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The Future Is as Bright as It Is Uncertain


"Sideboarding solves many problems, but does so with the addition of a process that is challenging to understand and master." —Magic Arena Head Developer Chris Clay on why Magic Arena is using best-of-one matches for competitive play

In an article called "The 'And' of MTG Arena" published on Thursday, the tag team of Aaron Forsythe, Sr. design director at Wizards, and Chris Clay, head designer of Magic Arena, laid out some of their expectations for and reasonings behind the Magic Arena client, its format, and tournaments. Amid a discussion of draft bots and designed choices, we finally received some official word about Wizards' thoughts on the best-of-one format on the client.

This announcement was magnified in importance by another announcement that went up on the same day: the million-dollar Mythic Invitational at PAX East would feature a new format called Duo Standard, where each player brings two decks and plays three best-of-one games without sideboards to determine the winner. 

So, why is competitive play on Arena using best-of-one matches as opposed to best-of-three sideboarded matches, which have been the norm in competitive play for two decades? While there are several considerations like game length and the desire to draw the biggest audience possible, the underlying problem from Wizards' perspective is essentially that sideboarding is too hard, being "difficult to master and understand." 

The Difficulty of Sideboarding

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This is certainly true. Sideboarding is a skill that requires a lot of practice to master. I've been playing Magic for more than a decade now, and while my sideboarding has improved greatly over the years, I don't feel like I've mastered the skill. The reason why sideboarding is so hard is because it almost always requires an intimate knowledge not just of your own deck but of your opponent's deck and sideboard as well. 

In a lot of ways, sideboarding rewards the same thing that Lantern Control rewarded in Modern: the knowledge of which cards are likely in your opponent's deck, which cards are likely in your opponent's sideboard, and which of these cards are actually meaningful to your deck and the specific matchups you are playing. There is a reason why only a certain type and/or skill level of player was able to find success with Lantern Control in Modern: it's difficult and requires an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the format and the decks and cards in the format.

Sideboarding is similar. While you can have some success sideboarding by only focusing on your deck and its plan, to be good at sideboarding, you need to consider the cards in your opponent's deck and how they interact with your cards. And to truly master sideboarding, you need to also be able to take into account the cards that your opponent may be sideboarding in themselves, which leads to all types of obscure topics like leveling, which are of little interest to your average Magic Arena player.

All this is to say, Chris Clay isn't wrong. Sideboarding is difficult to understand and master. 

This being said, Magic itself is difficult to understand and master, sideboard or not. Or at least, it has been. 

The Difficulty of Magic

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Let me tell you a story about how I first started playing Magic. I first picked up Magic back around when the original Ravnica block was released, thanks to a roommate who once played the game and snagged his cards from his mother's basement one day. My first playgroup was ultra-casual. While everyone enjoyed puzzly combos and weird, intricate synergies, we allowed for free mulligans if we didn't have enough lands to cast our cards, and take-backs were generally accepted. Then, one day, a new player joined our group—a friend who used to play Magic fairly competitively. 

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This new player had decks that were as unbeatable for my Ion Storm / Arcbound Overseer charge counter deck as they were frustrating, and here I'm not talking 2019 frustrating like "he cast a three-mana counterspell" or "she put a Curious Obsession on an unblockable creature"; we're talking 2005 frustrating like Isochron Scepter / Orim's Chant locks and Stasis decks. I'm a pretty chill person in general, but after not being able to cast my Arcbound Overseer (or anything else) for the third game in a row, even I was close to the point of flipping the table. 

But I didn't flip the table. Instead, I went back to the huge, random box of cards that my roommate owned and started looking for things that could stop what my opponent was doing. As a new player, this wasn't easy. In fact, you might say that especially as a new player, figuring out how to beat what was essentially a tier Extended deck built around a brutal lock that kept me from ever casting a spell was difficult to understand, let alone master.

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Considering that Orim's Chant made it so I could never cast spells during my turn, I needed a way to blow up Isochron Scepter at instant speed. Eventually, I realized that Shatter would get the job done. I added Shatter to my deck and slowly increased the number as I continued to lose to the lock. But it actually happened one game: I managed to not just blow up the Isochron Scepter / Orim's Chant deck but beat the tier Extended deck with my janky charge counters. That feeling—of facing an almost unsolvable (based on my skill level and cards) problem and figuring out a way to overcome it—got me addicted to Magic and has kept me coming back for years and years. 

The days of torment, frustration, and misery of losing to that lock were all worth it. In fact, the frustration and infinite losses beforehand are probably what made the feeling so great, and that feeling has kept me playing Magic for the past decade or more. If it had been easy, it's likely I would have lost interest in the game before Time Spiral block was released. The difficulty and the feeling of accomplishment that came from eventually overcoming that difficulty, after a lot of hard work and practice, made Magic so alluring to me.

