It was easy to get into Magic: The Gathering when I was 11 years old. The air was crisp, and the leaves were turning, as September 1994 rolled into October. The game was taking over my schoolyard thanks to Ms. Dierdre Lukyn, the coolest teacher at the school. Like any young soul who wants to be part of the action, I bought a starter pack and some boosters and mashed my favorite cards together with some lands. I didn’t know what I was doing. But it didn’t matter. Nobody had any idea about how to build a good deck. Competitive play didn’t exist then the way it does now. Nobody cared. We were kids falling in love with a unique card game that made us feel like wizards.

Over 25 years later, Magic remains a mainstay in my life. I still play games against those same schoolyard rivals. I follow the news daily. I’ve played in tournaments, and I watch my favorite players stream the game. More than Tolkien, more than Final Fantasy, more than anything else, Magic: The Gathering turned me into a fantasy fan.

Untap

It’s always been easy to get into Magic, and the latest effort to reach new audiences is Magic: The Gathering — Arena, and it’s creator Wizards of the Coast’s most ambitious digital product since 2002’s Magic: The Gathering Online. Arena is the latest in a long line of digital Magic products that have attempted to bring the gameplay of the original paper game to computers, game consoles, and phones.

In June, less than a year after entering its open beta phase, Arena celebrated its one billionth game played. A billion. That’s a big number, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of games played in tournament halls and around kitchen tables since Magic’s original release in 1993. But the relationship between digital and paper Magic isn’t competitive so much as symbiotic.

“The digital versions of Magic have all had a positive impact overall,” Chris Cao told me when I spoke with him for this piece. “They help drive more engagement of the core brands, increase play activity and broaden awareness for the game. We also think they provide vastly different experiences, each with their own strengths.”

Cao is the executive producer of Wizards’s internal digital game studio. His job is to focus Magic’s development, operations, and expansion over multiple digital platforms.

Above: The Sol Ring is an iconic Magic: The Gathering card from its first set in 1993. It’s received many reprints.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Like any product that’s survived multiple decades, Magic’s 25-year journey is full of world-class successes and almost catastrophic missteps. But if there’s one thing that never changes, it’s Wizards’s willingness to experiment and push forward, and their ever-present mandate to make the game as broadly accessible and appealing as possible to players around the planet.

History is best told by the people who experienced it, so I’ve connected with pro players, Wizards of the Coast staff, journalists, and content creators who have devoted their lives to this wonderful game. Join us as we dive deep into the history of Magic: The Gathering’s digital ambitions.

To find the beginning of this digital journey, we have to travel way back to 1997, just four years after the release of the game’s ultra-rare Alpha edition.

Dig through time

“I’ve played way more digital Magic over the years than paper Magic,” Saffron Olive told me when I asked him about his history with the game. “While I started off as a causal paper player a long time ago, as I became more interested in Magic, I started playing more and more Magic Online,” he said, referring to Magic’s long-running online client, Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO). As Saffron Olive began producing more video content, he moved even further away from paper Magic “since digital is way, way easier for video production and streaming.”

With his jubilant beard and infectious laugh, Saffron Olive, whose real name is Seth, is a writer for MTGGoldfish, a noted Magic site with articles, videos, and decklists, and one of the community’s best known “brewers”—players who find enjoyment crafting and playing creative decks, rather than chasing the “meta” decks popular with competitive players. From his home in upstate New York, he can be found daily streaming some of the most unique decks the game has to offer.

Like Saffron Olive, I play more digital Magic these days than paper Magic. I got back into the game around 2013’s Dragon’s Maze digital and paper expansion set, just after a period of major growth for the game during 2009-2012, which Hipsters of the Coast‘s Rob Bockman attributes to a “digital-driven surge of popularity.”

But it took a long time for digital Magic to catch on the way it did during that period.

Shandalar

Magic's earliest digital incarnation looks far different than what we see today.

Above: Magic’s earliest digital incarnation looks far different than what we see today.

Image Credit: GOG

Wizards of the Coast and MicroProse awkwardly ushered in Magic’s digital era with the release of 1997’s Magic: The Gathering—colloquially known as Shandalar. It was a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. Unlike most of Magic’s future digital offerings, Shandalar wanted to do more than mimic tabletop gameplay, instead borrowing many elements from role-playing and adventure games. Random battles played out like typical Magic games, enabling the player to improve their collection by winning “ante” cards (each player bets a random card from their library at the beginning of each match; winner takes all.) Not completely forsaking the game’s tabletop roots, Shandalar also offered a “duel” mode that pitted players against each other in a more traditional game of Magic.

