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It's Time to Stop Comparing Magic Arena to Magic Online


Magic Arena is now officially in open beta, which should probably be considered the official release of the game, considering that games have a tendency to stay in open beta for years and occasionally for their entire life cycle. When you combine this with the fact that Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner has repeatedly promised the game would "launch" in 2018 during various conference calls with investors, it's pretty safe to think of the start of open beta alongside Standard rotation and the release of Guilds of Ravnica as the official launch of Magic Arena

So far, the game is getting a lot of praise, from both the free-to-play community and, more surprisingly, the professional Spike community on social media and Reddit. While it still has some flaws, many people view it as the digital Magic game they have been waiting for, with sleek graphics and animations; a free-to-play pat; and fast, fun gameplay. In many ways, Arena is everything that Magic Online is not. While Magic Online does a great job being a straightforward, no-frills port of the paper game into the digital world, Magic Arena feels like a video game where you happen to be playing Magic.

While there are certainly still some issues on Arena that need to be fixed, it's hard to consider the launch of the game anything short of a huge success. While much was made about Magic beating Hearthstone in Twitch views during the big preview streaming event, this is somewhat deceiving thanks to the high number of sponsored streamers from other games. However, on an average day, there are more people streaming Magic and more people watching Magic now than there were just a few months ago, and some of those sponsored streams have continued to play the game for fun, without being paid for the pleasure. 

With a successful launch out of the way and tons of people playing, watching, and talking about Magic Arena, the big question is where the client goes from here. This is where the community is divided. Some people love the casual kitchen-table feel of the game's free-to-play aspects. Others hope that it will change and mold itself into an eventual Magic Online replacement, fit for competitive play and huge big-money tournaments. For better or worse, Arena has always been viewed through the lens of Magic Online. Wizards' original digital client's failings make people skittish about Arena, but at the same time, some of the more requested features for Arena (like chess clocks, the ability to auto-yield to triggers, and the like) are things that Magic Online has been doing for years. While viewing Arena through the lens of Magic Online is in some ways inevitable, it's also not really fair to Arena itself, which deserves to stand on its own, to succeed or fail on its own merits, and not based on the checkered history of Magic Online.

The Goal of Arena

While the communication from Wizards sometimes becomes muddled thanks to its tendency to answer questions about Arena with phrases like "anything is possible" or "you never know," if you take what Wizards has said about Arena as a whole, the mission of the game is clear: to make Magic Arena the best digital Magic experience possible for new and intermediate players. This has been mostly consistent from when we first heard about Magic Digital Next (for whom Magic Arena is one of its big projects) a couple of years ago to a conversation I had with head designer Chris Clay at Grand Prix Las Vegas. Combine this with Wizards shuttering Magic Duels, which had a similar although much more limited goal, and Wizards' intentions are crystal clear: the primary goal for Magic Arena is to have a digital client that is accessible to less enfranchised Magic players. 

Why would Wizards make this the goal of Magic Arena? Well, in all honesty, the answer is that Wizards already have the rest of us hooked. Experienced and enfranchised Magic players are the ones who have been making Magic Online extremely profitable despite the fact that it looks like it should be played on a Commodore 64. One way or another, Wizards already has our money, and it doesn't really make any difference whether we dump that money into Magic Online or Magic Arena

On the other hand, in the past few years, Wizards has seen Hearthstone become a massive success, to the point where the game is stealing away Magic Hall of Famers. It's also seen Eternal, a game designed and developed by a bunch of Magic pros, emerge on the market. It also sees Artifact—a game designed by Magic's own creator and supported by one of the most successful studios in gaming—coming quickly down the pike, with promises of complex game play and million-dollar tournaments. These fast, fun digitally focused games reach an audience of young players who wouldn't dream of downloading the dinosaur that is Magic Online (at least, not until they have reached the point in their Magic life where they are chasing the dream of qualifying for a Pro Tour, which takes a while and is a step that most Magic players never make). The game itself is too slow, too ugly, and perhaps too expensive. This is the audience that Magic Arena is designed for, and the group of potential players it's primarily looking to reach. 

