The Economy of Arena Takes Shape

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The last time I wrote about Magic Arena it was still in alpha testing. Arena is now in closed beta testing, and about a month ago we got the great Dominaria economic update, which unveiled some major economic changes and gave us a clear picture of the full economic model that Arena would be employing. While some minor tweaks might occur before its official release sometime later this year or early next year, we now have a good idea of how the Magic Arena economy will operate and the experience one can expect to have given how much one plays and pays. The silhouette has been fleshed out.

Today I will be (i) going over these economic changes and (ii) sharing my thoughts and impressions about Magic Arena as an investor on MTGO. Initially, there was a lot of hoopla made of the impending death of MTGO, and with it, the money folks have invested into the program for decades. Due largely to a widespread pessimism regarding the Arena economy, that talk has subsided.  As someone with a few thousand dollars tied to the MTGO platform, however, I'm still somewhat worried and am paying close attention to the development and progress of Arena.

The most important question to me is whether Magic Arena is being designed and executed in such a way that the player base on MTGO will change. Will Magic Arena directly compete with MTGO for Standard and Limited players? Will Magic Arena spur such significant growth in the game overall that the MTGO playerbase will stay the same, or perhaps even grow? These are the sorts of questions I am asking – because they will impact the MTGO economy and the value of our collections in the future.

I. The Introduction of Events and the Pay-to-Play Economy

New game modes Quick Draft and Quick Constructed were one of the two major additions to the Magic Arena economy in April. The other was the introduction of the "pay-to-play" economy. Before, the economy consisted entirely of playing matches until you earned enough gold to purchase booster packs (1,000 gold per pack). Now players can purchase gems (every $1 you spend gives you between 150 and 200 gems. The more money you spend, the more gems per dollar you get). Gems can be used to purchase booster packs, and either gems or gold can be used to enter the new Quick events. If you want to read the full update that introduced these changes, click here.

It is frustratingly difficult to quantify the value of these events, and sadly that is by design. Not only are there multiple currencies to juggle, but with no secondary market and the possibility to buy, sell, or trade, the value of the cards one opens and the booster packs one wins is largely determined by how committed you are to playing Standard on Arena. The pricing is also designed to prevent you from maximizing your purchases efficiently (many have labeled it "predatory"), so that's another variable that's hard to quantify. For example, for $100 plus tax you get 20,000 gems, but buying the 90 booster pack bundle costs 18,000 gems, leaving 2,000 gems dangling in your collection.

Both Quick Draft and Quick Constructed have linear payout structures and are best-of-one, signaling that these events are geared for less competitive players (but competitive enough to put their money on the line). The sole remaining major economic update will be the introduction of best-of-three tournaments with a more top-heavy prize structure, but for now these two modes are the only modes we have.

A) Quick Constructed

Let's talk Quick Constructed first. Importantly, the house wins overall, as players lose about 90 gold on average (the equivalent of $0.90), and you have to have a 4-3 record or better to get a card of note (a random rare from a Standard-legal set). The median player who goes 3-3 spent 500 gold to enter and receives 400 gold back along with 3 random uncommons from a Standard-legal set. If you go 4-3 every time you will break even on gold and net a random rare, so that's a net positive, although that's building your collection at a glacial pace. Unless you have already built your top-tier deck, it's more worth it to grind for gold by doing your daily quests and playing on the ladder, which is probably why the Arena developers said that they expected players to enter these Quick events only after playing 1 to 1.5 hours on the ladder. This is especially true for those who don't yet have a top-tier deck.

Another important thing to note. While it is possible to "go infinite" playing Quick Constructed events, Arena has a feature that will push players more toward a 50-percent win rate that MTGO doesn't have. One's MMR (similar to a chess elo-rating) helps determine which opponents you face. This is operative in Quick Draft as well.

Overall, MTGO's Constructed events offer better overall prize support than do those offered on Magic Arena. I personally do not expect this to change going forward. With that said, I do think that playing 7 matches of Magic for $1.00 is a good deal, so I expect Quick Constructed to continue to be a reasonable option for Arena players to spend their time after playing their daily ladder games.

B) Quick Draft

Quick Draft is the fun one to discuss because it highlights several issues I have with Magic Arena as a whole. Let's take a look at the entire payout structure:

Ostensibly, you're getting a lot for $5.00 here. On average you're going to get about half of the gems back along with a booster pack and the cards you drafted. Better drafters will be able to get closer to 75 percent of their gems back on average.

The devil is in the details, however, and there are a few worth discussing. First is that gold is not part of the payout structure, meaning that the frequency at which free-to-pay players can draft is severely limited: about three times every two weeks so long as they forego the temptation of Quick Constructed. This is advertised as a way for free-to-pay players to get access to "premium currency," but in reality, it is a way to ensure that free-to-play players can't draft very much.

Second is that a large part of the reward comes in the form of additions to your Arena collection. To maximize the value of Draft on Arena, therefore, you really have to be wanting to play Standard. This is very interesting to me, and is a big break from paper Magic or MTGO.

