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By: stsung, Jaroslav Stefanek
Jun 21 2018 12:00pm
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Hello everyone,

it has been a while since I wrote something and the reason is mostly because Magic for me is in chaos, or maybe it is me who is in the chaotic state. I've been playing little bit of Magic on Magic Online, Magic Arena and in real life. I've been following what is going on MODO, Arena and real life Magic and none of those could satisfy me. I longed for an experience neither could offer - I wanted to be at GP Birmingham. When that was over I wanted to be in at a different GP. GP Vegas came and the feeling got even worse.

During the day, in my timezone, it's very difficult to actually get matched when there is about 100 people in a League

When playing on Magic Online I got very sad trying to play Vintage because I couldn't even play a match. Flashback Leagues and Cube made up for it, but I still wanted something I couldn't get. Playing Arena always made me very angry whenever I tried playing it. During that time I also followed discussions about Magic Online and Arena. After several months I gave up on following Magic: The Gathering groups and the only discussion I followed were from free-to-play games and Arena players. The reason why I stopped following Magic players was that they weren't bringing any relevant information to all this mess and were mostly just complaining about one thing or the other or talking in a way that showed that they can't change their perspective about Magic - we have our expectations and there are very specific things we want from the game. I'm among those players too but I also have a more open mind in that regard since I like to play all kind of games, or at least I thought so. My actual findings about me and Magic though led me to something that people were telling me all the time and I didn't accept it. I needed to write this article in order to get rid of all the stress this whole 'observation' and 'research' put on me.

This article is about Magic Arena and Magic Online. Before I start writing about either I'll give you a bit of my background first so you can have an idea what kind of a player I am because that is from where my point of view comes. Those who heard about me or saw me at events are people who usually think of me as a spike. I never considered myself that way but after I was asked for an interview few years back I had to accept that this is the only category I actually fall in. Yes, I am a spike but for a different reason many players think. This "spikiness" is something that defined what events I join and also it is why I ended up playing on Magic Online, finding it a good environment for me. You'd see me at PTQs, GPTs, NQs, big money events, Nationals and GPs. On Magic Online big events were also similarly alluring to me but the kind of Magic I liked could also be encountered in 8-4 draft queues and Daily events.

On the other hand I also had some brief experience with Duels of the Planeswalkers and Magic Duels games. I bought all the premium version of DotP games and 'cleared' them all - I finished all the campaigns. I played Magic Duels briefly too and I liked the idea of it. What I didn't appreciate is that I couldn't play a deck I wanted. What I enjoyed the most was Sealed deck in one of the DotP games, but it was very badly implemented. My loss of interest in these games was explained to me by other players, they came to the same conclusion, telling me: 'You are too spiky for this game'. I always wondered, 'Am I?'.

Before the (very red) Pro Tour I loaned cards both physical ones and digital ones. Since no one wanted to play BG Snek though I had that deck in paper and that was my only way how to play Standard. I decided to head to a LGS and participate in Standard Showdown. Equipped with this deck I didn't feel very confident since it's not that great against Mono Red or Rb Vehicles Aggro. In round one I totally crushed some poor player on my turn 5 meaning he was unable to cast Fumigate in order to survive. In the following round I played against another player who seemed a bit lost and again got stomped to death before he could cast Fumigate. After he died he noted that my deck is a tier 1 deck. Well, I didn't really agree with tier 1 since it wouldn't be my deck of choice for a competitive event but he was right about my deck being competitive. At that moment I realized that on Magic Online even though I play against decks that are not that competitive and some players would say casual they are ready for the top tier decks. That is how I built my Temur Energy in the past - without Negates against Aetherworks Marvel it just couldn't have a game - I had tier 1 decks in mind even though I was on a deck that hardly reached that tier at the time. The player sitting in front of me scooping his cards was on UW token deck that I actually had some experience with from Magic Arena but never really encountered on Magic Online even though it won several Competitive Leagues (the deck is built to beat RDW) and it was one of the decks that could feature 'shirtless Jace'. When I was playing my last round against an Esper deck which I honestly feared because of The Scarab God I was still thinking about the previous rounds and wondered to what kind of experience I could compare this event I top 4ed. Certainly not my ordinary experience on Magic Online. Then I started wondering about the GW aggro and UW Tokens decks I encountered in earlier rounds and it finally hit me, it felt like playing Arena (GW Cats is one of the precons you get there and UW tokens was relatively common deck too before Kaladesh hit). After I realized this I also remembered what one judge told me about me and Arena: 'You are too spiky for this game'. I remembered that if I'd have lost a game to one of those players I'd probably not be happy because the games we played didn't really feel like games (not that winning would feel much better). To me a game is a game in which I can follow what my opponent is doing and trying to do and playing around it. If I don't connect with my opponent I usually do not enjoy the game. This is the appeal of competitive Magic for me and this event didn't provide it, it is what makes me the spike.