An expansion called Spells of the Ancients debuted in 1998 and included game engine, AI, and interface improvements along with new cards. A special edition combining the base game and the expansion, plus new cards and features, was released the same year. In August 1999, MicroProse announced a robust new edition of the game with many new features called Gold Edition, but it was not released before the company folded in 2001.

Shandalar earned a special place in the hearts of Magic players as the first attempt to emulate the paper game in a digital format. Twenty years later, it stands as a relic of its time, an interesting forebear of later forms of digital Magic. It’s a bit of a cobbled together mess, but, like the work of Dr. Frankenstein, there’s something undeniably endearing about it.

Popular Magic streamer Gaby Spartz released a video series where she plays through Shandalar. If you want to play along, Shandalar is available as a free download on Abandonware DOS.


Sideboard: BattleMage, Armageddon, and Sega

Released alongside MTGO in 1997, Magic: The Gathering: BattleMage (PC and PlayStation) took Shandalar’s concept even further, with combat playing out like a real time strategy game with cards representing playable units and abilities.


Also in 1997, Acclaim released a rare arcade game called Magic: The Gathering: Armageddon. As few as four known units exist. The game was so poorly received that one VentureBeat writer saw the only known prototype unit being “used as a shelf for trash” at his local Sunnyvale Golfland in the Bay Area back in the day. Before it could be trashed, the unit was snapped up by a collector and now makes a regular appearance at the California Extreme arcade expo.

Sega released a Japan-only Magic game called, repetitively, Magic: The Gathering for the Dreamcast in 2001. It features cards from 6th edition, Alliances, and Tempest, as well as 10 exclusive cards with Hearthstone-style random effects.

Magic, online

Above: An early Magic: The Gathering digital incarnation was an interactive encyclopedia.

Image Credit: MobyGames

Two years later, in the summer of 1999, a relatively unknown developer called Leaping Lizard, whose slim credits included Sim Farm and a Dreamcast remake of Atari’s classic Centipede, was hired by Wizards with a pitch for an online version of Magic: The Gathering.

“We knew what we wanted to do and did a pretty lengthy developer search among game developers and a few web developers,” Bill Dugan, Wizards’s VP Electronic Publishing at the time, told me. During this search, they spoke with two prominent existing digital CCGs, Chron X and Sanctum, but were “over-skeptical of buying rather than building,” said Dugan. “Leaping Lizard had been recommended to me by another game developer I had worked with before, and we ended up choosing them after they impressed us with their approach and with a quick prototype that embodied the rules in a way that made it clear they would be good to work with.”

Wizards was already thinking about a digital version of Magic at this point, says Saffron Olive at MTGGoldfish. “They had just released the Magic Interactive Encyclopedia, which was designed to allow for digital deck-building. Once you purchased the program, all the cards were free — you simply ‘marked’ the cards you had in your paper collection and used those to build decks and even play games (although it is unclear exactly how gameplay worked). The program was updated with every set release at no cost to the user.”

Wizards liked what they saw from the small development company and brought them onboard to realize the idea of a fully playable online version of the world’s most popular trading card game.

Magic: The Gathering is a complex game. So complex, in fact, that YouTuber Kyle Hill of Because Science recently built a computer using Magic: The Gathering cards based on a paper published by Dr. Alex Churchill, et al. According to the research, Magic is the only known “turing complete offline game.” This makes Magic mathematically as complex as a game can possibly be, and even more difficult than chess and go, according to Hill. Successfully converting that level of complexity to a playable computer game was no small task for Leaping Lizard, especially since there were no other examples to follow. Magic: The Gathering Online was truly unprecedented.

Alpha testing for Magic Online with Digital Objects (as it was called at the time, ) started in August 2001, with wide beta testing beginning in November of that year. It officially launched on June 24, 2002. For the first time ever, Magic players could connect online to play rounds of their favorite game against each other from the comfort of their home.

Magic was, finally, online.

After several years on the market, paper Magic was a huge game with a staggering number of cards. At launch, MTGO limited itself to sets from 7th Edition onward. Players could choose from several game modes, such as Standard, Block Constructed, and Booster Draft. This was a start, but it was clear there was a long way to go before MTGO was as content-rich as its tabletop counterpart. So less than a year later, Wizards decided it was time for a new version of MTGO.

“The scope of Magic Online was of mammoth proportions,” said Daniel Myers and The Magic Online Team at the time on Wizards’s website. “Even given the difficulty of creating an interface that allowed people to play Magic games versus players all over the world, it had to be a robust enough system to allow the addition of hundreds of new cards every year. Leaping Lizard’s groundbreaking work showed that we had the right crew working with us.

“Magic Online is the first program to consistently and accurately translate the interactions between individual Magic cards and the game rules. Many people thought this task alone was insurmountable, but the Lizards proved them wrong. Not only was it possible, but possible to do well.”

