Magic today is a very different animal than it was last year. Almost all play is digital, with Magic Arena hosting the majority of play. Standard, Magic’s flagship format, has been given a shot in the arm after years of slowly listing. (Sure, it’s plagued by more bans than ever before, but all-digital Magic mitigates the sting.) Historic has gone from Pioneer’s forgotten sibling to the only major eternal format—aside from Commander, which isn’t yet on Arena, and Brawl, which is on Arena but seems at best a niche format. Limited remains fun, but is more irrelevant than ever before.

I am first and foremost a Limited player. I got back into Magic through drafting. I learned how to play competitively through Team Draft League and at Twenty Sided Store’s Tuesday night Drafts. I qualified for Players Tour Phoenix through an eleven round qualifier across three Limited formats. While it’s far from the only way I engage with Magic, Limited is the lens through which I see the game. And now is a strange time to be a Limited player—time being the operative word.

A Switch in Time

The pandemic has drastically changed the timeline of how I interact with a new set. As a primarily Limited player, here’s the (approximate) timeline of how I used to interact with new sets.

~3 weeks before prerelease: Follow daily preview content, discuss new cards with friends, speculate about the Limited format, select possible inclusions for my cube.

Week 1: Prerelease at my local game store with friends, draft with friends using preordered boxes, draft on Arena, consume daily Magic content.

Week 2: Drive/fly to a Limited MagicFest/Grand Prix or jam release weekend drafts with friends, consume daily Magic content.

Weeks 3-6: Draft weekly at my local game store, draft irregularly online, obtain cards to update cube, consume daily Magic content.

~ Week 7+: Stop or curtail drafting online, continue drafting at my LGS but no longer weekly. Play more cube, Pioneer, Modern, Legacy, offbeat formats (like Mystery Booster, Unstable, or chaos draft), and other games. Continue consuming daily Magic content, but less intently as I’m less actively engaged.

This was my play pattern for Magic’s triannual releases. I was fully engaged with each set for about nine weeks and still engaged for another six before getting bored. I played Core Sets far less and premium draft products like Modern Horizons and Ultimate Masters simply aren’t available for six weeks. Overall, I was deeply engaged with the current set for about half of the year and actively engaged with Magic for the vast majority of the year.

While the core of my actual Magic play was Limited, I was actively engaged with most aspects of the game. I read Standard and Commander articles despite playing far less of them, since I enjoyed understanding those worlds and discussing them with friends. I read Magic’s stories regardless of quality, because I love its characters and its worlds. Not a day would go by were I didn’t read or watch something Magic.

The Ripple Effect

Once a few linchpins of my schedule became dislodged, the tapestry unwound. Without any Limited tournaments, there was nothing prepare for, making it less important for me to practice. For Ikoria, my friends and I nevertheless banded together to get good at the format, but there was no reward for being great at Ikoria. Just playing with friends required so much more coordination than when we could gather at someone’s house for a Saturday Drafturday, and the payoff was far less fun. So we just stopped playing together. I’d lost the most essential social component of Magic—it being a vehicle for hanging out with and making new friends. At the same time, I’d lost access to my local game store’s community—the thing that kept my drafting even when I felt I’d experienced all a format had to offer.

When Magic has no in-person social aspects, I stop playing formats that rely on my paper collection: Cube, Pioneer, Modern, and Legacy. Those were the activities that kept me engaged in the ~4 week long lulls between one set becoming stale and the next preview season spinning up. With so many formats no longer being playable, I don’t care to read about them as much. With competitive Limited essentially not existing (I enjoy Traditional Draft much more than bot drafts, so I only climb the ladder when a format I love comes up on Quick Draft), I follow far less Limited content—both so I can enjoy my own process of discovery and because I end up outpacing it. Factor in that Magic has only one weekly column (Making Magic, which I follow assiduously) and a few stories per quarter, my reading habits fell to almost nothing.

A Time to Binge

One might think that losing so many avenues of engagement would decrease the amount of Magic I play, but that isn’t so. Magic is still an incredibly fun game that I love to play. Freed of the restrictions of my LGS’s schedule and there only being one Saturday each week for a Drafturday, I now binge the crap out of sets. Here’s what my calendar of engagement looks like nowadays.

~3 weeks before prerelease: Consume daily preview content, select possible inclusions for my cube.

Week 1: Draft daily on Arena.

Week 2: Draft daily on Arena.

~ Week 3+: Draft irregularly on Arena, obtain cards to update cube, play other games.

~ Week 5+: Play other games. If Dominaria or War of the Spark show up on Arena, draft a bunch and hit Mythic.

Starting after work on the Thursday of release, I draft several times a day, most days if not every day. Within two weeks, I have experienced every archetype the set has to offer. Before the third week is out, I am completely burnt out and done. Overall, I’m probably drafting about as much as I was before the pandemic. With Arena drafts being free and completable within an hour, I can play more in a day or two than I’d play in a week in the before times. However, condensing six weeks of dedicated Limited play into about two and a half weeks of nonstop play drastically decreases the amount of time I engage with Magic.

There is no Pioneer or Cube to fill the increasingly large gap periods between sets. No casual discussions during lunch breaks or coffee runs about upcoming events. With so many of Magic’s meta-activities inaccessible, remaining meta-activities like reading articles hold less attention. I run out of Magic to experience within a month of release and play little to no Magic for weeks at a time. With each successive pandemic release, I find myself disengaging harder and earlier—I don’t think I’ve drafted in a month despite thoroughly enjoying Zendikar Rising.

