'Arena' May Be The Future Of 'Magic' But It Runs From Its History

'Arena' has made 'Magic' as easy to enjoy as 'Hearthstone' but a streamlined format comes at a price.

Apr 5 2019, 5:45pm

screenshot courtesy Wizards of the Coast

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Last weekend we witnessed a monumental occasion in the history of Magic: The Gathering. During PAX East the Magic Pro League and a list of invitees gathered for the first Mythic Invitational, the recently created premiere event in Magic that carries with it a $250,000 Grand Prize. Born out of an esports initiative that’s fundamentally changed the Magic Pro Tour, it is a yearly high-profile streaming event that is all about Arena. Note that it is not about Magic in general. If you watched and didn’t know, you might not realize that there was a physical game at all. The Mythic Invitational is digital-born and built around promoting Arena. After watching a few of the games, playing a whole lot of Magic, and thinking about how the Invitational works, I came away with a few concerns and wondering if this was, in fact, the Magic that I have enjoyed for more than a decade.

I’m not saying that there’s a cause for panic here, nor is this a longform rant about how Magic developers Wizards of the Coast have somehow lost their way. Instead, I think we need to have open and honest questions about the shape that the game of Magic: The Gathering has taken since the release of Magic Arena, the digital platform that has made the infamously complicated Magic as easy to pick up and play as Hearthstone.

I say “infamously complicated” because Magic is a beast to get a handle on. There’s a plurality of card types, a huge number of potential interactions between those card types, and algorithmic modes of management for those interactions like “the stack” and “layers.” Even casual players have to know some of this information, and it’s a significant barrier to entry for many. In 2002, Wizards of the Coast released Magic Online, a fully-digital way to play the game that would manage at least some of this for you. But it is also clunky, and the program has never quite gotten with the times; it feels like something made in 2002.

Promo art for Magic Arena

Over the past two years of reveals, alphas, and betas, Magic Arena has basically eaten Magic Online’s lunch. Arena is not just a replication of the card game Magic: The Gathering in the same way that Magic Online is. It is not a simulator. Instead, it is a digital card game that contains all of the quality of life changes that you might expect from a computer managing the game state for you. Phases are skipped when you have nothing to do, a timer appears when someone is taking too long, your resources are automatically expended when you need them. It’s efficient, and it’s agile. But the alterations that have been made to the game's general design to achieve that popularity and ease-of-entry leaves me with a melancholy feeling.

To put it another way: would I love Magic as much as I do now if I had found it through Magic Arena originally? I don’t think so, and that all has to do with the changes that have been made to the game in order to bring it further in-line with other games like Hearthstone.

One way that the designers have done this is by making Magic Arena a best-of-one competitive format. Historically, when played in a paper format in competitive settings, Magic has been a best-of-three (or in later rounds of a big pro tournament, five) affair. A big part of deck construction is the development of your sideboard—a 15-slot reserve for cards that you can swap in and out of your main deck. If I know that a tenth of the decks in a play field are trying to reduce my life total as fast as possible, I might know that I need to pack some cards I can play in the first couple turns of the game that gain me life. These cards would ensure that I could make my way comfortably to the later turns of a game where I can then take over. However, if those kinds of decks are only a tenth of the field, I probably don’t want that life gain in my main 60 cards. But I can put them in my sideboard, and after the first of three games I would be able to sub out some of my cards in the main deck to bring in my life gain sideboard cards.

Even if you’re not very familiar with Magic, you can see how this deepens the competitive aspects of the game. The existence of 15 cards that functionally allow you to adapt your deck to the opponent over the last two games of three is a huge tactical shift, and it’s one that is symmetrical enough that high-level players are able to morph their strategies and decisions around their own sideboard choices and those of their opponents.

This, alongside complicated ability-stacking and strange combos and odd deck construction choices, are what I love about Magic: The Gathering. The kind of strategic depth and ability to respond to a meta with your mind and some weird little pieces of cardboard is exactly what makes me excited about the game. When a premiere Magic event centered on Arena becomes the thing that Wizards of the Coast puts center stage at PAX East, though, the standards and ideas that are at the heart of Arena start being transposed as the heart of Magic. And to be fair, Aaron Forsyth, the Design Director on the game, has explicitly said that there’s no desire to transport these modes of play into paper Magic. He’s also written that Magic Arena is an “and,” an additional product in the lineup, not a replacement or a trendsetter for the paper product.

That’s also not quite the point, though, because if the premiere Magic event of the year, with its massive prize pool and soaring streaming music, is played on the Arena platform, then it doesn’t really matter what’s happening in the world of paper Magic when it comes to recruiting new players. The reach of a Twitch stream, a cadre of Pro League and invited players, and dollar signs is a significantly larger (esports-flavored) pull than someone’s buddy asking if you want to spend all of your Friday night playing Magic at a local card shop. It makes sense that this is the draw, but I think it’s almost nonsensical to say that that won’t change the shape of the game, the players it draws in, and what those players think is “normal” about the game.

It’s also a stone-cold fact that Arena can only be an “and” in certain ways. When a Magic designer creates a card, they have to think through all of its use cases. Will this fit into decks that exist? Will people build brand-new kinds of decks just to play with that card? Will the card come to define the format and become “the card to beat” or will it simply be a role-player in a grindy strategy? Does it have the potential to be too powerful, and what can you do to make it less so? These are hard questions when you’re only designing for one game, but if Magic Arena truly is an “and” then it is, on some level, a different game. The decks you build for a best-of-one format and a best-of-three are just different in myriad ways, and the card pool that makes for fair Magic in the latter (since you have access to answers in your sideboard) is not the same card pool that makes for fair games in the former (where it’s a glass cannon all-or-nothing). If Arena is an “and” then the same cards need to play similar roles across paper and digital formats, and that changes the way that Magic: The Gathering is designed in fundamental ways.

A dragon takes win in Magic the Gathering Arena

In Arena, for example, the sideboard gets scrapped, and with it a deeper form of the game that requires you to have a more fundamental mastery of the card pool and its potential shifts and transformations. And cards like Knight of Autumn or Ravager Wurm, which are clearly built with best-of-one in mind, become more common as swiss army knife answers that make games happen more smoothly. And the online ranking system encourages people to play faster, less-complicated decks so they can rank faster and achieve higher skill categories more efficiently.

None of that looks like the Magic that I enjoy, and I say that as someone who truly believes that it’s the greatest game ever made. But every game that goes on long enough, especially something that exists in more or less the same way for 25 years, has to evolve or collapse. Magic adapting to the new world of streamer sponsorships and a streamlined play experience that is properly monetizable for the expectations of 2019 is awesome, but I can’t help feeling like some of the, well, magic is getting dropped for me along the way. At the same time, I’m putting a dozen or more idle hours into Arena every week, so its hook-digging mechanisms are pretty good at audience capture.

Audience capture is undeniably something that shareholders, intellectual property owners, and players alike all enjoy. It means a continuous stream of money for the people upstairs and a constant flow of content for those who are putting those dozens of hours a week into the game. But I worry that fundamental changes like best-of-one and shifting card design mean that the design elements of the game that have seemed like they were set in stone are anything but. What happens when the constant growth of the Arena playerbase stops growing? In every other sector of the industry we live in lootbox and monetization hell, and Magic already has that built in with booster packs of random cards. What might be malleable in the game’s design be to ensure constant profit? What might this venerable institution be willing to sacrifice to make sure it keeps bringing in enough cash to justify that $250,000 Grand Prize?