The Magic news has been fast and furious over the past few days. I hardly know where to begin.
Instead of giving you one big article that attempts to cover all of the various developments, I've decided to break my analysis down into three separate essays. Today, I'm going to talk about Magic Arena and the impact that it might have on Magic Online and the paper game. Tomorrow, I'm going to give you my full rundown of Iconic Masters. On Wednesday, you'll get the second part of my Ixalan financial set review. Like to read my articles over your morning coffee or on your lunch break? This is your lucky week.
A Financial Look at Magic: The Gathering Arena
Magic: The Gathering Arena (just "Arena" from here on out) is finally here, and everyone who had money on "it'll be Hearthstone, but for Magic" can come to the front of the room and collect their winnings. It was certainly the obvious step: Magic has the best card game on the market, but they've been almost completely left out of the zillion-dollar digital collectible card game market that Blizzard is currently dominating. I'd have been shocked if they didn't at least attempt to steal back some of that thunder.
From a finance perspective, Arena raises a few interesting questions:
1) Does Arena make Magic Online obsolete?
2) If so, does that mean that it's time to cash out of Magic Online?
3) What impact is Arena likely to have on the paper game?
The answer to the first question, at least according to Wizards of the Coast, is no. Chris Kiritz posted an article on DailyMTG last Thursday that can basically be summarized as, "Don't worry, Magic Online isn't going anywhere." Of course, if Magic Online were truly safe, it wouldn't need a vote of confidence. In some ways, this is reminiscent of a football coach reassuring the media that his star quarterback still has his job after a particularly awful run of games. If everything were peachy keen, nobody would've had to say anything.
Common sense also dictates that it isn't logical for there to be two different high-end digital Magic products. Nobody thought that Magic Duels would ever replace Magic Online, but that's because it never even pretended to have full functionality. Duels was designed to provide a taste of Magic, either as a way to draw people into the paper game or as a way to allow them to stay engaged with the product during a time of lapsed interest. But during the Magic Arena preview stream, Wizards of the Coast claimed that the game would have full functionality, complete with the ability to draft and play Standard. It's hard not to read this as a death knell for Magic Online.
Now comes the part where I tell you why Magic Online is likely to remain relevant, at least for now, and quite probably for quite a long time to come.
First, programming the rules of Magic into a Hearthstone-style engine is a task that falls somewhere in between difficult and impossible. Magic Online has enough issues with this stuff, and that's with an overly clunky interface and years of work. I did a deep dive into these programming challenges back in January and found a few major things (like stack implementation) that are not easy solves, even with a highly skilled team of engineers. Magic's rule set wasn't designed for digital play, and turning it into a Hearthstone-quality experience without changing any of the rules might require some actual black magic in order to work.
The upshot is that I'm still not convinced that Magic Arena is capable of providing the same level of functionality as Magic Online, no matter what Wizards of the Coast is saying right now. The demo certainly looked slick, but there were plenty of things that we didn't get to see. What happens when multiple players are responding to spells? What happens when someone wants to make a hundred Vampire tokens? How well can it handle complex graveyard shenanigans, or storm, or a thousand other things that are currently possible (albeit buggy) on Magic Online?
The quality and scope of drafting on Arena is a big deal, too. If Arena's Draft engine (still unseen as of this writing) is similar to a "real" Magic draft, a lot of casual Magic Online users might switch over. If it's more like the Hearthstone engine, it's going to lose a lot of legitimacy, especially for testing purposes.
But let's give Magic Arena the benefit of the doubt and assume that they've dealt with 99% of these issues during the development process. Drafting is great. The client works. The games feel like actual games of Magic. There aren't too many places where the rules have to be warped to fit the medium.
Even if this is all true, it will still take years before we'll start to see the full Modern catalog show up, and the client may never be able to handle Legacy and Vintage.
Here's the thing: the game's engine may be able to handle the current crop of Magic cards, but there's no guarantee that it can deal with all the nonsense that shows up once you start going deep into the game's long history. It's not as simple as just programming in card abilities and assuming that everything will work: every card added to the game is another thousand points of interaction to consider, and if a card from, say, Odyssey interacts weirdly with a card from Ixalan, it can screw everything up. Oh—and Magic Arena is full of custom animations and sound effects. Programming those for the older cards is going to take some time, too.
It's clear that Wizards of the Coast is aware of this stuff. That's why they've been so emphatic about the fact that Magic Online is going to be the home for older formats while Arena will focus on Standard and Draft. It's not just bluster to stop us from panicking about the value of our online collections—it's because they know that this is going to be a long process, even in the best-case scenario.
To recap: even if Magic Arena is perfect, it'll be years (if ever) before it actually replaces Magic Online for Vintage, Legacy, and Modern. And if it isn't all that and a bag of chips, people will just shrug their shoulders and keep playing Magic Online regardless. Oh—and we haven't even addressed the possibility that Wizards of the Coast will let us import our digital collections into Arena if they ever do shutter Magic Online for good.
So why, exactly, are you panic-selling your Magic Online collection right now?
The one thing I would be careful about going forward is investing too deeply in the new Standard format on Magic Online. We don't yet know when beta invites are going out yet for Arena, nor how widespread they'll be, but there's a possibility that Arena will be the go-to platform for playing Standard at some point in the late winter or early spring. If that happens, then I expect the Magic Online economy to shift more toward the Eternal formats.
Again, the currently-unknown quality of Arena's Draft client looms large here. If Magic Online's casual drafting population moves over to Arena, there are going to be many fewer cards entering Magic Online's economy. It's worth monitoring all of this quite closely as we move forward.
For those of you who don't play Magic Online, it's worth thinking about the effect that Magic Arena might have on the paper game. After all, Hearthstone doesn't exist in paper form at all. Isn't there a chance that Magic Arena will eventually become the preferred way for everyone to play Magic?
This is an economic needle that Wizards of the Coast must find a way to thread. If they make Arena too good and too cheap, people will stop buying physical cards entirely. I doubt they want to risk their entire business model, which means that Arena will either have to feel like a stepping stone toward paper Magic (the same way Duels did) or they'll make it difficult to buy or craft the cards they need for top-tier Standard decks. This is another reason why I don't buy the claim that Magic Online will die because Arena will offer FNM-quality Draft experiences for $2. If that happens, then why play paper Magic down at your LGS? Wizards of the Coast isn't stupid. They're not going to risk everything for the sake of promoting their digital client, at least not right away.
It's possible that Arena (or, more likely, Arena 11.0) will eventually replace paper Magic, but we're a long way off from that. In the short-term, a successful launch for Arena will only mean good things for the game's overall economy. The Duels of the Planeswalkers launch coincided with the largest surge in popularity that Magic has ever seen. If Arena can do that, than we might start to see prices return to Zendikar through Innistrad levels of year-over-year growth.
At the end of the day, then, I only see good things happening because of Arena. Don't worry about the value of your collection—just enjoy the fact that Magic finally appears to be moving into the 21st century, albeit about seventeen years too late.
Bonus: Unstable's Full-Art Lands
These gorgeous lands were revealed at HASCON last Friday, and I expect them to be in incredibly high demand going forward. Some people were a little put off by their border-free look, but the community at large seems incredibly high on these. Just remember: there'll be one in every pack of Unstable, so don't pay more than a couple bucks each. They should also keep the price of every other card in that set nice and low for the foreseeable future.