Despite this praise, Wizards ended their relationship with Leaping Lizard in May 2003 and brought the design and development of MTGO in-house.

“In a world of online strategy and roleplaying games,” Myers continued, “Magic Online is the first truly successful eTCG. And we’re not willing to rest on our laurels now.”

Wizards had huge ambitions for MTGO’s next phase, but this decision to hand the game off to an internal team is when things started going sideways, Titus Chalk told me. Chalk is the author of Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering.

“The original platform for the game was written by one group of developers, and then maintained by a separate group of developers, who also had the responsibility of continuing to update it,” said Rich Stein in Magic Offline. “The problems that can arise in this situation are manifold.”

The launch of MTGO V2 on July 28, 2003, was “disastrous,” recalled Stein. “Servers constantly crashed, the rules engine didn’t function properly, and numerous bugs made the playing experience miserable. Wizards decided to turn off the servers, putting them into no-pay beta mode, while they worked out the kinks.”

There were many calls from fans for Wizards to rollback to V1, but the way the internal development team built the latest expansion set made a rollback nearly impossible.

“We made some bad decisions,” said Myers in August, 2003. “We’re stuck with the results now, and we’re trying to fix everything as quickly as possible. We’re just sorry that we ended up bringing you along on the roller-coaster ride.”

Later that month, Wizards shut down MTGO to resolve ongoing issues. Once the game returned in fall 2003, Randy Buehler, Magic’s lead developer at the time, tried to put some positive spin on MTGO’s troubles. “The big picture is that Magic Online has been so successful that we’re outgrowing the initial design,” he said. “We are truly sorry that we put the Magic Online community through this, but we are optimistic that ten years from now we’ll look back on this as the Magic Online-equivalent of the Homelands set: Mistakes were made and we shouldn’t have done it that way, but we learned from it and the game survived just fine.”

Above: Magic: The Gathering Online as it stood in version 1.

Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast

In February 2004, Myers announced MTGO V3. It was no longer possible to work with the foundation laid by Leaping Lizard and built upon by Wizards’ internal team, he admitted. “Magic Online needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.”.

“Things could only get better with V3, couldn’t they?” said Florian Koch in MTG Arena Is Killing Magic Online for ChannelFireball, a large retailer and website focusing on Magic content. After serious delays, Wizards finally released Magic Online V3 on April 16, 2008, over four years after the update’s initial announcement.  “It turns out Wizards had delivered a disastrous product. It was ugly, lacked core functionality, the UI seemed to make things as hard as possible, and the servers weren’t super-stable either. There was nowhere else to go, though. If you wanted to play Magic online, then this was all you had.”

MTGO was in a tough spot. It started life with a mandate to replicate tabletop play as closely as possible, which pulled it away from the type of thinking required to build a sustainable and future-proofed digital platform.

Kiblergate

MTGO V3’s troubles culminated in 2013’s “Kiblergate.” Brian Kibler, a two-time Pro Tour Champion and Hall of Fame player, was running the field in a Magic Online Championship Series event when things started to go wrong.

“I was excited to play in the MOCS,” Kibler said in a blog post. “Not only is the MTGO Championship a unique event in which it would be exciting to compete, but the winner of the event gets $25,000 and an invite to the World Championships next year.”

Kibler cruised to a 7-0 start, and he started to feel excited when he realized he had a shot at taking down the whole tournament. “I was sitting at first place overall in the tournament and essentially guaranteed a Top 8 finish even if I lost the last two rounds.”

During the eighth round, Kibler lost his connection to MTGO and couldn’t reconnect. Despite his record, he had to complete the final rounds or be disqualified and lose his spot in the Top 8.

“My heart sank. Was this really happening? I rushed to reopen the program and get back online. I input my username and password and sat stuck at the login screen. I closed and reopened the program and tried again.”

In a fit of pique, Kibler took to Twitter and recommended his followers delete MTGO.

“Being able to play Magic against people from all over the world at any hour of the day from the comfort of my own home is amazing,” he said. “I was even thinking in the middle of the MOCS how great it was being able to take my dog out for a walk in between rounds, or to be able to be playing in a legitimately meaningful competitive event with him on my lap. But the event can only be meaningful if you can reasonably suspect it will finish, so the results of your time and effort can actually matter. These days, that’s not a bet I’d be willing to make.”

As a result of Kibler’s excoriation, the MTGO economy crashed, losing 11% of its value in a single day. For a platform with an already rocky reputation and history, having one of its star players come out against it was serious business. Since then, Kibler has become one of the most popular Hearthstone streamers. Magic makes up only a small part of his content these days, but its presence has been growing since the release of Arena.

