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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Magic Arena

My previous article about Arena can be found here. I wrote it so people would understand that Arena is not another Magic Duels game. This post will talk about economy and some things that bug me.

Many of you haven't heard from me for quite a while. As usual that is due to me being pretty depressed. The good things happening in my life are usually related to Magic. There were good things that happened. I met the Professor, NissaCosplay, and Autumn Burchett and I'm very glad for that. I felt a part of something and that is pretty rare since whenever I go somewhere I'm shown that I do not belong. At the place I met them - GP London - things didn't go well for me and I doubt me as a player and I can't figure out why Rivals of Ixalan (and Ixalan) makes me totally upset. I returned from the GP with a very bitter feelings and I had no will to even play Magic. I played a bit though, losing all my PP which did not make me feel any better. I sold the reminder of my won RIX and XLN packs not wanting to see RIX/XLN again. During that time I also felt that I should be helping testing Arena. I got the privilege to join the closed beta so I should play and give them my feedback and info that is being collected from the game. Arena though was another feel bad experience though and that is why I decided to sum up the info we know and write about things that bugged me since the new update that happened on the 18th of January (this may be a long post because I really need to get this off my chest).

As you may know I was invited to the Magic Arena in November. At that time Arena looked fine and it was actually enjoyable to play some cards and just enjoy. Things in Arena were changing fast. We could observe Arena getting better and better. I was very enthusiastic about that because that kind of speed we don't see when playing on Magic Online (MODO) or Magic Duels (Duels). I was very glad I got invited to MTGA at the beginning because I was very curious about the whole development of the game and the state of things seemed good at first. I wanted to write about my experience and comment on the progress after the NDA would be lifted. Unfortunately as it seems all that can't be made public after the NDA is lifted.

There is a forum for the beta testers, that is used to report bugs, give feedback and allows us to talk about Ixalan block constructed and rant about the economy. More and more players are invited to the beta and we see the same posts over and over which should be a good indicator to Wizards of the Coast that something has to change.

Writing a long feedback on the forums is obviously not going to serve anything so I decided to use my blog to somehow alleviate my stress from playing Arena. Since I can't talk about specifics it may be rather vague. So let's go back to Magic the Gathering Arena (MTGA).

When closed beta was launched after some alpha testing we played with Ixalan (XLN) cards. We got the chance to test quite a lot because cards were easily accessible for us. Many of us were happy just playing and commenting on what we like and what we do not like. We also tested if Ixalan cards worked or now. With Rivals of Ixalan (RIX) things were about to change. We all anticipated the moment when we could test the economy - all of us being aware that this is what will decide the fate of Arena.

With RIX, our accounts got wiped and we were introduced to an economy of sorts. There is an article about it on the mothership by Chris Clay. We could also get some bits and pieces of information during (mostly) weekly Wednesday's streams on Magic's twitch channel. Here is a summary of information we know so far.

  • There are two currencies - Gold that you can earn in game and Gems that we can buy with real money through the in-game store.

  • There are/will be two kinds of booster packs. The ones we can buy to open them and packs that will be available when we draft.
  • Wildcards are special cards that can appear in the place of a different card in a pack. They have their own rarity and can be redeemed for any card of that rarity.
  • There is also something called The Vault. We can somehow fill that with something and it will eventually open granting us some cool stuff (so far Wildcards). We fill the Vault by opening packs and getting extra copies of cards we already own in a playset.
  • WotC during the closed beta game with front-loaded rewards meaning that the biggest rewards can be gained early - in the first hour of playing. They also devised a system for those that can play daily (and thus profit from the daily wins) and those that can't (quests). There are of course rewards for playing more each day, but there is also a cap. We get some gold, cards and free packs.
  • No dusting and crafting
  • No possibility to disable animations
  • Full control mode and 'automatic' mode

Currency

There is not much I can say about the currencies. Free-to-play games use two kind of currencies, one being regular in-game one and the other is a premium one that can be bought with real money. In SolForge for example we had Silver and Gold (premium). In Arena we have Gold and Gems (premium). WotC said we would be able to buy anything that will be available with regular currency unlike in some other games where there is/was a premium content only purchasable by premium currency.

