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By: one million words, Pete Jahn
Dec 14 2018 1:00pm
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State of the Program for December 14th 2018
 
Where I’ve Been
I owe you all a quick apology for not being around recently, and not giving fair warning that I wasn’t going to finish the last couple articles. I started them, then life intervened.
 
It takes me at least 6-8 hours to do the research, crunch the numbers and pull the article together – more if I playtest the decks I am featuring. I started articles in the last couple weeks, but couldn’t get them even close to finished. Work has been a bear recently, with a bunch of 12 hour days, plus long commutes on both sides. 
 
I also lost my best friend recently. John was in my first Magic play group, and we were still playing Magic regularly. We played together shortly before he died. It was sudden and unexpected, and I am still dealing with the loss – and with wrapping up his affairs and packing up his apartment. 
 
The moral in all this – value your friends. Treat them well, for as long as you may have them.    
 
Anyway, that’s why I have missed the last two weeks. Work is still insane, but the end of the tunnel is in sight.   Also, anyone know of any place that accepts mattresses and box springs? John’s were almost new, and I’d rather donate than pitch them.
 
In the News
No news this Week:   Nothing happened. Moving on.
 
Actually, there is a ton of news, and I am going to spend this entire article on the news and my thoughts on the news. Decks and prices will return next time.
 
The eSports Announcement: We have been waiting for this for a long time. Wizards is making some big changes to incorporate Arena and digital offerings into top level play. The overall plan is clear, but the details are sketchy. The initial announcement was made during the multi-hour Games Awards. The article recapping the announcement is here.
 
Pro Tours Changed, become Mythic Championships:  They are being renamed. I believe they will also include a lot more Arena. Some will be Arena events – possibly invitation only on closed networks, possibly widespread over the net. I also expect to see mixed events, with feature and Top 8 matches played on Arena (for coverage reasons), even if the main event is tabletop. The announcement is short on details.  
 
End of Pro Player’s Club – Start of the Pro League: Wizards is ending the Pro Players’ Club, with its strange mix of support and neglect of lots of “Pro” players. Instead, it is creating a Pro League with 32 salaried Pros. These players will be battling to keep their slots, as well as appearing at events and streaming Magic.  
 
Standard Plus to Appear on Arena: Elaine Chase, VP of eSports at Wizards, gave an interview to Screen Rants. In the interview, Elaine said that the company will introduce “Standard Plus” as a way to play all the cards that are on Arena now and going forward. In other words, after rotation, Wizards will let players continue to play their nontradeable, nonredeemable cards in Arena. Elaine said there were no plans to add additional backwards cards to Arena – no Frontier, no Modern, just the cards now in play on the Arena client. 
 
Major Bot Chains Suspend – then Resume – Buying Collections: After the eSports announcements, a lot of players panicked and sold off their collections. (BTW, selling into a major price drop is stupid.) By the middle of the weekend, several major chains had stopped buying collections. They started buying again on Monday. I’ll talk about why in the Opinion Section. 
 
Paper Magic Now Called Tabletop Magic: Wizards is using the term “tabletop Magic” to refer to non-digital Magic – the kind played with paper cards (well - mostly paper.  Real Magic cards contain a blue plastic wafer inside.) 
 
M19 Redemption Back through January 16: Or while supplies last.
 
Magic World Cup this Weekend: Coverage will be underway as this goes up – streaming will have started at 10am in Barcelona. It will stream on Twitch.TV/Magic. Info is here
 
Twitch Chat at Magic World Cup to be Subscriber Only: Live chat is often toxic if you cannot moderate it. (For that matter, so is feedback.) Wizards has never been able or willing to get solid moderation on their Twitch stream. So, for Worlds at least, you will have to subscribe to post in chat. Wizards wants to see whether making users slightly less anonymous will keep chat more civil – and what the change does to their viewership. 
 
