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The Past, Present and Future of Competitive Magic The Gathering (channelfireball.com)
77 points by minimaxir 72 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments



I play a fair bit of Magic, primarily at work. For years, I've used Magic Online for cheaply testing decks before deciding which cards to buy in paper.

I was very excited by Arena. It looks modern, feels a lot less clunky and allows one to just play a few games with very little hassle. It's all the good parts of the Hearthstone or Elder Scrolls Legends clients, but it's a fully-fledged Magic implementation!

However, I've found myself barely playing any Magic Arena.

- As mentioned in the article, as much as I love paper Magic, it's not the best computer game. If I'm by a PC, there are other things I usually want to play.

-It's been great to test ideas for some Standard decks, but I usually prefer Modern.

-It's free, but I don't spend too much on Magic, anyway.

-It's quick, but it lacks all the interpersonal communication

That last point is probably one of the biggest things, for me. I love reading opponents, playing the mind games and chatting a bit while playing. You can't see each other and you don't even have a chat in Arena.

There's also the physical collectible aspect of it. I love picking up my folders with cards and flipping through them. Scrolling through them on a screen doesn't feel as satisfying.


Agreed entirely on the last points. Playing online gets you an "I just wanted to play" fix, which is fine...but the perk of the game is the social aspect.

Meeting people in person, playing regularly at local shops, competing in tournaments with those same people you meet, trading with them, showing off your collection.

I used to play a bunch in high school and now that my son is older, he's getting into it so I'm toe-back-in-the-water seeing what's changed.

I'm kicking myself so hard for getting rid of my cards. I played from 93-97 and looking at current prices, the stuff I had in high school would be worth $30k+ now. I walked into a local shop and a guy came in who'd be playing forever, brought in all of his cards to sell because he's about to have his first child...and the cards are worth enough to significantly help. It's a cool aspect to the game that's taken for granted.

The game itself has great mechanics though. Obsessing about all of the possible combinations I could come up with was my mental outlet in high school. Translated well to software.


"I'm kicking myself so hard for getting rid of my cards. I played from 93-97 and looking at current prices, the stuff I had in high school would be worth $30k+ now. I walked into a local shop and a guy came in who'd be playing forever, brought in all of his cards to sell because he's about to have his first child...and the cards are worth enough to significantly help. It's a cool aspect to the game that's taken for granted."

Back when Magic first came out, or at least the first time I looked at it, I said, "But this is a pay-to-win game." Now that it seems to have shown up on the radar again, I have a question: Is it possible to be at least reasonably competitive with whatever is the "basic" set? If not, how much would it cost to buy the necessary booster packs or individual cards?


The cheapest competitive constructed format is Standard, with prices between $200-$400. https://www.mtggoldfish.com/metagame/standard#paper has the current decklists. However, standard rotation is happening in about 2 months, so if you were about to get back in, I'd wait until Throne of Eldraine comes out on October 4th. (or the prerelease, the weekend before, which is always great fun)

Limited formats, such as draft, are much cheaper, with a draft being only $18 for three rounds of play. Each player opens a booster, takes a card, passes left, repeat until the cards are gone, takes the second, passes right, etc. for three boosters. It's much cheaper, more repeatable, and doesn't require an up-front investment. (Plus you keep your cards.)


I'm not an expert, but I've played enough that I feel comfortable commenting.

The game is 1 part what's in the deck, 1 part in game strategy and 1 part luck of the draw each game.

Because of part 2 & 3, anybody has a chance in any game. I played for years and only did tournaments a couple of times because it was a lot more fun...just playing. Building fun decks, playing with friends at the house, playing with people at the local card shop.

There are so many types of games. I used to have a blast making decks just to see the looks on people's faces. You can do group games with 8 people in a single game, team games, two headed giant games. Depending on what type of format you're playing, entirely different strategies make sense.

If your only goal is to show up, figure out "the perfect deck" and win tournaments then getting cards out of the gate to make that possible is probably going to be expensive.