Fourth time’s a charm

Above: Magic: The Gathering Online looks a bit archaic now.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Wizards released MTGO V4 into tumultuous post-Kiblergate seas. The first major release was a “Wide Beta Spotlight” in May 2014, which shut down V3, forcing players to the new platform if they wanted to play online. By July 2014, V4 was up-and-running and became the go-to platform for players as troublesome V3 was shut down. It’s remained in use ever since, adding many features, new sets, and cards along the way.

One of the best things about Magic is the opportunity it provides for a shared experience. There’s nothing quite like setting up for an evening with your friends, some snacks, and a couple decks of Magic cards. For pros, however, the requirement of being in the same place at the same time for long enough to practice was a problem solved by MTGO, enabling them to test new decks and strategies when and where they wanted.

And they didn’t even have to wear pants.

“I wouldn’t have a Magic career if not for Magic Online,” Luis Scott-Vargas told me when I asked about his history with digital Magic. “I started playing it in 2005, and it gave me the ability to play against the best and get way more games in than I would be able to otherwise.” He admits to spending more hours playing MTGO than he cares to imagine.

Scott-Vargas, 36, is considered one of the best Magic players in the game’s history, having won five Grand Prix tournaments to go along with his victory at 2008’s Pro Tour Berlin. From his home in Denver, Scott-Vargas writes for ChannelFireball, regularly streams Magic, and provides video commentary for major Magic events.

Over five years after its release, MTGO V4 continues to offer players of all stripes a deeper, fully  featured online Magic solution alongside its new flashier companion: Arena.

This looked a little more like the future, with a clean, modern aesthetic, but playing it felt more like a proof of concept that a developer might use to pitch Wizards on a fuller, more feature rich final product.

On November 26, 2019, Wizards announced  it was “removing Magic Duels: Origins from online storefronts and ending continued support for the game.”


Sideboard: The Troubled History of MTGO

For comprehensive and detailed histories of MTGO and its troubled development history, I recommend Saffron Olive’s “The Complete History of Magic Online” on MTGGoldfish and Rich Stein’s “Magic Offline” on Hipsters of the Coast.


The rise of Hearthstone

Above: Murlocs are sorta Hearthstone’s mascot.

Image Credit: Polygon

If you want a laugh, dig up some predictions of the future from the ’60s. With “jetscalators” sitting next to robot butlers, 24-hour sunlight, and driverless cars, they could range from hilariously enthusiastic to startlingly prescient.

When MTGO was the only major online TCG on the market, it seemed like the future. Being able to have a feature complete Magic experience on the computer was nothing short of remarkable. Sure, the user experience needed work, but it was an immensely complex system and sacrifices were expected.

In March, 2014, Blizzard Entertainment released Hearthstone, an online collectable card game based on its immensely popular Warcraft universe. What started as a small project for the company soon blossomed into a hit—and made clear that MTGO was falling behind when it came to graphics, interface, and player experience.

Hearthstone lapped MTGO as it went on to set a new standard for playing, streaming, and watching digital card games. Not long after its release, The Verge‘s Ben Popper suggested that Hearthstone immediately succeeded in finding a mainstream audience where MTGO failed because it “found just the right balance between accessibility and depth.” Half a decade later, Hearthstone is one of the most popular games on Twitch, boasting over 100 million players, and Wizards is only just getting started with its true competitor.

“I have often said Wizards of the Coast developed a ‘Jan vs. Marsha Brady’ complex about Hearthstone,” said Brian Lewis. “They’d sit around like Jan and, instead of obsessing over the more popular Marsha Brady, instead lamenting, ‘Hearthstone! Hearthstone! Hearthstone!’

Lewis is better known by his alias: The Professor. He runs Tolarian Community College, the most popular Magic YouTube channel, where he focuses on accessibility, consumer rights, product reviews, and making sure the game stays fun for as many players as possible.

“[Wizards] saw the extreme popularity and profitability of Hearthstone, and it just drove them crazy. Enter Arena, which is basically just trying to look and feel like Hearthstone, only with Magic cards. Then they went and paid Hearthstone streamers to stream Arena, and again, it’s like an episode of The Brady Bunch, with Jan walking around prom dressed like her older sister. It works for about 10 minutes, and then… .”

Enter the battlefield

Like many Magic players, my relationship with the game has waxed and waned over the decades since I cast my first spell. It was a fun, ultra-casual experience in fourth grade, when my opponents and I barely knew the rules, and then something a bit more serious in high school. It always lingered in the back of my mind, in no small part because its influence on me as a reader and writer was immense, but the time and opportunity to play it was almost zero as I grew older.

But as is the tendency of things like Magic, it crept its way back into my life. Casually at first, before turning into a full blown obsession. Several years ago, my friend and I assembled a couple of cheap decks, with the idea that we could pull them out to play some casual Magic whenever the mood struck.


