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Magic Arena: Answers and More Questions


A little over six months ago, we asked six burning questions about Magic Arena, and the client has come a long way since then. Wizards keeps saying that the game will officially release in 2018, and considering we're already about halfway through the year, the time is drawing near (with the release of the fall set in September being the most logical time to wipe everyone's collections and officially kick off the client). When we first talked about Magic Arena, we knew basically nothing about the client—it was all just hopes and hypotheticals—but now we have a pretty solid understanding of how the program works. Recent communications from Wizards seem designed to dampen the idea of any seismic changes to the client (although adding more formats, tournaments, and sets along with tightening up the gameplay itself are definitely in the works).

As such, today is a pretty good time to check back in on Magic Arena and look at how far we've come and how far we still need to go. The plan is simple: we'll start by looking back over our original six questions for Magic Arena and see how they have been answered. Then, since I've been playing a reasonable bit of Magic Arena myself, we'll pose some new questions to the client that will hopefully be answered in a satisfactory manner as we head toward wide release, apparently at some point in the next six months. 

Before getting to the questions, I have to take a minute and say that I've found the gameplay on Magic Arena to be a lot of fun. I used to whittle away some amount of free time playing Hearthstone, and since joining the Magic Arena beta, I haven't played a single minute of the inferior (in my opinion, of course) game. The combination of a really easy-to-use client and fast gameplay makes Magic Arena perfect for playing Magic in five- to 10-minute chunks, which gives me a way to sneak in a match while a video is rendering (for example), which is a lot harder to do on Magic Online, where a single match can take between five and 45 minutes. While there are still questions (which we'll get to momentarily), I was initially skeptical of Wizards' ability to make a Hearthstonian client for Magic, but as far as gameplay is concerned, Wizards has exceeded my expectations. All is this to say that while I might have approached Magic Arena as a skeptic six months ago, the funness of the gameplay has made me a believer in the client's potential. If the non-gameplay questions are answered, Magic Arena has an extremely bright future. 

Six Burning Questions for Magic Arena

How Much Will It Cost?

Unfortunately, answering the cost question isn't as easy as it seems, since the Magic Arena economy is (seemingly intentionally) random, overly complicated, and confusing. So, rather than jumping right into the hard numbers, let's talk about my personal experience with the Magic Arena economy. 

First, building an optimal or tier deck without paying any money takes a long time. Various people have run calculations, and while the economy itself complicates matters, generally speaking, you're looking at a couple of months (at a minimum) to make a cheap (few rares / mythics) tier deck and several months to make a more expensive (i.e., rare- / mythic-heavy) tier deck. Not only is this process slow, but it's fairly random. The only guaranteed way to get a specific card that you want is to open The Vault (which happens perhaps once every three weeks to a month), and then you get a reward of one mythic and two rares of your choosing (and some lower-rarity stuff) or to just brute-force open tons of packs until you get wildcards. So, the long and short of it is that playing competitively on Magic Arena without spending money is very problematic. Even if you manage to grind into the tier deck you want, by the time you get there, it's very possible that the deck will only be top tier for a few weeks before a set releases, and your hard-earned deck might go from top tier to unplayable (we've recently seen a good example of this in Standard, where The Scarab God was the best card in Standard for a long time, but with the release of Dominaria, it, along with fellow deity Hazoret the Fervent, has fallen from favor in terms of competitive play). 

Thankfully, with the release of the real-money economy, you don't have to get a deck simply by grinding. So far, I've bought three of the $100 / 90-pack bundles, which has been a really helpful (although still frustratingly random) way to build decks. With my first purchase, I was able to build almost exactly one tier deck of my choosing (Esper Raff Flash, which is fairly expensive in terms of rares and mythics), but this took literally all of my rare and mythic wildcards on top of the cards I opened in the packs. When I bought a second bundle, I wanted to build something spicy, so I spent my wildcards on some weird, fringe rares and mythics. When none of the decks actually worked in practice, and with no way to trade the not-working cards for other cards, I ended up feeling like I wasted $100 (I don't think I came away with another playable deck for the $100 purchase). After learning from this experience, with the third bundle, I focused on avoiding fun but not proven cards and spent my wildcards on things I knew were at least somewhat playable, and this went much better, giving me an additional deck, with perhaps a third deck worth of wildcards left over. 

