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A few caveats before we begin:
First, this article is a direct response to Brennan DeCandio's piece that went live today. Our editor felt that it would be interesting and worthwhile to create a dialog between our divergent opinions on the future of digital Magic. Even though I disagree with some of Brennan's conclusions, I have a huge amount of respect for him as a writer and player. I recommend checking out his piece before starting in on mine.
Second, I want it to be clear that I'm not defending Magic: The Gathering Arena (hereafter "Arena") or Magic Online because some secret cabal of overlords at Wizards of the Coast or StarCityGames.com® asked me to do damage control. I can't believe I even have to say this, but I'm accused of being part of some vast conspiracy on a near-daily basis, so I feel it necessary to be clear at the top that these are my actual opinions, based on years of education and expertise. You're welcome to disagree with me, but accusing me of some conspiracy is just a bad look. If you want to see me write an article that's critical of Wizards of the Coast's current policies, stop back in a few weeks and read my upcoming piece on the major problems with the Masters sets.
Okay, let's get to the good stuff.
Step into the Arena
Brennan's article can be divided into two basic sections. The first is about the advent of Arena, and the second is about the current Magic Online economy.
Let's talk about the Arena stuff first. After reading his article a couple of times, I feel like I can distill his thesis down into the following three arguments:
1. Magic Online is worse than its digital competitors (Hearthstone, etc.) because the game wasn't designed to be played online. This makes it a nightmare to code all of the corner cases and complex battlefield states, like arbitrarily large numbers of Deceiver Exarchs. Arena looks better, but it currently seems even less capable of doing these things, which means that the program might never have Modern or Legacy functionality.
2. Forcing players to embrace both platforms (one for Standard, one for Eternal) is going to cause an immense amount of frustration. Who wants to buy the same cards twice? And what happens if wait times increase on Magic Online because half the player base is waiting for an event to start on Arena? And if Arena doesn't have the same functionality as Magic Online, nobody will be able to use it to prep for major events, which will make it essentially useless for competitive players.
3. Why is Wizards of the Coast introducing an entirely different client instead of just fixing Magic Online?
Brennan is right about why Magic Online is so much worse than the CCGs that were created for digital play. I've written about this before, and it was part of the reason why I was so skeptical about Arena before it was revealed to us. And as good as Arena looks, I expect that it's going to suffer in some ways compared to natively digital games like Hearthstone and Eternal. The only real fix for some of Magic's online clumsiness involves a bunch of rules changes or simplifications, and it seems like Wizards of the Coast has opted not to go in that direction.
Now, I haven't been invited to participate in the Arena Beta yet. (Though if I were, I'd probably have to deal with an NDA and I couldn't write an article like this.) My knowledge of the program comes from the same sources as everyone else—screenshots, community reactions, and a few minutes of streaming footage. From what I've seen, though, there doesn't seem to be anything major that Arena is missing. All the difficult stuff is there: the ability to play things out of your graveyard, casting your spells at instant speed, tapping your own mana, etc. There are some UI elements that people seem to find confusing and counterintuitive, but the bones are there for a client that both looks and plays well.
As for Modern and Legacy, Wizards of the Coast did say that they are going to focus Arena development on the newest cards and formats for now. This makes sense: focusing on Standard and draft will allow Arena to be eSports-ready sooner, and it's also where they're least likely to run into major programming challenges.
This doesn't mean that Legacy and Modern are permanently off the table, though—if Arena is popular, the community will clamor for Eternal support until it happens. They might not be able to program every random Ice Age card right away, but why not all the Masters sets? This is how Magic Online got its start back in the day. If the biggest problem with Arena is the failure to go infinite with a combo or two, I have to imagine that someone will create a workaround. It's not like Kiki Combo is intuitive on the current version of the client, after all.
Brennan's second argument is worth taking seriously. Last year, I was playing Liliana, the Last Hope in Standard and Modern at the same time. If I had to buy the same card twice—three times if I want paper copies—I would have been incredibly frustrated. Is there any way to prevent this?
Ideally, Wizards of the Coast will create a system where you can either transfer your cards from Magic Online to Arena or store them in some kind of system-neutral database (similar to Pokemon) and use them on either program. This isn't something I've heard anyone from Wizards of the Coast talk about yet, but if the community reaction is strong enough, it's certainly possible for them to implement. I wouldn't be surprised if they create a way to input paper cards (or at least coupon codes) into Arena at some point, and this could be part of that system.
If this doesn't materialize, then yeah, we'll end up in a world where you'll have to buy some cards two or three times when Arena comes out. And like Brennan said, this could end up splitting up the online player base somewhat. This sounds scary, but what would it actually mean?
Well, Brennan says it himself: if Arena isn't capable of providing the same functionality as Magic Online, it'll be useless for testing. If that happens, all of the pros and semi-pros will collectively shrug and continue using Magic Online. Arena will effectively become the replacement to Duels of the Planeswalkers, a program that most people reading this article probably didn't think all that much about. It might bring some new blood into the game, but that would be it.
If Arena is capable of providing a fully functional testing environment, however, I have to imagine that a clear preference will emerge. The top pros and streamers will all pick a client for testing and use that. Magic players are notorious min/maxers, and I can't imagine there will be a 50/50 split between clients followed by a bunch of slow-to-launch Leagues. 70% of the community will pick Magic Online or Arena, and the rest will follow. If they pick Arena, that will likely mean having to buy some cards multiple times. I'm not looking forward to this, but it's certainly not going to doom the client.
The Great Disrespected Relic
Brennan's final question about Arena is the easiest to answer. Magic Online is a dinosaur, and we all know it.