During the last year, I’ve read a lot of posts and articles regarding balance in Magic. Considering the diversity of the Magic community, which involves people from different countries, realities and interests in the game, the player base’s concerns are multiple, and even contradicting.
On this article, my idea is to express my vision over the current status of the game, based mainly on game economy, monetization and players’ progression, which are my expertise areas on the gaming (mobile) industry. To achieve that, I will start with a brief description on what I define as Game Balance, followed by an overview of the player segments that Wizards seems to be targeting in the last couple of years, among with a list of measures that they took in order to improve their experience in the game, to finalize with an analysis of the player base concerns, what may have triggered them, and how to address them when needed.
The baseline definition of Balance, for me, is to deliver a fair experience for every player. This is usually understood as giving equal chances to achieve a goal to a group of people that shares a similar level of effort and skill.
Of course, in terms of Magic, there are more variables to consider, adjust and tune. First of all, you should consider the company’s business needs, such as covering their operational costs and generating profit. Also, players’ goals and interests may be totally different (however, there are some behavioral patterns that allow the team to group them). So, in order to fulfill everyone’s expectations, different kind of products, services and actions should be designed, hopefully generating a sense of progression to increase their engagement with the game. Finally, demographical issues should be covered, since Magic is a game which is actively played and sold worldwide.
Considering the diversity of the player base, the most efficient way to tackle down their needs is to create clusters of players. Of course, you should define criteria in order to define those segments, such as formats, interaction with the game, engagement, etc. From my standpoint, Wizards is using Competitive Level as their main criterion to take decisions over the game.
So, how those segments are defined and how they interact with the rest? I can perceive the following categories, which are consistent with REL scheme.
- Casual: For this group of players, the main goal is to enjoy the game. In fact, their engagement is not tied with Organized Play, but with the game mechanics. For this reason, they are open to try multiple formats, or even creating new ones, if they are able to play a deck that entertain them. They tend to be loyal to the store where they feel more comfortable, despite the fact that they can play at home with friends as well. To satisfy them, Wizards made Casual, FNMs, Showdowns and Gamedays, with rewards that are higher on symbolic value rather than economical one.
- Competitive: This kind of players has a stronger connection with Organized Play. As they are willing to get better rewards and more PWPs, their deck selection will be based in the metagame -even if they don’t actually like its playing pattern. So, they will feel that they are progressing as they are able to win tournaments, getting enough rewards to recover their investment on the deck and the tournament fee (they actually use ROI to evaluate if it worths to play). Most of them will prefer to play PPTQs, RPTQs, WMCQ/NATS and GPs to fulfill their needs, however, they may consider to play Open tournaments that distribute most of the rewards to the top performing players (say, top 10%-20% of the tournament).
- Professional: They are the next level of Competitive Magic. The ideal scenario is to give them the chance to get enough money from the game to pay their bills. For this reason, they designed the Pro Circuit, featuring the Pro Players Club and Premier Events, such as the Pro Tour, and the World Magic Championship, where you are able to get rewards in money rather than products (we should include GPs in this category, despite the fact that they are open tournaments). As they aren’t actually able to wait for the metagame to establish -since they build it-, they need to leverage their knowledge and understanding of Magic, so it is crucial to have the game mechanics for the format bringing different angles to solve the puzzle, but with enough complexity to require a base understanding of game theory.
Since we are clustering the player base, it is possible that you can share behavior patterns with more than one category, however, the idea behind this is to understand which is your main driver to take decisions related to Magic: The Gathering. As you may also see, I was also reluctant to use terms such as “effort”, “creativity”, “skills”, “played time per week”, as I am not able to associate those variables directly with those categories, but also because they are not evenly distributed inside each bracket. However, using Sliver Hivelord to illustrate User Experience was not a random decision, as each segment is pretty important for the game (just like slivers), and being able to address their requirements allowed the game to survive for almost 25 years.
During the past few years, Wizards developed major overhauls aiming towards each of this groups.
In terms of product design, we saw Core Editions being removed from the catalogs, due to a low players’ perception of their value. As the main source for reprints, they were replaced by specific format-targeted products, such as Eternal Masters (Legacy) and Modern Masters (Modern). We can also see Commander Decks and Conspiracy (Draft) to fit the requirements of a diverse player base. I won’t be surprised if some day they decide to create Pauper Masters, with the base of the 8 top decks of the archetype (which is actually a great way to introduce 7 other friends to the game). A reduced count of reprints have been appearing into each of the new two-edition blocks, which were conceived to have Standard rotating each 6 months, an attempt that faced strong resistance from the player base, and was finally reverted (although I felt that they may have had more control on the metagame in terms of mechanics design).