So, at this point, my experience has been that if you're careful with how you spend your wildcards, you should be able to get a deck of your choosing for about $100 (and as your collection grows, this will eventually be cheaper, since you'll already have some cards for future decks thanks to overlap and the cards you randomly open). This makes buying a Magic Arena deck fairly similar to buying a Hearthstone deck in terms of price, except the process of building that deck is a lot more stressful and filled with variance because if you end up just a single card short, you have no way of trading cards you don't want for the one card you do want and are essentially forced to spend more money or not play an optimal deck. 

So, has Wizards successfully answers the price question? I think the answer is yes and no. In terms of the real money cost of buying a deck, the answer is probably yes. Spending $100 to get the tier deck of your choice is cheaper than paper or Magic Online, at least in the short term (discounting the sunk-cost problem). While people obviously want things as cheaply as possible, buying a deck for $100 seems roughly on par with other games. On the other hand, the process of buying a deck is very frustrating because it's very possible to spend $100 and, due to bad luck, not end up with a deck, thanks to the absurd amount of variance in the current system. Plus, the free-to-play economy is simply too slow. While spending $100 to build a deck to play for Goldfish Gladiators works for me, the Magic Arena arena leaves a lot to be desired for players looking to build decks for free and play competitively.

Questions Moving Forward: 

  • Will Wizards improve the free-to-play economy enough that it's a viable path to playing competitively, or will competitive play be all "whales" (players who spend a lot of real money to build optimal / tier decks) and no free-to-play players?
  • If the free-to-play economy doesn't improve, will the whales (many of whom are currently on Magic Online) switch over to Magic Arena, or will they simply keeping playing on Magic Online, where they have already invested a lot of money?
  • If the whales don't switch over, will Magic Arena fall into the Magic Duels niche of being primarily casual players, even though the client and functionality are much better than Duels?
  • Will Wizards find a way to soften the blow of rotation, where all of your free-to-play grinding and real money suddenly go away thanks to your cards being illegal in Standard? If not, will competitive players be willing to spend a bunch of money / time to rebuild after rotation, year after year after year?
  • Is Wizards willing to give at all on its target numbers to make the free-to-play economy more rewarding and the real money economy less random? Can the game find a wide audience if Wizards doesn't?

How Do You Get Cards?

Here, we have a solid answer: wildcards. If you're not super familiar with Magic Arena, along with getting random cards in boosters (which you can earn as prizes for various quests and winning matches, or by buying with real money) and some random single cards for tournament finishes (in paid tournaments only, at this point), the main way to get the card that you need is wildcards. Wildcards can be traded for any card of the same rarity (so a mythic wildcard can get you any mythic, a rare wildcard any rare, and so on). On its face, this system isn't horrible. Opening a pack and getting a high-rarity wildcard feels great. The big problem is that wildcards are both extremely rare and extremely random.

There are two ways to guarantee wildcards: opening packs (although there's a pity timer—so after so many misses, you are guaranteed to open a wildcard—currently set at one in 30 packs for mythics) and opening the vault (which slowly fills as you open packs until it opens about once a month, giving you one mythic wildcard, two rare wildcards, and some lower-rarity wildcards). The problem is that both of these methods are super slow. Without spending real money, you only get a handful of high-rarity wildcards each month, which makes finishing decks hard and building brand-new tier decks in a timely manner close to impossible. 

Most frustrating is there is no dusting system (which allows you to trade cards you don't want for cards you do want, usually at a pretty lacking rate, like four of your mythics for one of your choice). Wizards claims that this is because dusting cards feels bad because you never know when you'll want a card that you dusted in the future, but this take shows a massive disconnect between the developers of Magic Arena and how Magic has always been played (which involves trading). Plus, it doesn't take into account how bad it feels to open unplayable rare after unplayable rare and having them stuck in your collection forever as a reminder of wasted money and time.

