Arena: Should You Sell Out Of Magic Online?

HASCON brought plenty of news, and it’s too much for one Chas Andres article! For today, he focuses on Magic: The Gathering Arena and the big question on every Magic Online grinder’s mind: is it time to sell?

The Magic news has been fast and furious over the past few days. I hardly
know where to begin.

Instead of giving you one big article that attempts to cover all of the
various developments, I’ve decided to break my analysis down into three
separate essays. Today, I’m going to talk about Magic Arena and the impact
that it might have on Magic Online and the paper game. Tomorrow, I’m going
to give you my full rundown of Iconic Masters. On Wednesday,
you’ll get the second part of my Ixalan financial set review. Like
to read my articles over your morning coffee or on your lunch break? This
is your lucky week.

A Financial Look at Magic: The Gathering Arena

Magic: The Gathering Arena (just “Arena” from here on out) is finally here,
and everyone who had money on “it’ll be Hearthstone, but for Magic” can
come to the front of the room and collect their winnings. It was certainly
the obvious step: Magic has the best card game on the market, but they’ve
been almost completely left out of the zillion-dollar digital collectible
card game market that Blizzard is currently dominating. I’d have been
shocked if they didn’t at least attempt to steal back some of that thunder.

From a finance perspective, Arena raises a few interesting questions:

1) Does Arena make Magic Online obsolete?

2) If so, does that mean that it’s time to cash out of Magic Online?

3) What impact is Arena likely to have on the paper game?

The answer to the first question, at least according to Wizards of the
Coast, is no.

Chris Kiritz posted an article on DailyMTG last Thursday

that can basically be summarized as, “Don’t worry, Magic Online isn’t going
anywhere.” Of course, if Magic Online were truly safe, it wouldn’t need a
vote of confidence. In some ways, this is reminiscent of a football coach
reassuring the media that his star quarterback still has his job after a
particularly awful run of games. If everything were peachy keen, nobody
would’ve had to say anything.

Common sense also dictates that it isn’t logical for there to be two
different high-end digital Magic products. Nobody thought that Magic Duels
would ever replace Magic Online, but that’s because it never even pretended
to have full functionality. Duels was designed to provide a taste of Magic,
either as a way to draw people into the paper game or as a way to allow
them to stay engaged with the product during a time of lapsed interest. But
during the Magic Arena preview stream, Wizards of the Coast claimed that
the game would have full functionality, complete with the ability to draft
and play Standard. It’s hard not to read this as a death knell for Magic

Now comes the part where I tell you why Magic Online is likely to remain
relevant, at least for now, and quite probably for quite a long time to

First, programming the rules of Magic into a Hearthstone-style engine is a
task that falls somewhere in between difficult and impossible. Magic Online
has enough issues with this stuff, and that’s with an overly clunky
interface and years of work.
I did a deep dive into these programming challenges back in January
and found a few major things (like stack implementation) that are not easy
solves, even with a highly skilled team of engineers. Magic’s rule set
wasn’t designed for digital play, and turning it into a Hearthstone-quality
experience without changing any of the rules might require some actual
black magic in order to work.

The upshot is that I’m still not convinced that Magic Arena is capable of
providing the same level of functionality as Magic Online, no matter what
Wizards of the Coast is saying right now. The demo certainly looked slick,
but there were plenty of things that we didn’t get to see. What happens
when multiple players are responding to spells? What happens when someone
wants to make a hundred Vampire tokens? How well can it handle complex
graveyard shenanigans, or storm, or a thousand other things that are
currently possible (albeit buggy) on Magic Online?

The quality and scope of drafting on Arena is a big deal, too. If Arena’s
Draft engine (still unseen as of this writing) is similar to a “real” Magic
draft, a lot of casual Magic Online users might switch over. If it’s more
like the Hearthstone engine, it’s going to lose a lot of legitimacy,
especially for testing purposes.

But let’s give Magic Arena the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’ve
dealt with 99% of these issues during the development process. Drafting is
great. The client works. The games feel like actual games of Magic. There
aren’t too many places where the rules have to be warped to fit the medium.

