Glimpse the future
A half-hour drive from Wizards’s Redmond, Washington, offices is Nintendo of America. In the wake of the Nintendo DS’s 2004 reveal, only three years after the release of the Game Boy Advance, the Japanese game giant referred to its new system as a “third pillar,” standing alongside its home consoles like the Wii and its mega-popular Game Boy line of handhelds. Folklore has it that Nintendo’s retired (and infamously surly) president Hiroshi Yamauchi dictated to his successor Satoru Iwata that the company’s next handheld console should have two screens “like the multiscreen Game & Watch.” Everyone, including Iwata, hated the idea.
Consumers were initially confused by this bifurcation, left wondering what it meant for the future. Were they going to have to buy a new Nintendo handheld every two years? Would games be cross-compatible? Who was the Game Boy for? What about the DS?
All of those questions were washed away by the DS’s immense success. It went on to sell nearly an astounding 155 million systems—placing it only a hair behind the PlayStation 2 as the best-selling video game console of all time. This unexpected success forced Nintendo to reconsider its plans. Nintendo released the 3DS in 2011, carrying forward the DS’s dual screens and name—and forever marking the end of the Game Boy line.
Yamauchi famously didn’t play video games. Similarly, he’d never been to a baseball game before he purchased the Seattle Mariners in 1992. In 2006, he told Nikkei, “If the DS succeeds, we will rise to heaven, but if it fails, we will sink to hell.” Yamauchi called his shot, and with a double-screened swing of the bat, he sent Nintendo’s fortunes sailing high into the upper deck.
Which brings us back to Nintendo’s neighbors. In 2020, Wizards appears to be following Nintendo’s “third pillar” approach. As the card game grows and evolves, it’s finding an audience split across paper Magic, MTGO, and Arena. Like the Game Boy and the Nintendo DS, all three of Magic’s pillars provide a unique experience, providing space for different types of players.
What does this mean for the future of the game? Will Wizards continue to support their three pillars? Or will Arena’s success encourage them to rewrite the book?
“I’m obviously biased,” said Cao, “but I’m optimistic about the future of Magic. I think what lends so much to my optimism is the fact that Magic has thrived on tabletop for over 25 years and is currently bigger than it’s ever been.
“Digital makes it much easier for us to make Magic accessible to an even broader audience, and offers a great platform for players to compete and broadcast their gameplay.”
When I asked him to predict the game’s future, Saffron Olive suggested that conventional wisdom suggests Wizards will keep adding more formats and cards to Arena before eventually shutting down MTGO. Like Lewis, however, he’s not so sure Wizards should be so quick to put all its eggs in one digital basket. “Arena is designed to be fast and flashy and fun, and I’m not sure that cluttering it up with a bunch of old legacy cards that many players don’t care about would be in line with that goal.
“I think a lot depends on the success of Arena. While the game has certainly been successful, it’s also not a top-tier esport in the realm of League of Legends or Fortnite. If that happened, somehow, it’s possible we see Wizards and Hasbro move away from paper Magic and toward Arena being the primary way for players to play Magic.” A long shot, he admits, but not impossible.
The key to Magic: The Gathering’s success has always been its accessibility and its willingness to experiment and evolve in ways that match its audience’s expectations. The digital realm has been, and will continue to be, a key battlefield as Magic holds ground as the most popular card game in the world.
“Historically, we’ve seen that a strong digital offering increases activity in the tabletop game,” said Cao. “We like giving our players choice, and Arena also helps bring the game to a broader audience that might not have access to local game stores or have friends already playing the game.”
Despite its current popularity, Arena’s continued success is no guarantee, and Wizards can’t take their foot off the gas pedal yet. New competitors, like Riot Games’s League of Legends spinoff CCG Legends of Runeterra, are finding quick success. Legends of Runeterra has “caught the attention of several top Magic and Hearthstone streamers,” Danny Forster recently wrote for Dot Esports. And if content creators are interested, he continued, new and existing players will be, too.
Wizards announced another exciting step forward for the franchise when it revealed Magic: Legends at The Game Awards 2019. This MMORPG in the style of World of Warcraft will send players to the multiverse where they can experience the thrill of exploring a world they’ve known through their cards for decades. Like Arena launching into a post-Hearthstone world, the only question is whether Wizards is once again late to the party.
One thing’s for sure: Wizards, like its players, has a lot of choices going forward as Magic continues to evolve. Led by Arena, the next step on Magic’s journey is backed by its mega-popularity as a paper trading card game, decades of experience, huge successes, and a constant desire to experiment.
“Magic won’t die, I know that much,” Partlow asserted. “It’s been around for over 25 years and is built on a strong foundation of social interaction.”
As has been the case since Magic’s debut in 1993, there are many paths forward—some converging, so crossing, some running in parallel. No matter what happens, right now, it’s never been easier to get together with some friends—online or in person—to sling some fireballs, summon a dragon, and take on the mantle of Planeswalker.
Update, 9:15 a.m. Monday: We added a quote from Bill Dugan, a fromer VP of Electronic Publishing at Wizards of the Coast, about how the company worked with Leaping Lizard.