Digital Magic

During the big Announcement Week some time ago Wizards of the Coast announced the end of Magic Duels and the beginning of something new - Magic Arena. It raised many questions and WotC wasn't really clear about the direction Arena would take while trying to keep the MODO players calm saying that Magic Online was not going anywhere. We had our doubts and many players sold out of Magic Online.

Selling out of Magic Online is something I can understand. I didn't sell my cards though for one reason. Playing on Magic Online is pretty much the only way how I play and there is probably nothing that can change it. If my collection would lose all its value but I could still play, I'd still be happy even though I'd feel bad about 'losing' 10 thousand USD. I didn't pay for the cards though with money but with time which makes my point of view less painful.

Arena has been in closed beta for quite a while. Since November 2017 we can follow the development of the game, its economy and what it has to offer. I'm one of those fortunate that got invited in the first wave so I've seen it all and that is one of the reasons why I still open Arena from time to time. I try to see its development and where WotC is taking it.

It all started with us testing if the client works well. Later on an economy was introduced and that's when things started to get really heated when it comes to discussing the future of Magic Online and now even the future of Magic Arena. The reason why people are arguing with each other is because Magic Online players fear that it will cease its existence in the future. This may happen but most probably not for the reasons that many players are using to argue.

If you will just look around the internet, you will find many posts about Magic Online versus Magic Arena. This kind of approach unfortunately misleads people already. It reminds me of one debate that started after Vintage Crash Course article was published on StarCityGames. People tried to figure out which is the better version of Paradoxical Outcome deck - Delve version or Thoughtcast PO. When I was reading some of the comments it was clear that the players approached the debate from one point of view and omitted one that would give them the answer. There are different kinds of PO decks and neither necessarily needs to be better in vacuum. We need context in order to say which deck is better. On the other hand the players discussing this topic forgot that what defines these decks is the choice of a draw engine that itself somehow dictates how the deck is configured and how it plays. People looked at both decks the way that the decks try to do the same thing while it's not actually true, they are very different decks with different game plans even though the win condition is often the same. What I want to say with this is that people should look at Magic Online and Magic Arena as two stand alone software that both have different aims even though both allows us to play Magic. You can compare certain aspects of both software when they are trying to achieve the same goal with the same audience in mind. Otherwise people should realize that the comparison is not equal. We are comparing apples and oranges or what the saying is, not two apples.

I will talk about both Magic Online and Arena and compare different aspects of it, I want to show the differences though. These should make you think more about the future of each platform.

One of the most asked questions I saw was 'When will Magic Online be replaced by Magic Arena?'. First, we should realize that Magic Online and Magic Arena have different target audience. Some of the players may overlap. Those eventually may choose one or the other as their preferred platforms or play on both. Many players claimed that Magic Online would become redundant. I don't see it that way. It is Magic Online that offers all it possibly can in terms of paper Magic in a digital form whereas Arena doesn't. For example, Arena client is not built to play complex decks that we can play in Modern, Legacy or Vintage and it already struggles with decks like BW tokens in Standard. How could Arena replace MODO? It could only happen if somehow these formats would die. Also, Magic Arena is not even out yet, even open beta wasn't announced yet. Arena didn't really get fully tested against time. Magic Online has been here for over 15 years and survived even its own economy crash. It's actually Arena that could be looked as the redundant software if it would want to achieve the same as Magic Online. Standard and limited are the formats that are used in competitive events. It is where the most money is and Arena's focus is on that. We also heard WotC say that there would be big events that would allow players to get on the Pro Tour etc. (similar to Magic Online Championship). If this starts happening yes, either platform could become redundant but it still does not need to mean that it will be Magic Online. Arena replacing MODO could happen, if Arena would be a HUGE success. It would have to do surprisingly and overwhelmingly well in order for this to happen. Magic Online is still a big part of WotC's revenue.

This is how the predecessor of Arena - Magic Duels - looked like.

