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Magic Arena, Esports, and The Future

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Three days ago I played in a Magic: the Gathering tournament.

In and of itself, that's not really an exciting statement. Each week hundreds of paper Magic tournaments happen, with countless more occurring online. In the fifteen years I've been playing Magic, I've played in almost every single type of tournament imaginable.

To paint a clearer picture, I've played in:

  • Small local events where the store owner has to play (so they can make the required eight people to get sanctioned).
  • Monstrous Grand Prix so large they have to be split into two separate events on day one so the logistics work out.
  • A World Championships that was literally held inside the Louvre in Paris.
  • Old-school PTQs that packed 200+ Magic players into a hotel basement/conference room and didn't let us out until someone qualified for the Pro Tour.
  • Various Magic Online events back in the day based around Vanguard Avatars, Momir Basic, or whatever other crazy stuff was going on at the time.
  • An SCG Tour Open in Chicago played on artificial turf in a sports complex.
  • A PTQ literally held in a basement (because there were too many players for the store to accommodate so tables 51-70 were in the actual basement).
  • A sixteen person Player's Championship where each player was given the media attention one would expect from a professional sporting event.
  • Pro Tour Prague which was held on the main floor of the O2 Arena, Prague's equivalent of Madison Square Garden.

And so on.

So when it comes down to it, another Magic tournament out of the millions played in the last two decades is just business as usual... right?

Wrong.

The Twitch Rivals: Magic Gauntlet event was the first big tournament ever run (to my knowledge) that wasn't run by either Wizards of the Coast or a second hand retailer of Magic cards (Starcitygames.com, Channel Fireball, NerdRage Games, etc).

More aptly put, this event was run by an entity that is not interested in selling Magic cards.

It's hard to undersell how huge that is.

Twitch Rivals is a branch of Twitch's official esports division, focusing on bringing fun esports stuff directly to Twitch. This was naturally their first MTG Arena event, but usually they are doing much bigger and more mainstream games like Fortnite, PUBG, Starcraft 2, and so on. The fact that they're even interested in doing Magic, let alone at this early stage in the MTG Arena beta process, is amazing. Of course, it probably has something to do with this...

Is it a little corny? Sure, but it is very clear that Wizards of the Coast is deadly serious about both MTG Arena and entering the realm of Esports. How clear? How about $10 million dollars clear. Magic has always looked silly when compared to Hearthstone and other Esport prize pools; it does not look silly any more.

And the big reason for all of this?

When MTG Arena was announced I was extremely skeptical.

I've been playing Magic Online since the very beginning. When it first came out it was serviceable, being my introduction to competitive Magic. There is no chance I would have continued to play Magic after High School without Magic Online and as such no chance I would be writing for you here today. My life is very different thanks to Magic Online, but it's been quite the love/hate relationship for years.

Put simply, Magic Online has trained all of us to expect disappointment.

Wizards of the Coast is not a company known for making great choices, as it is often said the only thing they are actually good at is designing Magic. From the outside they seem to be often stuck in their ways, with very insular thinking that has always revolved around the same core group of people. Things are bad, personal doesn't change, so nothing actually changes. We've seen this for years with Magic Online, as well as in organized play and their coverage teams.

So when MTG Arena was announced, I expected more of the same. Boy was I wrong.

MTG Arena: The Good

While MTG Arena is still in beta and not fully functional yet, there is not denying one all important thing...

It's fun!

Playing MTG Arena feels like playing a game. It's smooth and crisp, making it fast and easy to play. Dragging a Rekindling Phoenix onto the battlefield and having the game tap your four Mountains for you feels effortless and natural, while watching it enter the battlefield in a flair of fire and feathers looks phenomenal. These bits of flair make the game experience feel more like, well a game experience, and there's plenty of little fun graphical things happening on each battlefield to entertain you while your opponent is in the tank.

The client is simple and functional, which makes finding a game easy, and while not perfect the economy encourages more gameplay and makes it relatively easy to build decks at a cheaper cost than in paper. The speed of the games also allows you to get in a few games at your leisure without committing to a full event or draft.

When MTG Arena was announced, there were serious questions about Wizards of the Coast's ability to make a "game," the free to play model, and why this was needed over just another Magic Online update.

It's clear those questions have been answered.

MTG Arena: The Bad

With MTG Arena still in beta, this list becomes more of a "to do" list rather than actual complaints, as the software is not complete yet. With that being said, let's get started:

Best Of One Ladder

Perhaps one of the most jarring things for any person who's played a lot of Magic is that the MTG Arena ladder is currently best of one, as are most of the game modes in the client (with best of three often being tucked away behind a toggle switch). Sideboarding is a paramount part of competitive Magic, especially in Constructed, which leaves the ladder feeling bizarre for many.

