The "And" of MTG Arena

Posted in Feature on January 31, 2019

By Aaron Forsythe and Chris Clay

Game Director of Magic: The Gathering Arena Christopher Clay is an industry veteran of 18 years, a Magic fan of 25 years, and has been with Wizards of the Coast since the summer of '16. You’ll most often find him playing in MTG Arena’s Limited events. Aaron Forsythe is a Senior Director of Magic Tabletop gaming and has been with Wizards of the Coast since forever.

Aaron Forsythe [AF]: Hello, gamers! I'm Aaron, senior design director for Magic, and I'm here with Chris Clay, game director extraordinaire, to talk to you about one of the biggest and best things to happen to Magic: The Gathering since, well, since the game itself was invented—Magic: The Gathering Arena!

MTG Arena, as I'm sure you're well aware, is our newest video game version of Magic, and although it is still only in open beta, the extent to which all of you have been playing and enjoying it has exceeded our wildest expectations! In fact, it's safe to say that our previous set, Guilds of Ravnica, was the most-played set in Magic's long history, thanks in large part to MTG Arena . . . with Ravnica Allegiance on pace to be played even more!

But amid all the fun and games have been a few questions and concerns about how MTG Arena and the traditional tabletop game will coexist going forward. Will one's needs be placed before the other? Will one subsume the other? Well, we're here to let you know that the best way to describe the relationship between the two platforms as we see it, now and into the future . . . is "And."

What "And" Means

From the beginning, the plan for MTG Arena was that it would provide an authentic digital Magic experience—and more, not just because of its amazing graphics and audio effects. We wanted to leverage the platform to do things we never could in tabletop on a variety of axes, including speed of games, reduction of "non-games," and a plethora of other things we haven't even started work on yet. We'll go into most of these in more detail in a bit. Digital games are not beholden to the same rules that constrain physical ones, and we didn't want to be forced into making Magic the "lowest common denominator" of what works in digital and tabletop.

So what does that mean for tabletop? The short answer is "not much," at least when it comes to how much change you should expect to your favorite game. We aren't implementing sweeping reform to anything—formats, rules, products—in an attempt to bend the physical toward the digital. You'll get to keep playing Modern, Legacy, and Commander. You'll get to keep playing best-of-three matches with sideboards. You'll get to sit down with seven other competitors and booster draft.

That said, MTG Arena is going to focus on doing some of those things differently or not at all and adding some things that only it can do. It represents a new way of playing the game, and we're embracing that. In some ways, Magic has seen and embraced similar new ways of playing, with the introduction of formats like Modern and Commander and even other versions of the game like Duels of the Planeswalkers. But in other ways, MTG Arena is breaking new ground as it deviates in ways that can't be (easily) replicated with traditional cards.

Chris Clay [CC] One of the elements that the MTG Arena team brings to the table is our willingness to ask "Why?" and to challenge conventions that haven't necessarily been questioned in a long time. When we encounter an issue, we are willing to dig in to find out why it exists and whether it's something that digital can address in a way that tabletop can't. You might think this would put us at odds with those in the TCG Design Studio (the part of R&D that makes card sets), but in reality it lets us work problems together and find exciting new solutions to old problems. An early example of this was the joint effort around the opening hand approach we use on MTG Arena in best-of-one ("Bo1") games (which you can find out more about here). Having multiple shuffles of the same deck to choose from isn't practical in tabletop, but it's what we settled on after working through lots of math with the folks from the TCG Design Studio based on all of their deep knowledge of mulligans and deck building. There are places like this where MTG Arena is walking a new path, so let's talk about where we're diverging the experiences the most.

Draft Bots

[CC] When Kaladesh released we also launched the MTG Arena Internal Alpha, and all that was available was Bo1 Kaladesh Draft where you could draft with up to eight real people. If eight real people weren't available to draft—which was pretty much all the time—then the remaining seats would be filled with some very primitive bots. Aside from filling seats, we learned there was a lot to be gained from having bot drafts. We liked that it allowed new players to learn how to draft without any time pressure, so they could visit tier lists, research cards, and generally take their time so if they had to leave mid-draft, no biggie. Which also helped experienced players with busy lives. What we have ended up with is a format that also proved fun for regular players, and particularly streamers. I know chat drafting is one of my favorite ways to draft. This is why we've put extra effort into adding bot personalities and continuing to refine the format. It will never replace the unique experience of an eight-person pod, but we believe it definitely stands on its own.

[AF] This has been a fun problem to dig into. How do you make a table full of AI opponents provide a good experience, but one with enough variability that it doesn't become predictable? We're tackling it a bunch of ways—personalities for the bots, more accurate pick orders using external data, and some good old intuition. At the end of the day, the experience of drafting at your own pace, up to and including across multiple login sessions, makes all this work worth it. I've been having a blast with it, both the internal work and the end product! Which isn't to say it's perfect, and we keep iterating on it with the MTG Arena folks every chance we get.

Best of Three, but Sideboard Free

[CC] For almost all of Magic's history, best-of-three play with sideboarding has been the go-to solution for competitive play, and it's survived the test of time due to its strategic depth and competitive balance. With the upcoming Mythic Invitational, we're working on an alternative format that has multiple games per round but doesn't include sideboarding. As with any other time we've bucked tradition, we're heading down this path for what we believe are compelling reasons. We don't want competitive matches to be decided in a single game, but we also believe that having multiple matches, with a variety of decks, will provide an exciting new play experience. We know that this new format will increase the overall possibility space to be solved with each set, and it will allow those watching to directly integrate what they've seen at the highest level of play into how they play MTG Arena. It also removes a huge barrier to entry from competitive play, and on MTG Arena we want as many people participating in the process and engaged in the events as we can muster. Sideboarding solves many problems, but it does so with the addition of a process that is challenging to understand and master. With the goal of MTG Arena bringing "and" to the table, experimenting in this space lets us do so in a way that we believe will add breadth to Magic competitive play.