But it's a lot more fun to just get some cards with a little bit of everything to start with (they have starter kits and deck builder kits that speed up the process), and just try to see what are the best things you can come up with. Figure out what you have that's valuable, trade with people at a local shop to get things that you want to try, etc.

If you do that, you'll probably end up having a lot more fun.

There are also tournament formats that work well for people at all levels, called Drafts. Each player gets 3 booster packs, you open one, take a card and then pass the booster to your left. Repeat this process (and change direction) for the other 2 packs. When you're done, each player will have 45 cards to make a deck of at least 40. Lands are usually freely available to supplement whatever approach you took.

It levels the playing field for new players and you get to win more cards.

Don't let the competition get in the way of the fun with friends. The competition is fun, but much like programming there's a lot of fun to be had by just trying crazy things to see if it works.


> I play a fair bit of Magic, primarily at work.

Literally on the job? What did you do?


It's primarily over lunch, so at work but not on the job. We also hold drafts after work hours and used to have a magic league at work.

There's a fair number of magic players at work, which seems to be quite common at game studios.


That's awesome.

I've been interested in playing MTG, but sinking money into decks doesn't appeal to me.


In my experience, it's probably during lunch.


"Inviting streamers and video game celebrities to events with precious few slots is too aggravated an offense for entrenched players (those who give much of their free time and money to pursuit of competitive rewards) to forgive and forget, perhaps."

This has been happening more and more, and it really does get frustrating. Companies sell the idea that anyone who's good enough can compete, but tournaments will be filled with twitch streamers who aren't good at the game, but draw a large audience due to their personality. I've wonder if there could ever be a "pro wrestling" of esports, where the matches are all fixed and the winners and losers are based on what would create the best storyline.


The term "esport ready" is a marketing gimmick in the first place. It has more to do with whether a game is fun to watch, not whether it is competitive enough.

To give an example, PUBG players complained that the game wasn't "esports ready" because it was in third person, and therefore not competitive enough. They argued that by making it an FPS, it would become a more competitive game, and therefore a better esport. Too bad Fortnite is third person and blew PUBG away as an esport anyway, because it's more fun to watch.

The point is, I can totally see winners and losers being predetermined, since the esports scene is really about marketing games and not about competition.


I don't understand how Arena can be a platform for competitive constructed Magic when you can't guarantee what cards you have access to. In the old client and in paper Magic, if you needed a card, you could get it directly from someone. That's not the case in Arena. You have to hope to open it (or a wildcard of the right rarity) from a pack. This limits competitive play to mostly people who have the time and luck to collect every card they need.

Imagine a first baseman needing a new glove, but time after time, they are only given the chance to buy a catcher's mitt. You'll make it work if you're just having fun with friends, but if money is on the line, I would hope you can get the exact equipment you need...


The limiting factor on competitive deck building is Rare / Mythic Rare availability. Lower rarity cards simply aren’t as powerful, and the availability is high enough for them that they’re almost never an issue.

As you open random card packs, you are guaranteed to open one Rare or Mythic Rare per pack. Arena offers duplicate protection - you will never receive a Rare / Mythic Rare that you already have 4 copies of in a pack. Thus if you already have a complete-but-for-one-card collection, you’re guaranteed to receive that one in your next pack. It also means that there is a maximum number of packs you could need to open to have a complete set of Rare / Mythic Rare cards.

In addition, sometimes your Rare (or Mythic Rare) is replaced with a Wildcard of the same rarity. These wildcards can be crafted 1:1 into any card of the same rarity. This does not increase the rate at which you grow your collection, but does increase the speed at which you can grow it in a particular direction. The drop rate of these is tuned with the intent of allowing a typical free-to-play user to obtain one competitive level deck per card set.


Players in invitational tournaments are granted accounts that have all cards. Individual players are limited by card acquisition, but if you dump in $300 a set you'll pretty much be granted the cards you want, and still comes out cheaper than MTGO.