When I wrote the original article six months ago, I was panning the Hearthstone system (which actually kept me from playing constructed in the game for a long time) because opening packs to get cards, dusting the cards, and then buying the cards you want with dust felt overly hard, random, and complicated, with the hopes that Magic Arena would have some sort of improved system for card acquisition. At this point, I'm reduced to simply begging for the lacking Hearthstone system, which I formerly despised, because the Magic Arena system is somehow even more random, frustrating, and confusing, which is quite a feat. 

While the wildcard system could be better than the Hearthstone dusting system, Wizards would need to make acquiring wildcards a lot easier and less random than it is today. If it is unwilling or unable to make this change, then being able to dust bad / unwanted cards and turn them into good / wanted cards is a necessity. Not only is the system frustrating at the moment, but without a change, rotation is going to be crushing, as players will watch hundreds of hours of grinding (or hundreds of dollars spent) suddenly become worthless. While creating an Arena Modern format would help a little, the truth is that only a small fraction of Standard cards are playable in eternal formats, and as the Arena Modern format grows as more and more sets are added, fewer and fewer of the Standard cards will be playable, so it's more of a short-term fix than a long-term solution. 

Questions Moving Forward:

  • Will Wizards give in and add Hearthstone-style dusting or some other system for trading the bad cards we open for cards that we want?
  • If not, will Wizards fix the wildcard system by making wildcards less random and easier to acquire? 
  • Does Wizards have a plan for rotation other than eventually adding the stop-gap Arena Modern format? Will players keep playing (and spending money on) the game once they see all of their work and money go up in smoke at rotation? 

What Are the Dusting Ratios?

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

This is probably a weird heading after just talking about how Magic Arena doesn't have dusting, but saying that Magic Arena doesn't have dusting isn't 100% true. It does have it's own strange, limited form of dusting. Since you can't trade or dust cards, one of the hurdles that Magic Arena needed to overcome was what happens when you open the fifth copy of a card. Since you can only play four of a (non-Rat Colony) card in a deck, opening a fifth copy in a draft or booster doesn't help you as a player. The solution to this problem is that when you open the fifth copy of a card, that card is automatically dusted into a small amount of vault progress, which inches you closer to getting some wildcards when you open the value. 

The problem is that the dusting ratio is amazingly, laughably horrible. 

Let's say you spend your hard-earned mythic wildcards on four copies of The Scarab God so you can play the hot, new constructed deck. You win a booster pack by playing an event with that deck and happen to open another The Scarab God. Opening this chase mythic progresses your value 1.1%. This means that, once you open 90 The Scarab Gods (or other mythics that you already have four copies of), you get one mythic of your choice, along with two rares and some lower-rarity stuff. 

Now, let's compare this to Hearthstone. In Hearthstone, you can trade any four legendaries (Hearthstone mythics)—not just ones that you already have four copies of—to get any legendary of your choice. So, every legendary that you open increases your value by close to 25%. (This number discounts the fact that in Magic Arena, you also get two rare wildcards from the vault, so it's actually a bit less but hard to account for exactly). So, not only is dusting harder on Magic Arena (since you have no agency over which cards you dust) but the rate is magnitudes worse than Hearthstone's. 

Oddly, the fact that opening extra copies of a card is worth so little on Magic Arena actually discourages me from spending more money on the client, which I assume is the opposite of Wizards' goal. It actually ends up being a huge punishment for completing a collection, since then, every booster you win as prizes from events and drafts isn't really a prize anymore (or rather, the prize is an almost meaningless amount of value progress). Because of this, I've talked to some players who intentionally avoid getting four copies of cards—even cards they need and want—because they don't want to risk having four, opening a fifth copy, and watching their Karn, Scion of Urza or The Scarab God turn into 1/90th of a mythic wildcard.