Best of one games are definitely much faster, with Wizards of the Coast themselves stating that "There is the question of why we're starting with best-of-1 for Ranked. Of the over quarter billion games played on MTG Arena since Open Beta, 97% have been in best-of-1 games." However, this number is wildly unreliable given both the difficulty in finding the best of three game mode as well as the speed that best of one will get you your daily quest items and rankings.

There has been considerable backlash to best of one from the competitive community, with a lot of good suggestions on how to solve the problem. The simple solution is to just have two ladders, but splitting the player base is a major concern.

The most elegant solution I've seen is to make the switch to best of three at the higher levels of the ladder. Once you hit Diamond or Mythic, it switches from best of one to best of three. At this point you are likely to already have a well stocked account and multiple decks so grinding quests will be less important, and you will be playing against tougher competition in a more tournament-esque setting.

If Wizards of the Coast plans for the ladder to eventually lead to bigger and better things in competitive play, this seems like a nice compromise that lets the majority of players at Platinum and below continue playing best of one while maintaining the competitive integrity of best of three at the highest levels.

The Deck-builder

There's really not much to say here. The deck-builder is clunky and needs an upgrade, which Wizards of the Coast has agreed with and said they are working on. At present, the MTG Arena deck-builder is the only part of the program which feels inferior compared to Magic Online. For now it is functional, but it will need to be addressed eventually.

Game Log

On the one hand, I really appreciate how clean and crisp the duel interface for MTG Arena is. Pretty much all needed information is readily and graphically available, without resulting to ugly popup windows or white chat areas like Magic Online has. This goes a long way toward making MTG Arena feel like a game and not a spreadsheet or operating system.

However, having the ability to bring up a simple game log would be very nice for those times where you blink and miss something that happens. Many times my opponent has cast Opt, I look away for a second, and I miss whether it went top or bottom. Having a game log that could be brought up quickly to double check things like this (as well as what turn it is, previous plays, etc) would be a nice feature.

The "5th Card" Problem

This has been discussed ad nauseam in multiple places and Wizards of the Coast has already said they are working on a solution so I won't get too far into it, but it's clear that "5th card" problem is a major concern for the health of the program.

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria

Right now when you open that 5th copy of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, one of the most powerful and desirable cards on MTG Arena, it disappears into nothingness and you get to feel awful knowing that it's only contributed to a fraction of your "vault," a hidden feature that gives you a scant few wild cards after devouring a pile of unusable 5th cards.

The feel bads are real and a solution is necessary (and likely forthcoming).

Compatibility With Mobile And Mac

This is a simple one that has been promised and needs to be delivered soon.

While it may be difficult to play on a phone, there's no reason that I shouldn't be able to play MTG Arena on my iPad or tablet. There have been a number of times where I would love to be able to jam a game or two when I'm laying in bed or waiting for an airplane, but I just play Star Realms instead.

As the owner of the Macbook Pro that I played Magic Online on for years after paying for expensive Parallels software that never worked great, I can say with confidence that ostracizing Mac owners is a bad idea if Wizards of the Coast wants MTG Arena to reach the largest audience possible. This is less important than mobile support (as a Mac owner is likely to have a tablet too and can at least play on that) but still an important goal.

Lack of Tournament / Spectator Support

So far most of the focus on MTG Arena has been around actually playing Magic. Makes sense... right?

However as we saw in Tuesday Twitch Rivals event, if Wizards of the Coast is serious about Magic being an Esport, there needs to be support for it build into the software.

For the Twitch Rivals event, the structure of the tournament was run through a third party tournament website called Smash.gg, with each player needing to manually look up pairings and direct challenge their opponent each round. This was of course compounded by the fact that direct challenges can only be best of one, denying the competitors the ability to sideboard or select the play or draw. We worked around these issues, but this is something that needs to be addressed.

Furthermore, with no way to directly spectate matches, the commentators were reduced to just watching live feeds of each player's streams, bouncing back and forth and making commentary as they went. This was serviceable, but a true spectator mode where both hands are visible is an absolute must for the future if Wizards of the Coast wants the game to be easy to watch.

MTG Arena: The Future

While the "bad" section is considerably larger than the "good" section, that is largely the byproduct of a piece of software that is still in beta and being heavily worked on as we speak. Furthermore, most of these issues are things that are logistical or user-interface related and frankly aren't that difficult to implement. Unlike in the past, Wizards of the Coast has also shown a new level of communication to player feedback that renews confidence in their ability to keep improving MTG Arena.

The important part, as well as the hardest part to nail down, is "is this game accessible and fun?"

The answer is a resounding "yes!"

And because of that, we are seeing interest in Magic surge to unprecedented levels.

The reality is that MTG Arena is the future of Magic.

Magic: The Gathering, the oldest, best, and original collectable card game is finally stepping into the future and taking its place among the world's best games, and MTG Arena is the vessel for it to do so.

If that doesn't excite you, I don't know what to tell you.

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