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.
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.
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.
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.
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.