With the use of Wildcards both from boosters and from the Vault, my experience is that just playing a few matches every now and then is enough for me to quickly acquire the cards I need. I'm sure if you want to be competitive, spending a bit of money for more boosters and a chance at more Wildcards shouldn't be a problem.

However, you can contrast this with Elder Scrolls Legends where, for a few months, I was in the top ~1k players without having spent any money at all. You got plenty of cards as rewards for playing well. You also got a full set of one special card per month as reward for being Legend rank (you didn't even need to reach all the way to Legend).


My prediction, influenced by the article:

-The competitive part of MTG goes the way of online only.

-Niche or "player based" formats like Highlander or EDH stay within the realm of paper.

-Collecting cards remains worthwhile only in paper, online goes to more game play focus.


You lose wayyyyy to much of the competitive parts of the game online, online is statistics based only, you completely lose the skill part(bluffing, reading your opponent, fake-outs, etc) of the game online.


I don't think you lose bluffing, most of bluffing is simply chance and leaving a land or two untapped.


I don't have enough MTG knowledge to plow through the article, so I hope not to appear lazy by asking this: is there a version of MTG that isn't pay to win?


Yes. There are many formats where competitive performance and cost of play are largely uncorrelated. However, because the most popular format of Magic has rotating card pools, this may be true some years and untrue in others. Recently there has also been a significant increase in popularity of an all-commons format known as Pauper.

For Limited gameplay, where you build a deck out of packs opened at the table, the cost of entry is essentially the cards. So paper MTG is pay-to-play, not pay-to-win.


Honestly, I don't think you can make a fair case for Magic being really pay to win.

There's always a sort of buy in depending on which format you play, but once you've spent a bit of money on some cards it's usually more skill in deck building and playing than money spent.

Personally, I play mostly Modern in a casual way, but even when people bring competitive magic decks and we swap decks the same players usually win.


MTG is pay to win (or at least has a very high table stakes) because most of the skill comes in deckbuilding not in play. There aren't enough play decisions in the game to gain a large piloting edge consistently. When most of the skill is deckbuilding you basically need access to the whole pool of cards in order to play the best deck for the current metagame (this changes a lot online). For example, bant shift was a really good deck for GP denver, it was a very bad deck within a week after GP denver as people were prepared for it and played decks that had good matchups vs it.


I think you can only make a case for the game being pay to win.

"Once you've spent a bit of money on some cards" means I can be the greatest player of all time, but if I haven't paid for the cards, I can't win. They don't just give you these cards for being good. You can't find them scattered around the environment. You have to buy them, somehow.

What is pay to win in your mind? The phrase generally means "no matter how good you are, if you are unable to buy a certain set of cards you can't truly compete in the meta". There are more or less expensive decks, but typically the cheapest of the best decks in any format cost $50+

Edit- This is for constructed formats. Obviously sealed is more of a pure skill, low cost format.


What you're saying is akin to saying Golf is pay to win because you can't play without clubs.

Yes, you need cards to play, but in my mind pay to win means the amount you've spent outweighs your skill at the game. There are plenty of games like that, and I'd argue Magic isn't one. You can do really well in Magic with a cheap deck and I have seen plenty of people lose hard after buying the most expensive popular deck that they didn't know how to play.


Sure, a highly skilled player can beat a less skilled player regardless of deck, but at similar skill levels, the player with the better cards is going to win. If cards couldn't give you an advantage, they'd all be the same price.


You can say the exact same thing about any sports equipment. But I don't think this is how most people define "pay-to-win."


There is a higher entry price than most other games of skill, yes.

However, "pay to win" is generally understood to mean that there are significant marginal returns to spending thousands of dollars past the entry price paid by the typical player. This isn't really true of Magic: the Gathering.


I've never seen a game where, assuming everyone had unlimited funds and was able to buy anything, that skill didn't then come into play to decide who was the best player.

"Pay-to-win" is one of those weasel phrases that doesn't really mean anything specifically.

