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The Risks and Rewards of Competitive Best-of-One Magic

In many ways, Magic Arena is the same old Magic that we've been playing in paper and on Magic Online for years or even decades. The cards are the same, and the mechanics and rules are the same. Magic Arena just looks a lot flashier and crisper than any Magic digital product to date. However, in some ways, Arena is looking to be different and innovate. For example, it has cards that aren't available in the paper game, and while these cards haven't done much in terms of competitive play, they are legal in competitive tournaments. Perhaps the biggest way that Arena is being different or innovating, depending on your perspective, is that (at least, for now) all ranked play (the Arena version of competitive play) takes place in best-of-one matches, rather than in "traditional" best-of-three matches with sideboards. 

This change, unsurprisingly, has lead to a huge debate within the Magic community. Some see it as a great innovation, updating Magic for the short attention spans of 2019, while others worry that it strays too far from what has made Magic successful and helped the game thrive for the past 25 years—a time period when numerous imitators and competitors faded from the gaming scene for various reasons. So today, we're going to take some time to talk through the risks and rewards of competitive best-of-one Magic. 

Before getting into it, just so it's perfectly clear: we're talking about competitive play today—tournaments, ranked play, and the like. Best-of-one is a wonderful casual game mode, and I don't think anyone wants to see Magic Arena stop supporting best-of-one play. For a new player picking up the game, best-of-one matches have some huge advantages, in that you don't need as many cards to compete (since you don't need to build a sideboard), matches are fast (and perhaps eventually mobile friendly, once Arena expands past its current PC-only mode), and the increased variance makes sure that new or inexperienced plays have a chance to compete with even the best pros (even Reid Duke and LSV get mana screwed!). As such, today isn't about best-of-one mode being on Arena—it should be on Arena—but rather the upsides and drawbacks of using the mode as the tournament / competitive mode on the client.

Reward—It's Fast

Wizards has made it clear that Arena will be coming to mobile and eventually other platforms as well. Best-of-one is essential in the world of mobile gaming, where people are looking to get in a quick match at a bus stop, on break, or even in the bathroom. The estimated time per-game on Arena is seven minutes, which makes it pretty easy to sneak a one-game match into a busy life. 

It's also important to remember that, despite its new esports program, Arena's primary goal is (or at least, was) to bring new and returning players into the game. For enfranchised Magic players used to 50-minute round timers, playing a 21-minute three-game match on Arena feels super fast. For someone playing Magic for the first time and coming over from Hearthstone or mobile games, 21 minutes probably feels like an eternity. And this doesn't even take into account the attention span of a generation raised on Vines, Snapchat, and short YouTube videos. As strange as it sounds to current Magic players, it might just be that three games is too much for people picking up the game for the first time. 

Of course, here, it is fair to question whether new-to-Magic players are the ones competitive play should be designed for. Traditionally, the Magic journey starts with casual play and eventually expands to more competitive settings like FNMs, Grands Prix, and for a select few, Pro Tours. It's possible that by the time the new players brought in by Arena have a collection and desire for competitive play, they'll be ready to play traditional best-of-three matches and might even be looking for the depth that sideboarding provides, although it's also possible that Arena is different and people simply jump into competitive play at the first opportunity. 

The Risk—It's Too Fast

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One of the quirks of best-of-one play is that it heavily rewards aggro decks (while control decks are also a part of the best-of-one metagame, midrange decks are mostly pushed aside). In a world where one game decides the entire match, the best plan is typically to have a linear game plan that you try to execute every single game—like playing a bunch of cheap red creatures and finishing the game with burn, or playing small, evasive blue creatures and sticking a Curious Obsession. Basically, the easiest way to play best-of-one is to think of the format like Modern (but with four competitive decks rather than 40), where you want to goldfish your way to killing your opponent without caring a whole lot about what deck your opponent is playing. As a result, the traditional control vs. midrange vs. aggro paradigm doesn't always apply to the best-of-one format, leaving a metagame much different from traditional best-of-three Magic

While hard numbers aren't available, the general consensus is that aggro is much more heavily represented in the best-of-one metagame than the best-of-three metagame. This, in turn, leads to a lot of repetitive Mono-Red vs. Mono-Red or Mono-Red vs. Mono-Blue matchups, which tend to get old after a while. Of course, it's also true that best-of-one is a fairly new format, and it's possible that Wizards eventually starts designing specifically for the format (we've already seen some hints at this, with cards like Goblin Cratermaker) by powering down linear aggro and control strategies to improve the meta. However, this comes with some additional risk...

