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Just Be Honest With Us, Magic Arena


It's been a wild couple of weeks for Magic Arena. Less than 10 days ago, Wizards announced that the new digital client would be heavily supported in the new, updated $10 million organized play system at the Game Awards, complete with a flashy commercial and big media push. Included in this shift from focusing only on tabletop (paper) play to a digital / tabletop mix is a massive million-dollar tournament on Arena coming at the end of March, at PAX East. This announcement (rightly) led to an insane amount of hype for the new client, not just because it offers a way for playing Magic Arena to lead to huge money but reinforcing the idea that Arena has clearly surpassed Magic Online in the eyes of Wizards, in terms of digital competitive play. Then, just a couple of days ago, a long-awaited update to ranked play on Arena came out, and it went extremely wrong extremely quickly. 

While the Rank 1.0 update was massive and contained a bunch of changes, the two that caused an uproar were the shift from focusing on "traditional" best-of-three matches to best-of-one matches (now called "Arena mode") for ranked play and a change to constructed tournaments, which basically amounted to a massive prize cut for players, with very valuable individual card rewards being removed in favor for slightly more gold. The backlash regarding the latter change was so great that Wizards was forced to sheepishly walk it back only a day later, with an announcement that it planned to change constructed events in the future but things would stay the same, for the time being.

Both of these changes have already been discussed at length on social media and Reddit, and seemingly everyone in the community has an opinion. So our goal for today isn't so much to rehash the benefits and downsides of best-of-one competitive Magic or individual card rewards in constructed events but to talk a bit about how the Magic Arena team is selling these changes. If you remember, a couple of years ago, there was a big clamor for Wizards to be more transparent and forthright in its communication with the community, culminating with Wizards stating it would "always strive for clarity and better partnership, and will communicate with the belief that everyone has the best intentions for the game and community that we all love." While things improved for a while, with the push for Magic Arena, some old, troubling habits have once again reared their ugly head. 

97%

Let's start with the official announcement that ranked play on Arena will take place in best-of-one (no sideboard) matches exclusively, at least for the time being. Wizards' official reasoning for this huge shift in philosophy is that 97% of games played on Arena take place in a best-of-one setting, so it is simply doing what its player base wants. Even beyond the article announcing the change, head programmer Chris Clay went on the weekly Arena livestream to quote the 97% number several times and even defend the number from some of the community's criticisms (specifically that best-of-three matches are hard to find, since they are hidden behind a toggle). Officially, the Wizards' party line is that Magic Arena players want to play best-of-one matches—the 97% number proves this—and Wizards is just giving the people what they desire. 

While there's no reason to doubt the truthfulness of the statement "97% of Magic Arena games are playing in best of one" treating this number as meaningful is laughable when you consider Magic Arena itself. Wizards has intentionally built Arena to make it so best-of-one matches are the "right" choice for nearly all players—the entire incentive system is built to force players into best-of-one rather than "traditional" best-of-three matches. Even discounting the fact that best-of-three matches are hidden behind a toggle (and to this day, some players don't know they exist), the biggest example of this is how Arena hands out rewards, which favors best of one play.

There's a long list of additional ways that Arena pushes players into best-of-ones—the decks are cheaper, since you need fewer cards for each deck; the toggle we talked about earlier that hids best of three game modes; the fact that all best-of-ones (and friend challenges) take place only in a best-of-one setting; and the fact that best-of-one matches support faster aggro decks more so than best-of-three, and aggro decks are not only cheaper to build but faster for earning rewards. Essentially every aspect of Magic Arena is very specifically designed to push players into best-of-one matches over best-of-three matches. 

When you combine this with the fact that the Magic Arena team literally tried to remove best-of-three competitive constructed events from Arena back in August (citing the same 97% statistic) only to change their minds thanks to heavy pushback from the community on social media, it seems pretty clear that Wizards / Magic Arena doesn't want traditional best-of-three matches to be on Arena, and if they do have to be on Arena, they want to make sure they aren't a meaningful part of Arena.

