We've all gotten real excited over the past several months for what is looking like Wizards of the Coast's first "real" foray into the current digital gaming world with Magic: The Gathering Arena (just "Arena" from here on out). As someone who spends most of their time during the week playing countless hours on the existing Magic Online client with my own levels of tolerance for what's been force-fed to us as the optimal gaming experience for Magic, I'm not very optimistic for Arena.
While many of you likely view me as a constant complainer or naysayer when it comes to all things Magic, I'd like to remind you that I choose to play Magic; no one is forcing me to. Maybe that means I'm a self-hating a sadist who's too stubborn to pick a game where more things have been developed by people who were actually hired specifically to do the job they're performing. But who knows. I can't speak to that in particular, but I would like to point out how far behind the rest of the world Magic is when it comes to digital platforms.
Why Is That?
Why has Magic been around for decades longer than a game like Hearthstone or even Eternal, yet have the worst online system visually out of all the others? Heck, even Clash of Clans looks better than Magic Online. The answer is simple, really: Magic isn't a game that was designed to be played online.
The complexity levels of interactions and the potential for combos resulting in cards causing "infinite" combos doesn't really work too well when it comes to coding. Imagine having a game where a certain interaction causes the game to continue a repeating sequence of events without either player able to disrupt what's going on and draw the game because no further actions can take place. It's a nightmare!
An easy and well-worn example of something like this happening is when there is an Oblivion Ring being exiled by an Oblivion Ring, and with no other non-land permanents on the battlefield, another Oblivion Ring is cast, causing them to exile each other without end.
While something like the triple Oblivion Ring example might not be the most common thing in the world, the current Magic Online isn't even capable of handling something like that without bugging out. Arena looks even less capable of handling someone making a hundred copies of Deciever Exarch made by Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, let alone something actually "infinite." Even if it's not "infinite," a massive battlefield, from what's we've seen, looks miserable to manage without clear ways to note what is going on.
Seeing Is Believing
I'm not here to criticize the cosmetics of Arena, but I do have my doubts for what the program can handle gameplay-wise. I do understand that it was a conscious decision for them not to include all of the cards in Magic to potentially avoid having to deal with complex interactions like those I've mentioned, but does that mean we're never going to be able to play older sets online? Will it just be a Standard-only platform? While that's all well and good, the real downfall of Arena will arise there.
The biggest issue I have with Arena is that it will divide the online player base onto two different platforms.
I don't want to have to have a Modern collection on one client and switch over to having to play Standard on a different program. Do I really want to have impactful cards from new sets on both accounts so that I can play them on both clients? I'm speaking for myself when I say these things, but I'm not sure how dividing the players who actually do play Magic Online helps grow a community in any way, shape, or form. I know personally I wouldn't want to touch Arena unless I could play it the same way that Magic Online currently plays because I use it to prepare for events as well as stream.
The threat that this new platform poses to the online community, as I mentioned before, is dividing it. There will be many people who see Arena as a great change, a forward step into a new age for Magic. There will also be those who have long used Magic Online who feel betrayed, as their patronage with the online client hasn't awarded them any stock in the newest iteration of what seems to be just an overdue update to the system. If both Magic Online and Arena are continued simultaneously, will either have enough players to have an enjoyable experience?
One of the worst aspects of any online game is a lack of interest creating a longer wait time for those using it, in turn making the experience less and less enjoyable. Ultimately, something like that is tolerable but of course would like to be avoided. While a divide is something that could work if the interest group for one is independent of the other, I doubt that will be the case here.
If It Is Broke, Do Fix It
What I don't understand is why this isn't just the newest form of the current Magic Online client. We could just use the technology that we should have been striving for and seem to have somewhat of a grasp on to take Magic Online to the next level. The cosmetics of Magic Online seem to have only gotten stranger and stranger with each iteration of the client. There are numerous little fixes that have never been made and the reason behind that has never been explained. Something as simple as using the Beleren font for everything that goes on in the client could go a long way to making it more visually appealing, making it seem more like well, Magic!
In all seriousness, there really isn't anything wrong with Magic Online if your goal is to just play Magic, aside from the unexplained crashes and frequent bugs that we were supposed to be rid of, but just because there isn't anything wrong doesn't mean there isn't something to aspire to or improve.
I won't claim to be fully knowledgeable with everything about Arena, since I'm not a part of the testing team. I don't know how to program something of this caliber. I've never seen the amount of work that goes into making Magic Online playable in its infinite possibilities and complications.
