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The True Cost of Magic Arena: Time

TIME AND MONEY

Early last year I stopped playing Magic Arena for a while. Not because I stopped having fun with Magic, but because it became very hard to keep up with when I have a full-time job and a son to look after. I’m reasonably certain that makes me the target audience for WotC’s new package of wildcards, 12 rare and 4 mythic for $49.99.

I’m a corporate dream, demographically speaking. An adult nerd who is ‘cash rich’ and ‘time poor’. The kind of person who should be happy to shortcut the grind of getting new cards. Now, the reality is not quite that simple, as with most people I have bills to pay and being ‘cash rich’ is only in the eyes of the advertiser, but I think you get my point. I should want to just buy the wildcards.

I absolutely don’t.

THE STAKES

I see a lot of arguments about the cost being too high and needing to spend multiple hundreds to actually build a deck, all very reasonable arguments, but there’s more to it than that.

Arena demands your time, like most ladder-based games. It rewards (barely) those who invest hours a day into the game. If I want to make mythic, I need to give myself to Arena in a way that I simply can’t. Plenty of people do just that and that’s their prerogative. The problem is that if I don’t, there’s nothing else to play for.

I want to be competitive. I’m not good at Magic, but I try to be. I want to play a good deck against good decks and celebrate when I figure out a complex line or put together a good sequence or make the right decision. But I want that with stakes, and the ladder feels like an exercise in attrition. You need to be good to make mythic, but more than that, you need time.

I can play the occasional non-ladder event on Arena but keeping up with decks for just that seems like a waste of resources. I can play just for fun, but I prefer Commander if I’m being casual. So there are no stakes. Not really. Not unless I can invest more time than I reasonably have.

DECKBUYING

I used to keep up with Standard in paper, pre-Covid, even when my decks were banned I was always able to sell cards and get something new. That’s a big problem of the Arena system. Having put the time in without buying gems last year, I was able to build a slightly underpowered version of Izzet Epiphany. It was banned two days later.

There is no recourse for that. I was left with cards that didn’t fit in another competitive deck, for the most part. I at least got some fun from the time I played and built up to a proper deck. If I had just dropped $50, I would have been furious, and very reasonably.

WotC are pushing the envelope with design and making ban decisions in a reasonable time frame, so perhaps it’s unlikely I would have bought cards for Epiphany two days before the ban came, but that’s not true for everyone, and often the ban never comes.

If you want to win, you play the most broken deck. Years of Magic have proven that an effective strategy in Standard, particularly. Eternal formats may reward deck knowledge built over time, but rotation makes that less effective in a Standard environment.

So you get your deck, the one you think will hasten the path to mythic, and you play and enjoy it. Then a key card or two gets cut and yes, you get those wildcards back, but nothing for the rest of the deck. Not having a system to get some value for cards that are no longer useful is a huge deterrent to investing in the Arena economy, through time or money. That’s not even considering the huge number of unused, unwanted cards you will open in packs.

COMPETITION

For me, the lack of stakes outside the very top, top level makes Arena feel empty. I think perhaps it’s similar for many players who remember Grand Prix events and the idea of showing up, doing well, and making the Pro Tour. It was wildly unrealistic, of course, but it offered the sense of competition, of each game mattering. I’m very quick with the concede button on Arena because it’s easier to just call a match a loss and try to win the next one. All it takes is more time.

Even for low-level events, the stakes felt higher in paper. Partly because of the social element. Seeing friends, beating a rival, even that one week we all left to play Pokémon Go between rounds, there was always friendly competition. Mostly though, because the rewards in Arena are nonsense.

You get coins for doing random things that actively hinder your efforts to move up the ladder. Cast 40 green spells, it says, but my deck is blue. Now I have to decide if I want coins to enter a draft, to get cards, to get wildcards to improve my deck; or to just play the way I want.

The rewards for limited are clearer, but ultimately, digital packs don’t feel good to open. Even if Arena had an FNM-esque event, with some level of social interaction, the stakes would feel low. Watching an animation is not the same as peeling open a booster and feasting on the value within.

The time I put into three matches of paper Magic feels far more valuable than the time it takes to play three matches on Arena.

HOLLOW VICTORIES

Arena asks for an awful lot of time. Even if I spend my $49.99, I still need to work too hard to get to any truly competitive level. A level where there are things to play for beyond the next spot on the ladder. I can appreciate that the ladder system works for many players, but that doesn’t change the sheer volume of hours required to progress up the ranks.

The end result means that being ‘cash rich’ doesn’t really matter. The currency of Magic Arena is time, and the addition of a shortcut benefits very few people, especially priced as it is. You need to be ‘time rich’ and ‘cash rich’.

I don’t argue that to be a top player, you have to put in the work, put in the hours, but there needs to be something for the average player too. There needs to be something better for the players who get to a high rank, but not a numbered mythic position. That could be through better rewards, or more varied events away from ladder grinding. Getting to mythic took me a long time when I did manage it, and I only got a couple of extra packs for my trouble.

It felt hollow. My time felt wasted.

 

Maybe I’m just looking for Arena to replicate paper too much. Maybe there’s no digital replacement for physical cards, human beings across the table and that feeling of every match meaning something.

Maybe it’s time to sleeve up some cards and head to my LGS.

12 thoughts on “The True Cost of Magic Arena: Time”

  1. Perfect. Although I occasionally go into Arena to play a bit, I have almost stopped playing it as it eats through quite a few hours each week easy.

