Fear, Panic, And The Financial Implications Of Magic As An ESport

It’s been a long few days since the WotC announcement and now! We’re overdue for some Chas Andres analysis! Get his reaction and reasoning behind his view on all the major Magic markets here!

Tell me – what scares you the most? Clowns? Sharks? The Dark? Loneliness?

I’m sure we can sit here and come up with a list of things that are
fearsome, but I also suspect that most of these fears will ultimately boil
down to one larger kind of anxiety that encompasses a lot of the smaller
ones: a fear of the unknown. We don’t fear death because we think it will
be painful; we fear it because we don’t know what happens next. We don’t
fear the darkness because darkness itself has some sort of spooky property
unto itself, we fear it because of the hidden dangers that might be lurking
in the shadows.

Not coincidentally,

Wizards of the Coast made a very frightening announcement last Thursday

. It was scary for two reasons: first, because of how sweeping the changes
are going to be and second, because (in typical WotC fashion) the
announcement felt haphazard to the point where key details were either
buried or left out entirely.

The result of this announcement? A lot of Magic players fear the unknown.
We know that something real and tangible has been taken from us (The Pro
Players Club, Travel Awards, the entire Pro Tour structure as we knew it)
and we aren’t quite sure what has been gained in return (Esports??). We
Magic players have long been a pessimistic, risk-adverse, doomsaying lot,
so it’s no surprise that we’re running around like a bunch of chicken
littles, waiting to see if the sky is actually falling this time.

That’s what we’re going to discuss today. And since this is ostensibly a
Magic Finance column, I’ll be looking at Thursday’s announcement primarily
from the perspective of your collection value. After all, if WotC is giving
up on tabletop Magic as some in my Twitter feed seem to think, you should
probably sell all your cards as soon as possible, right?

Is Magic About to Die?

When people talk about “the death of Magic,” they really mean one of two

  • WotC mismanages Magic so badly that they stop developing and
    releasing sets.
  • Your own experience of playing Magic has been altered so
    fundamentally that you’ve either decided to quit the game or begun
    to play it in a fashion that it feels like a different game.

Anyone who fears #1 at this point is just plain wrong. Per the latest
figures, Magic has 25 million current players. LGS attendance is up. WotC
just announced ten million dollars’ worth of prizes for next year. Whatever
else you want to say about the state of Magic, we’re not even close to a
world where WotC stops releasing new sets.

It must be fear #2, then, that appears to be driving this latest panic.
Specifically, most people I’ve asked about the announcement have at least
one of the following three concerns:

  • What if Arena becomes the primary way to play Magic, tabletop
    events get less and less support, the FNM scene dies down, there
    are no more paper Pro events, and Magic essentially becomes just
    another digital CCG?
  • What if the changes to the structure of organized play are very bad
    for me, my play style, or the professional Magic scene in my
  • WotC is putting Arena front and center on the pro stage. Arena
    doesn’t support Modern and that doesn’t seem likely to change
    anytime soon. Does this mean that WotC is essentially putting
    Eternal Magic on the backburner and it’ll just be Standard from
    here on out?

Let’s tackle these three anxious ideas one at a time.

Will Digital Kill The Tabletop Star?

Literally everybody I’ve spoken to both inside and outside of Wizards of
the Coast wants the tabletop game to flourish.

On WotC’s end, they’ve spent 25 straight years tricking us into believing
that it’s prudent to spend $4 on a random set of fifteen pieces of
cardboard, most of which we already know that we don’t actually want or
need. It would be beyond foolhardy for them to dismantle that
infrastructure, and I guarantee you that everyone in the city of Renton
knows it.

On our end, well, we all love playing tabletop Magic. For many of us, it’s
the entire appeal of the game. The fact that we can still use the same
cards from when we were kids, the physical aspect of sorting and
deckbuilding, sitting across from someone at FNM, or in a massive
tournament hall – these are the reasons we stick with the game and the
reasons why we keep coming back. This is an advantage that Magic will
always have over Hearthstone, and Eternal, and Artifact. It would be beyond
reckless to throw it away.