Opinion Section: Arena, eSports and MTGO
First off, I want to say something that I never expected to say – Wizards has made a digital product that works. Arena does what it is supposed to, reasonably well. 
 
Who saw that coming? Certainly not me.
 
Wizards has a long history of bad digital products and failed launches. Wizards has often come up with half-backed ideas and bad product launches. Look at Gleemax – the “Facebook for Gamers”, and that digital goblin game thing, all of their website and forum “upgrades”, and all four versions of MTGO. Wizards had a habit of hiring too few programmers, paying salaries that meant the best and brightest didn’t sign up, and making questionable decisions in designing their digital offerings.  
 
But that did not happen with Arena. I think we can thank Chris Cocks, Wizards new President, for that. He has a background in digital production, and has apparently managed to avoid all the previous problems Wizards has had in developing its digital offerings. At least, most of the problems. Wizards has had a habit of pushing new products too far too fast. We will see whether Arena falls into that trap. But, for now, it is working. 
 
I also don’t think Arena means the end of MTGO or paper Magic, at least not in the near term. It will mean some changes, but all three products will continue. But I’ll discuss each of these theories in turn.
 
Wild Rumor 1 - Wizards is Going to Dump Paper Magic:
I have seen a few people arguing that this is what Wizards has planned – going 100% into Arena and eSports, and getting rid of paper Magic altogether. Since more than half of Magic revenue comes from paper cards, this seems pretty far fetched.   Maybe, if Wizards predicts that forgeries will be so good it will kill the paper market, maybe – but most Magic packs are sold to limited players and kitchen table Magicians. Neither of those would be significantly affected by forgeries in the singles market – unless you expect people to be forging sealed booster packs. I think we can take it for granted that Wizards is not getting rid of paper Magic. Also, Wizards has categorically said that paper Magic will be around for the long run / foreseeable future. 
 
One corollary to this is that Wizards will continue to support paper, it will also continue to support Modern strongly, and older formats to at least some extent. Modern is a really popular format, and players like it. Modern is also assurance that your cards will continue to have value after Standard rotates. That is important to players, but far more important to dealers. Dealers have to know that their inventory will continue to have value, even after rotations. Modern is that assurance. 
 
Also, Modern and Legacy GP get a lot of players – more than Standard at times. The format is popular and profitable for tournament organizers. It will continue.
 
Also, Wizards has talked about tabletop Mythic Challenges. These are going to be paper – unless Wizards backpedals on that, two. A month ago, they announced 6 Pro Tours and updates to the Pro Player Club. A month later, those have been reversed.
 
Rumor #2: Wizards will move Modern to Arena, and that will kill MTGO:
They could, but why would they. Seriously – why? Arena is flashy. It looks good, especially for eSports coverage. It plays rapidly, and predictably. The cards work. Players at least accept the Arena economy. 
 
Adding Modern could jeopardize all that. Let’s look at these things in order. 
 
Arena is watchable. It is sucking in lots of viewers – many of which are new to Magic.   Standard and limited are reasonably understandable on Arena. A new viewer can understand the creatures smashing into each other, and into players.   The spells generally make conceptual sense. Now imagine watching an Amulet of Vigor deck in action, or a mill deck – or any strange, complex combo deck for that matter. It is far less accessible for new players, and less exciting on Twitch.TV. Sure, some really enfranchised players enjoy watching streamers play decks like that, but they can (and do) watch them play those decks on MTGO. Arena and MTGO cater to different groups of viewers, so Wizards will not cross the streams, at least for the conceivable future. 
 
