Magic Arena: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Tyan Brooker-Thorpe

Can Magic: the Gathering ever become a leading esport?

Esports = competitive gaming at a professional level.

Expected to reach $2.1 billion by 2023, Hasbro (owners of Wizards of the Coast) have stated they see the growth potential of the “stay at home market” for Magic: The Gathering and D&D.

Esports is a growing market.

Having played Magic since Innistrad and founded esport teams that went on to compete in the ESL UK Premiership and ESL Meisterschaft for League of Legends, I wanted to discuss the long-term viability of Magic Arena and its impact on Magic overall.

The Good

Magic: The Gathering is popular. 35 million people play, with 1 million registered DCIs as of 2015. These numbers give Magic an advantage over competitors such as Hearthstone, Gwent and Hex. An established game is easier for transitioning players to an online presence, as evidenced by Arena’s recent popularity. The community can also expand itself more easily as people are more likely to play a game if friends introduce it to them. An online base benefits the global community as well – encouraging competitive play away from North America, which hosted 32 out of 60 GPs last year.

A significant new feature for Arena is the improved visuals over Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO). While these may not matter to some established fans of Magic, it upgrades the overall experience, vital for engaging new or returning players. Although Arena cannot comply with the nuances that MTGO offers, it is doing what it was designed for. The visual upgrade brings new eyes to the game, showcasing it seriously as a potential hobby.

MTGO
Magic the gathering Arena Attack
Magic: Arena in action

It’s a smart move by Wizards in their bid for new players – for Magic to be viewed as an esports it needs the online player base. Using their current MTGO platform to entice new players would have required a user interface overhaul to make it more friendly to the inexperienced general public. While experienced might not mind the clunky interface and bugs of MTGO, the public is less forgiving, and the move to Arena is a positive one for the image of Magic.

Financially, Arena is a clever move by Hasbro.

Transitioning Magic’s online platform to an economy system that doesn’t allow for 3rd party resellers enables Wizards to keep revenue from every sale.

Using Wizard’s own player modelling system, the Timmy and Johnny players are easy sells; they buy packs from their local gaming stores (LGS) and support both Wizards and their local community.

Historically, however, gaining revenue from Spike players has been problematic for Wizards. These players traditionally buy from the secondary market – usually singles cards online – supporting online markets, but largely bypassing Wizards. GP and PTQ attendance is one funnel, however cost and geographical restrictions make these big logistical endeavours and therefore difficult to sustain in high quantities. Syphoning Spike players into Arena is an ingenious business move, particularly when Wizards has remodelled their system to make it easier to play on a budget.

The Bad

One fear Arena raises is the potential impact on the community element that has always surrounded Magic. Wizards have historically encouraged this through the use of FNM promos and other player rewards.* While Wizards state they are increasing their commitment to tabletop Magic investments, their actions contradict this confidence.

Outsourcing of Magicfest to Channel Fireball evidenced a lack of priority in tabletop Magic. Generally businesses do not outsource aspects of their business that they want to improve upon. The artist boycott of MagicFest highlights some of the issues in having a large corporation operating your event with their own profit margins to consider.

Andrea Mengucci at PAX East Boston Mythic Invitational 2019
Andrea Mengucci at PAX East Boston Mythic Invitational 2019
The Mythic Invitational brought a spotlight to Magic, hitting a peak 155,000 concurrent viewers, more than doubling previous records.

I have concerns though.

My main worry: could this just be hype? A lot of games become popular for a time and then fall off. Pub G, for example and Hearthstone. As an arena game, Pub G is of less concern than Hearthstone – a much closer rival to Magic. Does Hearthstone’s decline reflect wider trends in the overall market? An overall decline in digital CCG interest, perhaps?

Don’t get me wrong, people will always be interested in tournaments with guest appearances and big money prizes. But turning players into Twitch-watching regulars is a harder job. Returning to the numbers, converting casual players into a regular community is hard. Numbers are rising – from 20 to 35 million players between 2015 – 2018 is an achievement that shouldn’t be understated. However even taking the 2015 data, 1/20 million is only a 5% conversion to DCI registration. This includes everyone from the Pros to occasional FNM attendees.

The picture is even bleaker when applied to premier event attendance. 65,000 high-level players in 2015 incorporates just over 0.3% of the Magic-playing population.

The Ugly

The ugliest part of using Arena to shift Magic towards esports status is that dissuades people from playing at their LGS.

From a player perspective, there are many incentives to play online over your LGS.

Firstly, the price of a booster draft is half online what it is in store.

Arena lets you start drafting at any point in time and stop at any point to take a short break, making it more accommodating to the end consumer than an FNM, which risks not firing if player turnout is low.

Though bringing Magic online could potentially becoming more profitable the long run, it does run the risk of potentially ruining the community element of Magic. Is this really good business acumen?

The real question becomes balance. Is Arena pulling more players into Magic overall, or are more players just transitioning from tabletop Magic to online? If they are just transitioning this is worrying; many LGSs rely on Limited and Standard to sell packs and make money. Arena doing the same (but cheaper) risks lying in direct competition.

Can Magic be an esport?

Short answer, yes. Whether it will be a successful esport is questionable.

Personally, I cannot see it becoming a dominant esports. StarCraft is an esports, but not on a level with the likes of League of Legends or CS:GO. I can, however, see Magic Arena overtaking Hearthstone in the digital CCG presence on Twitch, with potential to become the most prominent and popular CCG overall. Overall, I view this as a win, and no doubt so do Hasbro.

*Editor’s note – Wizards new WPN system highlights an awareness of the importance of player engagement and attracting new players to the in-store scene. Although we’ve yet to see fully how these changes will play out, it’s certainly motivating a lot of stores – including ourselves – to review the overall player experience in our shop, and enhance the accessibility of paper Magic to players of all levels and backgrounds.

Our hope here at Manaleak.com is that Magic Arena will draw new players into the community, rather than syphon them away from physical groups and paper Magic. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Magic Arena: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Magic Arena: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Can Magic Arena ever be classed as an esport?
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