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Six Burning Questions for Magic Arena


Week by week, more information about Magic Arena is trickling out. This past Wednesday, Wizards started a series of live question-and-answer streams on its Twitch channel, and while there wasn't a ton of new information presented, the very fact that Wizards is going out of its way to be open about the development process is impressive, and I'm thankful for it. Right now, our information about Magic Arena is actually fairly limited. We know that the closed beta starts in November with a small group of players, and then streaming (from the beta) is scheduled to start in the first part of 2018. (If you haven't signed up for the beta and want a chance to help with the development process, you can do so here). Otherwise, the clues suggest that Wizards is aiming for Arena to be the Magic equivalent of Hearthstone (which makes sense, considering Hearthstone is the top dog as far as digital card games are concerned), although the hard information on things like what limited game play will look like, the economy, card acquisition, and the future of Magic Online is minimal at this point. 

While Wizards hasn't come out and said this directly, the tone of its various interviews (especially Ryan Spain's Limited Resources appearance) suggests that, if things go according to plan, Wizards envisions Arena being the only supported digital platform at some point in the future (likely several to many years, considering Arena will kick off with just Standard and some type of limited, leaving Magic Online as the only option for eternal, Commander, and non-Standard casual players). Of course, life is strange, and things don't always go the way we'd hope or wish (see: The Complete History of Magic Online, which means we'll have to wait and see what the long-term future holds for digital Magic

I've gotten a ton of questions about Magic Arena, and while I've tweeted a bit on the topic, especially during live streams, my general answer to all of the questions is that we just don't have enough information right now to fully form an opinion. Basically, a lot of really huge questions are yet unanswered (which makes sense, considering the game was considered to be "pre-alpha" less than a month ago). As such, I fully understand that at least some questions are unanswered not because Wizards is being secretive but because it just doesn't have the answer yet, in part because Wizards needs to test various ideas in the upcoming beta. It's better for Wizards to wait and find the right answer than give all of us the wrong answer early and then get crucified when it has to backtrack. 

Keeping in mind that some of these questions are likely currently unanswerable, today we're going to take some time to talk about what I view as the six most pressing questions for Magic Arena. In my opinion, these are the questions that will determine the future of digital Magic. With the right answers, it's very possible that we'll have all forgotten about the interesting history of Magic Online five or seven years from now because we're all playing Magic Arena and loving it; with the wrong answers, it's just as possible that Magic Arena ends up in some sort of Magic Duels purgatory, while Magic Online continues to be the primary place to play digital Magic

Question #1: How Much Will It Cost?

While we do know that Magic Arena will be free to play, we don't have any idea what this will actually look like. Free-to-play games vary a lot, with some taking an absurd amount of time to really compete without spending money, while others hand out rewards fairly freely. Regardless of the exact numbers, the simple fact that there is a free-to-play option will appeal to a wide range of casual players who tend to balk at the cost of getting started in Magic Online (not to mention the ridiculous, archaic, outdated $10 fee just for creating an account). 

While having a free-to-play option is a good thing, the bigger question is how much it will cost to play Magic Arena without grinding for endless hours. Remember, Magic players in both paper and on Magic Online are used to being able to pay X dollars to have a tier deck. What X is (and if X is even available, but more on this in a minute) for Magic Arena will go a long way toward determining the viability of the platform. If you look around at other comparable games, it typically costs somewhere around $100 to get a single tier deck. The challenge for Magic Arena is that it's not only competing with other games but also competing with itself, thanks to Magic Online

One important thing to mention here is that Wizards has said repeatedly that there will not be trading on Magic Arena, and based on the latest live stream, it didn't sound like this feature is likely to change (while there were a lot of "we'll have to see" answers, the answer about trading was a fairly direct "no, it's not happening." Right now, you can get any tier Standard deck on Magic Online for under $200, and many are under $100 (or even $50). Plus, because Magic Online cards are tradable, they have real value, so spending $100 on a Magic Online deck is a much better financial deal than spending $100 on a Hearthstone (or Magic Arena) deck. 

