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The Future of Paper Magic


The year 2019 was one of great change in the Magic world. We saw the rise of Arena tournaments; a huge overhaul in organized play; a new philosophy pushing the power level of Standard-legal sets (which thus far has not only led to high-powered Standard but also many bannings); the proliferation of specialty products like Mythic Edition, Deluxe Edition, and Secret Lair; and a meaningful shift in how people play the game of Magic, especially in paper, where side events and Command Zones rule the roost while attendance for big constructed events like Grands Prix and PTQs dwindle, especially for Standard. 

Change is hard and often scary, and having so much of it all in one year has left the community wondering what is next for the game, especially the paper part of the game, as competitive Standard play shifts more and more toward Arena and away from paper, while older constructed formats like Vintage and Legacy trend toward Magic Online. This has lead to some fears that paper Magic is dying. I've even had people ask me if they should sell their collections (the short answer is no). 

So today, we're going to look at a few of the reasons why everyone is worried about paper Magic and then talk about where I think Magic is heading as we move out of the 2010s and into the 2020s. Let's start with a few reasons why many people are concerned about the future of paper Magic.

Changes of 2019

Cutting Grand Prix Coverage for Weekly MPL Coverage

Back in the beginning of 2019, the community noticed that Grands Prix—long a staple of Magic coverage—suddenly weren't being broadcast on Twitch anymore. Eventually, it came out that Grand Prix coverage was being cut in favor of more Arena coverage and a weekly Magic Pro League stream. After a major outcry from the community, five Grands Prix were added back to the coverage schedule in 2019, which is something but still a huge decline from previous years, when a Grand Prix was broadcast on Twitch most weekends. 

At the time, it seemed possible that the MPL Weekly stream would be a replacement, with a high-end commentary team and the best players in the world, but it quickly became clear that the MPL Weekly stream was a flop. While embedding was used to boost views the first couple of weeks, once the embedding ended, the MPL Weekly stream often only had around 3,000 viewers, not only significantly less than most Grands Prix but a number of views roughly on-par with a good day from one of the top solo Magic streamers, despite the fact that the MPL Weekly was paying a meaningful chunk of money to 32 players (the streaming part of the MPL contract for 2019 was $25,000, although this included solo streams as well) along with a big (and presumably expensive) team to broadcast the event. 

While broadcasting a Grand Prix is more expensive than many players think, when you consider the cost of streaming contracts for MPL players, paying a high-end commentary team, building or renting a studio, and all the related costs, it's hard to imagine that an MPL Weekly episode costs much less. While there could probably be an entire article on the MPL Weekly and why it failed, and some of the reasons were outside of the broadcast's control (like a string of ban-worthy Standards and solved metas where almost every player at the event was on the same deck), the fact is that it did fail, and Wizards recently announced it was going on hiatus starting in 2020. The views simply weren't there, especially for the cost of the event.

Embedding Arena Streams but Not Paper Streams

Embedding has been a weirdly hot topic in 2019 thanks to its aggressive use for some Magic streams. While this isn't the place to litigate the entire concept, the basic idea is that Twitch owns some big gaming websites (with Gamepedia being the biggest). If a stream wants to increase its number of views, it can pay the websites (which is actually paying Twitch) to embed the stream in various pages on its site. So when someone goes to read something like the DOTA 2 Wiki, a video of the stream will auto-play, often off-screen at the very top or bottom of the page. The people reading this webpage count as viewers, and thanks to Twitch's ability to control just how many pages have the embedded video, Twitch has the ability to (within reason) set the viewer number to whatever you want. So if your stream only has 30,000 viewers but you really want to have 150,000, with enough money (and enough embeds), Twitch can make that happen for you.

The ethics of embedding, as well as its purpose, are beyond the scope of what we're talking about today. However, the way that Wizards has used embedding is interesting. Over the course of 2019, every Arena Mythic Championship was embedded. So if you look at the viewer counts for the tournament, they fall into the 100,000 to 150,000 range. Some other random Arena streams also got the treatment, like the first couple of weeks of the MPL, which topped out at near 50,000 but fell to 3,000 in later weeks once the embed was turned off. Meanwhile, no paper Magic tournaments, including Mythic Championships, were embedded, which leaves paper Mythic Championships with view counts in the 25,000 to 40,000 range. 

One way to view this is that Wizards already knows that paper Magic is successful and doesn't feel the need to spend money to advertise it. While not advertising what has traditionally been your core product seems like a strange technique, it's a possibility. The other possibility is that Arena tournaments having much higher viewership than paper tournaments is part of a long-term plan to justify, either externally or internally, a shift further away from paper and toward digital. At least publicly, Wizards has used the embedded viewership number to flaunt the success of Arena streams. If we get to the point where Wizards simply doesn't want to broadcast paper tournaments anymore, citing its lack of success viewership-wise compared to Arena tournaments seems like an easy way to fend off the community's inevitable criticism of the choice.

