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Magic: The Gathering Arena is great for Wizards of the Coast, bad for players

Counting cards, counting dollars.

Image credit: Even Amundsen/Wizards of the Coast

Magic: The Gathering Arena has always required its players to stomach small doses of disappointment. A common joke among the community is that the trading card game’s premier digital client is “Magic without the Gathering”, thanks to a dearth of social tools that have been missing since beta.

The in-game economy - composed of gold earned from activities and gems purchased with real-world currency - constantly pushes the boundary of how much time and money players are willing to invest in an ever-growing, ever changing collection. Bugs in the client persist for months, the feature roadmap has apparently been sent to live on the farm upstate, and the rollout of digital-only format Alchemy seems to have exacerbated more problems than it solved.

Then, publisher Wizards of the Coast announced the return of the Pro Tour and its focus on physical MTG hosted by local game stores. Players could still qualify for competitive events through Magic Arena, but the dream of a digital-native esports ecosystem - part of Arena’s initial sales pitch - appears dead. Where does that leave Arena? The unfortunate answer might be little more than a reliable, cost-effective tool to squeeze as much money from the community as possible.

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The canny and pessimistic were likely not surprised by the contents of a March 17th livestream where Magic Arena’s executive producer Chris Kiritz answered questions regarding changes to the game’s economy. Currently, collecting a playable amount of cards from any given set either requires a part-time job completing objectives and grinding out free currency or spending cash to fish them out of a booster pack’s randomised contents. Wildcards, tokens redeemable for cards of specific rarities, are meant to help individuals finish a deck list with key creatures or versatile lands, but those rewards are so unreliable that they’ve become a secondary economy riddled with its own issues.

The most essential transaction between Magic: The Gathering and its players involves betting that the money spent on a booster pack will be worth the investment.

One proposed stopgap, a $50 wildcard bundle coming soon to the online store, was met with scorn and became emblematic of the company’s response to any problem - the solution will be sold to you at a ridiculous price. Some have called for a dusting system, a la Hearthstone, where a player can destroy old cards in their collection to craft new ones. Wizards claimed this is a “feel-bad system”, and they aren’t wrong - asking someone to destroy their possessions for a short-term benefit is not a healthy solution, especially if those players want to take advantage of formats such as Historic and the possible upcoming support of fan-favourite Pioneer.

Others say that rewards are easy to earn through limited format events, such as drafting. A player can buy into a draft with coins and, depending on their performance, come out the other side with a net gain in gems. This is fine for players who only approach Arena as an easy way to play MTG’s limited formats, but it is just a system of alchemising time into cards that’s heavily reliant on skill and luck. Nobody, not even Wizards of the Coast, has been able to convey a solution that makes everyone happy because the engine is designed for a threshold of acceptable misery.

Image credit: Eric Deschamps/Wizards of the Coast

Reading through forum posts and social media following the economy livestream revealed a community desperate to accept the barest veneer of fairness within a system designed to extract as much value as possible without losing players. This might be ridiculously evident to point out, but booster packs are gambling. I don’t say that as some sort of moral finger wagging but to emphasise the fact that the most essential transaction between Magic: The Gathering and its players involves betting that the money spent on a booster pack will be worth the investment once those cards are revealed.

Asking someone to destroy their possessions for a short-term benefit is not a healthy solution.

No matter what other systems are built on top of that foundation - the Vault, wildcards, Mastery passes, etc. - everything will be in service to mitigating the loss incurred after cracking that pack, or at least tricking you into feeling like it does. Paper MTG benefits from the secondary singles market, a reality that Wizards of the Coast likely tolerates because there is no legal way for them to profit from it. Arena’s fundamental design leaves no room for trading or reselling singles. Everyone’s collections are siloed, discrete objects that only interact with others through one-on-one play.

There’s a popular perception that Wizards of the Coast is somehow being held ransom by the money-grubbing overlords of parent company Hasbro, most recently showcased by the failed plot by hedge fund Alta Fox Capital Management to separate the publisher as an ostensibly independent entity. If accomplished, the assumption seems to be that the card game will return to its creatively fulfilling roots, unshackled from capitalism. YouTube channel Tolarian Community College pointed out in a recent video, though, that the call to maximise profits is likely coming from inside the house.

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Wizards of the Coast has reported record profits for two years running, and the success of Magic Arena has been a key driver to those obscene figures. Secret Lairs have also helped, along with a seemingly endless conveyor belt of new card sets and special releases. Magic Arena will not substantively change unless the platform starts losing money or they believe such changes will further increase profits. Much like a casino, Magic Arena will make enough concessions to keep players from leaving and incentivise their spending as much time as possible near the levers of monetary exchange. They might introduce new levers that seem fair or install concessions and more comfortable chairs, but the game will never shift favour away from the House.

Nobody has been able to convey a solution that makes everyone happy because the engine is designed for a threshold of acceptable misery.

Why now are a growing number of Magic Arena players finding themselves disillusioned with the game’s stewardship? One answer could be too many questions with no clear answers. If the Pro Tour will focus on tabletop MTG, then why aren’t more resources moved from the still-missing spectator mode to other highly requested social tools? If Magic Arena pulled in so much profit for Wizards of the Coast, how is that money being reinvested in an allegedly overworked Arena development team? Who is Magic Arena for, anyways?

That last one is the unvoiced anxiety I see in so many complaints, frustrations and confusion. The community could communicate a version of Arena that respects their time and celebrates their love of the game, but it is compromised within a system that makes every decision with an eye towards their wallet, first and foremost.

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