Secondly, Arena runs quickly and well – and part of that is because it takes some shortcuts. Some of the weird cards and interactions could, in all probability, be programmed into the Arena client, but adding all that extra code will bloat the program. It may not reduce the speed much, but unless Wizards really needs it, why would they risk it. Going forward, R&D will not design cards that require lots of special coding – they are already doing that. Arena does not have code designed to turn off the upkeep step, because it does not need it. The Modern card pool, however, includes Eon Hub, so adding Modern means adding that “feature” – and tons of other features used on only a few odd-ball cards. Modern is full of strange mechanics and odd cards, all of which would need to be coded. Adding those mechanics has often broken other things in MTGO.   Maybe Arena can add many, many cards and mechanics without ever having a bad interaction or error, but if I were Wizards, I would not bet Arena’s popularity on that. 
 
Moreover, adding all those cards to Arena will require a ton of programming time. Right now, Arena supports Standard, which contains five sets. Modern has over 60 sets. Now some cards appear in multiple sets (looking at you, Colossal Dreadmaw), but even so, adding Modern to Arena means adding tens of thousands of cards. And debugging them. And making sure they all work, and interact, correctly. MTGO has been around for over a decade, and all the cards have been programmed already, but weird interactions keep breaking individual cards. (See the Bug Blog for examples.) Adding Modern to Arena will create similar problems – and that something Arena does not need at present. 
 
Over time, Wizards may well bring Modern to Arena, but I expect that this will happen slowly – and by slowly I mean 3-5 years at the earliest. I suspect that they will introduce cards more slowly, possibly by first introducing Commander, then special commander decks or precons with older cards. Wizards could introduce classic Modern decks a few at a time, and have special events using those decks. That would allow Wizards to introduce the mechanics and cards slowly, once they are debugged, without the pressure of having the entire Modern card pool – and Modern events – all up at once. 
 
Finally, the Arena economy is not yet settled. Wizards does not have a good answer to the fifth card problem. It is also too soon to know whether players will be satisfied with the grind necessary to build decks. Arena is new and shiny now; we will see how players feel six months from now. Wizards is going to have to balance card acquisition and matchmaking to keep players happy. The biggest fear, to me at least, is that players will find getting wildcards too much of a slog. It is hard enough grinding out a single Standard deck – adding the need to build Modern decks to the mix may be too much for players. At least in the immediate future.   A couple years from now, if a bunch of committed players are finding they have lots of excess wildcards, that’s when Wizards will start adding Modern to the mix.
 
My conclusion – Wizards may add Modern in 3-5 years, but not sooner.
 
Rumor #3: MTGO is Dead:
Nope. Wizards is still dumping programming money into MTGO, and has been doing so even after it was clear that Arena was going to work. Wizards has also said that MTGO will have a place going forward. I don’t put a lot of trust in Wizards verbal statements – in November they were still talking about 6 Pro Tours, but that statement is now “inoperative.” (It’s apolitical reference – an old one.) But the money I trust still means something.
 
Wizards also makes a ton of money from MTGO, and I don’t expect that to change. Even if most limited play moves to Arena, Modern - and especially Legacy, Commander and Vintage – will exist only in paper and MTGO for at least several more years. Players will want to play those formats – and MTGO will be the way they do that. 
 
We will know more once Wizards explains how players beyond the 32 player Pro League will  qualify for the Mythic Championships.   If it is all Arena and Tabletop, then we may have a problem. If Wizards keeps online PTQs and the MOCS, MTGO will be fine for the next couple years. If not – well, we have no idea what will happen. 
 
Rumor #4: Arena Is Being Pushed Faster than Expected
The timing of this announcement leads me to think this is the case. I think Wizards was working on this sort of change for a while, but was planning on rolling it out far more slowly. I suspect Wizards was as surprised as the rest of us by the success of Arena, and decided to make the change now. 
 
Putting on the Pro Tour, complete with video coverage of the paper game, is really, really expensive. I have spent a lot of time behind the scenes at large events, and I know. There are a lot of paid professionals and a lot of camera equipment and hardware. It is also not that great a production – shuffling, in particular, has always been a downside to live Magic coverage. I have long expected Wizards to start bringing in computers, and playing feature matches and the Top 8 on a digital platform.   Apparently MTGO was never snazzy enough – but Arena is. Wizards has run events online before, and done so for years. They had computers at PT Austin a decade ago. The Community Cups were on MTGO.   For that matter, the Invitational which Bob Maher, Jr. won was on MTGO – and that event gave us Dark Confidant. That was quite a few years ago.
 
