Can Magic: The Gathering Esports Become a Reality?
There are likely many more digital trading card games than you might think. The genre has gone through somewhat of a renaissance over the past few years, with Hearthstone, Gwent, Shadowverse, and more all garnering both competitive and casual communities. TCGs are competitive by nature, so it’s no surprise to see companies pouring money into tournaments.
Gwent, the Witcher spin-off, has given out over $600,000 in prize money. Hearthstone has racked up two million-dollar championships. These are crazy numbers to see from games with no physical cards available. The most popular trading card game in the physical world has always been Magic: The Gathering, casting a big shadow on the world of TCG.
And now, Hasbro has announced a $10,000,000 investment designed to turn MTG into an esports operation. This massive funding is being poured into MTG Arena, Magic’s latest and greatest online client. While not their first, it is their first major foray into online TCGs since 2002.
What Makes a Card Game an Esport?
Magic is somewhat lucky in that it’s far from the first card game to try to break into competitive video gaming. The obvious predecessor is Hearthstone, which has pretty much set the precedent for TCG esports. Cards need to be flashy, interesting, powerful, and maybe a little chaotic. Hearthstone even features randomness pretty heavily in their card designs, so spectators and players never know exactly what to expect.
This couldn’t be further from what MTG brings to the table. While a single card in Hearthstone might wipe the board, present a win condition, and protect itself all in one, Magic’s cards are usually much simpler. There aren’t very many Magic cards with RNG elements, and usually, that just means flipping a coin. Magic also consists of 60 card decks with up to four copies of a single card, making games much more consistent.
That’s not to say Magic: The Gathering doesn’t have any “wow factor,” but the awesome moments in Magic come from the players, not the cards. Skilled outplays and counterspell wars are exciting, and they happen all the time at higher-tier levels of play. While Magic generally has a lower power level than Hearthstone, many cards can literally remove the rules of the game. Cards can let you take extra turns, create alternate win conditions, or remove the cost of playing spells entirely.
Speaking of costs to play spells, let’s look at how Magic’s resource system works. Players can play a land card once a turn. These normally produce one mana of a single color, but lands exist that can produce two, three, or even all five colors too. Spells can cost anywhere from 0 to 15 mana, though most are six mana or less. Resources being a part of your deck, as opposed to just given for free like Hearthstone, can result in terrible matches because players just didn’t draw enough lands. Sometimes the opposite can happen, and they draw too many.
That’s a problem that Hearthstone doesn’t have because of its simple “one more mana per turn” rule. Getting mana-screwed doesn’t happen every game, but it happens enough that it can result in a sour spectator experience. However, Hearthstone has already shown that a game with variance built in can still put on a good show.
Though the new MTG Arena client is less than a year old, Magic itself dates back to the late 1980s. It hasn’t gone this long without a competitive community. The Pro Tour is MTG’s original pro circuit, featuring players from all over the world who must qualify to even enter the tour. Grand Prixs are also held worldwide pretty frequently, with many of them having camera coverage, live commentary, and AA baseball level production, which is just good enough that you can’t call it bad. These tournaments rack up tens of thousands of viewers on Twitch, and many competitive MTG clips have hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube.
The competitive side of Magic has a ton of rich history to pull from, but not all of it can make it to the esports realm. Prospective fans don’t care about the legendary Lightning Helix topdeck that won Craig Jones a spot in the Finals of Pro Tour Honolulu back in ‘06. Making this problem even worse is Magic’s format problem.
The Many Formats of Magic
With over 25 years of cards being produced, players shouldn’t be surprised to find out that you can’t play all of them in the swanky new Arena client. Only cards legal in Standard are available. Standard consists of cards printed in the last two years, and it rotates yearly, pulling out four major releases and slowly refilling the card pool as the year goes on. Standard sets release quarterly, but there are a bunch of releases between them that aren’t Standard legal. Understanding what is and isn’t legal in Standard can be tough.
Arena sticks to Standard because of two major reasons. The first is the relatively small card pool. Coding a card game is tough, and many cards were made in a time where coding them into a video game never seemed like a possibility. Standard cards are made with digital in mind, so the engine running the game (almost) never bugs out or goes haywire.
The second reason is its simplicity. Some of the other formats in Magic get really, really crazy. The second-lowest-power major format, Modern, has decks that can kill on Turn 2. Legacy, which consists of every card ever printed with a massive banlist, can kill on Turn 1. Vintage, which is like Legacy but with no banlist, has decks that can kill on Turn 0. Standard’s quickest lethal is on Turn 4, but that doesn’t happen every game.
Pro Tours and Grand Prixs put the rest of the formats on the same level as Standard, but Arena only has room for one format. It’s probably for the best, but iconic cards like Black Lotus, the Moxen, and Brainstorm might as well not exist for Arena-only fans. This, once again, prevents the full culture of Magic from pushing it towards popularity.
Magic’s tried and true competitive history does mean one thing: people are willing to watch Magic. If they’re willing to watch glare bounce off of cardboard on a table while the commentators explain which cards are being played, they’ll likely also watch the game with clear information and easily visible hands. Arena is no slouch when it comes to its graphics.
There’s no real spectator view yet, which is a real shame. I’d love to be able to see both players’ hands and follow along with their decision making. One is likely already in development, since Arena events have already been announced by Wizards of the Coast, the company that makes Magic.
A big advantage that Arena, along with most other card games, has is that its mechanics can be roughly translated into other card game mechanics. Deathtouch is the same as Poisonous from Hearthstone. Haste is like Storm or Rush from Shadowverse. This ease of information allows fans of other TCGs to instantly understand Magic’s combat, though it’s still a little more complex than in other games.
This complexity is because players can choose to attack with their creatures, but they can’t choose where the damage goes. Defending players can choose to block with their own creatures or destroy the opponent’s creatures before the damage even gets to them.
This is because, in Magic, you can play cards on your opponent’s turn. These cards, called Instants, can disrupt the flow of a match very quickly. Instants keep players on their toes because their opponent could always have an answer in their hand that they can play at Instant speed. This keeps spectators engaged, and seeing both hands can let you predict how and when players will cast their spells.
Overall, Magic doesn’t have any major roadblocks when it comes to spectator experience. It can pull fans of other TCGs, can be easily understood, but also has enough complexity to reward seasoned spectators. All in all, as long as a good tournament overlay exists, Arena is esports ready.
Magic: The Gathering has everything it needs to become a premier TCG esport, but it all comes down to the details. Will it have a good overlay? How will they advertise? And can the client keep itself together if the game steps up the complexity? All these questions are yet to be answered, but with $10,000,000 at their disposal, I’m sure they’ll have enough of a budget. MTG Arena has broken new ground; now WotC and Hasbro just have to plant the seeds.