Magic Arena

I'm afraid that this feeling will be missing on Magic Arena, with its focus on best-of-one gameplay. When you grind the best-of-one ladder and your Mono-Red Burn deck wins the die roll and beats your opponent's Mono-Red Burn deck, seeing your rank increase feels sort of good in its own kind of way. But rather than feeling like I solved some complex problem and bested my opponents with my wits, it feels more like I won a coin flip—like my victory was determined by something outside of my control, like who Magic Arena decided should play first or to whom Magic Arena decided to give eight lands in their top 12 cards.

Now, this might just be me. Maybe winning the die roll in a Burn mirror (and winning the game as a result) gives immense satisfaction to other people. The great thing about Magic is that people play it for all kinds of reasons and have many different goals and desires. But based on the general feeling about best-of-one gameplay I've seen on social media and Reddit, even many of the people who play the best-of-one format on a regular basis are doing it for reasons other than how much they enjoy the gameplay or how much satisfaction winning a match gives them (like having limited time to complete a match in a busy life or wanting to get in as many games as possible to earn rewards and build a collection). 

Simplification 

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In the end, this puts the game in a strange position. There have been many examples of simplifying the game being a positive, with damage being removed from the stack, various changes to the legend rule, and the like. At the same time, there is doubtlessly a point where simplifying too much becomes a negative instead. There's a post on the Magic Arena subreddit at least once a week discussing how we should just get rid of lands and give everyone a mana each turn, or get rid of traditional mulligans and just let people put back whatever cards they don't like in their opening hands to draw new ones. It's hard to imagine that even the biggest supporters of simplification would find such changes to be good for the game. 

Where does best-of-one play fall on this scale? We're about to find out. The fact that the change diminishes what I find so great about Magic—the problem solving and feeling of accomplishment that comes with it—isn't really relevant. Wizards has my money and my support, and I'll continue to do what I've always done: play Magic in a way that makes me happy and gives me the feeling of accomplishment and joy that makes the game so addicting. My worry isn't for me; it's that the new players whom Arena is doing a great job of bringing into the game won't get that same feeling. Rather than experiencing the greatest game of all time (or at least modern times, for you chess fans), they'll experience just another digital card game where you do things, stuff happens, and someone ends up moving up a step on the ladder. If we've learned one thing from the digital card game market (and the release of Magic Arena itself), it's that it's fickle. Hex and Artifact were the next big thing for a year or two, until they weren't. Hearthstone was king for a while, until its players started jumping ship to the hot new title in Arena because of the staleness of the coin-flippy ladder grind. 

Digital card games will keep coming as long as they have the potential to make a ton of money for their companies. In just 2019, there's supposed to be a game call Labyrinth, a Warhammer card game, a Lord of the Rings digital LCG, Super Dragonball Heroes, and several other games. While Arena might be the hot new game today, what hot new title will be released in six months, a year, or two years from now is anyone's guess. Wizards isn't the first company to desire a piece of the Hearthstone pie, and it certainly won't be the last. Will Magic's newfound simplicity keep players coming back, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, in a world of ever-increasing competition? At this point, no one knows.

The Future

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Moving forward, my advice to players is this: play Magic in whatever ways give you enjoyment. The great thing about Magic is that once you have the cards, you can play with them however you like, regardless of which formats are used at Mythic Championships or are supported on Arena. In fact, one of the biggest trends in Magic over the past couple of years has been people embracing their ability to play Magic their way, with the rise of formats like Old School and Canadian Highlander, and Commander and Pauper before that. Wizards can make and support whatever formats it thinks are best, but when it comes right down to it, Wizards can't control how you decide to interact and play with the game. This isn't to say that you shouldn't play best-of-one. If you enjoy it, you should, and it's awesome to have yet another way to play the game. But it's important to remember that Magic is a game. We play games to have fun, and what we find to be fun is very subjective and varies greatly from person to person. 

To Wizards, shoot for the stars with Arena, but don't forget where you came from. If simplification is what you think is best for the game, do what you need to do, regardless of what traditionalists (like me) happen to enjoy. While new players are great, and I hope that these changes bring tens of millions of them onto Magic Arena and into the paper game as well, remember that Magic has outlived all of the pretenders because 25 years ago, Richard Garfield created the greatest game in the world. This is your competitive advantage: your game is better than all of the others, and you have 25 years of history to prove it. While making the changes you think are best, don't let this slip away for some Twitch views and short-term Hearthstone dollars.

The future is as bright as it is uncertain, and regardless of how all of this turns out two, five, and 10 years down the road, one thing's for sure: Wizards is going big and going bold, and 2019 will be quite the ride.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, feelings, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.

*Editors Note: The article originally attributed some comments to Chris Cocks rather than Chris Clay, the article has been updated with the proper name.


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