It is as if I have stepped into a nightmare.
I have been to this place before—many times in fact—but it has never felt like this. Just last week these queues were teeming with life; thousands of vibrant players were doing battle with millions of cards. If I crane my head just right, I can still hear their laughter echoing through the corridors of a dying platform. It is but an illusion however—the true nature of these once-hallowed halls is dust and decay, emptiness and entropy. The Daily Events, the PTQs, even the once-hallowed MOCS are all lost to time and memory. Only ghosts remain—ghosts and the undying dream of the grinder, sitting slack-jawed at his keyboard slowly refreshing Worth Wollpert’s column and hoping for a miracle that may never come.
. . .
Okay, so maybe all this apocalypse talk is a wee bit hyperbolic. Magic Online is still functioning, and my guess is that the vast majority of users aren’t experiencing much of an interruption to their normal usage patterns. You can still draft, play in Constructed eight-man queues, build decks, play casual games, trade, playtest with friends, and do everything else besides participate in large or significant tournaments. It’s also not like the major events are going away forever—according to Worth, they’ll be back and better than ever. So why all the panic?
Why All The Panic
For starters, the timeline for a return to normal functionality is really scary. Worth promised us an update by the end of the year, which means that at some point before January we should know when they expect to get the big tournaments up and running again. That statement alone is enough to know that this is a big issue and it won’t be resolved quickly. If Daily Events and the MOCS were coming back in a week or two—heck, even in a month or two—Worth would have given us an ETA right away. Reading that we’ll get an update on the timeline at some point within the next two months says to me that we’ll be lucky to be playing Daily Events again before July.
Even if Worth tells us tomorrow that he expects Magic Online to be working again by mid-January, though, would anyone here actually believe him? I have nothing against the Magic Online team—they all seem like nice people and are most likely doing the best job they can with the resources they have—but nothing Magic Online-related has ever happened on time, nor does it ever seem to work all that well when it finally does get released.
I first downloaded Magic Online in the winter of 2002 back when triple Onslaught was the current Draft format. If anything, Magic Online seems to have gotten worse over the past eleven years. Back then I was in a league, and it felt like there was a lot more interaction between friends than there is currently. Leagues went away a few years ago, and they have yet to return despite the Magic Online folks constantly promising they’re right around the corner.
Trading, collection organizing, the graphical interface, the bizarre classified ads system for selling cards . . . all of these things have gone unchanged in eleven years. Most disappointingly, the new client beta has been grinding along for months now and has been nothing short of a complete failure. Not only does the beta fail to fix many of Magic Online’s glaring interface issues, but it’s so unstable that the development team keeps going back to the drawing board while pushing back the launch. Even if the Magic Online team fixes all of the glaring bugs in the beta and gets the thing rolled out successfully at some point this year, the interface will still be years behind every other video game you’ll play in 2014. There is no possible way that Magic Online has a short-term win—it’s all about minimizing a catastrophic loss at this point.
This puts Wizards of the Coast in an unfamiliar position. In the paper sphere, Magic is the unquestioned champion of the CCG genre. No other game has ever found the right combination of popularity, interaction, flavor, creativity, and quality to really compete with Magic. Many games have tried to take it on over the past twenty years, but none have come close. It is highly unlikely Magic will see any serious competition in the paper sphere at any point soon either. What other company could collect as much elite design, development, and artistic talent, much less afford to pay them before selling a single pack? This isn’t a Los Angeles Dodgers versus Houston Astros situation here—it’s like the entire MLB versus the Lehigh Valley Ironpigs.
The digital sphere is an entirely different story.
See, Magic Online isn’t a good game. It’s a clunky little window that tries really hard to evoke the things that make paper Magic good. Unfortunately, a lot of those things are missing or broken. The human interaction is mostly gone, replaced by a chat box that is mostly ignored lest it becomes a torrent of swear words. There’s no good-natured laughing when you and your opponent both start ripping lands when you need to topdeck a threat onto an empty board—just anxiety while staring at a screen.