And it’s not like tangible things are continuing to disappear into a
digital void the way they were a few years ago. Take a look at

the massive comeback of vinyl records in the age of digital streaming

, or

how indie bookstores are making a major comeback

after nearly being left for dead in the early ’00s. Sure, things that we
never really liked in the first place (CDs and DVDs, for example) are
continuing to die, but Magic cards are more like books and records. Their
inherent physicality is part of their appeal.

Of course, this doesn’t preclude WotC from making some sort of stupid pivot
entirely into the digital space, and I understand why people are afraid of
that, but there are a lot of bad decisions that would have to be made
before we got from “let’s support Arena, a thing people like” to “let’s only support Arena, a decision that would make people very mad.”

Remember: WotC’s goal is to make as much money as possible on their Magic:
The Gathering IP. If they think they can get you to spend the most money by
selling you $14 packs full of shiny Lilianas, they’re going to do that. If
they think they can get the most money by getting you to buy gems on Arena,
they’re going to do that, too.

WotC is embracing Arena so fully right now because we’ve all been spending
a bunch of time and money playing it. They’re only going to abandon the
tabletop game if we stop playing, which doesn’t seem likely.

Here’s a comprehensive Reddit post that tracks tournament attendance
from 2012-2017.

Spoiler alert: the numbers haven’t been getting worse.

The real question here is actually fairly simple: will players switch from
tabletop Magic to Arena, or will they just play both? Right now, WotC seems
to be doing everything they can to create multiple pathways from Arena to
tabletop and from tabletop to Arena because-and stop me if I’ve said this
already-the outcome where we all play both is the one where they make the
most money.

There’s some precedent for this, too. When Duels of the Planeswalkers was
released, tabletop tournament attendance skyrocketed and loads of people
poured into my LGS because Duels got them back into Magic. Granted, Arena
is less of a stepping-stone into the paper game and more its own thing, but
I’ve already had

LGS owners tweeting at me saying that attendance is up specifically
because of people that Arena is bringing into the game.

So sure, it’s possible that this is the beginning of the end for the paper
game, but it’s also possible that we’re about to see the largest influx of
players in history. Yeah, I wouldn’t sell my paper collection just yet.

Did WotC’s Latest Changes Make The Grind Harder?

Full disclosure: this is the part of this article that I’m the least
confident about. Not only have I never seriously been on the Pro Tour grind
myself, but this is the part of the announcement that WotC did the worst
job in clearly communicating.

One “death” that I think we can all mourn is the loss of continuity of the
game’s rich top end tournament history. The Pro Tour has existed for more
than twenty years, and the fact that there’s now a direct break from that
is going to be crushing for people who devoted a lot of time to
establishing their standing in the old system.

It also seems like there almost certainly won’t be automatic Mythic
Championship qualifications for Hall of Fame players, so a lot of the faces
that have been familiar on the tour for years now may not be a part of the
game’s future. This is a radical break from Magic’s past, and it goes
beyond the name changes, right down to the very fabric of our shared

Financially, though, none of this really matters. It sucks, but it’s true.
The only thing that matters to the value of your collection is whether or
not the new system of Organized Play is better than the last one, and
whether or not it’ll lead to a mass exodus of tournament grinders from the

In truth, Organized Play has been broken for a while now. Remember
#PayThePros? Gerry Thompson protesting at Worlds? The fact that most of us
weren’t even aware that Worlds was happening until that very weekend? We
needed a radical departure from How Things Used To Be, and oh boy did we
ever get it.

Financially, there are two main keys to Organized Play that are pretty much
required if you want to maintain robust prices:

  • Can Joe and Jane Grinder down at your FNM dream about being a
    professional Magic player?
  • Does the tournament ecosystem support enough week-to-week grinders
    who are going to keep buying the latest and greatest cards for
    their tier 1 decks?