What is a game that represents "pay-to-win" in your mind? I think the definition you're using might be "generally understood" but it also might be generally understood that "pay-to-win" means "high[1] cost of entry"

[1]-high cost is relative to each person. could be 10 bucks, could be $1,000


""Pay-to-win" is one of those weasel phrases that doesn't really mean anything specifically."

I can't answer your question because I tend to stay far away from "collectible" games.

But, if 13-year-old you scrapes together your lunch money and buys a "Magic: The Gathering Spellslinger Starter Kit Core Set 2020" (https://www.amazon.com/Magic-Gathering-Spellslinger-Starter-...), are they going to be routinely beaten by someone who spends $100 on booster packs? Assuming roughly similar skill levels, that is?


Magic can be money-positive for decent players (ignoring opportunity cost). I don't mean pros - if you're just good enough to win prizes at local tournaments and you keep abreast of card prices the hobby can more or less finance itself.


I'm just going to keep spamming this: Can someone name a "Pay-to-win" game for me? A game where money, and not skill, is what wins you the game? I think the greater point I'm going for here is that if magic isn't pay-to-win, then there's no such thing as a pay-to-win game.


Yes, there are lots of freemium mobile games which satisfy the "pay-to-win" definition I gave in a way that Magic: the Gathering does not. (Clash of Clans and Clash Royale are two very popular examples that I'm aware of.)


The two examples you gave don't prove your point. If you want to play those games at a high level, you need a good account with access to the good game pieces. Technically, you can acquire those pieces entirely for free by investing lots of time into the games (something that's entirely impossible with paper M:tG). This is literally the same as saying "to play high level Magic you need to have a good deck, but that's just the cost of playing the game".

If Magic =/= pay-to-win then neither do those 2 specific examples you just gave.

I don't believe there is a competitive (read: >2 players) game that is "pay-to-win" if you feel that magic isn't pay-to-win


At least the last time I checked, most Clash Royale and Clash of Clans players don't play with the best game pieces, because too much grinding or money is required for it to be worthwhile. In contrast, a much larger fraction of M:tG players (though still small in absolute terms) play with all the game pieces they want, and are only idea- and skill-limited.

Yes, in some sense the difference between M:tG's "~$50-500 for the best game pieces, or to enter major Limited tourneys where everyone is forced to start from scratch, for a year; only skill matters from there" and Clash Royale's "~$5000, or an amount of time and attention worth >$5000, for the best game pieces, otherwise you're strictly behind someone with higher-level versions of your pieces" is only one of degree. But again, a far larger fraction of M:tG games involve both players playing with what they consider the best pieces. I don't believe I'm the only one who sees this as amounting in practice to a difference in kind.


Yu-Gi-Oh is pay to win. The continuous power-creep ensures it.


Krark-Clan Ironorks was not an expensive deck(comparatively) prior to its dominance of the modern format. If you're good enough at deck building building relatively cheap decks that bust the meta is do-able.


Short answer... there is NO version of Magic that is 'pay to win'. I think you are getting caught up in that fact that it's not a cheap game to play.

Long answer.

It is an incredibly expensive game to play if you are trying to win in highly competitive environments. I think people tend to mistake the high price tag for, 'Oh well if I don't spend hundreds of dollars I'll never win, or be good at the game'. This is just false.

It is erroneous to think, that just because you spend $500 on a top 8 standard deck you can just walk into your local game store and clean house. Other people have expensive decks too, and know how to pilot them better than you until you put in the hours. You will loose to more experienced & skilled players.

If you want a great magic experience for a small amount of money, you should try getting into limited. Draft & sealed deck. These games are an even playing field. Decks are build from the cards opened from sealed packs, so there is no advantage gained from owning an expensive deck, or knowing how to pilot your deck

The only way to gain advantage is skill. Skill in understanding the format. Skill in understanding what cards to take in the draft & when, deck building, and importantly... your fundamental understanding of the game rules and navigating the combat phase.

Magic is one of the most complex, skill intensive games in the world. Limited Magic is the most skill intensive version of it, and it will only cost you $15 to get in a draft at your local store.

