Magic: The Gathering has been around for almost 30 years. That in and of itself is incredible, as while it has certainly had periods of waxing and waning the overall trajectory has almost always been upward. Magic has lived through numerous "death of Magic" moments, from rules changes to the card face changing to organized play debacles.
Through it all, Magic has both endured and thrived, to the tune of "2020 was the most profitable year for Magic ever!"
However, it's not all sunshine and roses. While the last few years have been very profitable for Magic, there has been a lot turmoil as well. While Secret Lairs and other collector-oriented products fly off of the shelves, organized play lies in ruin, MTG Arena is still experiencing growing pains, and there have been more Constructed bannings than in any period in Magic's history.
It's just a feeling, but I get the sense there's an underlying mood in the Magic community that things are unwell. Sure, profits are up, but there's always the old analogy that you can sheer a sheep many times but only skin it once.
Today, I would like to go over what I think these problems are, in the hopes of opening up discussion and trying to put words to this underlying sense that I get.
It's often been said that spoiler season is like Christmas.
Magic players are ravenous for new cards, new mechanics, and new sets, as the most exciting part about Magic is that it is a game that is constantly changing. So, when a new set comes out, Wizards of the Coast does a good job spreading out the hype as they slowly release the new cards and mechanics.
The problem is, if it's Christmas every day then it starts to lose all meaning.
We now exist in a world of perpetual hype. A new set releases, and it's barely been a week (or sometimes even a day) until the hype train starts for the next set. People haven't even gotten their orders yet for Dungeons and Dragons: Adventures In The Forgotten Realms and it's already time for Jumpstart: Historic Horizons. Wait, just kidding! Now it's time for a sneak peak of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt!
This happened with both sports cards and comic books in the 90s and both bubbles burst and the hobbies never really recovered. Profits are high, but you run the risk of completely burning out your customers until they decide they can't keep up any more.
Please give these sets some time to breathe!
Another major part of the feeling of constant churn in the last few years has also had to do with the seemingly endless levels of power creep.
For eternal formats, power creep is always going to be a thing because they are additive formats, not subtractive formats. Because they never rotate and only ever get new cards, they are going to always be in a state of slow power creep.
However, the last few years have seen more bannings than any period in Magic's history across all formats. Pushing limits is an important part of Magic design, but when pushed too hard you end up putting all of your major formats in a constant state of flux. One of the biggest draws to Modern, perhaps Magic's most cherished and played format, is that you can learn and buy into one deck and have it be viable for years with just minor updates. Instead, the last few years have been one format upheaval after another, as overpowered cards are printed, upend everything, and then get banned, leaving a drastically different format in their wake.
When you couple this with the speed of new releases, it's a formula for player burnout. It's hard to keep up and players who feel left behind will usually leave to go do something else.
Cost Of Entry
I want to make it very clear that when I discuss cost here, I am talking about the cost of playing Magic, not collecting Magic. Despite being the far opposite of the target audience for them, I think collector boosters and Secret Lairs are great for Magic. There's a huge market for people who enjoy the collectable part of the game and tapping into that to make specific products for them is great.
The issue comes when the game simply becomes too expensive to play.
This is mostly a problem with MTG Arena, as without any sort of dusting system or way to acquire wild cards, building Constructed decks can get prohibitively expensive. This is especially true for formats where things keep changing very quickly due to new releases or bannings, and of paramount of importance for the Historic format which has a huge barrier to entry.
Historic is already extremely expensive to get into if you don't already have a substantial collection from Standard or drafting and is about to get even more expensive with the release of Jumpstart: Historic Horizons. Jumpstart is an awesome product, but has serious distribution issues. With over 300 cards that are both powerful and new to Historic entering the format at once in a set that isn't designed to be drafted, player's Wild Cards will be taxed more than ever.
There's also this almost amusing dichotomy between Limited players and Constructed players - Limited players tend to have all the cards and wild cards they could ever need, but don't play Constructed so they are worthless to them. On the other hand, Constructed players who aren't interested in playing Limited (which is admittedly a great, however time consuming, way to build your collection) are constantly trying to scrape together whatever they can to try and build a deck or two. Without some sort of dusting system or currency exchange, you end up with both sides unhappy and stuck with resources they don't need.
Wizards of the Coast is obviously in the business of making money, but the question becomes that if you keep bleeding off players and making them feel like they can't afford to play, then you need to make even more money off the players who remain. Rinse and repeat until everyone but the whales are gone.
Lack Of Investment
Also, on the MTG Arena side of things, there is a clear lack of investment in the software.
MTG Arena is one of the best things to happen to Magic roughly, well, ever, but that doesn't mean it can't be improved. While the mobile release is extremely impressive and a great technological feat, pretty much every other area of the game has suffered in the last few years. Much needed features like a spectator mode, in game tournament support, quality of life improvements for the deck-builder and collection, as well as the aforementioned economy problems have all been essentially ignored. Even the polish of the game, the awesome animations and effects that brought Magic up to date with what current video games look like, have been dialed back significantly in recent years.
It is clear that the MTG Arena dev team is understaffed and underpaid. If Magic had taken a big hit during COVID-19, this would understandable, but at time when Magic is reporting "record profits across the board" it is insulting to see so much money taken away from improvements.
Lack Of Organized Play
And it comes to organized play, or at this point the lack thereof.
I'm happy that Wizards of the Coast tried the MPL, although I am sad it was never really given a fair shake as it was implemented about as poorly as one could imagine. It was the logical extension of #PayThePros and a perfect example of "be careful what you wish for" for a community that always wants more for their top players.
However, in just a few years Wizards of the Coast has managed to destroy almost all of the good will built up over two decades by the Pro Tour and the surrounding pro community. It is true that a lot of Magic is played on commander tables and kitchen tables by players who will never know who Martin Juza is, and it is also true that pros and wannabe pros certainly aren't the biggest spenders.
However, the Pro Tour (and all the events surrounding it like Grand Prix/Magic Fest, Nationals, States, the SCG Tour, and so on) helps to give a long-term legitimacy to the game that shows it is more than just a fad and worthy of recognition to outsiders. Even if someone never ends up knowing who the current World Champion is, just knowing that every year Magic gives a large amount of money to its best player lets outsiders know the game is serious.
This matters, even to players who may never even get past their kitchen table or FNM.
And of course, there's also no doubt that there is a huge desire to play tournament Magic. We've seen this for decades across Grand Prix, the PTQ system, the SCG Tour, and more. The aspiration of being able to move upward in a system and grow is a very powerful one, even if most players will never actually get there. It's a powerful motivator, far beyond just endlessly playing ladder games on MTG Arena.
The Slow Burnout
I think the most insidious thing about all of these pitfalls is that none of them is something that will just kill the game outright. As much as Magic players may whine about every little thing that changes, very few players actually quit because they changed the card face or printed digital only mechanics. Instead, what we see is a slow disillusionment of enfranchised players as they slowly fall out of love with the game and move on to other things.
This has been a somewhat common sight recently and that scares me.
There has been a seeming lack of foresight in the last few years when it has come to Magic, a clear push and desire to make money and profits in the short term at the expense of how it may affect things in the future. Magic has the potential to be a game that easily lasts another 30 years if cared for correctly, I just hope we are going in the right direction.