Sideboard: XMage & Cockatrice

Above: Cockatrice is an open-source card collector to build Magic decks without owning the cards.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

It’s no secret that Magic can be an incredibly expensive hobby, with cards costing from pennies to tens of thousands of dollars. For the millions of fans who only play the game around the kitchen table with their friends, “proxy” cards are common. These are pretend cards ranging from low quality counterfeits bought on eBay, to cheap commons with “Black Lotus” scrawled across the front in sharpie. Digital Magic’s own version of proxy cards come in the form of XMage and Cockatrice.


These long-running, open source platforms are not endorsed or supported by Wizards of the Coast. They offer none of the UI and gameplay refinements that make Arena so fun or MTGO so comprehensive, but they do give players a way to experience the game with low overhead by letting them use imported card data to play against each other with digital proxies.

It didn’t so much snowball from there as turn into an avalanche.

After having kids, it became increasingly difficult to carve out the time required to play paper Magic despite my rediscovered enthusiasm for the game. My friends left town or started their own families, and local tournaments often ran during my kids’ bedtime. I dabbled with MTGO, but it wasn’t for me. I started playing less and less Magic, even if I was still buying cards, brewing decks, and following the competitive scene via social media.

Then in November 2017, I got an invite to a closed stress test for Arena.

Magic: The Gathering — Arena

While little me was playing Magic and Pogs on the schoolyard, kids nowadays are glued to Fortnite and Minecraft. While Wizards once had the corner on that market, it’s been lagging behind in recent years as the attention of kids and adolescents has shifted to the digital realm.

Under the direction of then-new president Chris Cocks in early 2017, Wizards created the Digital Games Studio, headed by industry veteran Jeffery Steefel, VP of digital. A month later, the team announced Magic Digital Next, which Steefel described as the “internal umbrella term for the entire landscape for Magic: The Gathering experiences around digital games.”

Steefel’s background is not in trading card games but video games, where his experience stretches back to the mid-’90s. He was involved in creating many successful massively multiplayer online role-playing games like Asheron’s Call 2: Legion and Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. The writing was on the wall, and fans immediately started talking about MTGO’s successor.

The first major Magic Digital Next announcement came on September 7, 2017 when Wizards officially announced Magic: the Gathering Arena.

“What we’re doing with Magic Arena, we’re taking the real gameplay rules of Magic, which is what Magic Online has, but we’ll focus, at least at the start, on our front list play, our current Standard and Draft formats,” Magic’s vice president of global brand strategy Elaine Chase told VentureBeat the day it was announced. “We’ll make it in a beautiful interface and quick play style that really matches the way people play games today.”

Arena is Wizards’s attempt to take back the schoolyard and Twitch.


Sideboard: Duels of the Planeswalkers

Magic2015 Griselbrand

Above: The rare Griselbrand is a powerhouse in Magic 2015: Duels of the Planeswalkers.

Image Credit: GamesBeat/Brandin Tyrrel

Wizards’ first attempt to make a modern version of digital Magic was 2009’s Duels of the Planeswalkers. Developed by Stainless Games, Duels of the Planeswalkers was aimed at new players, and it focused on the single-player experience by providing a campaign for players to complete.

Unlike MTGO, Duels of the Planeswalkers was not regularly updated to include new expansion sets. Instead, it featured it’s own expansion packs, which added new decks, campaign matches, and challenges. Wizards of the Coast released several standalone revisions of the game over the next several years, culminating with Magic Duels in 2015 (which did include regular game updates, but those ceased in 2017 to make way for Arena.)


Unlike its big brothers, Arena is a digital collectible card game—a major difference from its paper format and MTGO, which are trading card games. In paper and on MTGO, players are expected to trade cards to other players for the cards they need, a swap of assets. Arena doesn’t allow any trading; instead, it gives the players “wildcards” of varying rarity that allow players a 1-for-1 swap for any card of that rarity they want.

This is only the first of Arena’s philosophical departures from MTGO. Another is its Game Rules Engine (GRE), which Arena’s Chris Clay called “the perfect Magic judge” in an interview with PCGamesN. It’s basically an engine that can interpret Magic’s immensely complex rules by reading the card text and extrapolating behaviour, removing the requirement to individually develop every card. “Part of the whole concept of authentic Magic is looking to the tabletop experience and seeing just how people play cards like that,” Clay continued. “[We] make sure the rules are true on the backend but in the client look for ways to ease the play.”

Closed beta — December 2017

Zombies remain one of my favorite decks because of Death Baron turning shuffling corpses into lethal weapons.

Above: Zombies remain one of the favorite decks of GamesBeat managing editor Jason Wilson.