Questions Moving Forward:

  • Will Wizards increase the "dusting" rate for additional copies of cards to put it more in line with other games? While giving 25% value progress for an extra mythic is probably too much, considering that you get more than just a mythic wildcard from the vault, giving at least 10% and maybe 15% rather than the puny 1.1% would go a long way toward fixing the problem.
  • Of course, Wizards could also just add real dusting, but will it? 
  • Would Wizards consider alternate solutions, like making it so once you have a playset of a mythic, you won't open a copy of that mythic in your prize packs or as individual card rewards for events? Hearthstone does this with legendaries now, in response to complaints about how bad the economy of their game had become.

What Will Limited Look Like?

While we are still waiting for some limited events to make it onto Magic Arena, we do have an answer to our question. Magic Arena will have both best-of-one limited, where you draft against the AI and then play against real opponents (which makes it similar to Hearthstone's Arena mode), and "real" limited events, with best-of-three matches where you draft against a pod of other players, just like in paper and Magic Online

Remember: back when we were originally discussing Magic Arena, we weren't sure if the game would have "real" limited at all (there were rumors floating around that it wouldn't), so this question seems to have been asked and answered in the best way possible. Players who want a quick, more casual experience can play the best-of-one queues, and players who want the true limited experience to practice for paper events can play the best-of-three queues. So, well done on this one, Wizards!

Questions Moving Forward:

  • How soon will we get best-of-three limited (and constructed, for that matter)?
  • Will the pricing stay the same when the game launches, or are our current prices lower than they will be to encourage people to draft for testing purposes?
  • Rare drafting is rampant in the best-of-one queues. Will this carry over to the best-of-three queues as well and hurt (or ruin) Magic Arena limited for the purposes of testing for competitive paper events? 
  • Is there any chance that Wizards will give on phantom draft queues to solve the rare-drafting problem and potentially offer a lower-cost limited experience for players who only play limited and don't care about the rewards (which are partly individual cards that don't do anything if you only play limited)?

How Smoothly Will It Play?

Had enough of all the aggro decks floating around on #MTGArena; decided to fix the problem. Deck's coming for a future Goldfish Gladiators. Absolutely crushes everything but UW Control. pic.twitter.com/Rzrt4qUWCo

— Saffron Olive (@SaffronOlive) May 10, 2018

Initially, I was pretty skeptical of the animations on Magic Arena. While having the option to disable them would be ideal because choice is pretty much always better than not having a choice, after playing a bunch of games on the client, I have to admit that I actually like the animations. In general, they are well done, and some are spectacular. While there are still certainly questions about Magic Arena moving forward, at this point, it's pretty safe to say that gameplay isn't one of them. The gameplay itself is by far the best part of Magic Arena—it's smooth, fast, and fun. While there are a handful of things that need to be tightened up for competitive play (like ordering triggers on the stack, being able to see if your opponent scryed to the top or bottom, and other similar issues), Wizards has these improvements on its to-do list, so I'm very confident that by the time the game is out of beta, it will not only be a fast and fun way to play almost-Magic but also a fast and fun way to play the full game of (Standard) Magic

What about Magic Online?

The question of what will happen with Magic Online upon the release of Magic Arena has actually become less of a concern. In the early days of Magic Arena, Wizards was sending some very mixed messages about the future of Magic Online (while officially stating that it would support both clients), but over the past six months, Wizards has been consistent with its messaging: both Magic Arena and Magic Online can exist side by side and serve different audiences. While it is true that Wizards basically has to say this or risk killing the golden goose that is Magic Online, it's also true that, as we get more information about Magic Arena, each client really seems to serve different audiences.

At this point, there are simply some things that Magic Arena can't do, like support multiplayer formats (Commander, for example) or older formats (Modern, Legacy, Pauper), and while it's possible that these formats will eventually come to the client, it will likely be a long, long ways in the future if they do, considering it's taking months longer than expected for seemingly small things like best-of-three matches and "real" drafts. 