This new system seems emphatically better than the old one for driving #1.
One of my favorite parts of last week’s announcement was the part where
WotC said that the people at the top of the food chain will actually be
paid a living wage. It might be tougher than ever to “make it” as a
professional Magic player, but there’s an actual reward waiting for you now
once you do.

Also, the renewed focus on Magic as a spectator sport could be the key to
making the pro player dream more attractive to a far wider audience. Magic
is an amazing game to play, but it can be brutal to watch unless you’re
paying close attention to the ebb and flow of each game and you
have a nuanced view of the current metagame. I write about Magic for a
living, and I still find myself bored watching coverage for a far larger
percentage of the time than I’d care to admit. Some novice players are
probably tuning into the Pro Tour and saying, “yes, I want that!” but the
fact that Magic’s biggest numbers on Twitch still tend to run lower than
mid-tier Fortnite streamers tells me that this response is still something
of a rarity.

“Magic as an Esport” has the potential to change this. Arena is far more
dynamic and easier to understand than paper coverage, and I can certainly
imagine more people tuning in for fun. Granted, it’s possible that this
will only serve to make Arena more popular, but I still stand by the belief
that more people watching and playing Magic of any kind will ultimately
drive the paper game as well as the digital one.

As for the fear about the week-to-week grind, I don’t feel like I have
quite enough information to speak confidently about that yet. For a hot
minute on Thursday night it looked like they were doing away with all the
PTQs and PPTQs and RPTQs without replacing them with anything in the paper
sphere, but that doesn’t appear to be true.

This WPN article

states that Mythic Championship Qualifiers are coming to stores near you,
so my best guess is that the qualification system will simply be
re-shuffled instead of scrapped. There will still be a pipeline from your
LGS to the Mythic Championships, and the paper game will chug along more or
less like it used to.

It’s also important to note that there are independent tournament
structures that have managed to survive and thrive outside WotC’s
ecosystem. The SCG Tour, for example, continues to chug along, and loads of
players have chosen to devote most of their time and energy into playing on
this circuit instead. I don’t have any insider info or anything, but
nothing about WotC’s announcement should affect the future of The SCG Tour,
which should continue to drive demand for physical Magic cards for years to

But what about outside the US? The loss of travel awards as well as the
World Magic Cup and Nationals seems like it’ll hit smaller and farther
flung countries the hardest and that the new changes will help these folks
the least. Again, I don’t really have any answers here. WotC’s policies
have had major issues overseas in the past, and I wouldn’t be surprised if
many of these new changes hurt the international game in some unforeseen
ways as well. I just don’t think we know enough yet to say what, if
anything, is going to happen here.

At the end of the day, though, I find it harder to believe that the new
system of Organized Play is going to be so much worse for so many people
that the market will tank in response. WotC just threw ten million dollars
into the prize pool for next year. Ten million bucks! That’s a major
increase over their prize payouts in 2018. Even if the money is distributed
in weird and uneven ways, and even if a lot of it goes into Arena-based
tournaments, I don’t see how you get from “more money in prizes” to
“everyone sells their collection because nobody wants to buy Magic cards
anymore.” That just doesn’t make sense to me.

An Eternal Hiatus?

Okay-so maybe Magic isn’t dying. But what about Modern?

There are certainly some warning signs that WotC doesn’t want to focus on
Eternal formats in the near-term future. Arena isn’t going to be hosting
Modern or Legacy tournaments anytime soon, which means that all the
Arena-based Mythic Championships (this is going to take a little bit of
time to get used to) are going to be Standard events. Combine that with Ultimate Masters and the shuttering of the Masters sets and a
pattern starts to emerge: Standard yes, Modern no.