We can obtain gold in several ways - by winning games, by completing quests or by winning in events.

Booster packs

8-card booster packs will be those that we can buy with gold or gems. We will also receive those very same packs as rewards (if that happens). These packs will contain 5 commons, 2 uncommons and a rare or mythic rare card. On each of the rarity slots there will be a chance to open a wildcard.

When we will enter a draft, we will draft with regular 14-card packs (no basic land included) that won't contain wild cards. These drafts are not phantom (the term 'keeper draft' is being used) meaning that you will keep the cards you draft. This may show to be one of the best ways how to get the cards we want.

Just reading the chat during streams, reading through the forums, reddit, MTGA Channel etc. shows that many people are confused why there are two kinds of packs. There are also many people saying that this is just wrong. Opening 8-card packs means we get less commons and uncommons and actually it seems that getting some uncommons is actually pretty hard right. It really feels bad to open a 8-card pack if you know that in a draft you get to pick 14 cards from each pack. Even though we don't know how this will actually all work in the end having two kind of booster packs doesn't make sense and frustrates many players that did not even get the chance to play the game yet.

Wildcards

Many players wanted some kind of a dust/craft system and from the very start we learned that there won't be anything like that. It took a while though for Wizards of the Coast to tell us how we would be able to get the cards we want. They introduced something they call wildcards. Those are cards we can open in packs or get for out wins. They are in each rarity. We can redeem a wildcard for ANY card of the same rarity as the wildcard. So example a Mythic Wildcard will allow us to get Rekindling Phoenix.

Before I go on I should note that I'm not a free-to-play player and I'm fully immersed in economy that people may find very unfriendly and cruel - that is the Magic Online economy. A player that goes through this kind of a 'hostile' environment is used to something that requires a lot of maths and decisions. Depending on how good a person is at that (I'll ignore the players win percentage) they will either get what they need for cheap or for a lot of real money. My point of view thus on certain aspects of F2P economy can be skewed. I have my preferences.

I really liked the idea of Wildcards and at first I thought that they might actually work pretty well. We should be very glad to open them because we can trade these for cards we want. These cards alone should let us feel rewarded when we open them or win them. Many games (at least those I know) like Hearthstone, Eternal use a 'dust'/craft system. This means that you can take your cards and destroy them in order to gain a certain resource - be it Arcane Dust or Shiftstone - with which you can craft cards you want. In order to get one card of the rarity you want though you will need to dust more cards of the same rarity. For example if you'd want to craft a rare you'd need to dust 4 rares to get the 1 you want. Wizards of the Coast was repeating a lot that there is a very strong feeling of remorse when you dust something (because later you may realize that you need the card). Since this is how games usually work I never really questioned this system. I never heard anyone complaining about this kind of system. When I talked to people I just heard what cards they want to get and they never felt bad for dusting other cards. When I joined Arena's Discord channel though I realized that I my background is very different - the players around me are the competitive kind of players that will just do anything to get what they want so they can play what they want. I've been always doing that myself and never thought that something is wrong with that. There on the MTGA channel I realized that a casual player who just wants to play may find this system to be a little problematic and a bit too much to digest. Also I didn't realize that someone new could come to the game and be utterly lost. Those players may not be able to figure out which cards are worth crafting and which cards to dust. All this can certainly create bad feelings and when a player feels bad they get demotivated and not wanting to even try the game because some obstacles are hard to deal with. In the end I had to agree at least partly with Wizards of the Coast. My experience playing Arena though showed me that moments that could be tagged #FeelsBadMan can be achieved in a system without dust/crafting system.