While we can argue about the long-term effects of switching competitive play to best-of-one, and there are certainly some huge unintended consequences, including extreme variance based on the die roll and tournaments being decided by a not-random starting hand algorithm that doesn't apply to paper Magic, beneath everything else, the communication on the issue is frustrating. Wizards is shifting Arena to best-of-one and throttling best-of-three because Wizards thinks it's the best thing for itself, not for players, but Wizards is framing the change as "we're just giving the audience what they want," essentially saying "the public demands best-of-one, so we're going to fulfill their wishes," using misleading statistics to back up this claim.

If you watch the livestream talking about the changes, the mental gymnastics become even clearer. While the 97% number is heavily used, this refers to games played. When it comes to the number of players in each type of event, a "majority" play best-of-one, which is potentially a significantly lower number than 97%. In fact, when one of the hosts accidentally says "97% of players play best-of-one," they are corrected—the number does not refer to players but refers to games.

For me, the biggest problem with the entire thing is how manipulative and untruthful it feels. If Wizards wants to make Arena about best-of-one rather than "traditional" best-of-three matches, it is well within its rights to do so—Wizards is the ones making the game, we're just the ones playing it, and Wizards is the one that will have to deal with the results of the decision, for better or worse. Just be honest with the community. Don't try to sell us on the change you want with a misleading 97% statistic and then double down on it by defending the number for one small aspect of the criticism when there's pushback while ignoring the rest. We're Magic players. We play a game that is all about numbers, and many players are in school and in jobs that require analyzing data on a daily basis—it's not going to slip by. If you feel it's necessary to make a change we won't like, make it; just don't try to manipulate us with some statistical hogwash that falls apart under the slightest bit of scrutiny. Just be honest with us.

Individual Card Rewards

Now, you might be thinking, "Okay Seth, that is a bit weird, but it's just one thing. Why are you making such a big deal about it?" The answer here is because the 97% justification isn't the exception when it comes to communication from Wizards about Magic Arena. It's the norm. Arguably, it started all the way back when Wizards announced that Arena wouldn't have dusting, because dusting is bad for players, since players don't like destroying cards—we might accidentally destroy something we end up wanting—even though an economy with dusting makes it much easier for players to figure out how much it actually costs them to play the game, as compared to the current convoluted and random system. While getting rid of decision paralysis with regard to choosing which cards to destroy makes some amount of sense, wildcards actually cause their own form of decision paralysis, as people are afraid of spending the rare cards on the wrong thing, since there are no take-backs.

Speaking of dusting, one of Wizards' main justifications for using the wildcards system rather than the industry-standard dusting system is that it allows Wizards to give away more cards to play for free ("We've said we created WC [Wild Cards] so we can give our more cards, and we meant it."). That sounds good on its face, but since then, Wizards has tried to remove individual card rewards twice (once back in the summer, once this past week), only to give in to massive pushback from the community and leave individual card rewards in the game (at least for now).

So, what was the official reasoning for removing individual card rewards? They were hurting new players who would play in events to try to win rewards and get beaten badly. However, even with a 0% win rate (which isn't really possible in Magic, even playing starter decks), the events with individual card rewards were close to the same value as the new rewardless events (the new system would award a player with a 0% win rate approximately 2 more rares / mythics over the course of 125 events, although for a player who managed to win even a little bit—like 30% of the time—it would amount to cutting prizes almost in half). This said, the goal here isn't to talk about the value gained or lost by chainging the events, it's the communication involved in the process. Just like with supporting best of one and not supporting best of three, just like going with wildcards over dusting the official line from Wizards is they are dropping individual card rewards for the good of the playerbase

Again, just like with the support for best-of-one, if Wizards' feels they need to significantly cut prizes that's their call to make, just don't tell is you're doing it for our good. Instead, just say nothing, or better yet just honest with us. While a huge cut to rewards is going to be unpopular no matter how it's announced, trying to spin the announcement as "pro-player" makes the entire situation worse, not better.

This haphazard communication leads to all kinds of problems. From the community's perspective, people are constantly looking for the hidden meaning behind every word regarding Arena.  From Arena's perspective, it makes even boring, normal announcements into a major, stress-filled events, since it's hard to know for sure if the community will take any communication at face value. This leads to a spiral: the community becomes more distrustful, Arena needs to go further to justify its decisions because of this distrust, and the two sides slowly drift apart, message by message, month by month. 