Magic’s rules are so complicated and its phases are so fluid that it’s actually impossible to recreate the experience of a real game of Magic on the computer. You have to constantly pass priority by clicking a button a thousand times to essentially replicate the real-world gesture of a head nod. Even if you’re a world-class Magic player, you’re going to misclick—a lot at first—and lose games based on weird trigger arrows flying all over the screen. It can be a frustrating and miserable mess.
Even if Wizards hires the best developers in the world to fix Magic Online, it will never quite work right. The rules simply cannot be replicated 1:1 from paper Magic to the digital sphere with elegance. There are only two options here, neither of them good: make the best possible inelegant client or change the rules of the game.
You don’t think WotC knows this? Check out Duels of the Planeswalkers. That game is a redesigned version of Magic built to work correctly on a computer or game console. They just stripped out the rules that didn’t translate well and replaced them with ones that did. The result is an entertaining and playable game that looks great but doesn’t feel like actually playing Magic. Given the choice, I’ll choose a broken Magic Online over a beautiful Duels of the Planeswalkers every time.
For years Magic Online has provided Wizards with an amazing cash cow. Players are more or less willing to put up with the lousy interface and diminished experience for the convenience of getting to play Magic from home at all hours because the game really is that good. Most people only have access to one or two potential paper drafts a week if they’re lucky. On Magic Online you can draft on a lazy Sunday morning or a random Tuesday night after you’ve finally gotten the kid to fall asleep. Want to play Legacy or any other format that isn’t supported locally? Magic Online. Need to constantly practice against the great players so that you can make the Pro Tour? Magic Online. The program has uses that cannot be replicated, and some number of players will continue to use it no matter what.
Magic Online will not escape competition forever though. A certain number of people will always remain loyal to Magic, but I bet the majority of heavy Magic Online users could be persuaded to spend their time playing a superior DCCG if existed. Here, Magic Online doesn’t quite have all the advantages that the paper game does. While new expansions will continue to be designed and developed by an elite group of creative professionals, Magic Online will always be a facsimile of a physical game.
Games like Hearthstone and SolForge, on the other hand, are created entirely for the digital space. As computers continue to improve, these games can and will evolve in a way that Magic Online will never be able to. Magic Online hasn’t faced real competition before this year, but if either of those two competing games is successful, I imagine the entire DCCG space will explode with alternatives. Magic might be the best game ever designed, but can the creaky Magic Online interface really compete with the next great thing?
Silver Linings Spellbook
Being tied to paper Magic may prevent Magic Online from ever being a truly dynamic experience, but it’s also the reason why you shouldn’t panic too much about last week’s announcement. For all Magic Online’s flaws (and there are many), it is still the only true online platform to play Magic. And that means that it isn’t going away anytime soon.
People are likening the MTGOpocalypse to a stock price tanking, but that’s a poor analogy. Stock prices tumble because people lose faith in what a company is doing, or there are poor earnings, or simply because a bunch of investors pull out and start a small panic. At that point the only reason to buy in on the way down is because you have more faith in the future of company (or at least the company’s stock) than the sellers do.
In the case of Magic Online, there is another benefit for buying in: the ability to play Magic Online. Even for people with very little faith in Magic Online as a whole, there is still value in getting to play Magic on a diminished platform. After all, there are a lot of Magic players who don’t use Magic Online. Why not? Certainly the interface and experience is part of it, but for the majority of people price is the deciding factor. Buying hundreds of fake cards at full price in a computer program just isn’t palatable for lots of people. But what if the cards were all 10% cheaper and had the chance to fully rebound? What about 20%? Or 25%? Or 50%? The lower these prices go, the more people will find themselves no longer priced out of Magic Online. This factor alone limits how bad the short-term crash will be.
