Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you’re probably familiar with the fact that Wizards is very close to beginning the closed beta of their new digital offering, Magic the Gathering Arena. I had the opportunity to play through a demo of the game earlier this year at HasCon. If you haven’t seen it yet, the team behind it has near-weekly live streams on Twitch to talk about it and feature some well-known streamers playing through it.

Of course the burning question on a lot of people’s minds in the Magic community is how MTG Arena is going to co-exist with Wizards of the Coast’s current flagship digital product: Magic the Gathering Online? The answer right now is very unclear to be honest, and there are a lot of different futures each product can head down. Today I want to discuss what I think are the three most likely options.

Before I go into detail on each scenario let’s discuss a few high-level ideas that direct us to these futures. First, from a positive point-of-view, the two platforms should be able to coexist because they’re trying to accomplish different things. Magic Online aims to reproduce the experience of playing paper Magic while MTG Arena is creating a digital Magic experience. While those might sound like they’re the same thing, they’re really not. Second, Magic Online will not catch up to MTG Arena in terms of usability or portability anytime in the near future. And lastly, the target audience for both products is currently very limited and the challenge in predicting the future of these two products is predicting MTG Arena’s ability to generate market share from new sources rather than siphoning them off from Magic Online’s player base.

Scenario 1: MTG Arena for Casual Players, MTGO for Competitive Players

Let’s start right off with what I believe is the most likely scenario for the future. MTG Arena will become the primary game for casual online constructed Magic and will replace most of the casual content on Magic Online. This includes Friendly Draft League, Friendly Sealed League, and Standard Friendly Constructed league. Also, the current casual constructed practice room for Standard will be replaced by MTG Arena.

While MTG Arena will (very likely) have a competitive ladder that resets on a periodic basis, like Hearthstone’s monthly ladder, this won’t replace competitive constructed leagues on Magic Online which offer an experience much closer to a paper tournament. However it allows players who want to just casually jam Standard some rewards for monthly grind/progression. The Magic Online Championship Series however will remain on Magic Online, maintaining the competitive nature of the platform.

The community would become somewhat segmented as more casual players abandon Magic Online in favor of MTG Arena. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and it allows Wizards to target their audiences more accurately, offering the right incentives to both player bases. Play points and treasure chests are great incentives for casual players. Tickets and packs are great incentives for competitive grinders.

The impact of this scenario on Magic Online’s economy is questionable. If friendly limited leagues move off of MTGO and onto MTG Arena, does it mean card availability will be hindered on Magic Online? It seems likely. On the other hand, if MTG Arena is a success will it grow the player base? And if it does so will some of the new players move to Magic Online, replacing the casual community that moved to MTG Arena?

If both platforms are going to coexist peacefully I think this is probably the most-likely way for them to live together, at least for the first few years as MTG Arena establishes its role in the world. Having a “casual” and “competitive” platform may not make a ton of sense but if you consider that the needs and desires for both groups are wildly different then it isn’t hard to envision this working out.

Scenario 2: The End of Set Redemptions on Magic Online

But what if the economics can’t continue to support Magic Online as the casual players migrate over to MTG Arena? Is this the death of Magic Online? No, not very likely. Competitive players want a digital platform and Wizards wants to give it to them. It’s a no-brainer that Wizards would rather make sure everyone can play online than just casual players.

So this means changes would have to come to Magic Online. Speculating on those changes is not easy because Magic Online’s economy is a complicated beast. Card availability is wildly different from paper products. Standard set redemption skews the value of some cards (esp. standard-legal foils). The conversion of tickets to cash is another concern.

There’s a lot of moving parts, but we have to consider the scenario where MTG Arena siphons off too much of Magic Online’s player base, causing a shortage of card availability, resulting in the cost of cards going up, making more players leave for MTG Arena. It’s certainly a concerning cycle of events. What can Wizards do?

What would happen if Wizards stopped allowing players to redeem sets for paper Magic cards? I don’t have the answer to that question but if fewer packs are opened because of casual players leaving the platform, then does it make sense to prevent more cards leaving the available card pool via redemption?

In order for Magic Online to simulate a paper Magic environment, it needs to support a digital secondary market, which means there needs to be a large enough pool of cards for the trading that goes on between players and bots and larger distributors. That doesn’t mean players need to be able to convert their collections from digital to paper products.

Isolating digital Magic from paper Magic entirely, across both MTG Arena and Magic Online, might even allow more cross-promotion between the paper game and the digital games such as redemption codes in packs that give you digital products (something players have wanted for about as long as Magic Online has existed).

Scenario 3: MTG Arena Stumbles Out of the Gate

Making video games is not easy. Making card games is not easy. Wizards of the coast has a proven track record of being good at making card games and not as good at making video games. For Magic the Gathering Arena to be successful, Wizards needs to wade into an already competitive field of digital collectible card games including the elephant in the room: Hearthstone.

There’s no doubt that Wizards goal is to grow the Magic the Gathering player base by marketing MTG Arena to the larger gaming community, hoping to draw players away from Hearthstone who are looking for a different experience or draw players away from other genres who never got into card games for various reasons.

However, if MTG Arena isn’t able to grow Magic’s market share, then Wizards might have to siphon more of their own player base from Magic Online to help keep MTG Arena stable until it can grow beyond Magic’s community. This could mean more competitive events show up in MTG Arena, or it could mean support for formats like Modern, Commander, and Cube, which are very popular on Magic Online.

This scenario seems wildly unlikely but you can never count your chickens before they hatch and until we start seeing an open beta where players can freely stream MTG Arena and we can really start to understand how successful it’s going to be, we have to plan for the worst.

MTG Arena has a bright future ahead of it, but if it stumbles out of the gate, will Magic Online become the sacrificial lamb to appease the gaming gods so that MTG Arena can survive? I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case.

Rich Stein has played Magic Online since the release of Odyssey and is looking forward to the future of digital Magic products.

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