Us vs. Them to Us and Them

Image from Esports Insider

The most frightening thing in all of this is that it often feels that, with Arena specifically, we've living in a world where it's us (the community) versus them (the developers / Arena team  / Wizards / Hasbro). The community feels like Hasbro / Wizards / Arena will do whatever it can to squeeze every drop of money possible from them, regardless of the effect it has on gameplay, and will say just about anything to achieve that goal, while the developers sometimes take a combative "your parents know best"-type attitude with the community. 

This animosity isn't healthy for anyone. At least in theory, everyone benefits from Arena being great. The community gets a fun, flashy new way to play Magic in digital form, while Wizards gets a significant new revenue stream and a bunch of new and returning players who may someday move on to other forms of Magic (and give them even more money). If Arena is successful, just about everyone wins. But success is built on trust, and trust is built on honesty. So how do we get to a point of trust and honesty? 

Moving Forward—The Community

Illustration by Ed Steed from New Yorker's The Twenty Five Year Journey of Magic the Gathering

First, from the side of the community, there are times when we need to cut the Arena team a bit of slack. Beneath everything else, I really do believe that the Arena team is filled with good people who love Magic and want to see Magic as a whole (and Arena specifically) be as amazing as possible. These people are often left in literally impossible positions, where they have targets, goals, and mandates handed down from above and have to fill the unenviable role of going on a live stream or writing an article that they know will send the community into a frenzy. Part of working for a huge corporation like Hasbro is maintaining the party line, whether you personally agree with the decision or not, and for public-facing members of the Arena team, this means making some very unpopular announcements in a very public manner and often dealing with a lot of anger, disappointment, and ire from the community. 

This means two things: first, we really need to remember that in almost all cases, the messenger isn't the one making the decision, and in some cases, the messenger might not even agree with the decision that's being made—it's just their role to inform the community. If anything, these people deserve our empathy rather than our rage. Second, we are so invested in Magic and love the game so much that we tend to freak out over relatively minor things (along with extremely major things). If we grab the pitchforks for every minor change on Arena, eventually the Arena team will just tune us out (this might already be happening - since real money purchases went live communication has diminished, customer service response times are reportedly long and sometimes responses don't come at all and many important announcements regarding things like the 5th card problem have been delayed multiple times), and then when something significant does happen (like the massive prize cut that came from cutting individual card rewards or not supporting best of three matches for competitive play), it's less likely that our voice will be heard. 

Moving Forward—Arena

On the other hand, from the perspective of the Arena team, just be honest with us. If you want to try ranked in best-of-one mode, just tell us that you're trying ranked in best-of-one mode. You make a game that is made for and played by smart people; don't act like we're stupid or don't understand simple statistics. Don't expect us to believe that a 90% cut in prizes for events is a positive or act like we're children and you're the parent who knows best. Don't tell us that you avoided putting dusting in the game because we're not smart enough to manage our collections in the way that we've done in every form of Magic for the past 25 years (and in every similar game like Hearthstone or Eternal). Just make wildcards, if that's what you think is best. Don't tell us that ranked play will only be in best-of-one because that's what we want based on a bunk statistic (and certainly don't double down on that statistic during a livestream). Just tell us ranked play is starting off with best-of-one.

Furthermore, from the perspective of Arena, remember that with last week's esports announcement, every word that comes out of your mouth will be magnified by $10,000,000. We're no longer playing the version of Arena where a collection wipe was around the corner and decisions were based on testing things out in a closed beta setting. We're playing the version of Arena that is running a million-dollar tournament - perhaps the single most valuable tournament in the entire 25 year history of Magic - in three months' time. Three months! Everything you say will be scrutinized even more closely—people's livelihoods are now literally on the line. If there were ever a time to double down on choosing your words carefully and making sure you are saying what you mean, that time is now.

Conclusion

This should be a great and exciting time for the Magic community as a whole. For the first time in the history of the game, Wizards is going big with prize money and tournament play. Together, the community and the Arena team should be celebrating this victory, not fighting over individual card rewards and silly, meaningless statistics. It's time for Arena to move past the ever-present "us versus them" attitude and celebrate together. With some self-improvement and work on both sides, we can make it happen and enjoy the ride of Magic becoming a legitimate esport together.

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

(Editors note: Some information on how Arena handles rewards in best-of-three was corrected. You are given rewards for each game.)


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