The Throne of Eldraine Trailer 

 

The Throne of Eldraine trailer, which was one of the best received (and maybe the best received) piece of Magic advertising of all time, was played millions of times on YouTube, along with showing up regularly on tournament coverage. While the trailer itself was great, its ending was interesting, as rather than advertising Magic as a whole, it pointed players to Magic: Arena if they wanted to experience the new set's awesomeness. Of course, Magic Arena was officially released alongside Throne of Eldraine, and it makes sense to advertise your newest, hottest product. But in the context of everything else we've been talking about today, it can also be seen as another (small) move toward Arena and away from paper Magic

Direct-From-Wizards Products

Traditionally, local game stores have been the foundation of the paper game of Magic. They give players a place to actually play the game, along with a place to buy cards and supplies while also gathering with others in the Magic community. While online vendors have long been a part of the Magic market (although many online vendors actually run local game stores in their communities as well), in 2019, we saw an increasing shift toward Wizards selling products directly to players, essentially cutting local game stores out of the mix.

First came the announcement that Wizards would sell booster boxes directly on Amazon, which—in a world where many people have Amazon Prime—offers a really easy and convenient way to get a booster box that doesn't require going to your local game store. While this is a good things for players who don't have an easily accessible local game store in their location, it also has the potential to siphon away sales that would have went to an LGS and directly shuffle that money into Wizards' pockets instead. 

If the trend had ended with Amazon booster boxes, it may not have been worth writing about, but in recent months, we had Throne of Eldraine: Deluxe Collection (along with the Mythic Editions, which have been happening for a little while now) and then Secret Lair. In some ways, Secret Lair was the most concerning of the changes since some of the drops basically amounted to Wizards selling players a single card for a lower price than they could purchase said card at their local game store. While time restraints limit the impact to some extent (each drop was only for sale for 24 hours, or 48 hours if you include the day when you could buy all the drops together at a discount), it is still weird that you could buy a Bitterblossom directly from Wizards along with some sweet tokens for $30 when it cost $40 to get a copy at your LGS (which probably paid $25–30 for it, hoping to sell it for $40). 

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At this point, direct-from-Wizards sales aren't just a trend. With the confirmation that Deluxe Collection and Secret Lair will both be continuing in 2020, they seem to be the way of the future. While none of these changes by themselves is a death blow to a local game store, as the direct-from-Wizards products continue to add up (and as attendance dwindles for some constructed events like PTQs), the fear that local game stores are dying a death by 1,000 cuts doesn't seem completely illegitimate. Maybe each of these things only cuts a percent or two off of a typical LGS's profits, but with the tight margins and small profits that most local game stores have, a few changes that each eat away a couple of percent have the potential to end up being the difference between a store being successful and not being able to keep the lights on. 

Worlds on Arena

The latest announcement that brought the future of paper Magic back to the forefront of the community's consciousness was that Worlds and its million-dollar prize pool would be moving to Arena. Much like the Throne of Eldraine trailer leaving paper Magic out of the mix, by itself, this decision would be fairly meaningless, apart from the fact that Worlds with no draft and just a single format (thanks to Arena not supporting competitive formats outside of Standard at the moment) is weird since it traditionally has a bunch of different formats to help make the extremely small tournament more interesting. However, considering all the other changes and shifts of 2019, the change in venue for Worlds has taken on increasing significance since it looks like another move away from competitive paper play. 

Putting Everything Together

At first glance, you can use all of the things we've been talking about to argue that paper Magic is going by the wayside. However, if you dig a bit deeper into these changes, they mostly focus on one specific aspect of paper play: competitive constructed, and more specifically, competitive Standard. While this might be, at least in part, because Arena is almost exclusively focused on the format, if we look at the ways paper Magic was succeeding, growing, and receiving more support in 2019, it paints an even more complete picture.

Where Paper Magic Thrived in 2019

Commander

While there are plenty of things you can (and we have) point to that suggest paper constructed (especially Standard) is on the downswing, there are almost as many reasons that casual paper play is on the rise. The year 2019 brought with it the advent of the Command Zone at Grands Prix, offering players a dedicated place to play Commander along with a ton of new (and old) friends to play with. After that came Command Fest—essentially MagicFest except focused exclusively on Commander, with no constructed main event to worry about. You can also toss in more Commander products, with Brawl Decks joining Commander 2019, and the announcement that even more Commander-focused products are on the way in 2020. You can even argue that a lot of the special products we've seen in 2019, like Secret Lair or Deluxe / Mythic Edition, are mostly focused on the Commander crowd, which is known for their love of unique arts and blinging out their decks. 

Pioneer

Likewise, 2019 brought with it the advent of Pioneer, which we already know is getting support in the paper world with Players Tour events during the first months of 2020. While Pioneer has also been a boon for Magic Online, if you look at the big paper tournaments that have been announced for 2020, you'll see that the format is heavily supported. Even apart from the Players Tour events, the first part of the 2020 MagicFest schedule includes four Pioneer Grands Prix and four Modern Grands Prix, with just two Standard events. Meanwhile, the SCG Tour is almost exclusively focused on Modern and Pioneer, with a few team events that include a bit of Standard. 