The second thing that will keep Magic Online prices propped up to a certain degree is set redemption. As long as people are allowed to cash out their digital cards for paper ones, prices can’t ever fall too low. This is a fantastic way to regulate the online economy and give users faith in what has otherwise continued to be a rather disappointing product. Even though redemption is only valid for sets currently in Standard and they raised the "handling" price from $5 to $25 per set starting with M14, the fact that redemption is possible provides users with a sense of security. Worst case their digital items can always be redeemed for physical ones.
The Crash So Far
The website Mo Souba keeps a broad index of Standard card values on Magic Online. For the entire month of October and into November, the average rare price was right around 1.9 tickets. The index started dropping right around the time [author name="Brian Kibler"]Brian Kibler’s[/author] article was released and public sentiment toward large events began to shift. Today that index is sitting right around 1.6 tickets per card—a drop of about 15% across the board.
This crash is actually bigger than you might think at first glance. The index also includes low-level cards—$0.05 rares and their ilk—that could not possibly drop any further. Factoring these out we notice that most of the top Standard cards have dropped closer to 20% since last week. That’s huge.
Of the 142 cards that had price shifts today (Thursday, 11/14), 126 of them—89%!—dropped in value. Most of the cards that went up in price were low-level rares required for set redemption. The crash is both real and widespread.
It’s also worth noting that these prices are all in event tickets, not dollars. While event tickets sell for $1 each at the Magic Online store, their secondary market value is generally somewhere between $0.90 and $0.98. One of the major online retailers just dropped their buy prices on tickets from $0.95 to $0.90, so it’s possible this drop is even more serious thanks to a loss of faith in tickets as currency.
How much further can Standard cards drop? In terms of redemptions, we’re already getting close to the level where the crash is going to start impacting paper prices in a very real way. Heath Newton tracks these things on Reddit, and he calculated that right now a Magic Online set of M14 is worth 120 tickets, Return to Ravnica is 133, Gatecrash is 91, Dragon’s Maze is 68, and Theros is 115. Even though Theros and M14 redemptions are $25 compared with just $5 for Ravnica block, these prices per set are still lower than the comparable paper prices by a significant margin.
Complete Theros sets in paper are closing between $190 and $200 right now, which means you’d be clearing about $165 after shipping and fees for something you could buy through redemption for about $140. That $15 margin is probably enough for some people to start moving in, so I don’t expect Theros prices to fall off much further on Magic Online without causing a corresponding jump in redemption. The other sets are all pretty close to break-even and might drop off a little more, but none of these sets can tank too much more before the glut of redeemers start buying cards on Magic Online and attempting to make a quick profit.
If Magic Online cards drop much past this point, expect paper prices to take a beating as well, especially complete sets. If thousands of Magic Online sets make the leap to paper Magic, this crash might depress values across the spectrum of Standard. Conversely, this might in turn lead to higher Theros prices on Magic Online years down the line because the online supply is lower thanks to increased redemption. Isn’t economics fun?
If Magic Online does start to become redemption-centric, the first thing you’ll notice is that the rares will tank faster than the mythics. In many cases, bulk mythics are worth more on Magic Online than in paper simply because people need them all to redeem sets. In this scenario, the lower-end mythics would fall off very little, while the chase mythics and rares would continue to tumble.
In the physical sphere, complete sets may start to become an attractive option for consumers. Most players shy away from purchasing full sets anyway, and they already tend to sell lower than they should. Very few players actually need access to every card in a given format, after all, and even those who do tend to buy singles because they already own several key cards thanks to drafting or trading. Why pay more to get cards you already have?
Buying complete sets also requires doing math, which most people are loathe to do. But if you actually add up the cost for buying a set versus the price of the chase rares, you’ll realize that if you buy cards as a set you’re generally getting all the bulk rares and uncommons for free. If a glut of complete sets hit the Internet at the same time, these might tank to the point where they’re an even better deal than usual. If you’re looking to buy into Standard, this crash might help you out a lot.