We didn't start with the goal of creating this new format we're calling Arena Standard for competitive play in MTG Arena, but the Closed and Open Betas have led us to where we're at today. From the start we wanted to have MTG Arena be a place for fast, fun Magic, and in creating a client that can support that we found that the vast majority of our players ended up playing primarily best-of-one games. There are many reasons people gravitate toward best-of-one, but in the end, it all comes down to the length of a match. All other aspects being equal, it's much easier to commit to a match that is going to average out to roughly 6 minutes of play time than it is to sign up for a match that is going to be closer to three times that amount. On the far end, over 99% of best-of-one matches are completed in under 18 minutes; in best-of-three matches that isn't true until just under an hour. This in no way means we want to abandon best-of-three play on MTG Arena, but it has us looking for ways we can tailor competitive play to better match how most people play MTG Arena. As with so many parts of MTG Arena development, this is an ongoing process, and we'll continue to evolve how it's working with our partners within Wizards and with our players.

[AF] An important ingredient to having our esports leagues and events be compelling for the rest of the MTG Arena–playing audience is to have it mirror as closely as possible the experience they have themselves when they play the game. Sideboarding does not do that, but switching decks entirely does—I know that I'll swap to a new deck frequently on the Constructed ladder, especially if I start losing. We certainly appreciate that no one wants a round of a premier event to be just a single game, and swapping decks will allow for a diverse, interesting experience—and we aren't even mandating that the decks actually be different, so if you "break the format," we'll let you play your deck all event long!

Will the no-sideboarding metagame be different from the traditional one we're all used to? We certainly hope so! As I said before, MTG Arena is meant to be an additional way to play, and Magic is at its best when each experience is different in its own way with new puzzles to solve. I look forward to all the additional content that cracking the no-sideboarding metagame will add to the already robust traditional metagame content out there. I've seen some really cool lists pop up already, and we're just getting started!

Our desires for different decks and metagames has led the TCG Design Studio to start exploring how to support all forms of play with the cards we put in our sets. We think that more cards like Knight of Autumn, Ravager Wurm, and Bedevil should help lower the number of "unwinnable" matchups in Arena Standard; meanwhile, we'll continue to make traditional sideboard cards like Cindervines, Unmoored Ego, and Citywide Bust that can find homes in tabletop sideboards.

Design doesn't have the decades of iteration with Arena Standard as it does with tabletop's sideboarding version, so there will be some learnings as we go. Just in case something goes haywire, I'll mention here that we can maintain separate Banned Lists for the two versions of Standard, and MTG Arena will be able to enforce the proper list based on which mode you are enjoying. As always, we'll be carefully monitoring the metagame data to make sure the experience we're hoping for is actually the one you get.

Uncharted Waters

[CC] For anyone who has participated in one of our streamer events, you'll know that we've been trying out different modifications to the rules or adding unique emblems that change the possibility space for the game. As we've said before, we provide the cards and we're going to continue to find ways to allow you to play with all of them. We keep close track of the overall queue health of all our formats, and we've been timing their duration based on the complexity of solving the problems they represent. The recent Holiday event is an interesting example of a format where the deck diversity diminished significantly over the course of the event, and if Pauper were always "on" the event would have been all but solved from the start. This is also why we don't have all of MTG Arena's formats available at all times. With Traditional Standard and Arena Standard, we and the TCG Studio believe that we have formats that are deep enough to stand the test of time between set releases, and if all goes well we have some secrets up our sleeves to doubly ensure it. A huge thank you to everyone who has helped us explore these new game modes!

[AF] While my design team chips in on these kinds of explorations, mostly this is the MTG Arena team's time to really throw the shackles off and try all kinds of crazy stuff. I'm actually pretty envious of how easy it is for them to invent a format and immediately have a critical mass of players to dive right into it!

Traditional Play in MTG Arena

[CC] Providing an authentic digital Magic experience has been one of our core goals, and this remains true. Everything you experience in Traditional play is meant to replicate what you'd experience when playing tabletop Magic, including the variance in shuffling, with a little flash and animation on top. With the Traditional Ranked queue coming with Preseason 2, we hope to help reinforce our commitment to this tried-and-true experience. After all, you can't have an "and" without the original experience. For all your format needs outside of Standard, Magic Online remains the place for many of the formats that MTG Arena doesn't support.

[AF] We get it. Sometimes you just want to use MTG Arena to practice for an upcoming Friday Night Magic draft or tune your sideboard in advance of a Tabletop Mythic Qualifier. We got you. That's what "and" means! Those authentic-to-tabletop modes are important to us, too, even if we aren't currently building MTG Arena's premier play around them. You get to play how you want, when you want!

Living in a World of Iteration

[CC] As we bring this article to a close, we know that there is a lot to unpack here and that some of it will change over the next year as we continue to iterate to bring the best experiences we can to MTG Arena. 2019 is going to be an exciting year for Magic across the board, and we can't wait to share the journey with all of you. Keep all your great feedback coming, and thank you for being a part of this game that we all love.

Now excuse me, but I have another Ravnica Allegiance Sealed deck to build.

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