There might be many issues with wildcards though. The first one to come up to mind is that there might be a huge excess of certain wildcards (common ones). What to do with excess commons? We can actually 'dust' them to gain progress on the Vault, but that alone will require us to go through redeeming cards one by one unlike in other f2p games where we can just dust everything we don't want at once. Will that even be worth doing?

Another issue with wildcards is that they are not set specific. This can mean that similar when a new set comes out, we might be able to get the cards we want right away. This will create a huge divide between new players and those having access to the cards (I will ignore the fact that you could possibly buy the cards with real money). This as it seems was one of the reasons why Magic Duels failed.

The Vault

Since there we will be getting extra copies of cards we do not want there is something called the The Vault. Players should be looking forward to open it. The progress bar will fill after we crack open a pack be it a bought pack or a draft pack, or after we open an extra copy (over a play set - 4) of a card. When the bar is full we will be able to open the Vault and get some loot (I think the contents specific contents are under NDA so far) - wildcards were mentioned as far as I know.

Anyway does this sound familiar? If you are f2p player and ever used the dust system this will probably translate to you as a dust system. It has one catch though. Unlike in other games where you can dust anything, here you will only be able to dust extra copies of cards. If you think that opening a pack helping you progress is a novelty - it is not. At least in Eternal the same thing happens. I opened some packs after finishing my first Gauntlet and stared at the screen a little puzzled because I earned a certain amount of Shiftstone!

One thing I'd like to note. This is a dust system that does not give you control over what you want to dust. When I watched the stream I asked a question: 'will it be possible to send to the vault cards that we don't have excess of?'. We all knew the answer as this was already answered during the stream and many times before everywhere (no). When Nate was reading the question he translated it is as 'meaning that we get to dust our cards we don't want?' and then answered my question. I've done exactly the same thing WotC did with the Vault. The way I see the Vault is a bad dust system since we get some wildcards we can turn in theory into something we want. There might be some RNG involved later but even without it, how will the contents of the Vault actually help us get what we want? All I see is RNG written all over it and unnecessary steps to get what we want. On the other hand if you are not familiar with a dust system, this will look relatively innocent and might actually seem as a good system (similarly my question seemed innocent till the person answering it realized what I'm referring to).

Front-loaded rewards

The way how we get out cards is mostly through rewards of some sorts. Be it a reward we get for completing a quest or a reward for winning an event or a ranked match. Wizards described a front-loaded rewards on their page meaning that we get the most after a short period of playing the game. Many games offer 1st win award, for example. That's what they mean by this. Anyway a player who plays for short periods of time everyday and a player who plays for a long time few days per week should be able to progress at similar speed. In order to try out the economy I decided to do both if possible but soon came to a conclusion what is the best approach to grind. This happens when I'm not motivated to play because if I would be I wouldn't need to have EV flashing in my head. My play habit is playing up to 50 minutes everyday. Most of the time the play time does not reach those 50 minutes. I just collect the biggest rewards and close Arena.

How did my experience looked like and what issues I encountered? During the first few days I felt really badly both physically and mentally and I just needed to play something that wouldn't cost me money (or tix). So I fired up Arena which I was very hyped to try out and I played for hours. I didn't really feel rewarded for the amount of games I finished but at that time I couldn't really judge because I don't have much my experience with f2p games. Later on though I could compare the progress I made during the first few days and the progress when I played for 15-50 minutes per day. It was pretty much the same. If there was a difference (yeah, I got some more cards) it wasn't really that relevant and it felt really bad. I needed uncommons very badly and just couldn't get them. 8-card booster packs felt really bad and the cards awarded were often pretty useless for me. For example I got [Ashes of the Abhorrent] followed by Ashes of the Abhorrent. This was a very bad feeling. Why? Because I was literally stuck with those cards. On MODO I got similarly lucky during my first two sealed decks. I opened 3 copies of Ashes of the Abhorrent but it did not feel that bad since I knew it's just another rare I can just sell for 0.015 tix if I want to and get cards of equal price (if that price seems laughable then I can tell you that it is. On the other hand for this price you can get other cards that you might actually want to play, be it commons or rares). Arena then rewarded me with [Overflowing Insight] and [Zetalpa, Primal Dawn]. Zetalpa is probably a card I could play, right? How I'd stay alive without any mass removal and not so much spot removal? I could also ramp into it. I don't have a single copy of [Thunderherd Migration] and the two copies of [New Horizons] are certainly not going to do the trick. It felt really bad because I knew that on this slot I could get [Vraska, Relic Seeker] or [Rekindling Phoenix] that I could certainly find use for. I felt like I did not progress at all and my decks were pretty much the same bad decks (the video below shows what decks I have so far - you can just click through to see them. Nothing great but many people already whine that some of my decks are not particularly 'budget' - yes, they contain rares sometimes).