As such, for Magic Arena to succeed, it not only has to look cheaper than Magic Online, but it also has to be meaningfully cheaper in an absolute sense (taking into account that all Magic Arena cards are essentially phantom, while Magic Online cards are "real"). Even setting Magic Online aside for a minute, Arena also has to compete with Hearthstone, which sells strange five-card boosters (with at least one and occasionally more rares or mythics) for about $1, depending on how many you buy at once. This is the needle that Magic Arena needs to thread: cheap enough to compete with Hearthstone and cheap enough that, when the numbers are crunched, it's meaningfully less expensive than Magic Online but still profitable.

#2: How Do You Get Cards?

While I believe that pricing is likely the biggest concern for the community at large, the process of acquiring cards specifically is far more important for me. As I mentioned a bit ago, we know there will be a free-to-play option (which is great for a certain group of players and a welcome addition to Magic Arena), but how will the Magic Arena system work for everyone else? I play at least five different decks a week (often using obscure cards), which means I'll literally have to have every card in Standard for making content (especially with trading and thereby borrowing cards, which is how I get a lot of the cards for making videos but is off the table in Magic Arena). Assuming Wizards nails it with pricing, the next biggest hurdle is making sure that, just like in paper and on Magic Online, people will be able to acquire / buy / dust a full deck at a moment's notice without a huge amount of hassle. 

Let's take a minute to talk about Hearthstone, which is likely the competition that Magic Arena is aiming for. While I don't play Hearthstone nearly as much as Magic, I do play Hearthstone Arena (Hearthstone's version of draft) on occasion. Unfortunately, I've never played Hearthstone constructed because getting a deck is so much of a hassle. If I could just click a button or two and buy a tier deck, I would spend significantly more money on Hearthstone, but I don't because you have to jump through several hoops (buy packs to open cards you don't want, destroy the cards you don't want to turn them into dust, use the dust to buy the cards you do want, while also hoping that all the cards you want are actually dustable and you don't have to spend hours grinding some silly one-player missions to find the cards) to get a deck. Having a similarly convoluted system would be extremely problematic for Magic Arena

In fact, the clunkiness of the Hearthstone system is the main reason I'm worried about Magic Arena's "no trading" policy. It's not that I believe trading is essentially to Magic Arena's success, it's that I know for sure that trading allows players to get the cards they need to build decks at a low price, without spending a ton of time on menial and often confusing tasks. Basically, I think that having a free-to-play path is great and not having trading is fine if Wizards makes sure there is an easy way that people can acquire the cards they need to build whatever decks they desire without a lot of hassle. This could still be a Hearthstone-esque dusting system but with the ability to buy dust (much like you buy tix on Magic Online) and then immediately dust for any card in the system. This last part is especially important. It's fine if Wizards wants to have promos or other vanity items that you can only get early by completing quests (or whatever they will be called on Magic Arena), but I'll be extremely disappointed if the only way to get a card you need to build a deck is to complete meaningless and often unfun game modes.

#3: What Are the Dusting Ratios?

This question basically ties into the first two, combining card acquisition and cost questions, and is probably a bit premature, since we don't yet know how we'll get cards on Magic Arena (while a dusting system is a solid bet, since we've seen a lot of Hearthstone-ian flavor in Magic Arena so far, it could be something else). One of the biggest drawbacks to Hearthstone is it's prohibitively expensive to switch decks. Since there is no trading, all Hearthstone cards are the same price based on rarity (with the equivalent of a mythic costing 1,600 dust, a rare costing 400 dust, an uncommon costing 100 dust, and a common costing 40 dust). In some ways, this is great because a Liliana, the Last Hope costs the same as a Time Reversal; however, there is one big problem: the amount of dust you get for destroying your cards (the only way to get dust apart from grinding endless matches in free to play mode) is minimal. 