Unlike everything we’ve discussed so far, I actually think that there’s
some reason to be concerned, at least in the short-term, if you’re
primarily a Modern player. I wouldn’t be surprised if 2019 doesn’t have any
Modern Mythic Championships, and this might have been part of why WotC
decided not to print more Masters sets for a while. If the major OP goal in
2019 is “get people invested in Magic via Arena streaming &
Esports-level tournament coverage,” it makes sense to focus as much energy
as possible on a single format so that people can follow the narrative from
Arena to paper and back again.

This changes some of my thoughts about the price of Modern in 2019. With no
more Masters sets to help lower prices, I figured that 2019 might see the
overall index go up by as much as 20-25% over current retail. But if WotC
devotes close to 100% of their attention to Standard, Modern prices might
remain relatively stagnant all year long.

I still don’t think that buying in right now is bad, though, nor do I think
that WotC is permanently abandoning Modern. For one,

Aaron Forsythe confirmed that there are plans to showcase Modern in the
Mythic Championship Series going forward.

Also, ever since the first Standard rotation back in 1995, Magic has always
had at least one robust Eternal format. It’s a necessary part of the game,
especially because there are large portions of the year where Standard is
stale and boring. We all played Modern when Kaladesh broke
Standard in half last year, and we all played Modern during that entire
year when Theros block made it so that the same three decks made
up the entire metagame for months on end.

This, to me, is the biggest risk that WotC is taking by going all-in on
Arena right now. Guilds of Ravnica Standard has proven itself to
be an all-time great format, but what happens if they release a couple of
clunkers in a row? They can errata cards on the fly in Hearthstone, because
it’s a digital-only game, but you can’t do that on Arena unless you want to
detach the paper game from the physical one.

My point here is that it would be remarkably short-sighted to abandon
Modern for good, and I can’t imagine WotC choosing to do that. They may
take a year or two off from emphasizing it as their flagship format, but
Modern will remain a pretty sharp arrow in their quiver. Heck, they’ll
probably release it on Arena at some point if there’s enough demand, though
it’ll probably be a slightly different version of the format-think an
Arena-exclusive Masters set with 95% of the format’s key staples or perhaps Tempest Remastered style sets.

It also looks like WotC will be supporting a new Eternal format as early as
next fall.
I predicted that this might be announced
early last month. Lo and behold,

I was (sort of) right

. According to Elaine Chase, they intend to have a “Standard Plus” format
that will allow players to use their cards that rotate out of Arena
Standard. Inevitably, this means that this format will end up being
playable in paper Magic, too. Might I suggest picking up key Amonkhet and Kaladesh block staples before that happens?

Enough About Paper – Is MTGO About to Die?

If you follow me on Twitter
, you probably already know that I’ve been one of the lone voices of
optimism about MTGO in recent weeks. I simply don’t think that the program
is nearly as close to death as everybody else does. That said, this is the
first “hot take” I’ve had where multiple(!) good friends have messaged me
in private to tell me that I’m wrong.

On the one hand, I’ve been writing about Magic finance weekly for almost a
decade now and

I’ve been doing weekly MTGO market updates for the past year and a half

. On the other, it’s a poor analyst who stubbornly sticks to their guns and
doesn’t listen to their trusted confidants.

Let’s take a deeper look at the future of MTGO, shall we?

First, the obvious: Magic Arena is a better way to play digital Magic than
Magic Online. It’s prettier, simpler, and better looking. It works better.
It’s more fun to play. Throwing my lot in with Magic Online in the face of
Arena feels a little bit like being a Nokia salesman in 2005, or a Zeppelin
dealer in 1940. The future is here, and it isn’t MTGO.

I also think that the Zeppelin dealer analogy gives MTGO a little too much
credit. I’m sure there were some people back in the 1930s who adored
Zeppelins. I have yet to meet anyone who adores MTGO. While players love
the tangibility of the paper game – that new card smell, that social
interaction – it would be more accurate to say that we spent the past
decade and a half tolerating MTGO because it was the only way to play Magic
from the comfort of your own bedroom. The program is ugly, unreliable,
expensive, and almost universally hated. I can’t blame anyone who wants to
kick it to the curb.

