) and the cheapest tier deck—Temur Energy—costing only $100. It's also likely that these prices will drop further in coming weeks as the new redemption schedule comes into effect and decreases demand for cards from Kaladesh block, even though they will still be in Standard for another year and a half. 


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I could probably write an entire article about the price of playing Modern on Magic Online because there is a very common misconception that the format is extremely expensive in digital form. While this used to be true, the price of playing Modern has dropped significantly over the past few years, mostly because of the Modern Masters series. As of today, the average cost of buying a top 10 deck in Modern is is $363. This isn't to say that $363 is nothing—it's obviously still a lot of money to play a game—but check out the average price of the top 10 most played Modern decks on Magic Online in years past. 

In all fairness, we did have a Modern Masters reprinting a few months ago, which is likely helping to keep prices in check, but at the same time, that's sort of the entire point. Wizards has repeatedly shown that it is willing to reprint Modern staples over and over again, which is having a major impact on the cost of playing the format. 

Back to the present day for a minute—the average price of $363 is simplistic, since there is a massive range in the price of Modern decks. Right now, three of the four most played decks (Affinity, UR Storm, and Burn) are under $300 on Magic Online, and both Burn and Storm actually cost less than Mardu Vehicles in Standard. The same is true of Dredge, which is the cheapest of the top 10 decks at only $215. On the other hand, if you want to play a Tarmogoyf deck like Death's Shadow or Abzan, you're going to have to spend over $700. All this is to say, you don't need to pay $700 or even $363 to play competitive Modern because many of the best decks in the format are currently in the $250 price range. 

Legacy / Vintage

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Legacy and Vintage are sort of fringe formats on Magic Online. While they are played and have very devoted followings, they are significantly less played than any of the other constructed formats. As such, it's rare for new Magic Online players to immediately jump into one of these eternal formats (the same is true in paper), so instead of breaking them down individually, let's just briefly discuss them together. 

Right now in Legacy, the average price of a top 10 deck in the format is $618, while the average Vintage deck is actually a bit cheaper (thanks to Magic Online not having a Reserved List and Power Nine cards being dirty cheap) at $558. While this makes Vintage and Legacy the most expensive formats on Magic Online, they are also the formats where you save the most when comparing digital Magic to paper Magic

Different in Average Price of Top 10 Decks, Paper to MTGO
Deck Paper Cost Magic Online Cost $ Savings Percent Savings
Standard $275 $167 $108 per deck 39%
Modern $834 $363 $471 per deck 56%
Legacy $2,572 $618 $1,954 per deck 78%
Vintage $14,992 $558 $14,434 per deck 96%

As you can see, building a deck on Magic Online is significantly cheaper than building it in paper for any format, but the difference is even more meaningful for older formats. While spending five or six hundred dollars for a Legacy or Vintage deck is still a lot of money, it's actually possible for most people to experience these formats on Magic Online, while this simply isn't true in paper thanks to decks costing as much as a car. However, the cost of building a deck is only part of the cost of Magic Online. We also need to look at the cost of playing events.

Playing Events on Magic Online

Much like getting cards on Magic Online, the amount you spend on events is variable. You can play unlimited casual games for free and even play for free in player-run events that sometimes give out prizes. On the other hand, playing tournaments on Magic Online costs money, and tournament games are your only chance of actually winning prizes. Since casual play is free, let's discount this option (although it is important to mention because many people spend forever on Magic Online without actually paying any entry fees) and talk about how much it costs to play tournaments. 


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When it comes to playing constructed on Magic Online, two major options are available all the time. First, there are one-match two-player tournaments that cost $2 to enter, with the winner getting $3 and the loser getting $0.50. Then, there are five-match leagues, which cost $8 (for "friendly," with flat payouts) or $12 (for "competitive," with top-heavy payouts). While this might sound like a lot of money, as of right now, when you consider the prizes you win for posting good records, you actually "go infinite" (play for free) by winning just 50% of the time in both the friendly and competitive leagues.  

Of course, there are other ways of playing as well, including very competitive Challenge events each weekend all the way up to Pro Tour Qualifiers, and while these events typically cost more to enter ($25 or $30, depending on the specific event), they also have more prizes to support the higher entry cost. The "Challenge" events are an especially good value, with a 50% win rate giving you a net gain of $8 per event. 