Risk—Card Design

It's clear that Wizards can design for a best-of-one metagame if it chooses. The question is whether it should. In just the past three months, we've had the first period of stable, good Standard in two or three years, which is a wonderful thing, but this period of stability seems to be making a lot of people forget the very recent past, when Standard often ranged from bad to downright unplayable. At this point, Magic Arena is all-in on Standard—it doesn't have any older formats at all—which means the client's success is mostly tied to Standard being fun and playable. A sustained period of bad Standard would be a very bad thing for the client overall (see: the recent decline of interest in Hearthstone). 

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Designing cards for best-of-one—which seems very, very different from the way Wizards has designed cards for the past 25 years—adds another layer of complexity to the design process. Traditionally, some of our worst Standards come from Wizards trying to figure out new things, like equipment (in Mirrodin), planeswalkers (Jace, the Mind Sculptor), or vehicles and energy (Kaladesh block). It makes sense that if Wizards is going to majorly shift its design philosophy to support best-of-one play, there will be growing pains along the way. Growing pains lead to bannings and unfun Standard formats, and the risk is even higher in best-of-one, where traditional fixes (printing powerful sideboard cards to hose the dominant strategy) aren't an option due to the nature of the format. Could Arena survive a year or two of bad Standard like we very recently just experienced? I don't know the answer, but ideally we won't have to find out. 

At this point, it still remains to be seen if our new, good Standard is a product of changes at Wizards (like the addition of the Play Design team) or more a product of a multi-color Standard format and a bit of luck thrown in. Hopefully, it's the former, but until we have another year or two of good Standard, it's going to be hard to say for certain why Standard is working at the moment. Throwing another big wrinkle into the design process at a time when Standard is just starting to improve seems like a risky plan. 

Finally, all of this doesn't even take into account the unintended consequences: the design changes that are likely needed to make best-of-one more competitive (powering down aggro and control cards and printing more all-purpose, maindeckable answers) have the potential to make traditional best-of-three Magic worse. Golgari Midrange is already the best deck in Standard. Could you imagine if rather than designing for best-of-three, Wizards was designing to make midrange decks more playable in best-of-one? Golgari Midrange could very well be the Temur Energy of Guilds of Ravnica Standard. Designing for two different formats is hard—we only have one card pool to work with, and in theory, the time spent improving the best-of-one metagame is time that isn't spent improving the best-of-three metagame (we sort of see this in Modern, where in the past, Wizards has been upfront about not really having the time to test for the format as much as it can for Standard and limited).

Reward—Better Viewing Experience

One of the downsides of best-of-three matches is that they aren't great for coverage, and with Wizards' new push into esports, making coverage as good as possible is an important and worthy goal. People, especially new-to-Magic people, tune into Twitch coverage to see flashy, cool things happen, not to watch people drag cards back and forth between their main deck and sideboard for two or three minutes between each game. In theory, best-of-one matches allow for more game play and less downtime for viewers. 

On the other hand, we don't really know how best-of-one tournament coverage would work. At the Player of the Year playoff (our first taste of best-of-one gameplay at a competitive paper event), there was downtime for players to select a new deck. It might be that best-of-one actually has just as much downtime and complexity as best-of-three—it just replaces sideboarding with choosing a new deck. Deck selection is probably somewhat more digestible than sideboarding for newer players, who probably don't understand why Damping Sphere coming in from the sideboard against Izzet Phoenix is a big deal, but it seems like there will still need to be a break between games, regardless of what format is being featured on coverage. 

A more appealing prospect would be finding a way to stagger best-of-one matches. While it would probably end up complicating things for the tournament organizer, watching a Pro Tour where each round had three or four full feature matches, all with different players and minimal (or no) downtime between matches, would be a great viewing experience—basically Time Walk Magic but on steroids. 