  2. I too think the struggle to reach mythic is not worth it so I stopped playing for a while now, bit with the historic brawl there ist basically a dehydrated Version of Commander available which got me playing again.
    As I can play multiple decks to do the daily quest I get enough mission’s to buy new Pack’s that may or may not be Worth but still if you Draw enough cards there ought to be something playable inside. I spent 2 -3 Matches worth of time in the app and that’s about it. So I totally understand and agree that the climb to mythical is not worth. It feels rewarding the first time you get there because of the sense of accomplishment but that’s only for the first time and that’s about ist.

  3. Good article. Arena was a saving grace for me during the pandemic, it became a very accessible way for me to play a game that’s kept me company for 20 years. I’ve tried other digital version of Magic and this one is by far the slickest, and that appeals to me. Too bad it has all the same trappings of all f2p gaming, demanding a huge time sink from the players in order to feel properly rewarded. I could whine about Alchemy but suffice it to say it’s one in a series of decisions made about Arena, including the one you’re worrying about, that convince me to abstain. This game was clearly not meant for me.
    It’s just a damn shame.

  4. Well articulated article that, kind of surprisingly, I empathised with hugely along with many of the above comments. I also took a break, then returned, and find hollow rewards for my time, and not the events that interest me. I have redownloaded (!?) Hearthstone. My friends and I (4 of us) have started a sealed league after inspiration from Nicholai Bolas on YouTube, and that makes things significantly more interesting.
    Arena needs a better “dust” system, a spectator mode, get rid of alchemy (I hate queuing on ladder into alchemy decks – there should be a separate ladder for decks using those cards), more support for brawl (such as a ladder), draft rewards should give you good and gems so you can draft again and try to go “infinite”.
    Again, well written and thought provoking article.

  5. Feel similar. Working adult with two kids everyone I try to go back I spend a bunch of time grinding out losses for wildcards and by the time I can scrape together 85% of the deck I want to build we’re onto the next set/meta.

    $50 for 12 rares felt like a slap in the face. No desire to return.

  6. I think there is a ton to enjoy about Arena. I play casually and aside from an initial investment to build an initial deck to play, I’m free to play. I’m occasionally able to make mythic, but I’m not bothered by that. I agree the the key resource in demand by Arena is currently time. I think that a bit of thought is required to assess a realistic approach to playing the game and making decisions about in game resources to best effect as a casual player. As a casual, you will be limited in choice of modes you play in. For me I’ve chosen premier draft and standard play.

    I’m able to complete the daily quests and every 10 days put together gold for premier drafting the latest set. I save gems for the battle pass each time, averaging 3 wins in draft gets you to 3750 gems quickly. I’m able to put together some decent decks in standard to play. Honestly, these card sets are so much better than when I played paper magic in the 90’s. The graphics and play in arena is superior to other card games I’ve tried and played. (I was a monthly regular legend player in hearthstone but quit when Arena went mobile, due to the economy and gameplay being better!).

    One thing I agree with is there is an element of paper magic that is more engaging than online. In fact I think Arena is built to get you into MTG and then encourage you to go play paper magic. I still go draft with friends on occasion, and Arena helps me do this without failing miserably (mostly).

    If you want to take advantage of more than standard and drafting for play, you have to spend money to do so. That’s fine by me, I’ll continue on doing what I’m doing until the economy changes.

  7. The last sentence of the article is definitely the answer. Our backgrounds sound extremely and I’ve developed the same feelings towards arena: indulge in the spending of money to chase the feeling of getting real packs, or spend hours and hours getting nowhere. Tbh, the only way I now play arena is in limited formats. I find the process of getting better at drafting a certain set to be fulfilling, and getting 7 wins is good feels, it definitely increases your card-assessment abilities, and it mostly negates the constant need for buying gems to buy new cards. It’ll show you busto cards without having to waste time paying to see what works. But there’s a lot wrong with arena it is absolutely not a replacement for real-life play. It panders to the human desire for instant gratification.

  8. I agree 💯, MTG Arena is a time based game, you gotta spend a lot of time into the game in order to rank up and get better rewards, I also agree that the prize payout should be slightly bigger to give the players motivation to play more and have a good time doing what they love, I’m a huge MTG collector, I have almost 14 full binders of MTG cards and that’s not counting all the extras I have, another thing, anyone can make a cheap killer deck or Broken as most call it, but when you face the same deck over and over again it does kinda get annoying and rediculous, I mean there is a lot of the same deck going on around MTGARENA, and it just means that everyone is copying someone else’s deck and it becomes a trend, so there needs to be some variety. I play MTGARENA and the highest I’ve ever gotten was silver rank, it’s hard to climb the ladder when there is multiple players using the same kind of deck, like for example I’m using an all red deck and it’s tough to beat a green and white life gain deck, especially when they use the green card that creates a treasure token and when another creature comes onto the battlefield you gain 1 life, it tends to get annoying, so everytime I face that type of I automatically concede because I know that they will be extremely difficult to beat and it’s not worth my time to try. Anyways so I think what they should do is give the players a small daily gift everytime they open the gift once a day or weekly. I believe this would give players a more fun experience instead of always having to win a match to get prizes. It’s something that would be understandable for those that can’t spend all day playing.

  9. Well said. So much potential for a really fun MTG platform yet inevitably wasted for the sake of corporate greed. Heaven forbid they be content with a good player experience and reasonable profit than killing player experience in the name of profit. Ultimately hurts them in the end when the masses leave.

  10. to be honest, I play it more than this guy because I have not a full time job and I can play it well and never bought something.
    Just pay the bill if you have a the full time, or it will be a pay-to-win. ppl spending time on the game instead work are still investing time, and considering the era where we are living, a possibile job is gaming you know..

    Maybe a bit more cards for ppl that pay and play, would be better. but, just a bit, and for both of them. the system is still a bit too much picky.

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