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Limited is another story on Magic Online. While the actual cost of playing an event varies because you can enter with either tickets or booster packs, generally speaking, a draft is going to cost somewhere between $10 and $14 and a sealed event will cost $24. The reason for the high cost is that you get to keep the cards you open in your draft or sealed pool, but opening sealed product on Magic Online is such bad value (the current EV of an Amonkhet booster pack is $0.51, while the retail price is $3.99) that this doesn't really add much value to playing limited, so you are still heavily dependent on winning prizes to not lose a ton of value. 

Perhaps the biggest problem with limited is that, unlike constructed, you don't really get a discount for playing on Magic Online compared to paper. While playing any competitive constructed format on Magic Online is way cheaper than in paper, limited is arguably more expensive because the EV of your booster packs is so low. This makes playing limited a huge, huge money drain, to the point where many players use constructed as a way to build up winnings, just to blow it all playing limited events. 

The Economy

So far, we've seen that building constructed decks on Magic Online is far cheaper than building them in paper and that playing constructed tournaments is actually a surprisingly good value, while limited is an extreme money sink. Of course, our goal today isn't just to compare Magic Online to paper Magic but to other competing digital games. However, before we talk about the cost of playing other games, we do need to talk about one more thing: the Magic Online economy. 

Magic Online cards are actually very similar to paper Magic cards, in that they are worth real money. Just as easily as you can sell your paper deck to a store or another players for cash, you can sell your Magic Online cards to a store (or bot, in Magic Online slang) for cash. Actually, the spread between buy and sell prices on Magic Online is incredibly small, typically in the range of 10%, which means if you buy a $200 deck, you can immediately turn around and sell it for $180 with a very minimal commitment of time and effort. 

This means two things. First, many players on Magic Online essentially "rent" decks rather than owning them like they do in paper. Since it is so easy to switch from one deck to another for minimal loss, players aren't really tied to one deck per season and are instead able to trade from one deck to another. While this might not seem like a financial benefit, in a weird way it is, since you sort of get multiple decks for one price. Second, the ability to get real money back out of Magic Online (by selling your collection) is important in comparing the cost of Magic Online to other games because not all of Magic Online competitors offer this option.


The actual price of building a Hearthstone deck is confusing and complicated thanks to the fact that you can't simply buy a Hearthstone deck. The only way to get cards in Hearthstone is as rewards for playing (which is an extremely slow process) or by purchasing packs. Much like Magic, Hearthstone cards have rarities, but each card of a rarity is valued the same, which is important when it comes to "dusting" (a process where you can essentially trade cards you don't want for cards you do want). So, let's say you open a bunch of packs but get cards you don't need, instead of the cards you need to build your deck. You can then trade four for one (so your four rares for the one rare you want, for example) by dusting. The point of all this is that calculating the price of a Hearthstone deck is a complicated and somewhat confusing process, since the process for acquiring the cards you need for a deck is complicated and confusing (and because Hearthstone cards have no real-world value and are untradable, outside of the dusting process we just talked about). Thankfully, we do have some resources on the cost of playing Hearthstone.

Since the primary way of getting the Hearthstone cards you need for a deck is by turning cards into dust and then buying the other cards with the deck, the first step to figuring out how much a Hearthstone deck costs is determining the real-world value of dust. From the calculations I've found, one dust is worth somewhere between $0.011 and $0.012 (so 100 dust would be $1.10–$1.20). For the sake of simplicity, let's just say that one dust is $0.015, making 100 dust $1.15. Step two is figuring out how much dust a tier Hearthstone deck costs. For this, we'll turn to Disguised Toast, which breaks down the Hearthstone meta. There, we find that the average dust cost of the top 10 decks in Hearthstone is 7,524, which gives us an average cost of $86.52 based on our exchange rate of dust to dollars. 