Image Credit: Jason Wilson/GamesBeat

Arena started accepting player applications for its closed beta in September 2017 This was the first chance for anyone outside of Wizards’s offices to get to play the newest digital version of Magic.

I got in during one of the first waves of Arena invites in November 2017, and I approached the game with cautious optimism. I hadn’t been impressed with Magic’s past digital offerings, which ranged from downright pitiful (BattleMage) to deep, but also deeply flawed (MTGO).

This first taste of Arena delivered a haphazardly dashed together client that leaned heavily into its beta nature. UI elements, like the competing players’ names, were just sorta … there, floating nebulously. Information wasn’t always easy to find. For instance, there was no way to view the battlefield when you were deciding whether or not to activate a card’s triggered ability. Cards would often overlap one another, making it impossible to interact with the entirety of the board. It was a far from perfect experience.

But it was fun.

“I did not expect to be infatuated with Magic: The Gathering — Arena,” said Polygon’s Charlie Hall. “But after only a single afternoon spent exploring the closed beta, I’ve found myself feeling those familiar cravings for one more round of play.

“Arena has that same addictive vibe as a good game of Civilization, and I’m already looking forward to the next incremental update. Not only does it evoke the tactile nature of the original card game, it tastefully enhances the experience and dramatically speeds up play. Overall, this game shows incredible promise.”

Arena initially launched with only two modes: Standard and Draft. Over time, Wizards improved the user experience, squashed bugs, added new modes, more cards, updated the graphics, tweaked rewards, and just kept iterating and iterating.

And I kept playing and playing.

Open beta — September 2018

Arena opened its gates in September, 2018 when it entered its open beta phase. At this point, anyone could sign up for Arena. For all intents and purposes, the game had launched. Digital Magic took its next step into the era of streaming and YouTube, esports, and loot boxes.

Spend five minutes with Arena, and it’s obvious how much it’s been influenced by Hearthstone’s immense success. The core experience is Magic, complete with its sometimes-clunky land system, but the user interface, animations and sound effects, and general flow are all designed to appeal to those who discovered digital card games through popular Hearthstone streamers like Kibler or Thijs.

“Arena, quite frankly, is awesome, and I feel embarrassed that I took this long to try it out,” said 2016 Magic World Champion Brian Braun-Duin in MTG Arena is the Future of Magic about two months after Arena moved into its open beta phase. “Arena is Wizards of the Coast finally putting together a beautiful digital product. I expected bugs, errors, things not working properly, lag, and so on and so forth. I have not experienced any of that even a single time, and I’ve dumped a lot of hours into the program in less than a week’s time.”

Wizards of the Coast president Chris Cocks (left) stands with 2016 Magic World Champion Brian Braun-Duin.

Above: Wizards of the Coast president Chris Cocks (left) stands with 2016 Magic World Champion Brian Braun-Duin.

Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Despite his professional success, Braun-Duin admitted that at that time his love for Magic was at an all-time low. “I have only played Magic when at events or explicitly to test for those events, and I’ve only tested for events because I am part of a team and I feel an obligation to my team to contribute. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have played.”

All of that changed when Braun-Duin, pressured by his friends and other pro players like William “Huey” Jensen and Brad Nelson, logged into the new client. “Arena has rekindled my love for Magic.”

When MTGO first came out, it was alone on the battlefield. Conversely, Arena entered open beta at a time when Hearthstone was dominating Twitch, and other card games like Eternal, Artifact, and Pokémon TCG Online were carving out their own niches. Magic was finally in the race, but had a lot of catching up to do.

“In general, MTGO was good enough for most Magic players, but [it’s] not the type of client that would draw in players from other games,” said Saffron Olive. Arena, on the other hand, “is a version of Magic that a Hearthstone or Eternal player who has never played a game of Magic in their life can pick up in a few minutes and enjoy as they are learning. I’d say that without the success of Hearthstone, Eternal, and other similar online card games, Arena probably wouldn’t exist.”

In addition to being one of the best Magic players of all time, Scott-Vargas is a game designer at Eternal developer Dire Wolf Digital. “I believe that a rising tide does lift all boats, and having great games like Hearthstone and Eternal on the market expands the overall audience for Magic,” he told me. “More and more people are realizing that card games are awesome, and that’s great for all of the games in this space.”

Arena offers a different but complementary experience to MTGO, Cao told me. It “focuses more on the spectator than on the simulation, bringing the cards to life with video game visuals and feel.” He pointed out to me that 97% of Arena games are played as best-of-one, which forsakes the traditional best-of-three format that dominates MTGO and competitive Magic. “Right there, you can see that different groups of folks are choosing the kind of digital magic experience that most fits their tastes.”

