The impact of Magic: The Gathering’s new, digital era
How the 27 year old game has changed by entering the world of esports
Former Magic: The Gathering champion Paulo Vitor Damo “PVDDR” da Rosa has a tough time focusing during major events these days.
Playing on the game’s digital platform, Magic: The Gathering Arena, is much different than sitting across a table from an opponent with physical cards in hand. The 33-year-old winner of the 2020 world title and Brazil native, who’s competed professionally in Magic since 2003, can’t engage in online matches the way he can when he’s sitting in front of a foe.
“I’m the kind of person that is hyperactive,” PVDDR said. “I’ll be in the match, and if my opponent would be thinking for too long, I’m just gonna alt-tab and look at my emails because I’m bored. I can’t do that in person.”
That’s just a sliver of how Magic: The Gathering has changed since publisher Wizards of the Coast started exploring the game’s full digital potential. A game can’t exist for 27 years without changing along the way, but the pace has accelerated since Arena’s open beta in 2018 — and the COVID-19 pandemic has sped that along further.
Offline events have all but disappeared since the pandemic began, but that decline started earlier for Magic, with Arena’s official release in 2019. PVDDR and other players needed to adapt to the online scene. He had more than just mid-game boredom to worry about, too. Mechanics like “the rope,” an in-game signal to players that their time to think through the turn is running out, used to make him panic.
Even PVDDR’s deck choices are affected by the digital version of the game. Before a recent tournament, PVDDR said he was considering bringing a combo deck that relied on a card called Paradox Engine. However, since the strategy requires so many steps and clicks that wouldn’t exist in a real-life game, he decided against it.
“I was sure I would mess up or run out of time, because it’s just too action-intensive,” PVDDR said, “so you do have to take this into account.”
Magic’s seen big changes away from the mechanics of the card game, too. There are more people playing Magic: the Gathering than ever before, according to Aaron Forsythe, the game’s vice president of research and development.
What Wizards of the Coast is doing seems to be working from a business perspective. Magic: The Gathering managed to have its most successful year in 2020 despite the pressures of a global pandemic on both the company and consumers, according to a Hasbro earnings report.
“I remember seeing a stat in a meeting about how many millions of games of Zendikar Rising Standard had been played on MTG Arena before the tabletop cards were even officially on sale,” Forsythe said, “and that really highlighted what a different world we’re in now.”
An increase in the number of games played plus the power of the internet has changed the entire landscape of Magic: the Gathering tournaments. PVDDR said that 15-20 years ago, many competitors might have brought a weak, homebrewed deck to a tournament only to be blown away by professionals who played strong strategies or who uncovered a card interaction no one had seen before. Today, information spreads so much faster that PVDDR said everyone will show up with more optimized setups, and he can’t remember the last time he encountered an archetype he hadn’t seen before.
Forsythe agreed that the Magic metagame moves very quickly now and that real-life card-holders might sometimes lag behind. But for Arena’s game director, Jay Parker, that’s an unavoidable part of growing the game.
“It does mean we’re putting more stress on the Standard format, and that poses some challenges,” Parker said. “But it also means that Magic is reaching a lot more players, and they are able to play more Magic than ever. And that’s basically the whole point.”
Swinging the ban hammer
There is a cost to reaching more players. According to content creator and Magic competitor Crim “TheAsianAvenger” Nguyen, the amount of games played can make it feel like the meta is locked in before a new set of cards is officially released. As a result, players encounter the best cards far more often, and they can get tired of seeing them far sooner than they might have in the past.
When that happens, many players start calling for bans.
“Because bans have just become part of the culture of the game now, and people are asking for bans so often, I think that cards nowadays aren’t necessarily banned just on power level anymore,” TheAsianAvenger said.
Cauldron Familiar’s ban is a good example of this. While the uncommon creature is part of a potentially powerful synergy, it never reached the oppressive usage of Oko, Thief of Crowns or Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath. Instead, TheAsianAvenger said playing against Cauldron Familiar was simply a miserable experience on Arena, as winning with or losing against it took a lot of time and constant clicks.
At the same time, plenty of cards have been banned for being too dominant since Arena’s release, which partially coincides with Wizards of the Coast’s latest design philosophy. Since the publisher shifted their focus to creating fun, inviting, replayable and exciting (FIRE) cards in 2019, there has been a surge in bans, with 23 in Standard since 2017. Before that point, two cards were banned in 2011 and eight cards were banned in 2005.
In order to entice and satisfy players across competitive and casual formats, Forsythe said the design team walks a tightrope when creating cards.