Sated too Soon

This is the Netflix era of Magic. Once, episodes of shows came out a week at a time. In between releases, people conversed and speculated. Now an entire series arrives and is consumed within a single weekend. This isn’t an innately good or bad phenomenon, it simply is. It works better for some people, while others still watch shows at their own pace.

For me, this all-digital era compresses three months of playing Magic into a fun but frenzied two weeks; after which I put Magic down, play other games, and wonder why I buy Mastery Passes. (I win enough games to complete them, but over too small a time period for them to count or motivate me to keep going.) The sad thing is that I don’t want to stop playing—I just run out of things to do. And this makes me a worse customer for Magic.

Breaking Bank

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been happily supporting my local game store. I’ve bought boxes of every set with a 20% tip on top in the hopes of still having a community to play Magic in once enough of the world is safely vaccinated. But this Black Friday, there was simply nothing I wanted. I already buy 2-3 boxes of every set, crack or save them, and then that’s it. I already have enough playmats, sleeves, and deckboxes and am not wearing out the ones I have. Other than some singles to update my Cube (which I can’t play with but still dote on), I haven’t had a use for paper cards since Players Tour Phoenix and don’t anticipate needing them again until—maybe next Autumn?

And as for Magic Arena? I haven’t spent a cent since I dropped $100 in fall 2018. I want to support Magic, but there’s simply nothing I can’t afford with the gems I win. Sure, I generate value by being an opponent to people who are paying, but all of that value is constrained to a 2-3 week period where once it was a moderate burn over an entire set’s lifespan. This isn’t a problem if it’s just me, but if my behavior is part of a trend, that would make it harder for players to find opponents (something which anecdotally has been happening). It would mean that I’m not the right kind of customer for Magic to cater to. I wonder whether this is a visible problem or if it becomes a serious issue.

Solving for Playtime

Hopefully with widespread vaccinations, things like FNM and MagicFests will return. Things will assuredly be different—I don’t think the digital genie will or ought back into its bottle—many of Magic’s modes of play and meta-activities will return, as will my previous level of engagement. But in the meantime, there are some things I hope Magic does to keep me and players like me engaged, because I do want to be more engaged.

First and foremost, I crave variety. Currently, Magic Arena offers four Limited formats:

  1. Zendikar Rising Quick Draft
  2. Zendikar Rising Traditional Draft
  3. Zendikar Rising Premier Draft
  4. Kaladesh Remastered Premier Draft

I think that’s all that they’ve offered since Ikoria Premier Draft cycled out a month ago. The pandemic making it easier to burn out on formats makes it more important that a variety of formats be available and more dangerous for options to stagnate for a month. I understand that the current set needs to be offered in three different queues for different types of players, as well how too many options dilutes playerbases. But this scant rotation produces absolutely no novelty. And if the one alternative format doesn’t hold interest (I loved Amonkhet Remastered but Kaladesh Remastered hasn’t done it for me), then that’s a month or more where I just don’t play.

Does Arena have room for another Quick Draft queue or Traditional queue? Could it afford Cube happening a bit more frequently? Can we always have rotating flashback formats? I recognize that there are wacky formats on weekends, but this Old Fogey loves to draft and thrives on nostalgia. Then again, let’s talk a little bit more about these weekend events.

(Author’s note: between the completion of this article and its publishing, the December Arena State of the Game came out. There won’t be additional Quick Drafts, but there will be additional Premier Drafts.)

Wait, What’s Happening?

It’s not always obvious what’s going to happen on Arena or when. If we look at just the event calendar:

December apparently features nothing but Zendikar Rising. If you scroll down a little father to see featured events:

You see two ongoing Limited events currently available on Arena and two FNM formats. I’m not interested in either format—which is fine, not everything is for me—but that’s all that’s easily found about Arena’s offerings. With a little research, the FNM at Home update shows two upcoming FNM events not on the calendar and the November State of the Game says that Historic Brawl returns in January. I can go to Arena’s main page to see this helpful schedule advertising a nonexistent Theros Beyond Quick Draft running from October to June and two identical FNM at Home Mastermind events.

My second request is a minor overhaul of how Arena’s schedule is presented. My inability to know what is and will be on Arena has led to me logging in every now and then, perusing what’s available, not noticing many, if any differences from the previous weeks’ offerings, and logging out. For all I know, cube is coming back, as is Dominaria draft and I can get excited. But absent better communication, I check in randomly and don’t anticipate playing until Kaldheim releases.

In Search of Purpose

My final wishlist item, and the only one that involves adding a feature to Arena (albeit one Arena’s team has made a priority) is adding competitive Limited tournaments. Sure, Magic is plenty of fun to play and win at on its own, but I miss having the brain-wracking play decisions that real stakes create. I want there to be a reward for getting ahead of the crowd in a new Limited format beyond being infinite on gems. I want a reason to team up with my friends to break a format and to rekindle the passion that sent us friends flying across the world to cities we barely had time to explore because we needed to be in convention centers. Arena doesn’t yet have the functionality to put specific people into draft pods, but I hope that feature’s coming round the bend. I want something to aim for, and a tournament right after release is exactly the appropriate goal for Magic’s transient Netflix era.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

—Zachary Barash is a New York City-based game designer and the commissioner of Team Draft League. He designs for Kingdom Death: Monster, has a Game Design MFA from the NYU Game Center, and does freelance game design. When the stars align, he streams Magic (but the stars align way less often than he’d like).

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