I. Is Arena Just a New Hearthstone?
At its conceptual core, Arena appears to be a Hearthstone clone. From top to bottom, in all aspects of its design and intentionality, Arena seems geared to try to directly compete with Hearthstone and offer a comparable and competing experience to it. Importantly, though this includes its aesthetics, it is goes beyond them as well – what we know about its offerings, game structures, competition structures, and economic structures signal that Wizards is emulating the entirety of Hearthstone's core gaming model. For those of you who have not seen the demo, read various tweets from Wizards employees, or listened to important interviews, let me catch you up to speed on the relevant specific data that matters to you as a Magic player and investor.
(i) Arena will be a free-to-play (f2p) collectible card game (CCG).
(ii) Arena will use the same rules framework as Magic: The Gathering.
(iii) Arena will offer Draft, Sealed and Standard at launch. A format to use cards that have rotated out of Standard will be implemented later.
(iv) Arena will focus on fast, quick play that can be done in short bouts of time. All players will have access to one-game matches. Players at the top of the rankings will have access to best of three matches with sideboarding.
(v) Arena is the platform on which Wizards wants pros to play and stream Draft, Sealed and Standard. MTGO will become the primary platform for Modern, Legacy, Pauper, Vintage, Cube, and Flashback events.
(vi) Arena will not allow trading or buying and selling singles. You build your collections exclusively through opening booster packs and creating cards out of "dust" like Hearthstone.
This vision for Arena leads to some very important questions. The one that I believe we should all be most interested in is teleological. That is, is Magic Arena an end unto itself, or is its intention to get a new sort of gamer interested in traditional forms of Magic? Is Magic Arena fundamentally a missionary enterprise, or a reform and transformation of our experience with Magic itself?
II. What is Arena Actually Going to Be Like?
What has gone unnoticed, or perhaps unappreciated, is that Arena will enable players to engage with Magic far differently than what is traditional in paper or digital Magic. Right now, we take new players, teach them the rules, and thrust them into gameplay modes that are standard across all skill levels. The new player at FNM drafts in the same manner as the player at a GP and the player at a Pro Tour. We ask these new players to compete using the same rules as veteran players, and to build decks drawing from the same card pool as veteran players. Professional players, veteran players, and players who have recently learned how to play all gather at prerelease or FNM and compete with each other. We take it for granted that we all collectively build Standard and Modern decks, take those decks to FNM, Standard Showdowns, PPTQs, and MTGO Standard leagues to compete on the same playing field, a playing field comprised of players with a variety of budgets and levels of engagement and metagame awareness. In some ways, this is a positive thing, because it gives all Magic players a shared basis of experience and aspiration that helps Magic players form communities. It does, however, make it less likely that a new prospective player will become more invested in the game and continue to play it.
Arena will fundamentally change this dynamic by giving those prospective players a place to develop their interest in Magic at their own pace, in their own way. In regards to Limited, Arena will create two basic tiers for how Draft (and Sealed) will work. The bottom tier may or may not involve traditional drafting (it is noteworthy that when asked whether Arena is "real Magic", the reply always focuses exclusively on the rules engine and in-game experience, suggesting that everything beyond the battlefield is not sacrosanct), but it will not involve sideboarding. The top tier of players will have access to a traditional Draft experience. It is unclear what percentage of Arena players this will be, but I'd wager the over/under is closer to 10 percent than 50 percent.
In Constructed, the difference between traditional Magic and Arena will be stark. To understand why, we have to understand the basics of a free-to-play game (f2p). Those of you who play Hearthstone can probably anticipate what I'm going to say. In Arena, you cannot buy or sell cards and you cannot trade cards. Instead, you build your collection by buying and opening booster packs or opening booster packs you win as prizes. If you open cards you don't want (I'm looking at you Djeru, With Eyes Open), you can "dust" them and use that dust to create cards you do want. The way f2p games make money is buy making it very costly to craft the cards you want out of dust. In Hearthstone, for example, you need to dust four "mythics" in order to forge a mythic of your choice. Magic Arena is emulating Hearthstone's economic model, so we can expect roughly the same.
