Here’s the thing: Magic is and remains the granddaddy of tabletop competitive events. Wizards of the Coast has ramped up budgets for both its global circuit’s prizepool and the even-more-expensive costs of flying and housing around everybody that qualifies to their premier tournaments. There’s no question that it is a sporting event – with regular updates on relative player power ranks, breathless analysis of the constantly evolving strategies, heated discussions about its rules developments, etc.
And for all of that, it’s had an extremely disappointing 2016.
On paper, Magic has all the qualifications to be considered among the major esports. Other than the obvious trappings of international presence and a year-long circuit, it’s also got a Twitch channel, a developer-supported online competitive format, and it’s regularly professionally cast at every Pro Tour.
But it’s like dumping a bunch of ingredients into a bowl and declaring your cake done. For a multitude of reasons, Magic’s been left behind in the esports revolution. And there’s a strong sense that it deserves a lot more than it’s currently got.
Execution and Access
In the short term, 2016 was just a bad time for competitive Magic overall. The format’s bug-ridden with poor design decisions – Standard, currently, is fifteen different ways to pop out Emrakul or hit people in the face with Gideon, culminating in a plethora of anecdotes of reduced Friday Night Magic attendance out of sheer boredom with the status quo.
It’s probably a really bad thing when your designer’s Twitter request for feedback on the format generates nothing but critical and thorough breakdowns by your pro players on just how uncomfortable they are with your design direction – not that pro players aren’t usually complaining, but the unified dissent coupled with the attendance nadir is a bad symptom.
But format complaints and up/down periods are a regular occurrence in its history, and not usually symptomatic of long-term issues. The access problems inherent in its formats, though, are. The four or five hundred bucks a pro is expected to spend on a deck is way beyond the means of an average player. The fact that they effectively have to spend it twice to get regular online practice in when they’re not able to access a local gaming store further compounds the problem.
And then there’s the fact that nobody loves online Magic anyhow.
Seriously. Even with the recentish update, the client is an obsolete mess. Compare and contrast – harshly – with the level of polish that Blizzard executed in their first-ever foray into collectible card games. Even as you’re tempted to mock Hearthstone for its original nine-deck limit, there is no denying that it, and not Magic, is the defining online CCG experience. Building a deck is easy. Matchmaking by format is easy. Packs and draft access are priced at temptingly affordable levels, and being able to dump excess cards to make new ones is in itself a deceptively sticky tool to get people invested and returning.
Getting a draft to fire in Magic Online is a chore, forces you to commit to a multi-hour gaming spree, and leaves you at the end of the matchmaking process facing down a field full of static graphics and default feedback sounds.
Did I mention the fact that a digital card can cost as much, if not more, as its real-world equivalent?
It’s easy to see why Magic doesn’t fully commit to the established practices of digital gaming: that’d overtly undermine their physical store sales and probably jeopardize their relationship with distributors. It’s hard to push cardboard when an equivalent experience or better is available online. Sure, the physical experience of attending a face-to-face tournament is decidedly different from playing behind an anonymous screen, and the thrill of taking down (or losing against) an actual human being isn’t comparable to a victory against an anonymized screen. But the value proposition of getting to play in the comfort of your own home at any time is a major reason why Hearthstone’s largely eclipsed Magic in terms of relevance in the competitive space.
But that meatspace bias comes at the detriment of the players. Already, the artificial scarcity of digital products to match meatspace limits makes it difficult to get into the game, but the lack of proper support for online play puts up further barriers to access. The commitment difference between a Hearthstone Arena run and an MTGO Draft run is so severe as to lose any hope of humor – and also means that the Draft format, easily the most accessible form of Magic there is, is even more newbie-unfriendly than it already is.
That is the single greatest failure in MTGO and Magic as an esport – even more so than an outdated interface. Much more so than a temporary imbalance in its competitive formats. If Magic can survive Urza Winter and Skullclamp Affinity, it can survive Emrakul and Gideon’s little duel. But its competitive scene will forever be the domain of niche enthusiasts if it can’t find that inroad on the casual spectating crowd.
It’s not as if Magic is unique in being a competitive event with a massive burden of knowledge. League of Legends and DOTA thrives despite their mutual burdens. Hearthstone, with a release schedule on product not dissimilar to Magic’s, gets around theirs too with even fewer ways to understand what happens to a card (or, to the distress of theorycrafters poring over previews, how they even interact on an individual basis) without actually casting the card yourself. Yet even if Hearthstone’s competitive viewership is questionable, there’s no doubt that it’s a heckuva streamable game.
Not to mention ridiculously profitable for Blizzard.
Its accessibility is built upon two roots. The first, as described above, is the relatively low commitment involved in breaking into play. 150 gold – literally shoved onto you once you finish the tutorial – grants you access to an Arena run that simulates the draft experience. Make a deck, bash it against people, and every single win or loss reorients your matchmaking to pit you against decks and players of similar quality. Your reward at all stages of the game is a bit of gold, dust, and cards for your effort, meaning even a total defeat didn’t totally waste your time.
And it’s not as if you wasted much time at all, because you can break off an Arena run at any time to go back to your regular obligations. Finish a game, go back to work. Finish three games, save the rest for when you’re less mentally fatigued. Do that in the midst of an MTGO draft, and you wasted money on a run.
The second root is only further strengthened by the fact that the Arena system allows familiarity with the relevant cards and their strengths without forcing the players to do extracurricular research. But even without it, the animated interactions of the cards and the magnified display of textboxes when moused over inherently makes the progress and interactions of the game easy to understand – not something that Magic can brag about at all. The presentation of a Hearthstone match makes as few assumptions as possible about the people watching it, not just the people playing.
When Kripparian or Day get blown out of the water by an unfortunate combination of cards, the game makes extremely sure that you’re aware of it. Which is why people keep tuning back in, day after day, week after week, round after round.
There is still a chance for MTG to catch up. If even Civilization, of all games, can get its players sponsored by Team Liquid, there is absolutely space for Magic to find itself finally amid the titans of esports. And the advantages and opportunities afforded to it by doing so aren’t some unfathomable or mysterious promise – we can see just how well Blizzard made out with their own take on digitized card games.
And Magic deserves it. Its players deserve it. Its rich history of drama, misadventures, tragedies and triumphs deserves a lot more than to play second-string to all of these new kids on the block. But it’ll only ever get that proper treatment of its legacy if its developers are brave enough to allow its evolution, instead of being satisfied with what it’s had before.