While I wish this were the end of it, we have one more major problem—you can't simply dust for all Hearthstone cards. Instead, there are some cards you can only get by playing through an Adventure, which costs $19.99. While this might be changing in the future, for now, this essentially adds $19.99 to the cost of building a deck (since all or nearly all tier decks have at least some adventure cards), raising the average price of building a tier deck to $106.42 (although your second, third, and fourth tier decks will be slightly cheaper because you'll already have the Adventure cards). It's also worth noting that Blizzard recently increased pack prices, which apparently increased the cost of a deck by 23%, and while I'm not as confident with these numbers, it may very well be that the current cost of a tier deck is closer to $130 on average, thanks to this change increasing the cost of acquiring packs, which give you cards to dust for the cards you need for your deck. 

So, what we can say with certainty is that the average cost of buying a tier Hearthstone deck is somewhere between $106 and $130, depending on how recent changes have impacted the cost and value of dust. This means that, in a vacuum, building a tier Hearthstone deck is a bit cheaper than building a tier Standard deck on Magic Online (20% to 30% less, depending on what number we settle on). However, this number comes with a big asterisk, since Hearthstone cards are untradable, which means all the money you spend on your Hearthstone deck is forever locked into the program, while your Magic Online collection is easily turned back into real money at a moment's notice. 

As for Hearthstone limited, Arena (the Hearthstone equivalent of draft) costs $1.99, which is obviously a huge discount compared to Magic Online, and to break even, you need go to 7-3 or better in your one-game matches. This means that the EV of playing Hearthstone Arena is roughly the same as playing limited on Magic Online (you need to post really, really good records to come out ahead in either), although the fact that it's only $2 to play instead of $10 to $14 makes playing (and losing money) on Arena runs more bearable than drafts on Magic Online, since the entry fee is much lower. Basically, you're losing roughly the same amount as a percentage, but with Hearthstone, you lose it much more slowly because each Arena run is much cheaper (essentially the different between playing penny slots and $5 slots). 


Eternal works mostly like Hearthstone in terms of how the economy functions. Cards are not tradable (so they have no real-world / resale value) and are acquired in almost exactly the same way (either by buying packs and then dusting, which I believe is called stoning in Eternal, or by earning them through playing the game, which apparently happens a bit faster than in Hearthstone). Also like Hearthstone, when it comes to stoning cards, you trade four of your cards for one card of the same rarity. We're going to cheat a little bit to determine the cost of Eternal because I'm not sure an MTGGoldfish-like site exists for the game yet. 

A few months ago, there was an amazing (and very in-depth) article comparing the cost of Eternal to Hearthstone, so we are going to use that for our Eternal numbers. Assuming the author's math is correct (and I believe it is), the top four decks in Eternal have an average cost of about $80, which makes the average deck significantly cheaper than either Magic Online or Hearthstone. Meanwhile, limited is a bit more expensive than Hearthstone at $4 a draft (I believe), but unlike Hearthstone (and like Magic Online), you get to keep the cards from the three packs you open in the draft, which provides some extra value compared to Hearthstone


Editor's Note: This section was updated June 5, 2017 to clarify that while it is much harder to sell Hex cards for real money, you can trade card for card without losing too much value along with the invite-only tournement being a bi-monthly $5k rather than a weekly $500 tournement

In terms of how the economy runs, Hex is the game most similar to Magic Online, since cards are tradable and have real-world value, which means "cashing out" is an option, unlike with Hearthstone and Eternal. It even has an auction house to facilitate the buying and selling of cards, which is a nice bonus. Unfortunately, the spread on Hex cards is apparently much worse than on Magic Online. If you buy a deck on Magic Online, you can resell it for about 90% of its value, while on Hex, this number is closer to 50% if you want to get real money back for your cards (although you do better if you trade your cards for other cards). This makes Hex similar to Magic Online in the ability to switch decks, although some of the money sink problems of Hearthstone and Eternal remain thanks to the low cash value of Hex cards. 

As for the cost of building a Hex deck, Hex Primal lists seven tier decks with an average cost of $142, which is about the same price range as Hex players on Twitter mentioned when I asked the cost of building a tier deck. This means that Hex is slightly less expensive than Magic Online (by about 15%), while more expensive than Hearthstone or Eternal (although the advantage over Magic Online diminishes if you switch decks often thanks to the significantly worse spread for selling cards). The upside of Hex is that players seem to love the tournament scene, which offers high-value events that pay out cash for a relatively low entry, and even offers $5,000 bi-monthly inviteatournements for the top 64 players ranked players in both limited and constructed. Meanwhile, limited falls into the middle of the price scale, costing about $7 a draft—more expensive than Hearthstone or Eternal, but slightly less expensive than Magic Online.


