MTG Arena and the Digital Dilemma

Kevin Jones
September 28, 2017

Greetings, magic community! The Daddy is home once again. It feels great to be writing another article since I've been sitting around a bit. If you're reading this you probably know who I am. I am super famous after all. If not, well, Google me! I'm kidding, although I did tell someone to Google me recently and it wasn't in a facetious or ironic way.

Kevin Jones Pictured Above

Don't let it go to your head, they said. Well, just when it seemed like my SILVER LEVEL PRO ego was getting out of control Magic decided to release, or rather, reveal, a new product. This product is called MTG Arena and is still in alpha testing. This new product beckons in a new way to play Magic and is a huge part of the future of the game.


Magic as an E-Sport

You've seen the fancy jerseys, the Pro Tour team series, the revamped coverage narratives that focus more on players and rivalries. Wizards coverage understands that getting recognition as a mainstream E-Sport is a good thing for Magic. Directing their brand towards a model that has been previously successful is a good idea in the abstract. If you've watched coverage in the past year you can't deny that there's been serious strides made to emulate the explosively popular professional gaming culture. Games like League of Legends, Dota 2, Counterstrike, and Starcraft ll all have tournament series with at least 8 digit prize pools according to Magic has decent prizes for something primarily viewed as a hobby but the players in these games are paid a competitive salary by their sponsors. Corporations have seen how many people are watching things like the LCS (League of Legends Championship Series) and are investing in advertising by sponsoring teams and players. Corporate sponsorship is key if you want it to take off long term. That's where the big money is; that's what allows the players to be paid as professionals. This support affords them time to work on their game and their talents which in turn creates an environment of well-prepared players with minimal external stresses. This all comes back to people watching the Twitch streams of the games in the first place. And to get people to watch your game on a large scale it has to be watchable!


Magic is complex game and probably the best game ever made, honestly. But Magic is leagues (lol) behind the other games in this regard. The biggest thing holding Magic back on its quest to be an E-Sport is that the digital client (Magic Online) has a very high floor for understanding the gameplay and is very poor for the passive, casual viewing when scrolling through Twitch. If you don't play Magic, you have no idea what's happening in a random match between two people on MTGO. A casual viewer can watch a League of Legends match and get the gist of who is winning. At the very least, there are huge bursts of color and excitement

MTGO is visually uninteresting. I don't watch streams regularly. I do watch coverage regularly but streams are often not that interesting even if you know what's going on. Coverage is better because you often have a vested interest in a player or in an archetype. Whether I'm watching to judge the viability of a deck or to learn how to play it or even just to cheer on a friend, I care about the outcome. Being a player yourself is the easiest way to care about what's happening in game. This is why retention is so important for any card game. Allowing those people to stick there and care about competitive magic keeps them invested long term. It would potentially be a monumental checkpoint for Magic if they could acquire new customers/players without requiring them to purchase paper products. Magic Online does this. But what if you could work up from nothing to competitive in an online magic game and it was fun to play and watch? Enter MTG Arena.

MTG Arena is touted as the future of Magic. It's a new digital client with engaging graphics and easier to watch gameplay. The game is visually similar to Hearthstone after having watched the demo match between Amaz (a Hearthstone player) and Gaby Spartz. The article on Wizards’ site, “Everything You Need to Know about Magic:The Gathering Arena” outlines the basic premise of the game and their vision for it. Digital magic that is interesting and watchable could theoretically be as popular as League of Legends and Hearthstone. It's still the same game of Magic that we love but with a large-scale appeal. The first release will only support Standard and thus doesn't immediately render Magic Online obsolete but I imagine that's the plan for the future. It says in the article that Magic Online will still “provide a unique experience” in as many words. The video of the demo Amaz and Gaby played showcases Ixalan cards and is interesting enough that I recommend watching it.

What are we really talking about here? You're not reading this so you can read me paraphrasing a press release about MTG Arena. And I'm not writing this article to do that. There's some questions that are on my mind and I'm sure they're on yours as well. That's what I want to delve into.

Is this the end of Magic Online?

The answer to this one is twofold. Immediately, I think the answer is no. Modern, Legacy, Vintage, Standard, and Premier Events are currently supported by MTGO. Arena is only going to support Standard and Limited. They mentioned draft nights in the article so I imagine you can play limited much like “Arena” in Hearthstone. Magic Online will still be the client for PTQs, MOCS, older formats, etc. But, ultimately, the answer is most certainly yes. There's no reason to have two online clients when one is a godawful interface and the other is cool, engaging, and interesting to the average gamer. The latter will usurp the former almost guaranteed.

Is Hearthstone a competitor for Magic: the Gathering?

Initially, I wasn't sure. I would've said no if you asked me a year ago. Today, I might say yes. Arena certainly shifts the target audience for Magic into the realm of people who play digital games or esports. There are several things unique to Magic/paper card games that can't be replicated with an online game, no matter how engaging. The idea of traveling to events with friends, the huge convention feel of a Grand Prix or SCG Open, the awesome socialization aspect of the Magic community. All these things are huge factors for why I play Magic, especially competitive Magic. I think it's a dangerous dive to take when you're taking on games like Hearthstone because they're able to reach lots of people Magic never could. I'm hoping Arena can propel Magic to the large scale recognizability and appeal of Hearthstone but it's such a sharp transition from a game that's essentially a social experience to a game that is a personal escape into on online realm. MTG Arena bridging this gap is vital to its success. This brings us to our last question.

Are we heading in the right direction?

 I never played Magic for the online aspect and still, even as a professional player, I rarely play Magic Online. I've always been about the social aspect. I love the competition but being there, seeing people, leaving the small town I live in for the weekend. These are the things I feel can't be replaced, even by the best online games. It's just so easy to play Hearthstone and some other online games. Hearthstone is very accessible on many different platforms. Aspiring players can battle in any downtime they have. At school, on the way to work, before bed, etc. MTGO leagues try to accomplish this but can’t keep up. Hearthstone is right there whenever you want it and never when you don't.This sets up a challenge for Arena entering this marketplace.

MTG Arena is a fantastic new product for Magic. It would be crazy to think otherwise. I do not think it's a good idea to remove the paper Magic events from the experience though. I think that's essentially playing a different game. I want Magic to remain Magic, a real, tangible, human competitive experience that cultivates an energy unlike anything else. I don't know that Magic is for everyone and I'm unsure that Arena could even steal viewers from the more established games. Invested Magic players would watch Arena matches over Hearthstone. But they would watch live coverage or the Magic streamers as well. That audience is already present. The goal of MTG Arena is to grab and hold new people and I'm all for the game exploding in popularity. But please, if I can be subjective and a bit preachy, don't remove the Grand Prix circuit in favor of large events on the Arena platform. Don't play Pro Tours online using Arena either. The in-person experience is what makes Magic magic. It is called the Gathering for a reason.  I love this new idea as a supplemental product and I truly hope that's what it is. It would be great if Grand Prix were both online and in person although I'm scared they'll realize the online ones are easier and way less hassle. The Pro Tour is about holding the cards and competing intensely under the lights of the feature match area. I don't want a future that looks like the Magic Online Championship finals.


Thanks for reading, everyone! Thanks to everyone at Flipside for giving me a platform to ramble about this interesting and temporally relevant issue. See everyone (in person) at the next event, Daddy out!