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Magic in the Age of Covid and Beyond

It was over seven months ago… I had my testing and tuning completed, and my cards acquired and sleeved up, in excited anticipation of attending Grand Prix Detroit with my friends back in Michigan when the whispers of the seriousness of Covid-19 began to creep into my social media. My wife was concerned about me attending an event in a crowded convention center in another country as news of the pandemic began to circulate, and I agreed: “If it continues to sound serious by Friday, I’ll sit this one out.”

Less than 24 hours later, Grand Prix Detroit (and all other large events) would be cancelled indefinitely and life as I knew it would be absolutely changed in ways I would never have fathomed possible for the foreseeable future. That was more than seven months ago now and we are still living in a time where the presence of Covid-19 continues to shape the modern world. I’m 37 years old and this has been the most challenging, stressful, and turbulent year of my life. I’m lucky I have somebody like my wonderful wife to weather the storm with, but I’ve also come to appreciate my expansive network of MTG friends who provide a semblance of normalcy in these trying times.

Of all the things I’ve come to miss, face to face experiences and making memories with family and friends are at the top of the list. As I take inventory of the things I’ve given up in order to keep myself and my family safe in the midst of a global health crisis, the weekly time I spend shuffling up at my local game store for friendly games is right up there. I miss playing paper Magic on a near daily basis. It’s no secret I like to play a lot of Magic and prefer to play it in cardboard form, but I would never have suspected how much I’d miss it. Today’s article will take a look at how the game of Magic has changed over the past seven months and how I see these changes impacting paper Magic when it is able to safely return to the forefront of play.

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF CRITIQUE

The first thing I’d like to establish in this article is to acknowledge my own personal bias and how it informs my editorial opinion. I’ve written MTG content for nearly two decades and I’ve always considered myself to be a “paper player,” and not an “online player.” Even when I played on the Pro Tour, in an era where Online playtesting became the norm, I still continued to do 99% of my testing and tuning at the LGS with cardboard cards. To me… that is the Magic I most enjoy.

I’ve often said Magic is the greatest card game ever conceived, but one of the most blasé video games I’ve ever played. That’s an opinion, not a fact. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of amazing video games to play, or watch being played via stream, and I tend to think Magic has significantly stiffer competition as a video game and esport than it does as a card game. As much as I love all things Magic, I can’t with a straightface say I think it’s a better video game than Zelda.

The one consistent characteristic of Magic is that it always changes. The fact the game has this ability to constantly change and evolve is a big part of what makes the game compelling, appealing, and contributes to its longevity. For instance, in a time where “paper play,” isn’t really a safe option for the majority of players, Magic can pivot and become a primarily online experience to reflect how players can meaningfully play the game.

With the caveat that I don’t particularly find online Magic enjoyable as an activity, I do appreciate that the game has been able to pivot and adapt to become a more competitive video game at a time where paper cards have been taken off the table. At the heart of my critique is a preference for playing and collecting cards with physically present human beings much more so than playing and collecting a digital game.

I was lucky that I won a huge cache of tickets playing in the Pauper Premier League a year ago, because it’s unclear to me that I would have continued to play Magic if I were in a position where I would have needed to invest my own money into building a MTGO collection. With that said, I was able to grind my nest egg of tickets into an entire playset of the MTG Pauper and I do enjoy taking my large collection of decks into league battle, or even just dueling a few matches against my friends.

Make no mistake, I’m a whale collector with an addictive personality! I’ve collected all the cards from the start, but without that human connection and experience I simply haven’t been hooked by online play. I enjoy and appreciate being able to keep up with Pauper and participate in drafts, but it’s not something that compels me to collect or immerse myself in. At first, I kind of thought the barrier was that I sucked at online play, but I’ve gotten to the point where my online skill sets are not a liability, but an asset, and I still am not blown away by the online experience.

So, bear in mind, as you’re reading this critique that online Magic is not, and has never been, something I find particularly enjoyable. And that’s ok! Different strokes for different folks. I appreciate online Magic as something I can do to take my mind off of the isolation of Covid-19 or the incendiary rhetoric of the upcoming US election, but once the Pandemic is resolved I’ll likely auction off my MTGO account and play 100% paper Magic. I’m really looking forward to shuffling up with my friends back in the States.

So, aside from Magic’s adaptation as a card game into a video game, I’d like to discuss some of the other ways I’ve seen the game fundamentally change in the past seven months of the Pandemic.

 

PAPER AND ONLINE ARE FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT GAMING EXPERIENCES

I wrote an article a while back that discussed how I view online and paper play as fundamentally different games. Elements like the paper “shortcuts,” the MTGO clock, and timing out change the value of different types of strategie in paper and online metagames because of how they tax one’s game clock. Another aspect of the game that I see as changed, as Magic has rebranded digital in a Covid-19 world, is the role of “grinding” and “endgame” of my social gaming experience.