I do, however, wonder why we're so far behind in almost every aspect of digital gaming and wonder what the people at Wizards hope that Arena will accomplish, since all we've seen is some overdramatized game play with sponsored players telling us their "honest" opinions of how great it is. I want more. I want a plan and I want it sooner rather than later before they do their best to destroy what's left of the current Magic Online client.
What's that? They're destroying Magic Online?
Yes, yes, they are.
While it's not exceedingly obvious or even known to everyone, currently there is a sale on Magic Online allowing people to purchase Play Points (one form of Magic Online currency used to enter events) at a discounted rate based on how much they buy. While that doesn't seem all that bad and to some it's a rather great thing, the repercussions of that sale could have a devastating effect on the online market.
This sale has already made the value of an Event Ticket (the other form of Magic Online currency) drop by nearly 15%, which is certainly something to be concerned with. While several companies that deal exclusively in Magic Online have already dropped the amount they're willing to purchase Event Tickets for, the people who are most negatively affected by this are the players whose cards are now worth significantly less than they were just an hour prior to that sale announcement.
Here's a real-world example for those who don't quite get what that all means. Say you're new to the United States and you go into a store, but they only accept cash and all you have is a debit card. From there you have two options when you go to the nearest ATM. One option is buying a dollar bill from them for the convenient cost of what amounts to a dollar in your currency. Your other option is to purchase four quarters, but at a 15% discounted rate. Sure, it's slightly more limited in its functionality, since carrying quarters instead of dollar bills in a hindrance, but who in their right mind wouldn't take the option that gets them more bang for their buck?
Now imagine that's the way the US economy worked and you literally could purchase quarters for less than they're worth. Would the dollar bill still hold the same value? Of course not! The entire structure of the economy would implode and we'd literally devalue our own money within seconds trying to take advantage of this loophole. Now, that's not exactly what's happening with the Magic Online currency system, but it's not far off, and the consequences could be just as severe.
The initial announcement of Arena has also inspired many Magic Online companies to introduce a loan system in which people essentially rent cards with a monthly fee. It's a concept Magic Online companies should have implemented a long time ago but probably wasn't as profitable as them simply selling the cards. The decline of people willing to invest in buying the actual cards seems to have prompted this change, and, while convenient to some, this change will likely reduce the value of cards as a whole; the amount of people players drafting will not change, but the amount of people wanting to buy cards that are opened will decrease significantly. I'm not saying this will happen all at once, but just using the basic logic of the laws of economy, it's bound to have a ripple effect that could ultimately see a total economic crash.
You could interpret me as a person who's negatively affected in some aspect of all this, lashing out that their collection is now worth less than it was, but as long as I can play the cards, I don't care how much they're worth. Still, this sale, which is the first sale in the history of Magic Online if I'm not mistaken, has already caused damage to the overall economy that may be irreparable.
Now, that's not the only factor. Arena has already done some damage because of the numerous questions surrounding it potentially replacing the existing client without porting over users' collections, rending them utterly worthless. While it's highly unlikely that Wizards would stop supporting Magic Online entirely, as it's been around for over a decade, the potential is there that something could make the money people spend now not worth a damn when Arena is out of its closed beta.
So yes, I think that Wizards has made several subtle efforts to dissuade people from playing current Magic Online while getting the most they can out of it with things such as this sale. They'll never admit it if they want to keep any sort of player base, but some of the timing of these things just seem too well-executed to be coincidence and not part of a plan to phase out people from playing Magic Online and have them hop aboard Arena.
I'd suggest something formal from Wizards telling us their plan for the future of Magic Online and how they expect it to coincide with Arena. Something simple that could reassure the online community and perhaps give people more incentive to jump onboard with the digital side of Magic without feeling like they're spewing money on something Wizards doesn't care about.
My verdict: Arena will be a cool idea that does what Magic Online should have done for a long time but will ultimately fail because it doesn't include all of Magic and its potential inability to handle complex interactions.
Labors of Love, Not Hate
I love Magic. I want it to be the best version of itself it could possibly be. I wouldn't be the player I am today without the ability to spend hours on end using the great learning tool that is Magic Online. It is a lot to ask of a company that has no reason to give in to the demands of its player base, since it can easily get by without appealing to the small percentage of players directly affected by these changes, but I'm asking nonetheless. What is the purpose of Arena and why is it separate from the current Magic Online client and not just the newest version of it?
I hope nothing but great things come from Arena and all of what I'm saying here ultimately becomes irrelevant or explained because Wizards gets it right.