Arena’s still behind Hearthstone, which is a top 10 game on Twitch according to statistics provided by Arsenal.gg, but thanks to Wizards’s promotion of the game through Mythic Invitationals, the Magic Pro League, and sponsorship deals with players and content producers, it’s closing the gap. Stu Grubbs, cofounder and CEO of Lightstream (which owns Arsenal.gg), told me that at its peak popularity in October 2018, Magic was “more than four times as popular in terms of hours watched on Twitch” compared to the period after Arena’s beta launched. Nowadays, it’s still three times as popular and is the 24th most popular game on Twitch, sitting around games like The Witcher 3, Destiny 2, and Teamfight Tactics. When Arena officially launched in September 2019, viewers spent over 7 million hours streaming Magic.

Wizards recently partnered with StreamElements for the “Magic: The Gathering Creator Program,” which provides tools and assets to make it easier for streamers to set up professional-looking content and take part in “challenges” that push them to pursue community focused activities like sending a large “raid” of viewers to another Magic’s streamer’s channel or streaming Arena for four straight hours.

“Wizards of the Coast is one of the most forward-thinking brands in the games industry which they’ve continued to demonstrate year-over-year,” said StreamElements CEO Doron Nir. “The gaming and livestreaming industry is continuing to grow at an incredible rate, so being an early adopter of the latest technology to keep pace with it should be the focus of every brand.”

Arena’s success on streaming and video platforms has had a major knock-on effect, Titus Chalk told me. It’s creating space in the game’s fandom for players who have been squeezed out of traditional spaces. Thanks to streaming, many of the game’s most popular content creators are women—such as Amy the Amazonian, Gaby Spartz, MTGNerdGirl, and Emma Handy. Autumn Burchett, a nonbinary pro player from London, was the very first Mythic Championship winner, rolling to an impressive victory with a deck they perfected on Arena.

“Streaming has really helped build an audience for a lot of players from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds in Magic,” Chalk said. “Previously the only way to get that kind of exposure was by making it to the Pro Tour—and slogging through a male-dominated competitive scene was not always easy.”

Emma Partlow agreed. A 31-year-old Magic journalist from Suffolk, England, she first picked up Magic five years ago. Since then she’s noticed the community has become more accepting and diverse. “Seeing success from players such as Autumn Burchett and Jessica Estephan has really made this a normal occurrence within the game, which it should be anyway.

“However, Magic has this awful tendency to base social rank on success, which has meant it’s taken a while for underrepresented groups to be noticed—it should not be this way regardless, but it’s a poor habit within the community.”

One challenge Partlow has witnessed is the merging of groups within the community that might not usually cross paths. “You have to respect that some players just have poor social decorum, and it’s not based on their attitude—some folks simply don’t know how to act around women or non-binary people as their experiences are limited.” It’s important to treat everyone equally, she continued, to seek a place of understanding and mutual respect and not treat anyone as an exception due to their ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender. “I’ve had that happen to me a lot.”

Partlow has attended several MagicFests over the past three years, and she’s seeing more women every year. “It’s very encouraging,” she said, “and Wizards are doing an excellent job of promoting minority groups.”

Official release — September 2019

“We want MTG: Arena to be the definitive way for new and old players alike to jump into Magic: The Gathering whenever they want,” Wizards asserted in a recent State of the Game update. That’s about all you need to hear to understand the Wizards’ commitment to the platform. Arena is Magic’s future.

Arena officially launched on September 26. This aligned with the new Standard season—when several older expansion sets rotated out of the Standard format—and alongside a new expansion set, Throne of Eldraine. Cards from sets previously released that are no longer Standard legal have been moved to an Arena-exclusive format called Historic, similar to Hearthstone’s “Wild” format.

Ayara, First of Locthwain is the commander of my favorite Brawl deck.

Above: Ayara, First of Locthwain is a card from the Throne of Eldraine expansion.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

“Arena is my favorite way to play Magic,” Amy the Amazonian told me. “A lot of this is how easy it is to get access to cards I doubt I’d have the budget for in [paper] Magic.” It can be difficult on Arena to find your footing as a new player, she admits, “but it’s been fantastic as a content creator.”

Amazonian is a 28-year-old streamer and gamer from Boston who first gained attention in the community thanks to her intricate costumes made from Magic cards. She has since moved into streaming Arena full-time on Twitch.

As a person with a disability, Amazonian appreciates how “the digital space makes it much easier to track things without having to ask my opponent or track things which would normally lead to slow playing.”

Arena is an inherently accessible game compared to the paper version, she further explained. “The text is clear and can be zoomed in on without disrupting gameplay. Colors are clearly presented on the game pieces, and additional symbolic reminders are present to remind users about creature abilities. All the game pieces are right-side up and organized in a way which is the same from player-to-player. This means there is less thinking and work on the short-term memory of the players parts. Reducing mental load is extremely helpful in making the game accessible.”