When I play paper Magic, I always felt like I was practicing and building towards a specific Gathering I wanted to attend. I’d build a deck, practice playing it against my friends, and the intended “endgame” of the learning I did was to attend a Gathering (PTQ, Grand Prix, Open, or some other signature event) that I’d attend with my friends. The goal, or reward, was a social experience at the end of the practice.

MTGO or Arena, feels to me, a much more isolated and individual activity than paper play. I trade with robots to build a deck, I play the deck by myself for several hours against avatars, and the endgame of practice is that I can play in bigger and longer events by myself that reward my accomplishments with Tickets that are only good for buying entry fees or digital cards I’m not interested in collecting.

The biggest difference between the online grind and the cardboard grind is the sheer magnitude of quantity of time and play, as opposed to quality of time and play. In paper play, everything converges around events that bring the community together in one location to play together. In online play, particularly on MTG Arena the formula for successful play is to grind as many games as possible with an above 50% record.

Trying to win every round isn’t as important as playing a high volume of matches with a net positive record. While I can see how that would be an appealing system for somebody who enjoys playing 25+ matches per day, I also think that type of commitment to volume of play asks a lot even from experienced players who are already inclined to enjoy playing Magic!

As a retired former Pro Player, that type of formula for play doesn’t mesh with the type of MTG experience I’m personally looking for and it’s unsurprising to me that a lot of the players I’ve enjoyed playing Magic with over the years have given up and dropped out during Covid-19.

Another noticeable trend of the Covid era of MTG is the consistently ridiculous power level, set after set, of format staples. There have been more cards banned in the past year than the entire previous 25 years of MTG combined. I see this trend as a natural extension of the circumstances forcing MTG to pivot into a digital game and abandon its paper roots for the time being. The trend is also informed and related to the inherent ways competitive online play is different from competitive paper play.

I’ll unpack my rationale for why I see bans being the defining element of MTG in the Covid-19 era. Let me start by saying, Magic design trending toward broken cards was already well underway before Covid-19. The patterns we can observe date back to the start of 2019 and sets such as War of the Spark and Modern Horizons and since then WOTC has only pushed the pedal to the metal.

Uro, Titan of Nature's WrathOmnath, Locus of CreationGrowth Spiral

The ‘new design’ where metagames essentially revolve around a handful of incredibly powerful format staples is an extremely effective way of engaging online players to play more. They are the perfect tools for a system of play that wants players to play as many games as possible and win with an above 50% record.

I first noticed the effectiveness of this formula playing a different digital game, Pokémon Go when the Player Vs Player battles were introduced. As is the case with Magic cards, not all Pokemon are equally powerful. In fact, while there are hundreds of different Pokemon a player can choose to battle with, the competitive metagame is typically limited to about 20 that are considered playable at the time. What is, or isn’t playable, is often dictated by whatever the most broken Pokémon is in a given format.

Typically, there is one Pokémon in each format that is just absurdly broken. It has great typing, higher attack, higher defense, more hit points, and a fantastic moveset. In a sense, this Pokemon beats every other Pokemon in a heads up aside from a handful of “hard counters.” Therefore, the competitive metagame revolves around the broken monster and its natural hard counters. The structure of Pokémon Go PVP is also similar to MTG Arena’s formula of needing to grind a huge volume of matches with a positive record over a season.

The way this functions for players is that in order to win at an above 50% clip, it’s a necessity to invest time, resources, and most importantly money (to expedite the leveling up process) to build the broken monster and a team to play against the broken monster. Players are more than welcome to simply play with “whatever they have,” but they don’t realistically have a shot at ranking up against players who have the broken teams.

At the end of the season, once everybody has invested into building the competitive monsters necessary to play, Pokémon Go announces that the metagame has stagnated because of the prevalence of the broken Pokémon and it is generally given a nerf at the same time that a new broken Pokémon is introduced and the cycle of players investing into building the new best team for the metagame begins anew.

That is exactly the same cycle we see in 2019 forward Arena designed Magic Cards: release a broken card that dominates a new metagame that players need to invest into crafting and grinding, and then ban it on the heels of the release of a new overpowered staple.

Bans also essentially double the amount of times the metagame can be shaken up. Magic has added more yearly releases, but banning a card mid-season also shakes up the format in a way that would typically only occur when a new set is added or an old set rotates. The more often the available game pieces are added or subtracted, the more often players will need to abandon the decks they own and craft new ones.

If the measure of successful play is winning a large number of games at a greater than 50% clip, than any player hoping to achieve this specific objective is essentially cornered into the cycle of constantly following the trail of bans.

I would describe MTG’s metagames in the eras before Arena as functioning very differently, as they were primarily informed by cardboard play. I do see Arena as the catalyst for the shift in design philosophy, and Covid-19 and the absence of cardboard Magic as an accelerant of this type of play pattern.