Let's say you want a Liliana, the Last Hope to complete your deck. Under the Hearthstone model, you can trade any four of your mythics to get a Liliana, the Last Hope, any 16 of your rares, any 80 of your uncommons, or any 320 of your commons (for the lower rarities, it's important to remember that packs are only five cards, so you get a maximum of four commons per Hearthstone pack). While this is a horrible spread no matter how you look at it (basically, Hearthstone gives you—at most—25% of your cards' value when you trade for other cards), applying this model to Magic is even more troubling, since in Hearthstone you can only play one of each mythic in your deck. As a result, the average tier Hearthstone deck contains just 3.55 mythics (calculated from the tier one and two decks listed here)—not even a playset of a single mythic, in Magic terms. 

When you consider that the average Hearthstone pack yields about 100 dust (although there's some contention here, since most packs only give you around 40 dust), this means that Hearthstone has essentially pegged the value of any single mythic rare at $16, any rare at $4, any uncommon at $1, and any common at $0.40 if you are buying a deck directly with cash. If you translate this to Magic decks, if Wizards kept the exact same dusting ratios at Hearthstone, Temur Energy would cost $234.20 and Ramunap Red would cost $225.80, while the mythic-heavy Mardu Vehicles would cost $376.60. These prices are at best equal to Magic Online (not even considering that Magic Online cards are real, while untradable Magic Arena cards are phantom) and in some cases far more expensive.

Of course, these prices would be for someone who just wants to buy cards and play Magic, not someone looking to grind for gold by playing the game. So, just how much would grinding help bring down the price of the decks? Not taking into account random bonuses (sometimes, Hearthstone just gives players packs / gold for surprise promotional reasons), it take 30 game wins to earn the equivalent of $1 of dust, while you can also get an average of $0.40 a day by completing quests. Let's assume that you manage to win 15 games a day (which feels like a lot for most players) and complete the daily quests naturally along the way. This would give you about $0.90 a day in free cards, which means you only have to do this every single day for about a year, and you can have a tier deck for free!

With the differences between Magic and Hearthstone in mind, if Magic Arena does use a dusting system, it would need to control for the fact that you simply need more high-rarity cards to play Magic by decreasing the spread, or by increasing the amount of free cards it gives away. Maybe instead of four of your mythics for any one mythic, the right number of Magic Arena is two for one, or something along those lines. Asking players who can't grind for endless hours a day to pay as much (or in some cases, more) than Magic Online for non-tradable cards thanks to the dusting ratios simply isn't a realistic plan. Without some significant adjustments to the Hearthstone model, Magic players will be in for a huge shock when they realize that to switch decks, they need to trade four of their decks to get the single deck they want. 

#4: What Will Limited Look Like? 

This question is actually much bigger for the future of Magic Online than it is for Magic Arena. While we know that Magic Arena will have limited, Wizards has been noncommittal about what "limited" actually means. Will there be traditional Magic drafts where you open a 15-card pack and pass the pack around the table to the players sitting to your virtual left and right, or will it be an entirely new format where you see X number of random cards and select the one that goes into your deck? In theory, either could work for Magic Arena, especially if the latter ends up being fun to play, but whether Arena has "real" limited or not will be a huge factor in determining what the long-term of digital Magic looks like.

If Arena goes with "fake" drafts, having the opportunity to deal real drafts and test for real limited events will be a huge calling card for Magic Online. Remember, we are the community that freaked out because they took away pods to make draft leagues (which in retrospect turned out to be a good decision for everything but cube drafts), so you have to imagine that going with an entirely new limited format would ruffle some feathers (especially if it's a digital-only format that can't be replicated in the paper world). On the other hand, if Magic Arena has "real" (i.e., traditional) limited at a significantly lower price than Magic Online, then it could spell the beginning of the end on Magic Online. Limited is—by far—the most profitable aspect of Magic Online, so if the huge pool of limited money stops flowing through Magic Online and starts flowing through Magic Arena, it suddenly becomes far easier for Wizards to discontinue support for Magic Online

#5: How Smooth Will It Play?