Something else to watch out for is how difficult it may become to actually sell cards on Magic Online. We’re seeing sales prices drop by 15-20% right now, but it’s much harder to actually track sales volume. Most sites that track card prices go by what the bots are attempting to sell cards for, but if no one’s actually buying these cards, the values become worthless. Based on anecdotal evidence I’ve seen from heavy Magic Online users on Twitter and Reddit, some bots have stopped buying cards entirely, and it’s much harder to sell your collection today than it was yesterday regardless of price.
If you’re still holding on to your Magic Online collection, don’t worry about trying to sell it right now. There was a window to ditch your cards right after the announcement, but that opening has long been shut. The best thing you can do right now is to ride it out, enjoy Theros, and wait for an announcement that the big Magic Online events are coming back.
If you don’t currently have a large Magic Online collection but you’re thinking of buying in, now is the time to start monitoring prices very closely and keeping on top of the trends. I don’t know where the bottom of this vortex is—by the time you’re reading this, it could have happened already. Honestly, I expect prices to have stabilized by the time this goes to print, but I’m not sure what will happen after that. Will they slowly start to rise again, or will they continue to kick around and falter for the next few months? Once you see a small but firm upward trend over a period of at least two or three days, that’ll be your cue to buy in. You’ll miss the true bottom of the market, but your purchases will be as devoid of risk as possible.
Do not blindly buy in now though. Seriously—the risk is too great. I know it seems tempting, but unless you’re going for the quick redemption flip or you’re committed to doing it simply because you love playing the game and you want to own the cards online, stay away. The lack of large events is going to last a long time. I don’t know how the market will react to month three without Daily Events, but there’s a good change it won’t be well.
If you do decide to buy in for personal redemption, focus on the lower-level rares. Chase rares rise and fall based on the metagame, so locking in a low price on rares that aren’t being played right now isn’t a bad idea. Then, as the metagame shifts, you can move in on the pricier cards when they start dropping in value naturally.
Something I don’t expect the price to drop on: Theros booster packs. People are still going to want to play Magic, and for many people Magic Online is their only resource. With most of the big events gone, that means a renewed focus on Draft. Theros is a very good Draft format—a step down from "best ever" sets like Innistrad and Rise of the Eldrazi but certainly stronger than many other recent expansions. If you have a bunch of boosters lying around in your Magic Online account, don’t sell them quite yet.
Interestingly enough, the pre-redemption sets don’t seem to be affected all that much by the market crash. Modern staples are down, but only by 5% or so across the board. Legacy staples haven’t budged much at all. How can this be true? After all, with Standard you can always redeem sets and play Magic in meatspace. When you buy a Legacy or Modern card on Magic Online, that’s it. If the program stops working, you have no recourse.
To me, this speaks volumes about how the community feels about Magic Online. Standard cards are down because these staples have a naturally short shelf life. Sure, Master of Waves is good right now, but who’s to say Journey into Nyx won’t contain the perfect hate card? Hallowed Fountains are useful, but what if we don’t get Daily Events back until after Return to Ravnica rotates? Based on the timeline of the beta, we should only expect Magic Online improvements to happen on a glacial scale.
Modern and Legacy players are just fine waiting, thank you very much. I doubt they expect these events back any time soon either, but there seems to be very little doubt that they will be back and that Magic Online will continue to be heavily supported by WotC in the future.
Pretty much everyone agrees that Magic Online is lousy and mismanaged and there’s no telling what will happen over the short term, but we’re also all in agreement that this is not the end of the road. If it were, there would be a major Legacy and Modern sell-off as people tried to get pennies on the dollar for otherwise useless assets. This isn’t happening, which means that there’s still a lot of confidence here. This round of canceled tournaments isn’t good, but it certainly isn’t the apocalypse.
It’s up to Wizards to prove us all right. I sure hope that they succeed.
Until next week –
– Chas Andres