It's one of the reasons it is so popular. It's a game where you can always learn something new & always find ways to level up. Anyone who tries to say otherwise doesn't get it. It is unfortunate how much it does cost though, for anyone who's goal is to be successful at the competitive level.


For constructed format(where you don't open packs to build decks, and build from cards you already own), there are financial threshold you need to overcome to be competitive. Afterwards, you STILL need to be proficient of the game and aware of meta games shifts.


It's pay to play


It's pay to play, but I think you also have to tack on that you can pay more to win a bit more (to a certain extent) and this is almost necessary to do well at events. Not that low power, casual magic isn't fun though.


This is the most accurate statement on this debate.


It depends on the format.

I'm a huge fan of booster drafting. it totally levels the playing field and is a great challenge every time.


The subscription model sounds pretty great as a player: pay some fee for each new set (up-front or monthly over the time it's legal in Modern), play with whatever sets you have access to in whichever format they're legal in.


The problem with that is it sort of invalidates their whole "booster pack" model. Magic is also a "family" of games, so they'd either need to do some sort of tiering:

- pay fee for unlimited phantom drafts - pay more fee for full sets (no drafting) - pay most fee for unlimited drafts and full set

It does remove a bit of the gambling/addicting element, but it would get players like me to "support" them more.


Unfortunately Mark Rosewater(lead designer for MTG) has said that the booster pack model is basically what provides enough money that the business side is comfortable with providing the size of the budget the design side receives. He seems to believe that moving away from the addiction/gambling element would mean less money, fewer designers and design resources, and fewer, worse, and more infrequent production of new cards.


Fantasy Flight makes "living" card games where new cards are periodically released and you can (supply chain permitting) buy (the pack containing) whatever card you need deterministically.

And it works out basically how you say. The games are popular and exciting when new, since you can buy all the cards for cheap(er than Magic) and balance / design doesn't have a huge card pool to think about.

Unfortunately once the competitive meta encompasses hundreds of dollars worth of product the dynamic flips on its head. The community is composed almost entirely of people who've "bought in" so the options for casual play are actually much more limited than they are for Magic, and organized play doesn't have the resources to address balance concerns or (more importantly) keep putting in enough events with good enough prizes to keep people involved in the scene.

And this isn't even touching the elephant in the room: the only reason there are spaces (i.e. game stores) in which to play is because Magic keeps the lights on for game stores.


While LCGs are great, they're only able to exist because of the money from CCGs. They're still super niche when compared to games like Pokemon, M:tG, or Yu-Gi-Oh. Those games get people in stores spending money.

Like you said, that's the elephant in the room. Magic is hugely profitable in its current form. There's no way they change that. They keep doing "known quantity" products like the Commander decks, or the other pre-cons, but we all know those aren't nearly as desirable.

As someone who works for a tabletop gaming company, and knows a little bit about how the sausage is made, you absolutely have to use things like blind boxes/boosters to pay the bills to make more "customer friendly" products that sell at 1/5th the rate.


If you'd have access to all cards, that'd make for a very different game. For me, as a casual player, trying to make decks work with what I have and making calculated decisions of which cards to spend my money (real or virtual) on is a big part of the charm of the game.

Also, about the comment in parenthesis: I'm guessing you meant Standard. In that case, it makes sense. If you really meant Modern, I'd find it problematic. Since Modern doesn't rotate (unlike Standard), that would make it an accumulative cost unless you decide to deliberately drop the ability to play with cards which are still legal.


Yeah I did mean Standard, I guess that edit didn't stick


Just surprised (or not?) that MTG makes it to the front page of Hacker News


> What to Submit

> On-Topic: Anything that good hackers would find interesting. That includes more than hacking and startups. If you had to reduce it to a sentence, the answer might be: anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity. [0]

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


The parent is just surprised it made it to the front page, not suggesting that it isn't an appropriate submission.


This post apparently made the second chance pool; it received no upvotes on initial posting.


Damn, haven't heard of this game anymore since the last time it was proven to be Turing complete




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