Even if this is all true, it will still take years
before we’ll start to see the full Modern catalog show up, and the
client may never be able to handle Legacy and Vintage.

Here’s the thing: the game’s engine may be able to handle the current crop
of Magic cards, but there’s no guarantee that it can deal with all the
nonsense that shows up once you start going deep into the game’s long
history. It’s not as simple as just programming in card abilities and
assuming that everything will work: every card added to the game is another
thousand points of interaction to consider, and if a card from, say, Odyssey interacts weirdly with a card from Ixalan, it can
screw everything up. Oh—and Magic Arena is full of custom animations and
sound effects. Programming those for the older cards is going to take some
time, too.

It’s clear that Wizards of the Coast is aware of this stuff. That’s why
they’ve been so emphatic about the fact that Magic Online is going to be
the home for older formats while Arena will focus on Standard and Draft.
It’s not just bluster to stop us from panicking about the value of our
online collections—it’s because they know that this is going to be a long
process, even in the best-case scenario.

To recap: even if Magic Arena is perfect, it’ll be years (if ever) before
it actually replaces Magic Online for Vintage, Legacy, and Modern. And if
it isn’t all that and a bag of chips, people will just shrug their
shoulders and keep playing Magic Online regardless. Oh—and we haven’t even
addressed the possibility that Wizards of the Coast will let us import our
digital collections into Arena if they ever do shutter Magic Online for

So why, exactly, are you panic-selling your Magic Online collection right

The one thing I would be careful about going forward is investing too
deeply in the new Standard format on Magic Online. We don’t yet know when
beta invites are going out yet for Arena, nor how widespread they’ll be,
but there’s a possibility that Arena will be the go-to platform for playing
Standard at some point in the late winter or early spring. If that happens,
then I expect the Magic Online economy to shift more toward the Eternal

Again, the currently-unknown quality of Arena’s Draft client looms large
here. If Magic Online’s casual drafting population moves over to Arena,
there are going to be many fewer cards entering Magic Online’s economy.
It’s worth monitoring all of this quite closely as we move forward.

For those of you who don’t play Magic Online, it’s worth thinking about the
effect that Magic Arena might have on the paper game. After all,
Hearthstone doesn’t exist in paper form at all. Isn’t there a chance that
Magic Arena will eventually become the preferred way for everyone to play

This is an economic needle that Wizards of the Coast must find a way to
thread. If they make Arena too good and too cheap, people will stop buying
physical cards entirely. I doubt they want to risk their entire business
model, which means that Arena will either have to feel like a stepping
stone toward paper Magic (the same way Duels did) or they’ll make it
difficult to buy or craft the cards they need for top-tier Standard decks.
This is another reason why I don’t buy the claim that Magic Online will die
because Arena will offer FNM-quality Draft experiences for $2. If that
happens, then why play paper Magic down at your LGS? Wizards of the Coast
isn’t stupid. They’re not going to risk everything for the sake of
promoting their digital client, at least not right away.

It’s possible that Arena (or, more likely, Arena 11.0) will eventually
replace paper Magic, but we’re a long way off from that. In the short-term,
a successful launch for Arena will only mean good things for the game’s
overall economy. The Duels of the Planeswalkers launch coincided with the
largest surge in popularity that Magic has ever seen. If Arena can do that,
than we might start to see prices return to Zendikar through Innistrad levels of year-over-year growth.

At the end of the day, then, I only see good things happening because of
Arena. Don’t worry about the value of your collection—just enjoy the fact
that Magic finally appears to be moving into the 21st century, albeit about
seventeen years too late.

Bonus: Unstable‘s Full-Art Lands

These gorgeous lands were revealed at HASCON last Friday, and I expect them
to be in incredibly high demand going forward. Some people were a little
put off by their border-free look, but the community at large seems
incredibly high on these. Just remember: there’ll be one in every pack of Unstable, so don’t pay more than a couple bucks each. They should
also keep the price of every other card in that set nice and low for the
foreseeable future.