Digital Magic Isn't Embarrassing (Anymore)
Presumably, because you're reading about Magic on a Magic content website, you haven't been living under a rock and know what Magic: The Gathering Arena is. Here's the reveal livestream from last Thursday for the reminder (or first time for you rock dwellers):
The stream speaks for itself: MTG Arena is designed to provide high-speed, entertaining gameplay while keeping everything that makes Magic what it is. This isn't a licensed product, third-party production or watered-down Magic-flavored experience but "authentic" Magic in digital form.
Thanks to HasCon over the weekend I had a chance to play and see how it felt myself.
If you've watched Star Trek: First Contact you know exactly what that GIF means. The obligatory clip is required viewing.
Digital Magic is Finally Here
Let's back up a moment. It's 2009 and Duels of the Planeswalkers just released. The first one. The original. The tipping point in Magic's digital portfolio. Magic—for the first time—put itself into the hands of thousands of new players, reinvigorating the community, reviving lapsed player interest and jump-starting new player acquisition. Gamers poured into stores with Magic 2010, the reinvented Core Set, and the focus on making Magic "approachable" worked. The game grew by leaps and bounds, and we're all here today enjoying some of the fruits of that labor: Commander's unrivaled popularity, YouTube channel personalities dominating visibility, a wider (and more frequent) variety of products released and a milieu of content sites all providing content daily.
In the eight years since there were several new releases until the eternal version, Magic Duels, arrived. Meant to be ongoing digital Magic forever, Magic Duels was unceremoniously discontinued earlier this year, which begged the question: What's replacing Magic Duels?
The professor's opening to his video about MTG Arena is a pretty good lead in for that question.
Playing MTG Arena was a breath of fresh air. While I've enjoyed Magic Duels, Duels of Planeswalkers and even Magic Online (once Leagues hit), no digital product felt like a video game. Digital Magic had always been Magic-first, delivering digital input and emulation of an iconic tabletop game. As a Magic player that felt ok—I wanted to play Magic and so the game should feel like Magic, and I never thought too long about that.
MTG Arena does not feel like Magic. It feels like that other game that's "not a competitor."
That's a good thing—and I want to make that abundantly clear. MTG Arena doesn't feel like Magic I've played on my phone, tablet, PlayStation and PC over the years. It's bright and colorful. It's fast and responsive. It provides details like feedback when clicking on the battlefield and attacking animations, adding interaction I've coming to expect from the best digital TCG offerings. It's aggressive shortcuts are smart and ensured I wasted no time progressing game, but a keyboard stroke turned the interactions on a dime to give me full access to every priority step I would have.
It really is all of Magic: I didn't mess up casting a trick on an opponent's turn—but it also didn't stop me from using my removal on a creature that couldn't block and therefore miss lethal a turn earlier.
"I can promise you it's not just those cards baked in there," said Nate Price, community manager for MTG Arena. You'd recognize him from the livestream, and joined HasCon on Saturday to be handler for all of the media access to the game. As a player for many demos at Gen Con and PAX shows over the years, I've touched games that looked great in the narrow slice presented but fell apart when the full reveal came. The stream's lead-in trailer gave peeks of things that looks like Amonkhet, but it makes sense to limit what we're seeing to Ixalan: Fueling exciting for the upcoming release and keeping the marketing on point for next weekend's Prerelease.
Magic Duels proved a client could carry on for two years of releases—even if it was limiting the cards it included—and the lessons in what we expect from digital Magic are being applied to MTG Arena first. The reason "authentic" was used so often by Chris Cao, MTG Arena Executive Producer, during the livestream reveal was to drive home what we're really getting: Magic in a digital form that is modern, clean and fun—what we've been asking for forever.
They heard us. We can stop shouting.
Making Digital Magic Work First Matters
The stream, and hands on demo, left a lot of questions unanswered. Why don't we have details for how collection management will work? Why don't we know how events will reward players? Why don't we have details for unlocking cards, acquiring packs and otherwise playing this free-to-play game?
The answers aren't secret since they've told us already: They don't really have those systems yet. (Though I'm 100% sure they have internal ideas we'll see soon enough.)