Now, this isn't to say that experienced Magic players don't play Arena or that enfrachised players should avoid the client, just that Wizards doesn't especially care what this group does. Wizards knows that, one way or another, it is getting their money. Playing Magic Online is paying Wizards with cash, while Magic Arena is paying Wizards with a credit card. There are differences, but in the end, the money is going to the same place.

Arena Is Not a Magic Online Replacement

Much of the confusion and controversy over Arena has been rooted in the idea that the client is designed to replace Magic Online, but this simply isn't true. Magic Online is already a very profitable part of Wizards' portfolio, despite its problems, and Wizards has been extremely consistent in saying that it believes both Magic Online and Magic Arena can live comfortably side-by-side, ever since Magic Arena was announced. There hasn't been a single time when Wizards has said, "Magic Arena is replacing Magic Online" or even anything that implies or suggests that this is the plan. Furthermore, at least so far, its actions (making improvements to Magic Online with no targeting and counters, releasing sets earlier on Magic Online, announcing that Magic Online will continue to have PTQs while stating that it has no plans to run PTQs on Arena) back up these words.

Magic Arena is built for a different audience: people unwilling to put up with Magic Online and new players who have never heard of Magic Online. While it's certainly possible that Arena will eventually replace Magic Online—if, despite the fact that they aren't the target audience of Magic Arena, enfranchised Magic Online players decide en masse that they would rather play on the new client and stop playing Magic Online, causing the original client to lose its player base and, along with it, its profitability, then Wizards would undoubtedly shutter Magic Online—that's not the goal of Arena or Wizards' plan. Reading "Wizards is replacing Magic Online with Magic Arena" from Wizards saying, "we're not replacing Magic Online with Magic Arena" is lunacy. Perhaps it's a thought in the back of Wizards' mind—a hope that Arena will be such a smashing success that everyone will want to play it and Wizards will no longer need MTGO—but it's not the purpose or goal of Arena.

The fact that Arena is designed primarily for new and intermediate players and not targeted at established players is built right into the Magic Arena client. The economy is designed in such a way that current Magic Online users, who are used to being able to quickly and easily switch from deck to deck to play whatever is hot on a given week, get the worst end of the deal. You can grind your way into a deck for free (if you have enough time to play), but if you want to just own several decks without grinding, the system for getting cards is clunky, high variance, and time-consuming, and the cost is high. Prize payouts are designed to make it difficult to go infinite from just playing events (and nearly impossible to go infinite by playing limited), thanks to the rewards being weighted toward untradable cards (not to mention the awkward split of currencies), which is good for new players building a collection but lacking for grinders who already have the cards they need, especially when you consider the fifth-card problem, where additional copies of cards you open disappear for very little value (an issue that primarily impacts people who buy a lot of cards with real money, a group of players who are more than likely part of the enfranchised crowd used to spending lots of money on the game). The timing system is designed to encourage fast games, which makes the game a ton of fun to play but also makes it harder for older players (for example, people with small children) to play through games without timing out. In Magic Online, you can get up from your computer for five minutes to change your baby or deal with some family crisis; on Arena, you time out extremely quickly and lose the match. Should Arena change these things to better support older, enfranchised players? No. It would work against the goal of the client. 

Judge Arena by Arena

For most of Arena's life in closed beta, I fell into the trap of judging Arena through the lens of Magic Online, fretting when the client made choices that were clearly bad for me, as an enfranchised Magic Online player. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I was part of the "Arena needs a chess clock" crowd. Then, I realized that I was looking at Arena backwards, falling into the trap of viewing the client as a replacement for Magic Online and wanting it to be something (designed primarily for enfranchised players) that was never its goal to begin with. 