Before Arena, we’d typically see established archetypes in every format that exist and thrive for months and even years at a time. New sets would typically add useful new tools for a handful of decks, which changed their relative position in the metagame with regard to one another, but not to the extent we currently see where over and over format defining bombs are dropped that completely upset and redefine entire formats and consistently necessitate bans.

In previous era MTG, I enjoyed owning, playing, and tuning the format staple decks (especially in Eternal Formats). I enjoyed looking at spoilers and thinking, “Oh this would be a cool card to try in my Abzan deck.” Now, I often look at spoilers and see a single card and think, “Well, I guess this card is the only thing worth doing in format X.”

I personally pivoted how I play to avoid these cycles of chasing absurd Mythics around the metagame and took up playing MTG Pauper, and not even that format has been safe from these types of meta-driven tampering designs.

These are deranged Magic cards. The ‘cost’ isn’t even close to reflecting their ‘output.’ My first thought upon seeing Astrolabe and Mystic Sanctuary is that they would need to be banned in Pauper – and they were. Both of these cards are responsible for why I went MTGO infinite, as an experienced former pro player it wasn’t actually possible for me to sleeve these cards up and perform less than .500 against the field in leagues (even at the start of Covid-19 when I chucked games to misclicks and clock).

We see the same sort of dynamics in play with Tron in the current MTGO Pauper metagame, where the deck has been propped up by broken new printings that don’t make any sense at common (Bonder’s Ornament) and the deck is stilted to favor the strongest online players. As a content creator, it’s actually quite frustrating to constantly write Pauper strategy articles that are always prefaced with: If your singular focus is to win at the highest clip… just play Tron. But, if you’re cool with winning less and playing something fun… here’s what I’m playing.”

As a primarily paper player, who does not personally embrace, endorse, or enjoy the “high volume grind with a clearly and intentionally designed approach to meta design,” it deeply saddens me that not even Pauper is immune from Arena’s influence.

 

WILL PAPER COME BACK?

I think this is the question that every single paper Magic fan and player has on their mind as they look forward to an end to the pandemic, and the answer is “It’s complicated…”

From the sheer magnitude of daily posts I see lamenting the loss and postponement of IRL Gatherings, I absolutely think that shuffling up in person will be back with a vengeance as soon as humanly possible, but I’m predicting it will be very different from the paper Magic we left behind in March.

For starters, I think there will be a schism where competitive play and casual play tend to be delineated by online and paper. It’s ironic, because I think paper Magic is a better and more compelling vessel for competitive tournaments than online.

While “cheating at cards” is a thing that can and does happen in a way that can’t happen while playing on a computer, competitive online Magic has its own host of issues that plague its perception as a fair game. The recent Champion of Eternal Weekend was essentially outed by screen shots offering bribes of payment and social media plugs in return for a pair down concession.

Online Magic has a loose code of conduct for competitive play that is incredibly difficult to enforce. Keep in mind that WOTC didn’t formally address ghosting or ‘stream sniping’, which is clearly cheating, for a decade. The system is so fundamentally corrupted by opportunities to collude or collaborate that I don’t even have an issue with a player in an event offering a favorable split and Twitter plug in exchange for a scoop-in. I assume such things happen constantly and are part of the fabric of how the game is played online.

Again it comes back to Magic as a card game vs. Magic as a computer game, in terms of a game I enjoy playing or watching. I want to see the stare down, I want to see great players use visual tells to inform their decisions in difficult games, and I think table judges and spectators play a huge role in ensuring the game is played fairly and wins are not bought or sold.

I mentioned that the grinder dream of playing on the brightest stage is something I see as trending and staying online, even when paper Magic comes back (hopefully with a vengeance!).

The place I see paper Magic really shining in the future is that it provides exactly the kind of play experience that I (and others) are looking for and missing in the Arena era. Obviously, I miss kicking it with other friendly players, but I also miss a version of Magic that isn’t necessarily about grinding pure volume of matches with positive equity. I’m much more compelled and interested in playing a variety of Magic that is a smaller volume of matches, but a higher quality of matches. What does that mean?

Well, for one there’s a big difference in how players build and select decks for paper tournaments, as the objective is to go 7-1 over eight rounds and not 600-400 over a thousand rounds. I think that makes a big difference in the types of decks people select and how they build them. There’s greater emphasis on trying to win each match than grinding a huge sample of matches at .600.

I also think there is a lot of incentive for the focus of cardboard play to trend toward a more casual crowd of players who are less interested in playing for volume and more interested in playing individual games or matches. In particular, I know for a fact that Commander has trended toward being the staple way that cardboard Magic will be played in the future.