We also saw a lot of action regarding Organized Play. The most important change was the Planeswalker Points system, that replaced the ELO-based score that was used before. This change is pretty straightforward, as they are encouraging us to participate more frequently in tournaments, being rewarded in a proportional way based on tournament attendance and expected difficulty. We can see strong similarities between this change and ATP Tennis Circuit. Even if the change went into the right direction, the tuning is far from being perfect yet, as the amount of players with granted byes due to PWP seems to be pretty big. However, this is pretty difficult to balance considering demographical aspects, such as amount of Grand Prix close to your area and amount and level of the stores in your zone (which is related to PPTQs). There, we can actually go further with the Tennis comparison, as they have a limit of 18 tournaments to be considered for their rankings, since, even if it impairs the simplicity of the current system, if would be much easier to reach PWP balance, in terms of point thresholds to qualify to the NATs and get byes for GPs if you consider only your best 3 GPs, 1 NATs, 5 PPTQs and 20 Casual tournaments into your PWP ranking.
We also saw major changes on each of the event types. In order to fulfill Casual Player needs, there is a broader variety of formats that are available to be sanctioned at FNMs and other events of the same level. They also adopted Community-designed formats and gave them support, which is surely a best practice. We also saw old Standard/Sealed NATs being replaced by 3 single-format WMCQs for a couple of years, and now we are expecting NATs to come back (I will miss Modern, as much as the money I invested for this year’s two expected Modern WMCQs), but keeping the qualification system that came with WMCQs.
In the same way, PTQs were replaced by PPTQs and RPTQs, which are now the top competitive tournaments that may be organized by the stores, and which finally pushed GPTs to be removed from the list of available tournaments. Even if I like the new system more than the previous one (since it needs more consistency from players, as they need to perform well in two tournaments to qualify to the Pro Tour), there are still things to be sort out, like having an alternative path to follow after you win a PPTQ (Besides MOL, which, in fact, should at least be ported to Mac. I really can’t understand that you are not bringing support to a platform that is recognized for the spending behavior of their users), and the reduction of relevant tournaments that are available in cities with a small count of stores (as somebody from a city that ran 8-10 PPTQs per season, I was shocked at GP Porto Alegre when I knew that they had only 1 or 2, and the closest PPTQ was 8 hours away, which may apply to most of South America in fact).
Talking about GPs, Wizards signed an agreement with ChannelFireball to grant them the responsibility of operating every GP in the World. It is, certainly, a great task to do that, and I also had a great experience at GP Houston 2016. Of course, I have some concerns too, since I don’t really know how they will run the event operation on South America -and, of course, the risk of having events being relocated-, but I believe that at some point they will tell us more about the matter. Time will tell.
Finally, in terms of Professional players, we can see that Wizards is clearly aiming to make Magic Pro experience reach a similar level in comparison to eSports. Rewards were greatly increased both in GP and Premier Tournaments, they are investing to improve their broadcasting standards (both in quality and coverage, which may explain why they centralized tournament organization on CFB), they added the team system, which may increase the base earnings of players due to marketing, and they were trying changes in the event structure, such as seeding players at Top 8, which was later discarded. The web page coverage has been standardized, generating content that is relevant to determine the current status of the metagame, and to give visibility on the event and the top players. For the other hand, we should also remember the attempt of reducing participation rewards for players of the Pro Club, which was discarded, and the removal of Modern as a Pro Tour format, keeping Standard and Sealed as the two exclusive formats for this level, which is actually a consequence of Pros needing an environment that rewards knowledge of Magic and Game Theory, over the mechanization and insight of a specific deck (I am sure that it might be pissing to be out of a top 8 losing against decks like Grishoalbrand, or players that are able to pilot only a single deck instead of understanding the game). I also perceive that the entry level to compete at the Pro Tour is high, in fact, each time I read a report from a Pro, they are studying a metagame which is pretty far from being the one that a new player can find. However, this improved a lot after the early release of the new edition in MOL.
So, assuming that they are making big changes and adjusting the experience based on the data that they get from each tournament, that the segments they are aiming are easily recognizable and the actions seems in line with the needs, it seems strange to perceive that there is a growing dissatisfaction regarding current Magic: The Gathering environment, mostly regarding metagame stagnation.
During my experience in the Mobile Gaming Industry, I was always reluctant to believe that players were wrong without proving it. And, since we have full visibility of the results of the big tournaments in the previous years, we can see that the metagame tends to stabilize into a little amount of decks. In fact, I am used to make data analysis for the teams I was part of, and the amount of viable decks -which is for me, the smallest amount of decks that you need to cover 80% of the top 32-64 of a GP- dropped from 8 to 3 in the last couple of years (reaching a Theros-like metagame). As most of us rely on the optimized decklists that we get from GPs and Pro Tours, you will be able to find them in your local Competitive or Casual store almost all the time, which explains the observed stagnation in the metagame. However, this is only related to Standard, as Modern has 30+ decks between Top 64 of GPs after Eldrazi Winter.