Here's the deal: If playing MTG Arena was rough to play, sloppy, buggy or just plain unpleasant to experience then all the collection management systems, format support and engagement mechanisms in the world are useless. Yes, we're going to need good solutions for those topics (among many, many more) but the fact we're getting a gameplay-first focus that really solves turning a tabletop game digital means the project is solving it correctly.
Stating the obvious, it wasn't an accident they tapped Amaz and Gaby to be the players: MTG Arena is meant to live in the same space and breath as other amazing ways to stream gameplay. Introducing MTG Arena by literally having streamers stream it is the kind of straightforward approach we haven't gotten in the past. There wasn't over-the-top fanfare, just two broadcasters connecting online and streaming gameplay—exactly the goal MTG Arena is designed to do.
Waiting to work on full details after more polish on the client and gameplay is precisely the outcome from us complaining incessantly about Magic Online—and failing to gain market share with Magic Duels. Being free-to-play isn't enough, and amazing game rules with flavor and art isn't either. If it's not fun to play all the good product decisions otherwise don't matter.
Consider Playerunknown's Battleground: an early access game that's sold ten million copies and is absolutely one of the most played and watched games in the world. It's buggy. It's loose. It's tripping over itself with design decisions around loot boxes and monetization methods and community-meets-streamer interaction, but players, streamers and Twitch viewers love this game.
If MTG Arena can hit even a part of that magical intersection of enjoyable to play, pleasant to stream and fun to watch then Magic stands it's real, and only, chance of more mainstream success—and the focus to achieve that is there.
Maintaining Feedback is the Plan
One of the serious questions I raised was about keeping the feedback a loop rather than an echo chamber. How will the team keep engagement in a closed beta high enough to ensure feedback is consistently relevant without just having the most fanatic of players leading the discussion? "We're releasing slices of content, so there will always be something new to talk about," said Price. "Getting focused feedback is important. If we just released everything all at once it's overwhelming. Starting with something specific and adding small things regularly keeps that feedback focused: the team can make quick changes and get specific feedback faster."
We saw the beginnings of this approach when Leagues, after becoming a years-running meme, returned to Magic Online. Starting with specific, narrow League opportunities and ramping up more and more led to Leagues being the dominant way to play. Similarly with Treasure Chests, the rewards, cards included and effective payouts continue to be tweaked based on both player reality (how many chests are actually going out and being opened) and player feedback (making them tradeable and improving the cards it can contain).
Replicating this plan, and broadly aligning to the general principles of Agile software development, for MTG Arena brings industry standards to the way we'll be playing Standard in the future. Getting Modern sets, flashback drafts or even something like Unstable come from the core success of the game: More dollars and players will mean more team members and growth.
If nobody wants to draft or play Standard what will adding Legacy or Commander really do?
The fear of two years of beta access, as the player base grows fallow into a small cadre of fanatics, is a real one—but not one I put stock in. We've been burned by bad decisions and development from Wizards for years so it's understandable how apprehensive we all are. Leagues, Magic Online set releases synced with paper and now an early product that's anything but embarrassing to play and watch speaks to the turn the company has taken with digital products—and the industry veterans the new CEO, Chris Cocks, brought in.
It probably helps that Cocks has been an executive at Microsoft for the better part of the past decade too.
The Wait Begins
Like you, I'm just as eager to try the closed beta and begin playing the future of digital Magic. I've tried every iteration of digital play so far, and this is the first that wasn't emulation but entertainment. It's the first that moved as fast as other games without forcing me into errors. It's the first where just listening to the reveal stream wasn't enough: I had to pull over during my drive to HasCon and watch some gameplay too.
I don't care if you think a Dinosaur popping out of a rare and roaring is "loud" or "too noisy" because watching Magic Online—or paper Magic for that matter—in dreary silence between a streamer commenting is strictly worse.
You already turn the sounds off on Magic Online anyway.
If it takes a year to get to wide release, and every step has the quality and entertainment we've seen so far, the days of Magic Online will be numbered only by the players and sets added to MTG Arena. They hype is real, but the hype is justified.
Digital Magic won't be embarrassing. Finally.