One thing we learned from the latest Magic Arena live stream is that we won't be able to disable animations. This means that getting the animations right is going to be essential to the success of Magic Arena. Personally, I don't like animations in general, but assuming they aren't making me lose games due to lag and unnecessary delays, I could learn to live with them. The bad news is that the announcement that we wouldn't be able to disable animations came right after a discussion about how having two copies of Anointer Priest on the battlefield lagged the game because of the animations (although the good news is that Wizards realizes that this is a problem and seems focused on fixing the issues). 

Considering that Magic Arena is Wizards' big push into streaming and eSports, it's incredibly important that its manages the animations in a way that doesn't compromise the integrity of the game. While I can learn to live with (and perhaps eventually even like) the animations if they are done well, the first match where I time out or otherwise lose a game because of the animations would likely be my last on Magic Arena. Basically, Wizards is jumping into the deep end of the pool by making it so animations can't be disabled. If the animations are smooth and unintrusive and don't impact the integrity of the game, it will end up being a fine decision, but the nightmare is that the animations end up overdone and gaudy, slow down the game, and even lead to losses (think: how most people turn off foil animations on Magic Online). If the worst case happens, having the option to disable them is a nice safety net, especially for players like me who are already on the fence about animations in general, since if the game reaches its potential, I'd rather just turn off problematic animations than stop playing altogether. While I'm hopeful that Magic Arena gets the animations right and that they are an amazing addition to the game, my hope comes with a dose of skepticism based on the checkered history of Magic Online's performance. 

#6: How Does Wizards Handle a Potential Magic Online Changeover?

This is more of a long-term concern and one that only impacts a certain segment of players (people who currently play Magic Online), but assuming everything goes according to plan and Magic Arena is amazing and successful, the last big question is what Wizards does about Magic Online players and their collections. Since Magic Online runs on the model that the digital cards on the program are the same as paper cards (and can actually be traded in for paper cards), there are a lot of players with fairly valuable Magic Online collections who have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on the program. If the day does comes where Wizards decided to stop supporting Magic Online, there's a fairly large concern in the Magic Online community about what Wizards will do about everyone's collection.

This concern is buoyed by the fact that Wizards just stopped supporting Magic Duels without really offering players anything, and without sounding callous, the value and money spent on free-to-play Magic Duels is a drop in the bucket compared to Magic Online. The Reddit thread discussing the end of Magic Duels support was full of people who were (rightly) upset because they lost $40 on their free-to-play game. With Magic Online, you're talking about very enfranchised players losing $4,000 or even $40,000 (not to mention the bots, some of which have more than $100,000 in inventory). 

In theory, apart from the potential uproar, there's nothing stopping Wizards from going the Magic Duels route and simply saying, "Sorry, Magic Online players. Thanks for the money, but we're not supporting the client anymore." The problem with this plan is that it would make a lot of very enfranchised players very angry, perhaps angry enough that they wouldn't play Magic Arena, not to mention the fact that Wizards probably doesn't want a bunch of Hall of Fame pros and other well-known community members freaking out on social media. As such, Wizards might feel like they need to have some sort of compensation—the question is what. 

There are conspiracy theories floating around that Treasure Chests are designed to lower the prices on Magic Online cards to soften the blow of eventually pulling support from Magic Online, and while it is true that Treasure Chests are reducing the prices of cards, there's no real evidence to support this theory. Plus, it's hard to imagine that Wizards would literally just cut checks to current Magic Online players (although there is some slight precedent, with Wizards paying Zack Jesse for the value of his account when they banned him). A more likely solution would be Wizards giving Magic Online players an equivalent amount of value on Magic Arena, but will someone with $5,000 in "real" cards on Magic Online be happy with $5,000 of "fake" cards on Magic Arena? I'm not sure. 