It’s a big gamble, though. Arena has to work. It also has to support large tournaments – which means rounds keeping to time, matchmaking, etc. Maybe it can, maybe not. We will know in March, when Wizards will be hosting the first Arena Mythic Invitational event at PAX East. We will see who – and how many - are invited.    
 
How big is the risk? Well, one of the nine times I recall MTGO dying (according to the masses) leading to a huge sell-off of collections was when Brian Kibler was knocked out of an online PTQ by a technical glitch. He very publicly quit MTGO, and that had a huge adverse impact. Hopefully Wizards has learned from its past.
 
Rumor # 4: The Pro Tour is Ending: 
Not exactly. The old Pro Tours will be rebranded Tabletop Mythic Championships (TMCs.)   The first two TMCs will have the previously announced methods of qualification – a mix of paper events, Prop Player point qualifications, Hall of fame invites, MTGO events, etc.  The two Tabletop Mythic Championships to be held later in the year – well, we don’t know. The announcement was unclear, and just says that information on qualifications will be released later.
 
We already knew that Wizards was reworking paper qualifications. We knew that the system of Preliminary and Regional Pro Tour Qualifiers was going away. We knew that something was going to replace it – and that we had no idea what. That is now true for all levels of professional play. Thirty-two players have signed contracts to be part of the Pro League, and they may know more. The rest of us, though, do not. We know a bit, but the devil is in the details – and we don’t have any of the details.
 
$10 Million in Prizes:
This is a big, impressive number, but it may be a bit misleading. For one thing, Wizards appear to be eliminating airfare to events for players – except maybe the 32 players in the Pro League. That money is being diverted into prizes. To me, this means that the prize pool will increase, but the amount Wizards spends on pro Magic may not. I also remember seeing data that the cost of putting on a Pro Tour was close to a million dollars – and Wizards eliminated two of those. 
 
Ten million dollars is a big number. It definitely makes good PR – but I am not sure how much of that is new money, and how much is just reallocation of existing money. 
 
Rumor: Three Game Matches are Going Away
I find this one interesting. I understand, from a game design standpoint, why we have three game matches and sideboards – but I’m not sure they are critical.   The metagame for single game matches would be very different – but that might not be a deal breaker. Single game matches seem to work for Arena now.   I can’t imagine single game tournaments in Modern. That said, I could see future qualifiers on Arena being Standard or limited, and being single game matches.
 
As with a ton of the details for Magic in the future, we just don’t know.
 
The 32: 
Wizards has replaced the Pro Player Club with a 32 player Pro League. The members of the League will, apparently, risk being knocked out by Arena grinders and/or Mythic championship winners. We don’t have details. 
 
We do know that the players in the League will get significant salaries, and are under contract with Wizards of the Coast.  We don’t know what those contracts entail, but we can assume that they include significant non-disclosure agreements. According to Wizards’ announcement, those players have signed on already, but none of the names have leaked. Beyond that, it appears that the players will be playing at major events, streaming (presumably Arena), and playing in Mythic Challenges on Arena.  Beyond that, details are non-existent.    
 
We also know the Pro Players Club is going away after this year. No word on what will happen to the Platinum, Gold and Silver pros after this year – they may need to grind Arena to keep their invites to the future Mythic Championships. Ditto the Hall of Fame, which will be rejiggered sometime in 2019.
 
Major Bot Chains Suspend – then Resumed – Buying Collections: After the E-Sports announcements, a lot of players panicked and sold off their collections. By the middle of the weekend, several major chains had stopped buying collections. The chains resumed buying again on Monday.
 
