Magic is Balancing Dynamic Change and Nostalgia

The past month has been a game-changer for competitive Magic and we are finally starting to glimpse what the future has in store for high-level play. It’s clear that Arena will have a big role to play with marquee events like the $1,000,000, 64-player Arena Mythic Invitational looming on the horizon. Reactions to the news have been mixed.

I’m sympathetic to players who missed the cut for an event they didn’t even know they were trying to qualify for. I’ve missed qualifications and cash on arbitrary tiebreakers more times than I care to recall and it always felt lame. But at least I knew what the rules were when I signed up for the event! With that being said, the reality of the situation is that few of these changes will ultimately impact the vast majority of players who game primarily for social enjoyment and recreation. In fact, we lowly grinders secretly got one of the sweetest upgrades in the overhaul of tournament provisions. I’m excited to see that MagicFests will now pay out to the Top 100+ players rather than only to the Top 64.

While the average player is unlikely to sip the sweet nectar of a million dollar 64-player invitational, it is clear that our overall experience has also improved with increased prize support at the types of events regular folks attend.

I’ve played Magic since 1995 and I’ve seen the game survive astounding changes many times: new planes outside of Dominaria, a break from the iconic original card face, bannings galore, planeswalkers, damage on the stack, LIFO, the mysterious disappearance of Block Constructed, Extended transformed into Modern, and those are just off the top of my head!

Every change was met with similar apprehension and backlash, but Magic always came through stronger for the wear. The game’s ability to adapt to the times has always been the signature recipe for its success and longevity.

Arena and BO1 are different from anything we’ve encountered in the past, but neither is so radical that I’m worried about the future of the game. In fact, I think these changes signify exactly the opposite and indicate that the game is primed to grow.

I know that a lot of people don’t want to listen to me say: Hey, Arena is great. Change how you play. Get on board with the times.

Well, in that case you may be surprised to hear that I’m not going to say that today. Instead, I’m here to encourage you to play exactly what you like and how you like—that has always been the backbone of Magic and always will be, even in a time of dynamic change.

These changes don’t destroy or impede the old ways. In fact, they ensure that they are able to continue on.

You Don’t Have to Play Arena, But It Isn’t Your Enemy

I’ve played many different ways over the years. I started as a kitchen table player. I’ve been an FNM newbie. I’ve been an Eternal expert. I’ve been a grinder. I’ve been a professional player. I’ve been a writer, content creator, and streamer. I’ve learned something different from wearing each of these hats, but what all of those experiences have collectively taught me is that there is no wrong way to play as long as you enjoy what you are doing.

Personally, I enjoy and embrace Arena. In fact, I’ll go full hipster and say I was into Arena before it was cool. I’m in the process of moving to a new country and so streaming, Skyping, and playing Arena has been an important way for me to keep in touch with old friends, make new ones, and continue to play Magic: the Gathering. In a world where staying connected has become increasingly necessary, it makes perfect sense that Arena needed to happen.

I wrote an article a while back that generated heated discussion about the viability of BO1 Standard as a vibrant, viable format with a place in Magic’s future. I knew when I wrote the article that there was plenty of evidence to support the claim, but what I was really up against was inherent resistance to change. Nobody likes to see their favorite things dramatically altered and I was aware that most people would naturally gravitate toward that position.

I’m all for a better platform but why can’t they just leave sideboarding alone?”

The one billion dollar question. Obviously, there is a reason why Wizards decided to push the new format. I don’t know for sure, but I’d speculate that they did some research that showed it translated well to online play.

To back that up with a real life example: I typically play BO1 Ladder Drafts on Arena. The Ravnica Allegiance prerelease Sealed events were only offered in a BO3 format. There were many instances where I was struck by how little I wanted to play two sideboard games after a long, drawn out game 1.

At paper events, where we have 50 minutes to kill, I 100% advocate running it back with sideboards a few times. But against a faceless, impersonal computer opponent amid an endless sea of potential opponents at the ready, it feels less essential.

Yeah, it’s a different experience and I’m missing out on the nuance of sideboarding my nonsense 5-color control deck into an even more nonsense 5-color control deck but I could potentially play three more matches, win more coins, and see more decks. If that makes my opinion unsophisticated, my preference barbarous, and my appreciation of skill naught, so be it.

Nevertheless, I know what fun is when I see it.

The fact that Arena accentuates what is most fun about Magic and makes gameplay fast, efficient, and intuitive is the undisputed genius of the platform. It’s a mechanism to bridge the gap to the next generation of Magic players and fans. It’s something new players can watch to become excited about learning our game, the greatest game ever conceived.

Magic needs to attract new players to continue and new players are attracted to fun much more so than things that are extremely difficult, tedious, and require a ridiculous depth of knowledge. I’ll also point out that Arena caters to players of all skill levels, especially beginners. You can learn to play with the starter decks paired against other beginners with starter decks.

I’m also over the phrase “Arena is dumbed down Magic.” Does BO1 really dumb it down that much? Do we actually live in a delusion where the majority of players don’t just copy/paste sideboard guides from articles? Even without the extra depth of sideboard (which is a difficult skill to learn at first) Magic is still an absurdly challenging game to play well. If Arena is too easy mode, there’s always slightly more challenging activities to try such as brain surgery or rocket science.

The distinction I’m making is that Arena isn’t dumb. It’s simply more user-friendly. Best-of-one might seem a little more random than what we are used to. The CGI animations might be a little hokey. The fact that Nissa shouts at me that I’ll never defeat her as I am literally resolving a Vraska’s Contempt is, well, absurd. But, it’s all for fun and is meant to bring the game to a wider audience.

