Magic Arena has many sounding the death knell of Magic Online, but I as I see it, the 16+-year-old program still has plenty of life left to live. Today I’ll cover Magic Online’s key advantages over Magic Arena and the roles it fills, which will keep it relevant into 2019 and beyond.
The biggest strength of Magic Online over Magic Arena in its current state is its tournament infrastructure. Magic Online has been developed with the ability to host large tournaments as a key feature. Its first years were plagued with crashes due to server instability, but these downtimes have become nonexistent in the MTGO 3.0 world. Magic Online hosts Pro Tour Qualifiers and Magic Online Championship Series (MOCS) events, both which lead to the Pro Tour and have significant real-life prizes, and so draw hundreds of players to compete.
Magic Arena currently has no capability for hosting tournaments, and until it does, it’s not a competitor with Magic Online with respect to the most competitive players. Magic Arena does offer “Challenges”, which are essentially Magic Online leagues with a different name. These look to be the bread-and-butter competitive option for the platform, and are in direct competition with Magic Online Leagues, but in no way fulfill the need for hosting large tournaments.
I remember back when I started playing Hearthstone, one of the glaring issues was the lack of tournament infrastructure. I haven’t played in years, but for research’s sake, I looked into how they implemented it, only to find out it still hasn’t been! In fact, it’s actually a very current issue in Hearthstone – tournaments were announced in February, but one month ago was announced to be put on hold because there was still so much work to be done to meet expectations. If Hearthstone has not implemented a tournament feature in over four years, then I assume Magic Arena will have a significant challenge doing so.
I played some early Hearthstone tournaments through third-party organizers, a process that could be replicated for Magic Arena. As far as I know, most high-profile Hearthstone events are played live in-person, and Magic Arena could fill a similar role for Magic. It will be great for showcasing streamers and special-event style tournaments like super-leagues and live invitationals, or even Grand Prix-style events like Hearthstone‘s Dreamhack, but time will tell if it becomes an effective online tournament platform like Magic Online.
There’s also the issue of tournament prizes: Magic Arena does not have trading or any sort of inter-player economy like Magic Online, so any prizes only have value in Magic Arena. Currently Magic Arena is a great way to play Magic cheaply or for free, but it’s not comparable to Magic Online, where one can compete for prizes with actual cash value – any tickets or boosters won in events can be sold for cash. I’ve heard this referred to as the online-gambling aspect, and it’s what drives a large number of players to compete. If Magic Arena does add tournaments, the prizes will be in Magic Arena packs, gold, and gems, which will allow one to play more, but there’s no monetary profit to be gained. I imagine that the largest events could offer real prizes like Pro Tour invites, but otherwise, it won’t really be comparable.
Magic Arena stands in direct contrast to the new Valve game Artifact slated for release next month, which will have trading and cards that can be bought and sold on the Steam Marketplace. With such a high-profile backing, I expect the game to be huge, and it’s going to be in direct competition with Magic and Hearthstone. I imagine that much of the current hype over Magic Arena from various Magic and Hearthstone pros and grinders will die down when they realize that Artifact offers a more appealing value proposition for the most competitive players.
Old Cards and Formats
One glaring omission from Magic Arena is old cards, as the platform currently goes back only to Ixalan. It has been known for a while that the source code of the program has references back to Shadows over Innistrad, which some take to mean that they will eventually print those sets, maybe to start a new post-Modern format. Whatever the case, the oldest Magic cards are not on the program.
If old cards are never printed, then Magic Arena will never truly replace Magic Online’s ability to completely replicate the paper Magic experience. If they are printed, then I imagine it will be a very long and drawn out process, both from a programming perspective and an economic one. Magic Online did not always have the oldest sets, but they were slowly released in the form of new draft formats, etc, which Magic Online cashed in on, and Magic Arena could do as well. Regardless of what happens, Magic Online has this advantage and will be useful until Magic Arena catches up.
Real Eight-Player Drafts
Magic Arena currently does not offer true drafts, but rather drafting against robots, similar to how Hearthstone drafting is done solo. Magic Arena will need to add true eight-player drafts if it is to become a replacement for Magic Online. I expect this will only be a matter of time, but as it stands, currently it’s apple and oranges. Much of the success of Magic Online came because it was such an effective drafting platform and was revolutionary compared to the old way of having to muster eight players together in person to play, which was a challenge anywhere, and an often insurmountable one for geographically isolated players. It’s still the most convenient way to draft, and Magic Arena will need to replicate the true drafting experience if it’s to fully replace Magic Online.
It’s Profitable for WotC
Magic Online makes Wizards of the Coast money, and quite a lot of it the last I heard, and history shows that they and their stockholders are awfully motivated by money. Magic Arena certainly cannibalizes some of Magic Online’s audience and profits, but it makes sense for the company to keep this at a minimum. From their perspective, ideally, Magic Arena captures new players from the non-Magic playing populace, not steals Magic Online players. While their grand plan may be to eventually transition away every Magic Online player to Magic Arena before shuttering the program, they’ll do their best to keep the profits flowing for as long as possible and double-dip on both. What that means is plenty of continued support for Magic Online, at least in the near-term.
What Should We Do Now?
The best thing to do with Magic Online now is to keep getting while the getting’s good, just like Wizards is doing. If you’re a tournament grinder, one option to decrease risk is to rent cards rather than hold them. There are various websites offering the service, and the prices seem very reasonable relative to the value it provides – a pittance compared to the thousands of dollars many collections are worth.
That said, the market is still strong, and it’s notable that many Standard cards are now at record highs after rotation, despite being in direct competition with Magic Arena . There are also thousands of players in the Limited queues, so it seems like business as usual for the time being.
On the other hand, there have been some recent pullbacks in the prices of Eternal cards, which some have attributed to Magic Arena , but these prices have always been very cyclical online, with prices falling to a low at the end of the year with the closure of Modern/formerly Extended season and spiking in the spring. If Magic Online does hold strong through 2020, the next few months could actually be a good time to get in the market. The most prudent move will be to keep speculations in the short term, and go for quick flips and small-ball plays that lock in profits immediately, as opposed to holding specs for a long term that might not come to fruition.