As often I also hear people say 'Arena is just another Duels, it's for casuals'. Magic Arena is not another Duels and I write this in almost all my Arena articles. Arena allows players to play a real game of Magic without any kind of limitations (be it something like Upkeep not being present or the fact we couldn't play 4 copies of a Mythic rare in Duels) while looking more like a game than a paper game simulation. As for the game being for casuals, that may be true but I don't feel like it will be the case. For years Magic didn't have anything in between a new player experience and high level Magic in digital form. When a player learned the basics of Magic and wanted more than Magic Duels or DotP offered they had to switch to the paper game or Magic Online. Lets be honest, both transitions are hard and only very few players successfully make it. Arena though is a very good bridge between these two. Many of us should understand that Magic Online comes from a different time for many. You have to understand that teenagers of today won't probably like the look of Magic Online and will require something that looks more like Arena. Those who transition to Magic Online are very invested players in Magic and even some of those can't stand how Magic Online works or looks. That being said, I still think the game will be focused more on casual players, new players and returning players.

I wanted to share this story. My flatmate sold his collection and since then was unable to play Magic. Duels of the Planeswalkers and Magic Duels allowed him to play for free and still enjoy a game of Magic. We both looked forward to Magic Duels but its launch wasn't particularly successful since the server was practically down for several days. We both had some fun on day 1 and decided to play some games against each other with the decks that we put together after few hours of playing. The server was down though so I went through my bulk stuff and put together our decks in paper. It was lots of fun. Recently, thanks to Arena, he asked me if he could go play some Standard at our local game store. He is one of the returning players that do not have a bridge how to come back to paper Magic, Arena can be possibly achieve that.

Many Magic players that stopped playing in the past come back to the game. Often it is very tough to do so and Magic Arena can help that. It allows for playing Magic for free without entering the whole very complex economy that is linked with Magic both Online and offline. If the player wants and feels ready they can then switch to either similarly to a player who just discovered Magic via Arena.

One thing that might not change though is the ability to brew or switch decks. I understand that many casual players tend to try all kinds of different decks and wonder how to make a certain card work in a deck. Arena is not particularly friendly to those players if those players know what they actually want to play. On Magic Online or paper Magic many of decks like this are very cheap. In Arena they will use Wild Cards that have the same value. A New Perspective deck that I fetched for 7 tix or so will take a long time to put together in Arena since it contains 2 Mythics, 31 Rares, 20 Uncommons amd 16 Commons. If the player will find out the deck won't work, what they will do then? The question is, will new players try to build decks around cards they open in their packs or will they want to play tier decks or something specific they have in mind? I'm afraid that the first I mentioned is not going to be happening often.

Will Arena become competitive? This is also one of the questions I see everywhere and the answers I read didn't usually make much sense to me. At first I ignored this question altogether because I couldn't see why this would play a role in Arena being successful or not. In order to understand the Arena players or other Magic players that are not like me I joined several Discord channels and asked pretty dumb questions about Arena or the preferred way of playing Magic or free to play games which clearly showed that I'm a Magic Online player (which was met with a bit of disdain). I learned that there are already groups of competitive players in Arena that come from different games be it Hearthstone or Eternal. I hear those players say that they need to be getting events with real prize money or events that would let them allow to join the PT. Many of those players claim that if this game won't have such events it will fail because there will be nothing to really strive for. Diamond rank in Arena doesn't mean anything because the players don't get a reward for it nor any kind of satisfaction. I'll also note that since the start of the update with actual economy in the game some of those players moved onto Magic Online. It was a natural step up. The question is if this will be happening for other players or if Arena will offer more for those players that want more. I was glad to see that Magic Online got more players though.

One of the problems Arena now has is that players with bad decks and lower skill level run into full Standard decks and get crushed. The last update obviously tried to sort the players at first. After 10 matches we received a rank based on which we used to be paired in the past. I reached Gold after going 7-3 meaning I should be running into people with more similar skill level or deck.

I also see that many of the active members of the Discord channels play really a lot of Arena and they also try to do the best and get the best decks. Those are players that don't really seem casual to me, those are hardcore players that want more and more and Magic has a lot to offer. Will Arena be able to offer that? Magic Online offers events for all kind of players even though the casual players may feel left out more. Arena so far introduced two kind of events Quick and Competitive which neither seem to satisfy the players I talked to for different reasons and that is the moment I started wondering if Arena can really make it and be successful. I see a 'Magic Online' trend happening among the Arena players that want Arena to be as accurate as it can be in a game of Magic and they also want a high level of competition (and real life prizes). The other part of players that are more on the casual spectrum lose more and more games and start wondering what the game has to offer them. Neither of those groups are happy (even though there is certain part of the players that is indeed happy with things how they are, otherwise WotC wouldn't have said that everything is going the right way). One is currently trying to figure out what can beat Chainwhirler decks and the other one is trying to figure out how to play the game without 'investing' money into it which leads me to another problem that may arise.