I wish I could give you solid numbers on the cost of building a tier deck in Pokémon TCG Online, but the economy is so convoluted that these numbers don't seem to exist. You can't buy cards for Pokemon Online; instead, you get codes from buying paper Pokémon packs and then use those codes to redeem packs online, which gives you cards than you can then trade for other cards. Apparently, there is some equally convoluted way of figuring everything out using this site, but it seems like an incredible amount of work, which is one of the bigger problems with Pokémon TCG Online. When I asked about the game on Twitter, there were some players who had actually given up on it altogether because acquiring cards was so cumbersome. That said, the general feeling is that, once you figure out how to get the cards, the decks are actually fairly cheap—much cheaper than Magic Online and Hex and likely cheaper than Hearthstone and Eternal as well.


So, where does all this information leave us as far as the cost of playing Magic Online? First, it is true that Magic Online decks are more expensive than other competing games, especially in a vacuum. If you are a new player picking a digital card game to play, not only do you have to pay a $10 fee to join Magic Online (unlike all the other games, which are free) but then the initial cost of building a tier-one deck for Magic Online is somewhat higher than the rest. However, even in this vacuum, Magic Online prices are not that much higher than its major competitors, with Hex decks being maybe 15% cheaper and Hearthstone decks being somewhere between 20% and 30% less. 

Of course, none of these games take place in a vacuum, and for longer-term enfranchised players, there's a fairly strong argument that Magic Online is actually cheaper than most of the competition for a couple of reasons. First, Magic Online cards have actual value, and you can eventually cash out your collection if and when you decide to stop playing the game for near full value. For example, if you spend $130 for the average tier Hearthstone deck, that money is gone forever. You can never turn it back into cash, and if you decide to trade into another Hearthstone deck by dusting, you'll only get back 25% of your deck's value (or $32.50). Meanwhile, with Magic Online, if you buy a tier deck at the average price of $167, you're paying $37 more up front but you have the ability to trade that deck toward another deck and get back about 90% of your investment (or $150.30); even more importantly, if you have an emergency, you can take that $150 in cash to put some food on the table or keep the lights on, meaning you are only out $17 (while in Hearthstone, you are out the entire $130). 

Hex, on the other hand, offers some of the same long-term value as Magic Online, with the ability to cash out your collection for actual money, but it suffers from the fact that it isn't meaningfully cheaper than Magic Online to begin with, and you'll get much more value selling your Magic Online cards than you will selling your Hex cards. Again, your $167 Magic Online deck can turn into about $150 cash at a moment's notice, and while you can turn your $142 Hex deck into cash, you'll likely only get about $70. 

Pokémon, as mentioned before, is extremely hard to evaluate thanks to the way the economy is run, so while it's cheaper, it seems like you end up exerting way more effort getting the cards you need then you would for most of the other games. As for Eternal, it might actually have an argument for being the best value of the bunch. While it still has a sunk-cost problem like Hearthstone, the decks are a bit cheaper than Hearthstone decks, which means even though you are technically throwing away money forever when you buy a deck, you're throwing away less of it. 

While this is a bit off topic, one of the biggest things I learned while doing all this research is just how well Magic Online's trading system holds up to the competition. While people sometimes complain about the bot system, it's incredibly easy to buy an entire deck from Cardhoarder or MTGO Traders with a couple clicks of a button and play games in minutes. In both Eternal and Hearthstone, you have to go through the dusting process, which is super inefficient (since it basically forces you to open packs), and Hearthstone is even worse thanks to the adventures, which have kept me from building a competitive Hearthstone deck. Meanwhile, no one seems to know what's going on with Pokémon. So, even though the bot system might not be perfect, it does seem far better than many of the alternatives.

All this is to say the narrative that Magic Online is insanely overpriced doesn't seem to hold water when you really look at the cost of playing other comparable games. While it's a bit more expensive to get started, Magic Online gets cheaper the longer you play, thanks to the way the economy is run, and it isn't that much more expensive than Hex or Hearthstone to begin with. However, this doesn't mean everything is perfect with Magic Online.