It’s never a good look when a game takes itself too seriously and feels like it is gatekeeping new potential fans and members. If I wanted to be a part of a social group comprised of angry adults joylessly bickering about the rules and matchups of a children’s game, I’d be a bigger NFL fan.

I want to be part of something where I’m able to play and share my passion for gaming, strategy, and fantasy themes with others who also share those interests even if they are new to gaming and collectible card games. Scratch that… especially if they are new to gaming and CCGs.

A Long Time Ago in a Multiverse Far, Far Away…

When it comes to reboots and sequels there is always tension between wanting to add on and staying true to the original. Star Wars is a great example because like MTG it is a cultural touchstone that tons of people feel a deep connection to.

The biggest obstacle for Star Wars isn’t finding an audience to consume the content but satisfying expectations rooted in nostalgia and fandom. A ton of viewers were horrified by The Last Jedi because of how the script treated Luke Skywalker. He wasn’t the Jedi that many wanted him to be and how does one reconcile that it is now canon that Luke behaved in a way that feels inauthentic?

Ethersworn Canonist

The analogy might be too good in the sense that I may have distracted a significant number of readers into thinking about why they either loved or hated The Last Jedi. The story might be fine for a new watcher but for somebody who grew up watching the original trilogy it might be strange to see the unflappable Skywalker flap. We react based on our presumptions because it is what we have to go on. Our experience with Magic works the same way.

If we expect Magic to be one way and then we are presented with something different (BO1 Arena), it’s jarring.

You made me care about Luke for all those years and then you did “this”?

Magic, like Star Wars, is larger than life. It will always throw you a curveball. Spoiler Alert:

“No (Luke), I AM YOUR FATHER!”

A lot of people didn’t like that twist either when The Empire Strikes Back first came out. The moment these franchises stop pushing the envelope is the moment they lose their magic.

Magic: The Experiencing

I know I said at the beginning that the article wasn’t just going to be me telling you to get with the program, suck it up, abandon what you like, and start playing Arena. The point is that Arena has a purpose and is good for Magic because it ensures the long-term health of the game and will attract new players.

Thank you Ghost Ben for teaching children that lying is perfectly acceptable as long as it serves your purposes.

Here’s the part of the article where I’m going to talk about why we are going to be okay and there’s nothing to actually worry about.

I’m an old-school player but I still appreciate the new stuff. I’ve been playing so long and through so many giant changes that I don’t even see Arena as particularly alien. As a point of reference, when I first started playing Type 2 (now Standard), Balance and Sol Ring were both legal and restricted.

As much as I love and feel a strong connection to the old cards and old ways (I made plans for an evening of Old-School Battle Box with a friend I first met at Vintage Championships in 2004 earlier this afternoon—bonus points if you can guess who), I’m not sure Magic would have held my attention for all these years if it simply stayed the same.

I do believe that it’s important to preserve and enjoy the history. I love old-school formats and the people who play them because those formats are a celebration and appreciation of great traditions, memories, and cards. There’s a reason I’m excited to play with a bunch of 25-year-old cardboard with an old friend. I associate those cards with wonderful memories and it’s a treat to relive those experiences with a friend who understands and appreciates it the same way I do.

It’s the same sentiment as when I learn somebody is as big of a Star Wars nerd as I am.

It’s not that Magic was “more pure” or “better” back in the day and to say so would be disingenuous. The cards were broken and unbalanced, and the rules were murky and often nonsensical.

Not only does the game change but so do we as players right along with it. You can always go back and relive those glory days with the pals you shared them with. It’s a big part of what makes Magic so wonderful, the fact that it’s a shared experience with others.

No computer program or changes to Organized Play can ever threaten that, because at the heart of it all those common experiences and memories are what make Magic such a compelling hobby. We work on decks together. We teach each other how to improve. We travel to events, celebrate victories, and have each other’s backs after tough losses.

Magic is about friendship. Arena isn’t about dismantling that—it’s about introducing a new generation of gamers to an unbelievable new world and a potentially lifelong experience.

The cool thing about Magic is that there’s no right or wrong way to play as long as you are having fun. Maybe Arena on the CPU isn’t your thing but as long as it continues to get new players excited to join our game it means that there can be giant MagicFests that pay out to the Top 100+ and side events where we can meet new people to play Pauper, Commander, or whatever else our hearts desire.

Think about what Magic is up against in the next 5, 10, or 20 years: advanced video and computer games, the golden age of television, and more Star Wars movies. I would love to see Core Set 2035 and I’m glad Wizards of the Coast is doing the groundwork to ensure that Magic will secure a lasting legacy. My goal wasn’t to tell people why they need to love something that doesn’t resonate with them, but rather to suggest that even so it can still be a boon in preserving the Magic.

From a certain point of view…

The conversation between Luke and Obi-Wan is my favorite moments in all of Star Wars. It’s the revelation where the master imparts the hardest lesson upon his disciple: that good or bad is often a matter of perspective rather than a perfect ideal. Life is not one singular perspective but includes all points of view. Given that Luke has had such an experience I don’t find The Last Jedi to be an uncharacteristic or unbelievable deviation.

Cultural touchstones like Magic or Star Wars don’t survive by staying the same, nor do they benefit from throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It’s a balance. Magic is a game that has always changed but has never forgotten its roots and what people love about it. As an individual who has lived through two dozen moments that were going to kill the game I can assure you that Magic will outlive us all.

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