While this might be overstating the significance of the issue, the issue of if and how Wizards would compensate players in the event it decides to switch clients is sort of the Reserved List of Magic Online. While there's no concrete promise that Wizards will keep Magic Online running forever, the entire model and history of Magic Online is based on Wizards asking players to trust it (and to pay more up front to play Magic Online compared to other similar games), since Magic Online cards have real-world value. If Wizards did decide to go Magic Duels on Magic Online, the fallout would be interesting to watch. Whether or not is could actually threaten the success of Magic Arena is another question (the answer is likely no, just because if Wizards does eventually end support for Magic Online ,it would mean Magic Arena is doing extremely well), but the bad press, hurt feelings, and broken trust could end up being a major blow to Wizards from a meta perspective. 

Wrap-Up

The good news is that Wizards has made it very clear that Magic Arena is malleable and that it really, truly wants the community's feedback in designing the game (to the point where the game's slogan is "By players, for players"), which is one of the big reasons it's important that we talk about these questions now. You've probably heard the overused "be the change you want to see in the world" quote—now is the time to put this theory intro practice in regards to Magic Arena. This is a big part of why I wanted to write this article: to put my questions and concerns out there while these important decisions are still being made. As such, if you have strong feelings about what you want to see from Magic Arena, make your voice heard on social media and by signing up for the beta.

Of course, questions by themselves are fine, but answers are even better. So, here's how I'm hoping the questions we talked about today are answered.

  • Magic Arena need to be cheap, and not just "you never need to spend a penny if you play 10,000 hours a year." To succeed, it has to be priced similarly to competitors like Hearthstone and also be significantly cheaper than Magic Online, and not just on paper, but in an absolute sense, taking into account that Magic Online cards have real value, since they are tradable. 
  • Magic Arena needs to have a way for players to easily acquire any cards or deck they want without going through a convoluted Hearthstone-ian process. This could be as simple as allowing players to buy "dust" (or the Magic Arena equivalent of dust), or it could mean an auction house system, or it could mean Wizards just sells singles and decks to players directly. Not having trading is fine, but Wizards needs to make sure that players have an easy way to get the cards and decks they need without jumping through endless hoops.
  • If Wizards goes with a dusting system, it needs to take into account the huge differences between Magic and Hearthstone (especially in the number of mythics you need to build a deck) and make the dusting ratio better. We simply can't have Standard decks costing $200 to $300 a piece for players who don't have the time or desire to grind (although, to reiterate, having the ability to grind into decks for free is great). If changing decks is prohibitively expensive (as it is in Hearthstone), it will be tough to sell established Magic players on switching over from Magic Online (where changing decks is incredibly cheap and easy).
  • If Wizards wants Magic Arena to eventually replace Magic Online, it needs to have real limited. Part of the reason players use Magic Online is to test and practice for paper events, and if Magic Arena has some weird type of limited that isn't easily replicable in the paper world (or relevant to the FNM or Grand Prix scenes), a meaningful number of players will stick to Magic Online to get their fill of drafts and sealed events. 
  • Assuming Wizards sticks to the "you must have animations plan," it has to triple down on making sure that animations are done right, in the sense that they don't lag the game, crash the program, or go so far over the top that they make thinking through lines and playing Magic less enjoyable. As someone firmly in the "I don't want animations" camp, I'm willing to give Wizards a shot, but if it isn't going to make disabling animations an option, Wizards has to get the animations right. Clunkiness here would be the easiest way to turn me off of Magic Arena as a whole. 
  • Finally, Wizards needs to figure out a reasonable path forward for all the Magic Online players who trusted the company enough to spend thousands of dollars on Magic Online. While Wizards would likely be within its rights to just shutter Magic Online with no compensation, this would be taken as a huge violation of trust by the digital Magic community and would likely make it hard for at least some Magic Online players to support Magic Arena, no matter how awesome it might be.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today! What are your biggest questions for Magic Arena? What answers are you looking for over the upcoming months of live streams and beta access? Let me know in the comments, and as always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions. You can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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