Firstly, it’s a more appealing brand of Magic for people who want quality, complexity, and variety as opposed to a massive sample of the same types of metagame matchups. A multiplayer game with 100 card singleton decks is the apex of strategic diversity! The format already has a fiercely loyal following and even its own format specific releases. In addition, it is a format that at its core can’t be broken down into the familiar pattern of chasing the meta and grinding for value. It’s specifically a format that is built on the pretense of Gathering and the experience of playing the game matters more than the clip at which a player wins above .500.

It’s a form of MTG that almost borders on “narrative,” in a way that is similar to playing an RPG like D&D. The outcome of the game is not so much defined by which cards are drawn and how they line up, but the choices and dynamics at the table. What each player randomly draws from their deck doesn’t impact the outcome of the game nearly as much as “who decides to go after who and why!” And, THAT is the story of a game!

Commander is also a format that I think is more appealing to collectors. I only need one of each card as opposed to four, and generally speaking I can feel pretty safe that my entire strategy won’t become obsolete because my “build around” card has been banned.

 

JEWELED LOTUS

Some people have pointed to Jeweled Lotus as the Commander version of Oko or Hogaak, but I actually see some key differences.

The one thing I don’t like about Jeweled Lotus is the price tag and that it feels like a “must buy” staple at a hefty price and I hope to see that elevated in the same way that a similar card, Sol Ring has been made more available.

Sol Ring

Think about what the price tag on Sol Ring would be if it were not reprinted a zillion times in every Commander deck.

Aside from being a card that is so good that players kind of need it to play commander, I think the similarities between Jeweled Lotus and other format staples like Oko or Uro diverge swiftly. Firstly, Jeweled Lotus isn’t an archetype that defines all play. It’s a sub facet of play that will impact games, essentially it will create a dynamic where in most multiplayer games some number of players will be able to slam their Commander a few turns ahead of schedule.

If I rank the ‘Power Cards’ of Commander, I have no problem putting Jeweled Lotus behind a card like Sol Ring or Mana Crypt. It’s clearly one of many marquee powerful cards currently available. I also like that its a card that helps make more expensive Commanders scale in value compared to cheaper ones by helping get them onto the battlefield more quickly. It’s also a card that benefits single or dual color Commanders much more than say three drop Commanders that cost three different colors. Would you even play Jeweled Lotus in a Leovold deck? Maybe…? It’s still a nice boost for casting the Commander the second time.

With that said, I don’t specifically have a problem with Jeweled Lotus as a card that exists, especially as the signature card of a Commander based expansion at a time when people are less inclined to buy physical cardboard booster packs. I’ve seen a lot of cards that I see as designed for the Arena ‘play for volume of games’ mentality, and while this card is pushed to the limit of what I think a reasonable card can be, I am optimistic this will be a powerful card that will create interesting sequences and games of Commander. Also, keep in mind that as I stated earlier, the outcome of Commander games tends to be more directly impacted by the choices players make about who to go after and who to leave alone, than the raw material of who drew what.

So, I realize this has been a lengthy read and a lot of information, observation, and theorycraft about how I see the game of Magic having changed in the past seven months (and really extended back before 2019 with the launch of MTG Arena).

I do think online play lends itself better to a specific formula of game play that is informed by playing a huge volume of matches for positive equity. I think most player vs player games simply lend themselves better to this formula, in terms of how it is played and how it is sold to players.

I also think that in terms of social gaming and gatherings that Paper Magic can simply offer elements of play that don’t port over to digital media, for instance the multiplayer experience.

I’m on record in the article with my bias and preferences. I simply like the “playing and collecting cards” element of paper Magic more, but I’m still thankful for the opportunity to play MTGO at a time when I can’t shuffle up. Being forced to sort of delve into Online Magic over the past seven months, something I’ve never felt compelled to do before, has actually taught me a lot about how the game works that I didn’t see or understand before.

One of the biggest misconceptions I think people arrive at is that design doesn’t understand how to make Standard or Modern cards, and that these powerful designs are mistakes. How many times can you see the exact same “mistake” in a row before you realize it’s an intentional theory of design that informs a different type of play and metagame. We’ve seen Magic, as a brand, grow during a pandemic where selling cardboard booster packs isn’t really something a ton of people are inclined to do. I have to give them credit for a strategy that has allowed the game to continue to thrive and provide relief and entertainment at a difficult moment in history.

It’s not my favorite way to play Magic, but I appreciate having Magic to play! I look forward to Gathering, and if Commander is actually the flagship for the future of paper play, I embrace that as well. I’ll likely sell off 3+ cards from my playsets to fill gaps in my Commander collection going forward. Does anybody have a Jeweled Lotus for Trade?

Even before Covid-19 Magic was undergoing fundamental changes with regard to how it is played, I think that is obvious when we look at the metagames we’ve encountered and how they work over the past seven months. What I am most excited for is to see how all of these changes will play out for paper Magic when gathering returns as something we can safely do together.

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