The Risk—Increased Variance and Less Skill

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In traditional best-of-three Magic, winning the die roll (and being able to play first) is a meaningful advantage. While the statistics are a bit old, back when we could analyze thousands of games of Standard during Khans of Tarkir block, the person on the play won 8% more often than the person on the draw (54% to 46%) in a traditional best-of-three match. In theory, this problem gets even worse in best-of-one matches. While hard data isn't available, according to someone who played around 2,000 best-of-one games, the person playing first won a massive 60% of the time. When you consider that many of the faces you see on the Pro Tour win about 60% of the time, this means the die roll in a best-of-one match suddenly makes the winner into a gold- or platinum-level pro, while making the loser into a new-ish player in one of their first FNMs. Basically, best-of-one games make Magic less about skill and more about luck, and Magic is a game that already has quite a bit of variance / luck built into it with the mana system. 

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Personally I find the variance of best-of-one to be maddening, especially for tournament play. Paying real money to play an event and losing to the luck of the die roll / coin flip or because you happened to have a draw that mathmatically should happen once every 100 games (like 10 lands in 15 cards) twice in a row isn't a very fun experiance, but it's an experiance that's common in a world without sideboards. Now, this isn't to say there aren't benefits to having Magic be more luck based: variance is why a new player sometimes beats the best players in the world, and beating one of the best players in the world is a huge boost of confidence to a new player, likely hooking them to the game. However, Arena's matchmaking is designed to specifically keep the best players away from the worst  /newest players, so I'm not sure how much this actually applies to Arena in general. Plus, our focus today is competitive play, which is theoretically more for established players anyway. 

It's also possible that this is a problem that can be fixed with some sort of rule changes or technological tweak, which was already hinted at during a recent live stream with the Arena developers, although this would push best-of-one Magic even further away from the other formats in Magic, which has another downside...

Risk—Less Paper Crossover

Traditionally, digital Magic has been seen as a way to bring players into the paper game, with Magic Online going to great lengths to be a digital representation of paper Magic (for better or worse). Best-of-one matches on Arena already play by their own rules (an algorithm draws two opening hands and usually gives you the one with a land / spell breakdown in line with the total number of lands / spells in your deck to decrease mana screw / flood), and it's likely that even more changes will be necessary to make best-of-one into a less luck-based and more skill-based format. 

While having a bunch of unique rules is fine for Arena, the drawback is that playing by unique rules makes it difficult for Arena players to ever cross over into the paper game (or to Magic Online, for that matter). In theory, Wizards could find a way to change the paper game to better match Arena (by switching to best-of-one matches), but even if Wizards made this switch, it's going to be pretty hard to replicate having the client draw two hands and sometimes (but not always) give you the better option, let alone whatever future changes come to best-of-one on Arena

Imagine an Arena player walking into an FNM for the first time, thinking they'll check out the paper game. It would likely be a disaster. They might not know what a sideboard is, and even if they do, they will likely end up frustrated by the mana screw / flood that happens when a computer isn't trying to (usually) give you a good hand. The transition from Magic Online to paper is easy—you need to learn to shuffle, but otherwise the game is exactly the same. Meanwhile, the transition from Arena to paper comes with a bunch of challenges that will probably be hard for the typical player to overcome. 

Of course, it's possible that Wizards' idea of the paper–digital relationship has changed. It might not see Arena as a way to bring players into paper Magic; the goal might just be to bring players into Arena and have them play as much Arena as possible. While this sounds a bit strange, since paper Magic cards seem way more profitable than a free-to-play digital game where most of the player base spends little or no money, it is a possibility. Regardless, the further Arena strays from the paper game, the harder it will become for Wizards to turn free-to-play digital players into booster box–buying paper players.

Risk / Reward: Complexity

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Complexity is probably the most complex issue on our list today. One thing that's certain is that best-of-one is by definition less complex than best-of-three, since you have fewer cards and don't have to make matchup-based sideboarding decisions. Complexity is a weird topic when it comes to Magic. On one hand, if a game is too complex, most people simply won't play it (see: Artifact). On the other hand, if a game isn't complex enough, people won't keep playing it. As such, lowering complexity has the potential to bring new players into the game, but if you go too far, those players probably won't stick around for very long (and you risk losing established players). 