Money and Rotation
It is clear that what Arena really has to do is earning money that also means that we, the players, are also forced to spend money or a lot of time to keep up. We have a new set every 3 months which is something the paper and Magic Online players got used to, it is how the game works. Free to play game though don't usually release sets that often and that is one of the reasons why the economy in Arena should be different and more benevolent compared to other games, that is at least my own opinion. I think that WotC wants Arena to become a competitive platform and even if it won't be, players will try to put together something from the 'offline' or Magic Online world because that is the number one place for information. Since Arena allows for a full Standard, we don't need to look elsewhere for information. This is also one of the reasons that this won't be a really friendly place for casual players unless the players are will be well segregated in Arena. This brings even more pressure on the economy because the players know very well what works and what they should get. Getting it fast enough before the metagame changes may be a problem though. The players will have to decide if they want to be serious and put money into the game or not. Since there is a different option other than Arena though and offers way more there is also the question if those players won't simply start playing on Magic Online. Will they be turned down by how it looks like and how buggy it is?

If one doesn't want to lose a lot of money playing Standard, they should sell their cards roughly a month before the rotation actually happens. I missed the day the prices plummeted and kept them. After rotation I was staring at my illegal cards and wondering how much value I lost. In this case it wasn't that bad. Before it though the deck's price went from 300 tix to 30 tix overnight.

Wizards of the Coast says that Arena offers way more content than other digital card games and that alone is sufficient to keep the players interested. Unfortunately in Magic, it doesn't really work that way because players usually are drawn to a certain aspect of the game. For example it is still very difficult for me to understand that there are only limited players but that is how it is. We have players that play what they want. Arena lately showed us that if we want to have access to everything without paying money we actually need to play both constructed and limited (in order to amass gems we need to do well in Quick Limited). For some players this may not be a problem. I like both constructed and limited and this kind of progression is what I had on Magic Online. I grinded limited for months in order to be able to play constructed later. I did this because I knew that after I reach a certain value of tix I can play any format I want and that grinding can end. In between sets I won something and that something I used to get new cards or the cards I simply needed. If something went wrong I just sold some of my cards and started grinding for a while again. At any time I could get anything I wanted though and I could use my collection for that. Arena doesn't allow that and that can lead to very bad feelings when rotation hits. The upcoming rotation is going to happen in about 100 days. The Arena players were getting their hands on cards from Ixalan block and Dominaria primarily since Kaladesh block was added recently, including many cards we could need. If our collections won't be wiped by that day we will lose something we probably won't care that much. When Arena will go into open beta though there will be a wipe and that will show how many of the players will be able to stand a rotation happening. We all will have to start grinding again and unlike on Magic Online we won't be able to trade our Standard illegal cards for legal ones. How many of us will survive a wipe? Wizards of the Coast thinks that a dust system creates bad feelings, what will happen when rotation hits? I've seen this over and over in Standard in the paper game. Many players just stopped playing with the first rotation, there are also many that couldn't keep up and stopped a bit later.

To conclude, Arena has a lot of obstacles in its way that it needs to deal with unlike Magic Online which already stood the test of time. If Arena will be a success it will bring more people over to Magic Online and the paper game, Duels managed that too. If the game will fail, Magic Online will still stay. Arena the way how the client works does not seem to be build with eternal formats in mind at all. Arena won't have Vintage Cube, Legacy or 1v1 EDH. It may get a new 'Modern' or 'Extended', Brawl or Standard Singleton but won't be able to offer the myriad of different formats and prize structures Magic Online offers. These two clients were obviously meant to coexist. There may be many uncertainties when it comes to both clients but Magic Online is the 'stable' one while Arena is not. I can be wrong and it all will also depend on which direction Arena will take. I think that the biggest problems are economy, handling of rotation, competition and event offerings. On one side we can see that they want it to be more like a video game but we can also see that the player revolt when that happens. They don't want to play everything Arena offers in order to play what they want. Someone at the Product Management will have to make a sound decision about all this, we as players cannot decide it because so far we are too enfranchised the game as we know it. We need more of the younger players to join the beta test and let their voices be heard.

Also remember that we can submit feedback for both Magic Online and Arena. For Magic Online send an email to magiconlinefeedback@wizards.com or via the Customer Support site. There were things I suggested and that got later implemented. It was probably because more people were interested in it, we even got our original frame and illustration Power Nine! So if you have something to say, send an email to Wizards, they listen. For Arena I suggest either submitting feedback through https://support.wizards.com/ or through an upcoming survey.

Thank you for reading

S'Tsung (stsung on MODO, stsungjp on Twitter)