“There have been some growing pains there, but we’ve learned from our mistakes,” Forsythe said. “Our designers get better with each set they touch.”
Players have had to carry the weight of the company’s learning process to get to that point, however. When players open packs with banned cards, or invest heavily into decks that are unplayable post-ban, there’s no way to get their money back. And even though Arena can give players wildcards in exchange for banned cards, PVDDR said that isn’t a perfect fix.
“Sometimes I build my whole deck, and one card was banned, so now I have all these cards I don’t want to use anymore because I wanted to use them with that card,” PVDDR said. “It’s not a sustainable model.”
Banning cards is better than perpetuating a frustrating Standard environment, PVDDR said, which puts Wizards of the Coast in a tough spot. The publisher is forced to pick between keeping a bad format that no one wants to play or banning some cards and hurting the people who had them.
“You have to decide what is the bigger poison, so to speak,” PVDDR said.
In some ways, TheAsianAvenger agreed that more bans would help keep Standard more interesting. For him, though, it’s less about volume and more about speed.
“With the increase of power level in Magic cards,” TheAsianAvenger said, “I think the biggest thing is you also have to be increasing how much you’re monitoring things.”
Wizards of the Coast regularly monitors the health of Magic’s meta from both a mathematical and emotional perspective, according to Forsythe, which means bans happen at an increased pace when compared to their once-quarterly announcements. At the same time, bans don’t save players from balanced cards they’ve simply seen too much. That’s why TheAsianAvenger said the solution is a faster rotation.
In the current Standard format, players can use cards from up to the eight most recent sets at a given time. When a ninth set would be introduced, roughly around each Autumn expansion’s release, the number of usable sets collapses back down to five. This rotation system has changed throughout the years, but its goal is to keep the format fresh — and drive the sale of more cards.
However, this current iteration began in April of 2017, before Arena’s closed beta even began. If TheAsianAvenger had his way, he’d speed up this process so that cards didn’t have as much time to wear out their welcome.
(Planes)walking two paths
Even though Wizards of the Coast has adjusted their banning practices to the digital era of Magic, the designers don’t have access to one of the most powerful tools available in competitive gaming: patches.
Card games like Hearthstone or Legends of Runeterra, which are fully digital, can be changed often and with relatively few consequences. If Magic could somehow do the same, PVDDR said Wizards of the Coast could not only make overpowered cards more fair, but also improve underused cards.
Unfortunately, the physical element of Magic makes doing so without creating confusion between the game’s tangible and digital cards impossible.
“If a card changes its function in an online game, it will be obvious when played that its function has changed,” PVDDR said. “In Magic, that’s not the case. You have to have everyone on the same page as to what the rules are.”
PVDDR said he would never trade the physical side of Magic for the ability to tweak cards digitally, and Forsythe and Parker stressed that neither would ever want to abandon physical Magic under any circumstances. Instead, their goals involve expanding digital experiences that don’t compromise the tabletop experience.
“Magic scratches so many itches, from social interaction to collecting to experimentation, self-expression and strategic gameplay,” Forsythe said. “The different ways and places you can play the game each let you go deeper on the different aspects in different ways.”
What’s missing from Magic: the Gathering
At the moment, it’s unclear when in-person events will return, too. But there have been some benefits to bringing Magic to the digital realm.
The change meant players like TheAsianAvenger could roll out of bed the day before an event and compete from the comfort of their home. It also meant that living in testing houses in the weeks leading up to a tournament isn’t necessary anymore. Now, serious players can assemble the deck they want to try out, send a direct challenge to friends and have their peers sitting over their shoulder in a Discord call during the match.
For players like PVDDR, who is from Brazil, the benefits are even more pronounced. In the past, players in his region had a single easy event to travel to a year, which forced almost everyone to play their best Magic or sit out of competing for the rest of the season. At the same time, PVDDR said he used to struggle preparing for the Draft portion of tournaments, since he couldn’t find enough other players nearby to practice with.
Today, players outside the U.S. and Western Europe can enter every tournament they want to compete in without worrying whether it will be the last time they play serious Magic again until next year. According to PVDDR, these opportunities are why there are more people from across the world getting into the scene.
But despite the ease of access, TheAsianAvenger did admit to missing some of the game’s older trappings. The digital Magic experience lacks a significant part of what makes this card game unique.
Until Wizards of the Coast announces the return of in-person events, Magic: the Gathering will be locked into this fully digital era, unable to take full advantage of its dual nature.
“The thing I miss the most is a little bit of the gathering,” TheAsianAvenger said. “It’s a little bit different when you sit here and you’re staring at your screen.”