This also doesn't include the fact that, at least for a specific group of players, Magic Arena is actually the most expensive option when it comes to playing competitively. Even discounting that some people already have thousands of dollars invested in Magic Online, Magic Arena is really, really expensive if you are a Grand Prix grinder who's looking to play a gauntlet of tier decks and switch decks often as the metagame changes to be playing the best deck every weekend, since you can't trade or dust. With a combination of $500 and trading / selling cards, you can play any Standard deck you want for a long time on Magic Online, while in Magic Arena, you are locked into what you spend your wildcards on, with no real way to change decks. 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

Plus, getting specific rares and mythics is expensive. Based on some simulated openings, people have pegged the value of mythics on Magic Arena as starting at $12 and dropping to $5 as you fill out your collection, and rares at $6 down to $2. Even if we go with the floor price, this is significantly more expensive than Magic Online. For example, right now, with Dominaria at inflated pries, the average price of a Dominaria mythic on Magic Online is $4.77 (slightly less than the $5 floor of a mythic on Magic Arena). Meanwhile, Ixalan (with not-that-great mythics) has an average mythic value on Magic Online of $2.60, while it remains at $5 on Magic Arena because every card from every set (of the same rarity) costs the same amount. 

The difference is even more stunning with rares. On Magic Online, the single most expensive rare from Dominaria is Goblin Chainwhirler at $1.01, which makes the cost of this chase rare at least double on Magic Arena (and that's assuming you get the $2 floor price). Meanwhile, 41 of the 53 rares from Dominaria currently cost $0.10 or less on Magic Online, making Magic Arena at least 10 times more expensive, even if you are getting rares at the lowest possible price on the program. 

Here, it's important to remember that we are talking about a specific subset of players. If you don't want to spend any money on Magic, then Magic Arena is clearly the better (and perhaps only) way to play Magic in digital form, even with the free-to-play economy generally thought of as being lacking. So for a big group of players, even with its bad free-to-play economy, Magic Arena is the best option out there. On the other hand, there's a legitimate question of whether more competitive players (especially those who already have significant money on Magic Online or those without time to grind free-to-play rewards) will switch over to Magic Arena, considering that from this perspective, it's not only more expensive than Magic Online but significantly more expensive. 

Questions Moving Forward

  • Is Wizards just saying what it must to avoid a panic by claiming that it believes Magic Arena and Magic Online can coexist, or does Wizards really plan on continuing to support both clients for the foreseeable future?
  • While Magic Arena is great for free-to-play players (not because the free-to-play economy is generous, which it's not, but because it exists), it's more expensive for real-money players. Will these players go the Magic Arena route or continue using Magic Online for their digital Magic needs? 
  • If current Magic Online players don't switch to Magic Arena, is there any chance that Wizards will eventually pull support from Magic Online to force players to switch to Magic Arena?
  • Will Wizards make meaningful economy changes to make Magic Arena more appealing to current Magic Online players, like dusting, more wildcards, or a cheaper average price for rares / mythics?

Wrap-Up

In sum, Magic Arena has come a long way since we first talked about it over six months ago. The concerns about gameplay and animations have essentially been completely resolved, but other questions still remain, especially about the economy. After playing quite a bit of Magic Arena over the past couple of months, I believe that it's very possible Wizards has something big on its hands. We've simply never had such a fun, fast, and flashy way to play Magic in digital form before. Magic Arena has the potential to be huge and bring with it a new golden age of Magic. The only question is whether Wizards is willing to give, at least a bit, on issues involving dusting and the economy. For a game to be great, people need to be able to play it, and we are in a weird place right now, where the Magic Arena economy isn't rewarding enough for free-to-play players to break into the competitive scene, and it might not be cheap enough in terms of real money to lure more competitive players away from Magic Online.

Wizards clearly wants Magic Arena to compete with Hearthstone. Wizards has—by far—the better game, and now it has a client that is comparable. The biggest remaining question is whether Wizards is willing to make the changes needed to the economy. If it is, then Magic Arena has all the potential in the world as an e-sport and a huge source of advertising for paper Magic and perhaps even Magic Online. If Wizards isn't, we could very well be looking back a couple of years from now talking about what could and should have been.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. Have you been playing Magic Arena? What are your thoughts? What questions do you have about the client? What's great, and what needs to be improved? 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 SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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