So, why is this happening? As sports became professional, the amount of money that players and teams were able to get increased dramatically, and, as a consequence, the impact -and even fear- of losing increased as well. I saw this in soccer, mostly in the 90s, but even considering that they are different tactics to achieve victory (just like in Magic, aggro, midrange, control), at some point the team should focus on achieving the result, rather than scoring more goals, to avoid the risk of losing due to an error.
In Magic, as the amount of rewards increased, Pros started to focus on finding the best deck to compete in an event. To achieve that, they looked for a stable deck (that doesn’t lose to itself), that has low variance (a deck that has 50% of chances to defeat each deck of the metagame is better than other that has 70% with half of the metagame and 30% against the rest, even if both sum 50%), and, hopefully, that isn’t vulnerable to sideboard options. As a natural consequence, most of the relevant decks in the last few years are closer to the Midrange Archetype. As far as I remember, UW Cleansing was the last pure control deck to be relevant in Magic. By the other hand, decks as Bant Company or Mardu Vehicles are far from what we were used to understand as an aggro deck. Let’s also consider that we have seen renowned players of a specific archetype playing decks that are far from their confort zone.
This “conservative” behavior is reproduced directly by Competitive players, so usually the metagame from this week’s PPTQ is similar to the last week’s GP or Pro Tour. This is also natural, since the main driver for this type of players is to maximize the amount of rewards they get, then, using the professional circuit metagame as a base to start testing seems as a best practice. However, in consideration of the time constraints that most players have, it is difficult (or uninteresting) to develop a personal brew or try a suboptimal deck. As some of those players also attend to tournaments that were designed for casual players, mainly to get more boosters, this may also affect their experience, as their pursue is related to attractive matches and strategical diversity.
Of course, most of the diagnostic I stated before is based on qualitative rather than quantitative feedback. I read a lot of articles from Pros, player’s feedback on Magic’s Facebook page, and also talked for hours with fellow competitive players and store owners. As most of the staples of Standard have been banned before the last two Pro Tours, most of the hate is addressed to R&D team and testers, which can be pretty reasonable considering that they had to reach the last resource a game can use to find their balance (banning content). However, I believe that the current deck selection criteria also affects the viability of certain type of strategies that the Research team considered strong against UW Flash, BG Delirium, Mardu Vehicles and 4C Copycat, which contributes to the stagnation of the metagame.
However, reaching a diagnostic isn’t something useful if we lack the ability of finding an action plan to change the current status to the desired one. After reading this article, you may believe that I would consider reducing the rewards as a good plan. But I don’t. Wizards decided to boost their Pro Players Club benefits considering that Magic, as a game, should compete, for example, with Hearthstone and the Poker circuit as the main focus of those players, which is not a good idea, since it is pretty attractive for Competitive players to be paired against Pros, and we are used to enjoy the content that they create in a weekly basis (such as articles, videos, etc).
Then, we may also consider to wait until players get used to the current amount of rewards. At that point, their deck selection criteria will vary, trying to find the best configuration of their favorite archetype, which is a local optimization (based on their skills), instead of a global one. However, this may take a lot of time, which may impair Casual and Competitive’s player engagement in a degree that may lead to take immediate actions. As players change their behavior based on incentives, we should find a way to promote playing other archetypes. They can slightly increase the power level of cards that are addressed to the aggro and control spectrum, so the perceived value (or risk) of playing those strategies became more attractive. At the playtest level, the team may add a new metric to their balancing process, that reflects the decision-making algorithm that Pro Players are actually using, in order to pre-emptively detect any bias towards midrange decks. So, even if the stagnant metagame issue may not be related with both teams, the answer may come from their side, based on game economy design patterns.
Of course, there are also opportunities shining while we speak. Discarded ideas from Pro Teams may shine in the hands of seasoned aggro and control decks, and players may try to fill this empty space by focusing on writing articles targeting those players. Also, since the metagame has a constrained amount of decks (however, each deck has plenty of variants), it may be easier to find a “solution” deck and playtest it heavily, since you will have at least an 80% chance of facing one of the two or three featured decks of the metagame. So, taking some risks at this point may lead to huge payoff if you focus your efforts in the right direction.
This is the content that I planned for this article. I also have some ideas related to the state of art of competitive players depending on demographic factors, and how the secondary market may affect their return over investment, which I will address in a forecoming article.