So why am I about to tell you to stop panic-selling your MTGO cards?

Well, right now the MTGO marketplace is in the midst of a crazy market
panic. Two of the biggest bot chains had to stop buying tickets and
collections on Friday, and I can’t blame them. I’m writing this on Friday
afternoon, and the Standard index on MTGO is down 15% from earlier in the
week while the Modern index is down a whopping 28%. And that’s especially
troubling, because a full set of Modern staples is down 55% from early
September and almost 67% from its yearly high back in April. That’s right –
for the price of a single set of Modern staples on MTGO back in April, you
can buy three sets of those same cards today.

This is not the first MTGO market panic. It’s not even the first time that
the big bot chains have had to cease buying cards and collections because
everybody freaked the heck out. But it is the first time that you can point
to the future and say with confidence, “whelp, I can’t imagine things are
getting better for Magic Online anytime soon.”

But to me, both things can be true:

  • Arena is the long-term future of digital Magic.
  • The MTGO market will rebound between now and whatever future date
    when MTGO actually dies.

Right now, everybody and their uncle is trying to make sure that they
aren’t the last one out of this burning building. This is a respectable
goal. It’s rational behavior. Nobody wants to be the one to let it ride on
a platform that we all know is doomed. It makes sense that cards on MTGO
are cheaper now than they were in the spring, both because of increased
treasure chest drops and because we now know that Arena is very, very good.
You probably should have sold your collection 6-8 months ago. I probably
should have been more bearish on the future of MTGO back then.

But at this point, all of that is a sunk cost. Those prices from 6-8 months
ago are gone and they’re not coming back. The only thing that matters now
is where the prices go from here. And unlike (apparently) most of the folks
on my Twitter feed, I don’t think MTGO is going be permanently shuttered in
2018, 2019, or 2020.

Again, it comes back to money. WotC doesn’t have to do much to keep MTGO
running, and it doesn’t make sense for them to focus on bringing Modern to
Arena in 2019 or potentially even 2020 and risk confusing/diluting the
product. And even when they do bring Modern to Arena, there will be methods
of play that simply aren’t going to translate well to the program. Cube
seems eminently possible, but are we ever getting Vintage and Legacy on

There’s also the question of where the floor is on MTGO before it starts to
make sense as a budget option for anyone who wants to play competitive
Magic. Even if Arena and paper Magic are both better and more fun, what
happens if you can buy into, say, Modern Humans on MTGO for less than a
quarter of the price of the deck in paper? Even with the risk of everything
going to zero at some point, I think MTGO’s floor is higher than a lot of
people think right now.

And – let’s not forget – there will be ways to qualify for Mythic
Championships by playing Eternal formats on MTGO next year.

Yet again, I think that the truth about MTGO’s “death” comes down to what
you mean by saying that something is “dead.” Everybody wants to feel smart
and “Arena is going to kill MTGO” is an obvious enough prediction at this
point that you can declare it right now and know that you’ll be correct at
some point. I have no doubt that MTGO’s glory days – and its highest prices
– are behind us at this point.

But I also think that there’s a negative feedback loop happening in the
MTGO market right now, and I strongly suspect that it’ll settle down come
January or February when Modern events are still firing and the MOCS is
still ongoing (with increased prize support over 2018) and Magic Online
still the only place to test Modern online and holy crap you can qualify
with your Pauper deck now? If you want to sell your MTGO collection, just
wait a few months. Things should get better before they get worse.

Does The Creator Have A Master Plan?

There’s one more thing we need to discuss today, and it’s this: I don’t
think enough attention is being paid to the fact that WotC is kind of
flying by the seat of their pants right now.