This makes it very, very expensive to build competitive decks in free-to-play games like Arena and Hearthstone. It even makes it expensive to build decks you wouldn't be embarrassed to take to FNM. This year, Hearthstone players had to shell out $670 to acquire 90 percent of the cards Hearthstone released. In previous years, it was closer to $440 to acquire that same percentage. The reason for the cost increase is that Blizzard eliminated small sets in favor of large sets this year; more cards means it costs more to acquire them. Note that Wizards is doing the same thing with Magic, and I highly doubt that that is a coincidence. In Hearthstone, it currently costs about $1,100 per year to keep up with its version of Standard if you don't grind, and in future years that number will rise to $1340 per year. And the fact that you lose 75 percent of the value of your cards if you change decks (as opposed to the 25 to 35 percent you'd lose in paper Magic or the 10 to 20 percent you'd lose on MTGO) makes it very difficult to game the system if you want to consistently compete in the Hearthstone equivalent to Standard.
The hope that many in the MTG community seem to have is that you'll be able to grind a lot so you won't have to spend much money. Hearthstone players' experiences indicate that this is almost assuredly not going to be the case, and we know from the Limited Resources interview that currency acquisition on Arena will follow this same exact model. From the research I've done, most Hearthstone players seem to agree that you can grind about 600 hours per year (a little more than an hour and a half per day every day) and then on top of that spend about $200 to $250 per year to maintain a reasonable Standard collection to be competitive and generally play with the cards you want to play with.
You should expect roughly the same with Arena – perhaps a bit better because competition is always good for the consumer. And that grinding isn't grinding with the decks you want to play with, mind you – it's grinding with the cards you already have as you slowly build up your collection, fulfilling quests like "Cast 10 dinosaurs" or "Kill 10 creatures" along the way. It's Kitchen Table Magic.
Knowing this, let's see what the Arena ladders would most likely have looked like this past Standard season. Arena promises the same ladder ranking system that Hearthstone and Starcraft 2 have, so you will be matched with players with roughly the same rank as you. The bottom half of the ladder, (let's say Bronze through Gold) will likely not have spent a dime. They will have grinded for any cards they have; for these players Arena will have been truly free to play. These players will likely be building decks that you won't find at FNM or even in the annals of the jankiest of the jankiest of Saffron Olive brews. They will be piles of cards, possibly strategies that use a bunch of commons and uncommons, possibly a random hodgepodge of a player's best cards.
Those in the next tier (Platinum through Diamond, say) might have spent some money to buy cards, and some might have just managed to acquire tons of cards by religiously completing quests and playing multiple hours per day. You might see some BW Servos or GW Cats. Perhaps you might see some antiquated decks of players who spent a lot of money before but opted to stop investing so heavily into Arena, such as Dynavolt Tower or Red Eldrazi.
The top tier (Master through Grandmaster) will be exclusively comprised of players who spend over $1,000 a year on Arena, those who grind 500 to 750 hours a year plus put in $200 to $250, and professionals who will probably be given all the cards for free so that they stream on Arena and promote the platform. Here, finally, you will see roughly what you see at FNM, PTQs, PTs, or MTGO Standard leagues. You will see your Temur Energy, G/B Constrictor and Ramunap Reds. Here you will get your traditional Constructed Magic experience, with many of you undoubtedly considering the word "traditional" synonymous with "authentic."
III. A Return to Kitchen Table Magic
Let's take a step back and look at the picture I have just painted. Arena will be giving players vastly different experiences. Those who spend nothing will have an Arcadian experience, playing Magic as my little brother and I did so many years ago. He would buy Mercadian Masques boosters, I would buy Weatherlight and Prophecy boosters, then we would build casual decks out of our card pools and play each other. Those with the means to do so (i.e., the very wealthy) will be able to play Standard as one does in paper or on MTGO. An intermediary experience will be available to those who spend a couple hundred dollars per year or who have a ton of time to grind ad infinitum.
Taking one more step back, Arena is carving out a new player experience that addresses the issue I raised in the second section. Arena will provide a free way for new players to learn the game and experience authentic Magic with others in their same position. Had I not had a little brother who also found Magic cards alluring and gameplay compelling, I would not have been able to have the gameplay experience Arena will soon deliver to every boy and girl for free. I'm excited for this aspect of Arena and believe it will help grow the game and make Magic more mainstream. There are some hurdles (Magic is a more complex game than Hearthstone; mana flood and screw is a frustrating architectural feature of Magic; the art no longer has the enticing allure of fruit meant for an older audience, making it stand out less from competitors like Hearthstone or Pokemon), but I have faith that Arena will be popular and successful.
