In the last year or two, I’ve played almost exclusively on MTGO (version 4). Whereas my first 18 or so years of playing experience came from paper magic, mostly casual and FNM, I found that as I got older, I lacked the time and schedule availability to attend events and hoped to find more opportunity playing online. I had long delayed the conversion to digital for a number of reasons: I used a macbook throughout college and couldn’t run MTGO without dual booting. It has always boggled my mind that this digital game that has been around for 15+ years was only available on PC. Beyond that, the extra investment of rebuilding my collection, which I had already sunk endless amounts of money into was daunting.
In the meantime, I found alternatives in similar games that were both compatible with my computer (and phone!) and 100% free to play – Hearthstone and Eternal. Both games do a great job of walking a new user through the interface, providing a simple tutorial, and showering you with rewards so that you come back for more. In either case, you’re given quests or challenges each day that you can complete to earn cards and points to build your collection from the ground up.
My first experience with MTGO was quite different. I spent 30 minutes trying to figure out how to access a new player pack that I wasn’t even sure that I had, fumbled around trying to find a way to build a deck, and then gave up when I wasn’t able to connect to a game and left frustrated.
I didn’t return to the program for some time and, when I did, I relied on Youtube tutorial videos and explanations from experienced friends to navigate it.
Having had quite a bit of experience playing the game competitively, I was ready to jump in and buy a deck that I could take to a tournament or league. My initial investment in the game was roughly 200 tix (which is about $200) to build a Modern Eldrazi deck. Once I had bought all of the cards, I was disappointed to realize that in order to play in any events in which I could earn play points, the MTGO equivalent of gold in Hearthstone or Eternal (but could not be used to purchase anything from the store), I would have to invest more more in an entry fee for these events. Beyond that, I would have to win these events to prevent myself from needing to invest MORE money. What I hadn’t considered was the fact that, though I knew quite well how to pilot the deck, my inexperience with the program would lead me to make quite a few mistakes causing quite a few losses in my first few months of playing.
My experience as a new user was very discouraging.
While players are quite vocal about the MTGO interface (and yes, it’s pretty bad too), I find more concern with the philosophy of MTGO and how it compares to digital alternatives. In an age where digital card games are plentiful, free, and accessible, MTGO seems very focused on taxing players who are already enfranchised in the game. Hearthstone and Eternal have proven that a model in which the player is given adequate tools to play the game initially culminating in the conversion of a casual to a competitive player who will eventually invest money in their product CAN be effective. From the perspective of a player in this case, I feel like I am being thanked for being a customer rather than overcharged. With a line of digital products and updates known as “Magic Digital Next” coming up, Wizards of the Coast ought to be taking some notes from their competitors.
Despite it’s seemingly more affordable approach towards players, Hearthstone earned $394.6 million in 2016 (compared to MTGO’s measly $20.6 million).
Eternal, a newly released card game from Dire Wolf Studios, was created by Magic the Gathering pros Patrick Chapin and Luis Scott Vargas with the unique perspective of improving on the factors in MTGO which they were already very familiar with.
While the games are quite different, MTGO wants a lot of things that Hearthstone does very well. WoTC has made it clear that they wish to increase their viewership as an eSport. Hearthstone certainly has a lot going for it here and I think that this new user experience has a lot to offer that situation. If 70 million players have played Hearthstone for just 3 weeks, they are more likely to watch an event. They might get back into the game if they’ve quit or invest more into the game to become the next Amaz if they are still playing. If 70 million Magic players have struggled through MTGO and quit, they are less likely to watch an event and be inspired to play because they’ve got a bad taste in their mouth from the initial experience on the program and the idea that they are still $600 away from having a playable deck.
For younger players especially, this barrier to entry will close the door rather quickly. Without the means to progress the quality of your collection without putting money into the game, the average high school student (who likely doesn’t have a debit or credit card) will not be too inspired by their starter deck full of Serra Angel and Shivan Dragon when other games offer decks that are constantly upgradable through daily quest and challenge rewards.
It’s a very different demographic that MTGO targets. Perhpas WoTC is ok with that. They are making plenty of cash on MTGO after all…
But are new players being drawn to the game?
Is the average age of a magic player increasing?
Is MTGO healthy?
Magic Digital Next, whatever that may be, has the power to boost Magic in this new world of digital card games, but with that power comes great responsibility. All of us ‘enfranchised players’ who manage to put up with the taxing and mindlessly sink our cash into this game because we are hopelessly addicted have invested so much into our collections at this point that it would be personally offensive if this model changed SO MUCH that our cards became immediately devalued as a result. Beyond that, we’d lose what many of us see as a monetary investment.
For many players, keeping an eye on card values and trading cards as prices fluctuate is the best way to minimize the cost of staying current with your constructed deck or limited entry fees. Whenever a change takes place on MTGO such as the recently added treasure chests to league prize payouts (which award 3 random cards/playpoints), players with large investments in the game become nervous. I don’t see how Magic Digital Next can NOT cause a major shake-up in the consistency of collection values. Perhaps card values will increase if more players are brought to the game and supply stays the same but, more likely, card prices will go down as new player incentives like the ones I’ve previously described are introduced.
The question is, from the perspective of a player (and not a speculator), how much do you value the game becoming more affordable/accessible overall when compared to your current card investments?
Personally, I am in favor affordability.
Here’s what I’d love to see in Magic Digital Next:
- A quest/challenge system that rewards players play points or treasure chests (ie – Win 3 games with a red deck)
- A ranked ladder with rewards at the end of each season (no entry fee)
- These rankings could potentially be a way to qualify for larger events
- A more robust new user tutorial that provides pre-constructed decks
- Digital card packs that are not $4 but containing 15 cents worth of cards
Is that so much to ask? Probably yes but if even one of those things appears in Magic Digital Next I will be a “happy camper”. Notice that I said nothing about the interface. As obnoxious as it is to play a game that appears to be made for Windows 95, I can tolerate that. I am growing tired of the fact that I can’t build a new standard deck without paying $150 more dollars, however. To me, this predatory business model cannot possibly fly in a world where Hearthstone, Eternal, and Hex provide much cheaper alternatives that are not as harsh to new players.
Here’s hoping that Magic Digital Next is the right fix!