What Does All This Mean?

Taken as a whole, my opinion is that paper Magic isn't dying; it's changing. Its focus no longer seems to be on Standard grinders, qualifiers, and huge constructed Grand Prix main events, but on the gathering aspect of the game that is offered by friendly, multiplayer formats and for older, non-rotating formats, as far as competitive play. If you add together all the pieces of 2019 and combine them with what we currently know about 2020, the immediate future looks something like this.

Magic Arena: Standard is the format of Magic Arena. While there are a couple of Grands Prix for standard, and it's possible that some of the yet-to-be-announced Players Tour events feature Standard, if you combine the current tournament schedule 2020 with the advertising and moves of 2019, there's almost no high-level support for Standard in paper. On the other hand, the format is heavily featured on Magic Arena, which means big Arena tournaments from Wizards, and outside organizers (like Dreamhack) almost always feature the format. 

Magic Online: Magic Online continues to be the digital home of non-rotating formats, as a string of recent Pioneer PTQs recently exemplified.

Paper MagicWhile Pioneer and Modern remain king as far as paper tournament Magic, it seems clear that Commander is the most important paper format of 2020, not only in terms of tournaments, with Command Zones and Command Fests, but product-wise as well, where we recently had an announcement of a huge line of offerings in 2020, culminating with a draftable Commander Masters–style set at the end of the year.

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Traditionally, the idea that paper Magic could move away from Standard has been a non-starter, mostly because the sale of Standard-legal booster sets seemed essential to Wizards' bottom line. But in a world where Deluxe Edition, Mythic Edition, and Secret Lair can make millions of dollars in a matter of minutes and two digital clients are adding revenue, it's possible that this isn't as important as it used to be. This could also help to explain the direct sales strategy we've seen come into place over the past year or two, which theoretically increases profits for Wizards (by cutting out the middleman), which in turn means Wizards can generate as much profit as before but with fewer overall sales of Standard boosters. Toss in an endless stream of seemingly well-selling Commander products (Brawl Decks sold out their first printing almost immediately), and in 2020, it might be that the old model of selling booster boxes of Standard sets through local game stores just isn't a huge part of Wizards' plans or profits.

This isn't to say Wizards should (or will) stop selling Standard legal booster boxes in paper or doesn't care about selling them, just that the landscape in 2020 is a lot different than it was a decade ago. Remember that back in 2010, Magic was essentially four Standard sets a year, along with something like one Duel Deck and maybe a From the Vault. In 2019, we're averaging about 1.5 products per month—a threefold increase over a decade ago. 

2020 and Beyond

As we head into a new decade of Magic, here is where I believe we are as a game. If you want to grind Standard, Wizards wants you to do it on Arena, where you can grind endless games from the comfort of your own home and qualify for Mythic Championships (and with some luck, the MPL or Rivals league). If you want to play Pioneer, Modern, Legacy, or Vintage, Magic Online has you covered, in much the same way that Arena covers Standard, with plenty of events and qualifiers that can make your dreams of becoming a pro a reality (although, at least for now, paper Magic plays a role here as well). 

Heading into 2020, Magic has not one but two digital clients that are both very good at what they do. However, both of these clients are missing an important part of Magic: the Gathering in "the Gathering." Rather than killing paper Magic, it seems that Wizards has made a choice to refocus it on the one thing that it offers that Arena and Magic Online simply can't: community, friendship, and in-person interactions—the "gathering" in Magic: the Gathering

My guess is this trend will continue over the next year or two. Paper will become more and more about "the Gathering," with a focus on Commander products, Command Zones, and Command Fests. Arena will continue to take over the Standard market and become the home for both new players and for grinders looking to qualify for big events. Magic Online will continue to be Arena but for older formats. 

If you really look at the changes of 2019, it's not that Wizards is pulling support for paper Magic. While support for competitive Standard play in paper seems to be on the decline, you can argue that Wizards is actually increasing support for what it sees paper Magic being in the 2020s by increasing support for Commander, which is, according to Mark Rosewater, (probably) Magic's most played format, even above Standard. Rather, Wizards seems to be refocusing paper Magic on "the Gathering," while shifting the focus of competitive play toward digital and away from the tabletop game, especially for Standard. Whether or not this change is a good long-term strategy remains to be seen. A glass-half-empty perspective would focus on the fact that competitive tabletop play seems to be on the decline, while the glass-half-full perspective would focus on the return of "the Gathering" to Magic in an increasingly isolated and digital age. Only time will tell for sure, but for the time being, embrace the gathering of paper Magic to catch up with old friends and meet some new friends along the way, and focus on Magic Arena and Magic Online to grind out your competitive fix.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. Where do you see Magic heading as we enter a new decade? Let us 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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