Here I show some of my crappy decks I have in Arena. Since I can't show Arena I present them in a Magic Online client

Next week I decided to stop winning and focus on quests because Nate or Chris C. or whoever said that even without winning we could progress at decent speed and be able to get the cards we want (or simply progress in a different way). My rank went to the lowest possible one (that's where I currently am). I wasn't getting the normal win rewards, instead I was getting the quest rewards. I can't talk about the numbers and other stuff because of NDA, so all I will say just this. The way how the quests are now, we really try to avoid some of them and try to just get the most value out of it. That's something that should be changed (and it will be). After trying to progress by completing quests and opening packs only, I realized that this is a really BAD place to be and decided to focus on winning again. I learned that winning is way better way to advance since completing quests can be done at the same time. This means that those players losing a lot will most probably get demotivated VERY fast. I remembered Nate saying how great Arena will be in this regard, because all kind of players will be able to progress and feel rewarded. I did not feel rewarded in either case and being at the 'beginner I can't win a single game' place I was very discontent.

One more thing to note is this. First I don't know what kind of tutorials, tips and what our starting collection will be when the game launches. It is very possible though that we will be forced to actually play a certain kind of deck that does not need to be the deck we would like to play. For example when I started I opened 3 copies of [Dreamcaller Siren] and that is the reason why I ended up in UB Pirates on day 1. It certainly wasn't the deck I'd want to play. I wanted to play BR Control or BG Explore but I didn't have even commons nor uncommons for that. People say that the current system of acquiring cards will makes us explore other decks, but I doubt that. Many of us want to play what we want. It is usually one of the reasons why we choose to play a certain game and if can't experience it the way we want, we become demotivated.

Full control mode

One more things I'd like to talk about is the pace of the game and something I will call full control mode. After switching to Arena from Eternal and Magic Online I realized that the pace of games still seems to be very slow. I'm recording all my sessions so I see how long the games take. They take a long time compared to a single game on MODO. Actually in the time I finish one game I finish a long match on MODO. Wizards still needs to make Arena game play faster if they also want to introduce best of 3 matches. Few days ago I also played few matches on Xmage. I suppose that many Magic players know what it is. For those that don't know (it was my first game that day), it is a free Java client that allows us to play Magic for free (similar to other earlier software like Cockatrice, Magic Workstation or Apprentice). Unlike the mentioned software this one has rules enforcement similar to MODO (probably there exist other software that does this, but I have no experience with that). I was a bit confused after I managed to run the client. I exported a deck from my Magic Online collection and imported it to Xmage. Then I played some games and tried to figure out how xmage works with the help of my opponent.

My first experience with Xmage. And people say that Magic Online is not user friendly...

How the software works is something between Cockatrice in terms of look and MODO in terms of rules enforcement. I pressed F2 by accident (habit, happens to me in Arena and Duels too - there it obviously doesn't do anything) finding out that it passes priority and realized that F4 passes the turn unless you have something to respond to. This made things way faster but since xmage stops practically everywhere and has more priority (or whatever) passes than MODO it takes more time. I'm not used to it and had to read many things and I still didn't figure out how some things work. The software is not always very clear about that. Why I talk about xmage? The thing is, it is popular and many players talk about it and prefer that over MODO or Arena. In order to understand the point of view of those people I had to try it myself and I didn't like the experience. It was a much needed experience though.