Some idiots were claiming that the Bot owners knew MTGO was dying, so they stopped buying.   I’ve explained why I don’t think MTGO is dying, and since the dealers are buying again, its pretty clear they don’t, either.   Other commenters said that the bot chains were acting like a government, and deliberately slowing the market. I doubt that. I don’t think that dealers have that kind of power. I don’t think that large businesses work that way. Since the dealers are also MTGO players and fan, slowing the panic may have been part of their decision, but I suspect that another factor was in play – cash flow.
 
Businesses like these have budgets. They have a cash reserve for buying collections – enough to handle normal volumes plus some emergency reserves if they get a chance to make additional purchases. Most businesses also have a relationship with a bank, so that they can get access to additional funding (from long term investments, via loans, etc.)   But Wizards made their announcement on Thursday night, and players started panic selling on Friday and Saturday. I assume that the dealers hadn’t budgeted for making many, many large purchases, and had to suspend purchases until they secure some short-term credit to cover the purchases.  I also suspect that none of the dealers are large enough to get banks to open on Sundays, so they had to wait until Monday morning. Then, with enough money to cover the purchases, they started buying collections again.     
 
At least, that’s my interpretation.
 
I have more to say, but that will have to wait for next week. The deadline for this article was 14 hours ago. Sorry for any typos – Joshua won’t have had any time to find them this week.
 
In Closing
Don’t sell now. It’s either too late, or too early.
 
More next week.
 
 
PRJ
 
“One Million Words” on MTGO
 
 
This series is an ongoing tribute to Erik “Hamtastic” Friborg.
 

10 Comments

Despite oversleeping, and by JXClaytor at Fri, 12/14/2018 - 14:13
JXClaytor's picture
5

Despite oversleeping, and waking up in a rush, I think I got most of the typos.

At least the spam bots were nice enough to leave me alone for a few days :D

Keep up the great work Pete, and again, sorry for your loss.

The future of tabletop Magic by Wrath of Pie at Fri, 12/14/2018 - 15:16
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5

I expect that with Arena that tabletop Magic will still be supported, just not with tournament play as that will eventually be all Arena all the time. Instead, the focus will be on the casual players, which would help explain why retailers such as Walmart and Amazon now sell booster boxes as it increases accessibility to these players.

Sadly, that does mean that the traditional LGS model is in danger, because they not only have to compete with these large retailers, but a lot of their inventory is geared toward the competitive players and their prices are not competitive with online options. The best option for those LGSs is to transition into the cafe business while allowing renting of board games and usage of space for casual players, but that creates its own set of problems.

Commander will be the primary paper format going forward, and Brawl was an attempt to make the format more palatable to both the casual users and to the higher-ups because of the focus on Standard cards and rotation.

Where that leaves MTGO is in an awkward space, because the most profitable formats for Wizards are Standard and Limited, and it makes more sense to support those on Arena. I suspect there will be a plan to phase it out, with no collection compensation whatsoever, but it will take a while. This does mean that Modern's future is in danger, but that is probably of minimal concern to the higher-ups.

Sorry to hear of your loss by Paul Leicht at Fri, 12/14/2018 - 15:47
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Sorry to hear of your loss Pete. :/ I think I agree with most of what you've said here. (Though it is a lot to grok.)

collection crash by pcjr at Sat, 12/15/2018 - 14:53
pcjr's picture

Most MTGO players with smaller "investments" will never return once they have gotten a taste of Arena. Those with large collections will stick around because they are stuck. Few (if any) new players to MTGO. How can it possibly survive unless WotC puts a lot of effort keeping it on life support? Why would they? Tabletop still works for older formats.

Arena has completely changed how I play Magic on a computer. I only played limited on MTGO (since Prismatic events were discontinued). I started Arena at the beginning of the year, abandoned MTGO, and have been playing mostly constructed ever since. When I get to 5,000 gold I play in a draft. I've spent $200 on Arena (during closed beta) and don't expect to spend another dime (I have lots of WC's). I sold my MTGO collection (playsets of just about everything) for close to $15,000 in October. I'm being offered under $9,000 for the same cards now.