The problem here is that, at least right now, it's hard to know where best-of-one matches fall on this scale. There's no doubt that Arena has done an amazing job bringing new players into the game, and according to Wizards' stats, most of these players are playing best-of-one matches on the client. On the other hand, no one really knows where the end of this road leads. It's arguable that having the right level of complexity is one of the reasons why Magic has managed to stick around for 25 years while other similar games come and go at a frighteningly fast pace. 

The upside of making Magic less complex is that it could bring a new golden age of Magic with it. There are historic precedents, with the Sixth Edition rule changes and the New World Order design philosophy (both of which lessened complexity) helping the game grow, and after the traditional Magic player amount of complaining (which was a lot), the long-time, established players mostly stuck around too. 

On the other hand, if Wizards' end game is to switch competitive Standard play to best-of-one, this would likely be a far bigger change than any we've seen in the past. The metagame is different, the playable decks are different, and the card design is different. Couple this with the fact that not every change that reduces complexity is positive (for example, getting rid of lands and using the Hearthstone mana system where you just get a mana every turn would lessen complexity but also make Magic a completely different and likely very much worse game), and there is a risk that this would be simply too seismic of a shift for Magic to withstand. 

Magic has survived for 25 years by being better than all competing games. During that time, literally too many similar, competing games to count (both in paper and more recently in digital) have lived and died. Pushing too far risks diminishing or even ruining the foundation of Magic that has kept it around and thriving for so long. It wasn't that long ago that we were joking about Wizards being after "that Hearthstone money" with Arena. Well, now we have Hearthstone pros and streamers playing Magic because they find Magic to be a better and more fun game. Rather than wanting Magic that is Hearthstone, it might be that people want Magic but on a flashy, clean, and fast digital client like Magic Arena provides. 

Of course, all of this could also just be established players being stuck in their ways, just like with every other rule change in Magic's 25-year history. Maybe Wizards will go all-in on best-of-one for competitive play and maybe 15 years from now, we will look back on it in the same way as we look back on removing damage from the stack today—with a bit of nostalgia but knowing in the end that it was for the best, despite our complaining at the time. 


So, where does this leave us in terms of best-of-one play on Arena? In some ways, right back where we started. Personally, I prefer best-of-three matches, but I've also been playing Magic for a long time now and best-of-three is how competitive Magic has always been played. My experience playing best-of-one matches competitively has been one of frustration at the high level of variance and distaste for the overly linear, aggressive metagame, but perhaps these are issues that Wizards can fix with a combination of card design and rule changes. 

There is certainly risk associated with making best-of-one Arena's competitive mode, as there is with any major change or innovation. Could it make Magic a less fun game and turn Arena into another flash-in-the-pan digital CCG that gets a ton of hype for a year or two and then mostly disappears? Yes. Could it bring in a ton of new players and with them a new golden age of Magic, where we rival (or even surpass) Hearthstone in terms of popularity? Also yes. 

If I were making the decisions for Arena, competitive play would take place in best-of-three. At least right now best of one matches are too luck based and too dominated by linear aggro decks to really be a good competitive format. This being said, if I were in charge of Magic in the past, I probably wouldn't have removed damage from the stack, and I would have been very wrong. As such, I'm willing to put aside my personal biases and give best-of-one a fair shot despite my personal distaste for the format on a competitive level. However, I'd also remind Wizards that they make Magic—the best game in the world—and what most people want is the ability to play Magic on a sleek, functional digital client (which Arena provides) that's more like Hearthstone, not for the game itself to become more like Hearthstone. Furthermore, what makes Magic great is that people can play it their own way—from Old School to EDH and from cube drafts to Standard—so even if the way of the future, for better or worse, is best-of-one matches, at least provide support for competitive best-of-three play on Arena as well, to give "traditional" players the option to take advantage of Magic's shiny new toy.


Anyway, that's all for today. What other risks and rewards are associated with best-of-one competitive play? What do you play on Arena? 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

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