Now after that experience I can express my opinion. Honestly I'd rather go through a full control mode in Arena (that's a mode in which you stop everywhere you can and always get priority even if there is nothing you want to do, it also allows you to manually spend the right mana you want to use etc) or through all stops on Magic Online. Full Control Mode in Arena is pretty much what Xmage players are forced to use. MODO players aren't forced into that because they can control the flow of the turn by using stops and setting up auto-yields. In Arena we can press the key 'control' to get a full control till we get a priority and that somehow works, similarly to pressing spacebar in Magic Duels/DotP or setting a stop in MODO. I'm fine with that unfortunately you have to 'ask for priority' EACH time you want it and I don't really like that. One of the biggest downsides of Duels for me was the fact that there was a certain timer per phase/step/priority and without you manually stopping you could just skip through everything by accident or just simply missed the right window to play a spell.

My opponent played [Inferno Fist] so I tried killing the creature in response to that. My opponent though had a response too, they cast [Brute Strength] to save their creature but unfortunately the spell got cast at a strange moment. This was happening to me quite often...

I had hard time operating that way and the game flow seemed very slow. In Arena the flow is way faster and the game automatically stops at a time you'd want to actually do something which can cause problems to some players (when the full control mode is turned off). See I was looking at this from the perspective of an experienced Magic player. Being in that group of players I found out this approach simply wrong. I didn't consider what a newcomer might think about it. I learned my lesson about 'new player experience' only after my initial experience with Eternal. In Eternal there is something known as fast spells which are practically instants. If you don't have a fast spell in your hand the game will just automatically go on. If you have a fast spell it starts stopping giving you the opportunity to cast your spell, obviously giving your opponent information about you having a fast spell.

Stops in Magic Online

I certainly prefer this over pressing a key at a certain time as was in Duels/DotP but it also doesn't allow for bluffing etc. On MODO we can press F6, telling our opponent that we obviously can't do anything. If we would press F4 instead it would mean that we probably have some kind of a play, or we could go through each step/phase by pressing F2. On xmage we have to go through everything and that is something I would not want to do in whatever client I play be it Duels, MODO, xmage or Arena. I also read somewhere that playing in full control mode all the time is not something WotC wants us to do and I agree. The game will end up being VERY slow and probably not that cool to watch. My problem with the current system, similar to Eternal, is that the game decides to stop somewhere for us even though I don't want to do anything. I'd like to be able to choose and so far I didn't figure out how each step/phase is called and it results in misclicks, passing priority when I want it and passing through combat. I want to be in control of the game, not the other way round and that's the biggest problem I have with this automatic system.

Wizards is getting various kinds of feedback on this and I really wonder how the game will look like when it launches (in terms of this).

There are many other things I'd like to talk about but they are under the NDA so I can't talk about them publicly. My conclusion though is this one. Arena has to change considerably if it wants to compete in the world of other digital card games. I really like Arena and the idea of it but I wonder who the target audience actually is. It was supposedly be a game/client that would be for all from beginners new to Magic in general to Pros or those that want to be on the Pro Tour. There are many changes in the paper game and organized play that suggest that digital play is something Wizards want to focus on. Where will this take Magic in general?

Arena needs a very good economy to be successful, it needs to offer a full Magic experience and needs to be a safe place for casual players. So far I have the impression that Wizards doesn't know what they want. They want to create a game for us and listen to our feedback but many of our concerns were left unanswered. I hope there will be big changes in the closed beta very soon because I and many others got very demotivated already. The more we play the more we see what is wrong and what needs to change and we don't see the change and for those playing daily it becomes too much (at least for me).

I still hope Arena succeeds because Magic is truly an awesome and well designed game.