Just wait until they support more than just Windows desktops.

I don't know if it is just me by jcf at Sun, 12/16/2018 - 11:54
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I don't know if it is just me but I actually like the gameplay better on MTGO than MTGA. For a new player or a very simple game I agree Arena is faster. But when you have a lot of triggers and targets it starts to get clunky. We have been complaining a lot about MTGO but there are many interface details that are actually very well thought in the program. Arena could use a set of hotkeys (ok maybe it have hotkeys that I don't know yet) and yield. But I think this is probably easy to implement. What I really don't like about it comparing to MTGO is how isolated it feels. MTGO has a connection with the "outside" world, with redeem, trades, websites buying and selling cards. Arena feels like a closed little world, I can't buy or sell cards, grinding only generates "value" inside the game and after I have all the cards I need it starts to feel a bit pointless.

Right now I am enjoying Arena and playing both but I am not sure how am I going to feel about it in a while. Part of the fun of playing Magic to me is to have a goal, in the long term what would be my goal inside Arena? At least ATM I don't see it.

Overall, MTGO is a better model for the players in the long run, but maybe Arena is a better business model for internet gaming, Idk. I hope MTGO survives for at least more 55 years (I plan to stop playing mtg around my 105 birthday).

It's not just you. MTGA shows by Paul Leicht at Sun, 12/16/2018 - 16:47
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It's not just you. MTGA shows its clunkiness in the long game. Oh boy does it. I have a Temur Ramp deck that really starts cooking at about 6-8 mana and by then the timeouts have worn thin and everything becomes a dex test to see if I miss click in the rush to get things stacked properly.

MTGA is different by pcjr at Sun, 12/16/2018 - 21:54
pcjr's picture

Arena is definitely a closed world, it has completely different goals. Its kind of a relief not to worry about passing a valuable rare in a draft if I already have enough of them. After all, all rares are of equal value.

With regards to goals, they recently announced some new ones (season rewards, Mythic Championship qualification). Personally, I earn gold while tuning some fun decks, and use the gold to draft. Its in Beta still and is barely a year old. I think its really quite amazing that Wizards has produced something like this.

Considering their track by Paul Leicht at Mon, 12/17/2018 - 05:56
Paul Leicht's picture

Considering their track record you mean? Keep in mind that while they (Wizards) are involved in its development, it is not their product alone. Stainless did a lot of the heavy lifting. I am happy with how Arena is turning out as compared to Duels but it is a very long way from being satisfactory to me as a m:tg client. And I think that's crux of the discussion here. Everyone has their needs/wants and opinions about how those needs/wants are being taken care of. I think if you're primary interest in the game is limited (drafting in particular because sealed does not seem as good because the editor is still clunky) arena is a lot more attractive than if your primary interest is constructed. Nevermind if your forte is an eternal format.

re by Hearts at Mon, 12/17/2018 - 02:40
Hearts's picture

It's soon all Pokemon with mtg.
No upkeep, and no using fast effects at start of combat like in that Dublin PT.

PT becomes a flash on an electronic device, no battle of tongue between a Pete Jahn-judge and some Finkel, Justice or Budde.

I don't understand how little people understand about how bad this is for the mtg we knew, its disappearing for good this time.

Hasta la vista.

Arena by pcjr at Mon, 12/17/2018 - 23:44
pcjr's picture

My primary interest has historically been limited. But now, 90% of my Arena games are constructed. I haven't experienced where Arena falls short for constructed. However, I'm only playing standard. For other formats, Arena fails and isn't afraid of admitting it. But, you can't trust my opinion, the only paper deck I keep around is an old Extended Stasis deck.

Best of one (BO1) is also a cool feature.