Consider Ultimate Masters. As somebody on Reddit pointed out,
WotC announced last February that upcoming Masters sets would be based
around themes instead of formats. Well, the set symbol for Ultimate Masters involves two skulls looping back and forth inside
an infinity symbol, and even the dang Ultimate Masters booster box
contains copy from what was likely a scrapped “Graveyard Masters” set. ” Ultimate Masters celebrates that legacy by bringing together some
of the most potent graveyard-themed cards and mechanics ever printed.”

So yeah. It’s pretty clear that the decision to scrap Graveyard Masters and
just sort of throw all the upcoming reprints that they had planned for
2019’s Masters sets into one last hoorah was kind of a last-minute

Or consider the fact that WotC had initially announced that 2019 would have
six Pro Tours, only to cut that number back to four with last Thursday’s
big hoorah. There’s no way they would have made an announcement about
having six Pro Tours if they knew that there would only be four tabletop
Mythic Championships, right?


that six Pro Tour announcement

came on September 6th. That was just three months ago! It’s very possible
that this entire Esports Arena deal didn’t come together until very
recently and that all these decisions were made at pretty close to the last
minute. I kind of wonder if this was all in the books for late 2019 into
2020 and the CEO came to everybody in October and said, “the Arena numbers
are great. Make it happen now.”

This is kind of terrifying. If WotC hasn’t really thought through all the
ramifications of their big push toward Arena and massive changes to
Organized Play, what does that say about the likelihood of everything going
off the rails?

On the other hand, the fact that WotC seems willing to move boldly and
nimbly right now means that none of these new changes are likely as
permanent as they seem. They aren’t taking these wild swings because Magic
is circling the drain. If that were true, we’d see less tournament money in
2019, not twice as much. No, I suspect that all of this is happening
because they think that they’ve got lightning in a bottle with Arena, and
they want to take advantage of our interest (and our checkbooks).

Maybe these changes will be awesome. Maybe they won’t be. But I didn’t see
or read anything on Thursday that made me think that Magic is about to die,
and WotC being quick on the draw should mean that they’ll be able to change
course quickly if things go badly.

And that’s the thing to remember about major change. It’s not always bad,
but it is always scary. Just because you’re frightened doesn’t mean that
Magic is doomed. In fact, we might look back on this week ten years from
now and realize that it was the thing that finally brought our favorite
game into the 21st Century.

This Week’s Trends

  • It was a pretty quiet week in Standard. Arclight Phoenix, Vivien
    Reid, and Treasure Map continue to make up a larger portion of the
    Standard metagame, and they’ve seen their prices tick up as a
    response. Star of Extinction is still a crucial sideboard piece in
    multiple good decks and it gained a little ground this week as

On the other side of the ledger, Vraska, Relic Seeker, Teferi, Hero of
Dominaria, History of Benalia, and Lyra Dawnbringer were all down a bit
this week. The overall losses outstripped the gains and the overall
Standard index continues to drop into its holiday lull. Expect prices to
keep dropping for another couple of weeks before bottoming out at the end
of the month.

  • Over in Modern, it’s all about Ultimate Masters. Surgical
    Extraction and Manamorphose are up a bit, but all the key cards
    from Ultimate MastersNoble Hierarch, Cavern of Souls,
    Engineered Explosives, Runed Halo, Snapcaster Mage, Tarmogoyf
    have continued to drop in price. The initial surge of Ultimate Masters singles has finally hit shelves, so we’re
    probably about a week away from the bottom of their market. Despite
    everything we talked about this week, including the potential
    sidelining of Modern in 2019, I highly recommend picking up these
    staples at some point this month. They’re not going to get any

  • Oh, and if you do buy a box of Ultimate Masters, you might
    want to unseal it and check it out unless you 100% know that you’re
    going to be selling it as a sealed box at some point in the future.

    There are reports of some box toppers being bent right out of
    the box

    , and you don’t want to discover that this happened to you three
    years from now when WotC will no longer replace it for you.