The Problems and Solutions for Magic Online

Account Creation Fee

Having an account creation fee is a huge issue. If I knew nothing about card games and wanted to try one out, I would almost certainly pick Hex, Hearthstone, or Eternal over Magic Online simply because I could try them for free. While people who already know about and / or play Magic will probably grumble a bit and pay up to have the convenience of playing online, new players who don't know the game won't. While I'm sure this generates some amount of revenue for Wizards, it's hard to imagine its wouldn't be better off in the long run dropping the account creation fee all together to allow new players to try out the client without a $10 commitment.

While it doesn't help with the new-player issue, another possibility is making the new-player package better. If you are going to make players pay $10 to join Magic Online, at the very least give them a functional budget deck so they can start playing right away. Standard commons and Welcome Deck rares simply don't cut it, and I expect that some number of players give up on Magic Online altogether thanks to how bad the new-player cards are. I've definitely run into people in Standard or Modern tournaments who obviously built a deck from the new player cards, found the play rooms, and jumped into a two-player event (spending two of their five tickets) only to get crushed by a real deck playing real cards. I'm not sure this is what we want a new player's first experience with Magic Online to be, and while having New Player events is helpful, it's not enough, especially since there isn't a tutorial to get a new-to-Magic Online player into the right event.

Event Prices

While Magic Online holds up well to the competition in terms of the cost of getting a tier deck, the cost of playing events is far, far higher than every competitor. Having a single draft cost the same as between five and seven Hearthstone Arena runs is extreme, even when considering that you don't get to keep the cards you draft in Hearthstone. While the overall economy of Magic Online (specifically cards having actual real-world value) makes it so Wizards can't simply drop the price of drafts to $4, there's no reason that Magic Online couldn't run phantom (i.e., you don't keep the cards) drafts for a low, low price. It's pretty insane that you have to pay $10 to play a phantom cube draft on Magic Online. Drop the price to $5 or less and decrease prizes to match, and players (especially the all-important new players) will be much happier. Much like the account creation fee, for established players, paying $10 for a phantom cube draft isn't a big deal—they expect to win back their entry anyway—but for a new player, $10 is simply too much to just try out a format. The same goes for the flashback Standard Gauntlets. They are a great opportunity to let new players experience the game, but at $10 a pop, these players are likely being priced out of the format, especially when competing games offers similar experiences for a much lower price. 

Free Competitive Play

While leagues, Pro Tour Qualifiers, Challenges, and other high-cost / high-value tournaments are great and should be part of Magic Online, one of the biggest things Magic Online lacks (that the competition offers) is a way to play competitive / ranked matches for free. This could be as simple as adding some sort of ladder room or ranked-play room that allows players to essentially compete in two-player queues but without paying any money (or winning any immediate prizes). Remember that players still have to buy cards to compete, which goes into Wizards' pockets in one way or another, so even without an entry fee, Wizards will still be making money. Then, have some token promo or avatar each month to reward players based on their ranking. At this point, to any semi-serious player, all of the free-to-play rooms will be close to unplayable because there will be no reason for people to play real decks or not just immediately scoop to a Turn 1 discard spell or Turn 2 counterspell. Having a ranked room would likely go a long way toward solving both of these problems and give players a true "tournament practice" experience before they head off to high-value tournaments like leagues, Pro Tour Qualifiers, and Challenges. 

More Rewards 

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One common request is for Magic Online to give away codes in paper packs like Pokémon, but this simply can't happen on Magic Online, where cards and collections have real value. However, there is a middle ground where Wizards can give more rewards and ways to earn cool stuff without ruining the economy. One possibility is avatars, playmats, and other non-card items that could be tradable. Another is to somehow incorporate untradable cards as promos, prizes, and / or rewards (which would be harder, since it would still have an economic impact). It could even be possible to give people who buy paper product an entry into a phantom draft on Magic Online for free to test out the client, in the hopes that they will stick around and spend money afterwards. Basically, while Magic Online can't be free to play, there are plenty of creative things Wizards can do to add value for existing players and hopefully draw new players into digital Magic


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

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