Adding a chess clock to Arena would make the game more suited for competitive play and would help ensure that every fringe deck is playable, but it would come at the cost of slowing down the other 90% of games. It would be worth the cost if the goal were to make Magic Arena the most realistic simulation of paper Magic possible, but with the goal being to make Arena the best new and intermediate player experience possible, changing to a chess clock would be a horrible move (although there should be some changes to the timer system, even with the goal of Arena in mind, with the biggest being that the timer should stop during animations that you can't play through). For a chess clock to work, it would have to include enough time to accommodate slower control decks, which means you're liking looking at the Magic Online system of each player having 20 or more minutes per match. Suddenly, the average game on Magic Arena takes twice as long, and all of the new players, used to fast games like Hearthstone, are alienated.

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You can even make this argument about older formats. Yes, current enfranchised players love Modern, and some even love Legacy and Vintage, but adding 25 years of cards to Arena, along with a bunch more events to support these cards, hugely increases the complexity for new and intermediate players, who mostly play Standard and Limited anyway. It also divides the player base, likely making the overall experience of Arena worse for its primary audience. Is it worth making Arena worse for its target audience to improve it for the relatively small number of players who care about Modern and the even smaller group that cares about Legacy and Vintage? The answer is pretty clearly no, especially considering that these hardcore players can already whip out their Black Lotuses and Show and Tells on Magic Online

While some of Magic Online's problems are self-inflicted, others are merely the result of a digital platform trying to include 25 years of Magic cards and formats. When you type "Human" into the Magic Online deck builder you get 6,735 results. This is a feature rather than a bug, but it still makes the game overwhelming for new players. Similarly, as of yesterday morning there were nearly 50 events listed on Magic Online. While having Pauper, Modern, Vintage and Legacy (often with both competitive and friendly options) along with several limited events, PTQ's and format challenges is great for established players, for a new player who is just learning the game it's just another layer of confusion, and confusion for no real gain since new players aren't going to jump into 90% of the queues anyway. While Magic Online could be improved in a way to make the new player experience more accessible, no matter how good the tutorial or efficiently the client is designed, having 25 years of cards and formats on a digital client will always be at least somewhat unfriendly for new players, there's no way around it. 

As such, when enfranchised players call for all these cards and formats to be included on Magic Arena, it's coming from a place of selfishness. A place of valuing our love of Modern, Vintage, Pauper, Legacy, Commander - whatever format - over the needs of Arena's target audience: new and intermediate players who would have an actively worse experience (and perhaps be less likely to continue playing Magic) if Arena overwhelmed them with nearly 20,000 cards and 50 different events. 

Basically, what I've realized recently is that we—the established players who keep trying to morph Arena into Magic Online—are part of the problem. While it makes complete sense that turning Arena into an upgraded Magic Online would be our goal, since a Magic Online that looks and plays more like Arena has been what many of us have wanted all along, it's simply not fair to judge Arena through this lens. Magic Arena isn't built for enfranchised, established players in the same way a Commander precon isn't built primarily for a Standard player and a Planeswalker Deck isn't built with the person with a fully blinged-out Legacy deck in mind. This doesn't mean that the Standard player can't have a blast playing a Commander precon or the Legacy player can't enjoy a good Planeswalker Deck battle, just that they weren't the primary audience for the product. 

Similarly, even though I know I'm not the primary audience for the game, I've been having an absolute blast playing Magic Arena, to the point where if I want to test out a random Standard deck, I often choose to fire up Arena over Magic Online, even though I have access to all of the cards on both clients, because Arena is fresh, fast, and a lot of fun. Arena isn't Magic Online; it was never intended to be and (hopefully) never will be. It also doesn't need to be. Arena is the most fun I've had playing Magic in digital form. Magic Online is the best way to mimic paper Magic on your computer. There is room for both in the multiverse, so rather than judging Arena through the lens of Magic Online, let's judge Magic Arena by Magic Arena and appreciate all of the things it does well and all of the ways (and hopefully new players) it adds to the greatest game in the world.

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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