On one hand, it is true that MTGO incentivizes players to play Constructed. In Constructed, players typically gain $0.23 per event, while in Limited players can expect to lose $5.00 per draft event or $2.00 per sealed event, but MTGO doesn't ask players who enjoy playing Limited to play Constructed and those who enjoy playing Constructed to play Limited.

Arena is more Orwellian in this way: it really wants you to play Standard, and it rewards are structured to nudge you in that direction. This is a feeling I get a lot when playing Arena – I feel like I'm being told what to do by the program.

The interesting question to me is whether it is worth it to use Arena if one only wants to draft ad infinitum. If I only purchased gems in $100 bundles, how many drafts could I expect to do for that amount of money? Let's say I have a 50-percent win rate. That means that, on average, I'm spending 750 gems and receiving 346 back, a net loss of 404 gems per draft. That means the cost for me to draft is about $2.00 per draft, enabling me to do about 50 drafts for $100. With an initial investment of $100, you should be able to draft forever if you have a win rate of about 64 percent.

That's actually really good value. For the vast majority of people, that's better value than MTGO, and as an MTGO investor, that makes me a bit nervous. Basically, drafting on Arena will be slightly better than drafting used to be before the introduction of playpoints on MTGO. Back then, MTGO players would lose between $2.00 and $3.00 per draft on average, numbers much closer to this first iteration of Arena draft. Once "real drafts" with eight-player pods and best-of-three matches are introduced in the coming months, we'll have to see whether those events give you as much bang for your buck, but this is worth keeping an eye on going forward.

To summarize what we've covered so far: at present, Constructed events provide better value on MTGO; Limited events provide better value on Arena. I would have expected the opposite.

II. Wildcards: Who Is Arena For, Exactly?

Instead of Hearthstone's dusting system that lets you destroy old cards to create new cards of your choice, Magic Arena is implementing a "wildcard system" in which cards inside booster packs are sometimes replaced with a "wildcard" that you can use to create a new card of your choice. I am puzzled that the Arena developers chose this system, as this has a few different consequences that I would not have intended were I in charge of designing the program.

In my first Arena article, I argued that Arena's greatest virtue would be that it would allow for a more casual digital Magic experience, allowing players to build decks from whatever random cards they acquired and play against other players doing the same thing. I thought, too, that Arena would give players the chance to brew random off-the-wall decks and have fun with them – basically, I thought Arena would be good for newer players, more casual players and SaffronOlive devotees.

Arena does everything it can to quash those players' spirits and desires and convert them into Spikes. Johnny and Timmy fare much better on MTGO or in paper than they do on Arena, and in no small part that's thanks to the wildcard system.

Because cracking packs usually doesn't help you build the decks you want to build, you are forced to use your wildcards to create the uncommons, rares and mythic rares you want to play with. But since these wildcards are limited in number, you are strongly incentivized to create the cards that are the most powerful and used in the most decks.

Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca is used in only one archetype; Rekindling Phoenix, Lyra Dawnbringer, Ravenous Chupacabra, Irrigated Farmland, and Jadelight Ranger are used in multiple archetypes. Karn, Scion of Urza is used in every possible archetype. The only way, therefore, to grind towards playing multiple different decks is to create those multi-deck all-stars with your wildcards, not weird off-the-beaten-path cards like Firesong and Sunspeaker, Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca or Gishath, Sun's Avatar. Once you use a wildcard, it's gone forever, and as someone who has played Magic Arena, I can confirm what most people say: it feels really bad when you "waste" a wildcard on something fun.

Put succinctly, it costs hundreds of dollars or hundreds of gameplay hours to brew and play with novel decks. "Budget Magic" for Magic Arena is an oxymoron – the budget decks in practice will be the decks that stray the least from the most played rares and mythic rares. This is what budget on Magic Arena looks like if you're thinking how to maximize your dollar over the long haul. Arena is a Spike program thanks to the wildcard economic system, and I don't think that bodes well for Arena's future.

Lastly, the wildcard system will make rotations hit players harder than veterans of other online CCGs are used to. In Hearthstone, every Standard-legal card in your collection has 100-percent utility now and 25-percent utility in the future (since four of any rarity can be "dusted" into a new card of that rarity). In Arena, every Standard-legal card in your collection has 100-percent utility now and 0-percent utility in the future.

This will keep players spending money over time, and it also punishes players more for taking a break from the program. Asking casual and newer players to become spikes and commit completely to the program strikes me as counterproductive and unwise. As an MTGO investor, I'm not sure what to think about this. I want Arena to get newer players interested and invested in the game, but I don't think an economy based on wildcards will help achieve that objective.

III. Signing Off

What do you think of this latest economic update? Have any of you tried the Arena beta? I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say and answering any questions you may have. Thanks for reading!

One thought on “The Economy of Arena Takes Shape

  1. That’s a good point about the 0% utility in the future. In that case, to get the most value, players would want to spend wildcards on Dominaria mythics, especially Karn for his versatility across multiple decks.

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