I have an equal amount of faith that enfranchised Magic players will be repulsed by the picture I painted above of the experience they can expect. If you are reading this column, chances are high that the type of Magic experience you enjoy will continue to be financially attainable only on MTGO or in paper.
Like Adam and Eve, you and I have already bitten into a certain apple, and I doubt we'll be able to will ourselves to return to a state of ignorance in which we enjoy playing kitchen-table Magic for an hour or two every day. What I want my readers to understand is that f2p card games do not make money primarily through aesthetic cosmetic purchases; they make money primarily by making it extremely expensive to compete with the cards you want to compete with, to compete with the cards you see being streamed, discussed on ChannelFireball and StarCityGames articles, and used at the Pro Tour.
I have seen more than a few Magic content creators say some version of, "Arena will get so many people to pay $2 for what MTGO charges $15 that it will be more profitable." Depending upon how it is phrased, that is either incorrect or misleading. The actual reality is that Arena will be designed, like Hearthstone, to get as many people as possible to become so emotionally invested in the game that they spend $500 to $1,000 or more per year. The problem Arena faces (which Hearthstone doesn't face) is that Arena is competing with other versions of its core game. Shouldn't would-be whales move over into Paper or MTGO?
IV. The Future of MTGO – and the Collections on It
This broaches the conundrum I can't seem to resolve and gets back at the question of teleology I raised at the beginning of the second section. I remain struck by Wizards' insistence that Arena will be the place to play Standard. We've heard it from Arena's developers, we've heard it in the Limited Resources interview, and we've even heard it from MTGO's Lee Sharpe.
But basic economics dictates the opposite. Most of Magic's current player base would not dare touch this thing with a ten-foot pole. The only way for Standard on Arena to be appealing to Magic's current player base would be for Arena to follow a Hex model, not a Hearthstone model. That is, Arena would need to allow a secondary market to exist, accomplished most easily by linking itself to (a visually-updated) MTGO in some fashion. As currently constructed, Arena seems most optimally used as a way to introduce prospective players to and develop an affinity for Magic. As currently constructed, Arena would best fit the model that we saw in Hasbro's report, as a program that ultimately leads people to play paper Magic and MTGO. That is explicitly not the stated goal, however, and that is equally mystifying and concerning.
All of the above is extremely important, because the financial implications for those of us with collections on MTGO depend entirely on the ability or inability of Arena to attain its stated goal – the goal of supplanting MTGO as the primary way to play Limited and Standard. If Arena attains that goal, our collection values will swiftly crumble to dust, because the number of MTGO users will decline, reducing demand without decreasing supply. If Arena does not attain that goal, our MTGO collections should be in good shape, even great shape, since Arena would likely spur interest in Magic and bring in an influx of new players to MTGO.
What we know about the nuts and bolts of Arena leads me to think that MTGO is likely not in grave imminent danger; if the picture I have painted in this article proves to be correct, MTGO will be fine for years to come. The one thing that gives me great concern is Wizards's stated goals for the Arena platform.
Personally, I plan to continue playing MTGO and plan to continue investing. However, Arena will loom like a cloud over MTGO, discouraging user growth. Most of the financial advice I have heard, I think, is misguided. Many have said that we should shift our MTGO investing away from Standard and toward Modern. This would be a big mistake. You should do the opposite. Invest in Standard cards. Modern is not safe. Two Masters sets a year, coupled with Treasure Chests, will make it difficult to make money on Modern investments that aren't based around temporary shifts in the Modern metagame. Standard cards, at least, are supported by redemption and have investment windows shorter and more predictable than Modern or Legacy cards.
V. In Conclusion
Arena's visual display at HASCON excited me, as did its potential to bring in new players to the game, but the stated goals and explicit copying of Hearthstone's economic model feel misguided and leave me worried about the future of investing on MTGO and the future of digital Magic. I will be paying close attention to its development over the next year.
Please share your thoughts on Arena below. I'm sure y'all have much to say, and I'm deeply curious to hear it!