These accessibility measures also go beyond the game’s user interface, she pointed out. “For people with social phobia or anxiety disorders, the barrier between you and your opponent makes the game a less likely source of anxiety. You don’t need to ask your opponent to see cards, ask for hand counts, ask to see cards in exile or graveyard, or describe actions. Not having to communicate verbally also means that players that have auditory or speech disorders are not inhibited in play. I have an auditory processing disorder and limited hearing, so it’s awesome to get to play in Arena.”

Two-headed giant

Above: Does Magic now have twin titans with Online and Arena?

Image Credit: GamesBeat

While it may seem strange to new players and against general wisdom, Wizards is currently dedicated to supporting and expanding both of Magic’s online platforms. They serve different audiences and purposes, and the path forward for Arena to become a robust, full-featured version of Magic, giving broad access to Magic’s 20,000-plus cards, is long, fraught with uncertainty, and potentially impossible.

So, how does Arena’s slimmer, more streamlined and streamer-friendly approach fit with MTGO’s older and bulkier presence?

Both platforms offer different advantages and disadvantages for pro players, said Scott-Vargas. “Arena is the best place to play Standard, and by far the best thing to stream. It’s also made it possible for many new opportunities and tournament series to happen. MTGO is important for practicing older formats, primarily Modern [and Pioneer], and until we get human drafts on Arena, that’s where I tend to practice drafting as well.”

“It has been interesting to see Magic as a digital entity unfold,” said Partlow. She covers Magic’s Modern and Pioneer formats for TCGPlayer, but neither format is available to play on Arena. Despite being somewhat outdated, “Magic Online has been the de-facto option for so long” and does a good job at replicating the paper game. “Arena is the complete opposite of Magic Online, but what it offers in aesthetics it struggles to provide the game as a whole.”

Magic in all its forms can be expensive. A major focus of Partlow’s Magic coverage is how to play the game on a budget. Along with paper, both digital platforms offer opportunities for players who want to play the game without spending a lot of money, but only Arena offers an obvious way to play for free. “However,” she pointed out, “it does take up more time as there is a ‘grind’ element to it. Like any hobby, you can put as much money as you want into Magic for as long as you get satisfaction from it.” MTGO also offers good options, she said, such as deck rental services.

“Knowing what you like and knowing what you want from the hobby should be your starting point,” Partlow finished.

Cao said the focus for his team is to find the balance for newcomers and casual players between “creating an authentic Magic experience that features really rich and deep strategic gameplay, and a new player experiences that onboards people through a tutorial and then rewards them accurately for mastery.” Wizards is continuing to invest in Arena’s extended new player experiences “because we’ve seen so much success with our tutorial rates so far.”

“While it’s wonderful that Magic Arena is full Magic in the sense that it has all of the rules and recent cards, what makes Magic the greatest game on Earth is that you can play it in whatever way you enjoy the most. This is what Arena is missing.” — Saffron Olive

Now that Arena has launched, it’s under closer scrutiny from players and content producers alike. It can no longer wave-away platform issues by reminding players that it’s an in-development product, and both Saffron Olive and Lewis are more bearish on the platform now than when it first launched.

“I was expecting more from Arena now that it has officially released,” said Saffron Olive, “Over the past couple of years of beta, there were problems with the client that were somewhat easy to look past thanks to the beta tag. Unfortunately a lot of those issues still persist to some extent.” He still enjoys playing Arena despite these issues and he expects Wizards will continue to work on improving the experience.

Brawl is a new mode for Magic: The Gathering --Arena.

Above: Brawl is a new mode for Magic: The Gathering –Arena.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

One major area of concern for players is the lack of game modes available on Arena. After launching with only two modes during the closed beta period, Arena has since introduced several new formats, including Sealed, Brawl, and special limited-time events, but it’s still short on options compared to MTGO and paper Magic.

“While it’s wonderful that Magic Arena is full Magic in the sense that it has all of the rules and recent cards, what makes Magic the greatest game on Earth is that you can play it in whatever way you enjoy the most,” Saffron Olive wrote in a piece on MTGGoldfish. “This is what Arena is missing. While the client can skate by while Standard is good, to reach its true potential and be a long-term success, giving players more options to play the game in whatever ways they find enjoyable is essential.”

Chance for glory

Magic’s competitive scene has undergone some massive changes over the two years since Arena’s unveiling. Despite an initially rocky launch for Magic esports, Arena has been leading the charge and is quickly becoming one of the most prominent ways to play Magic at the pro level. After two decades of the highest level of competitive play taking place exclusively on tabletops, Wizards made a big bet on digital Magic when it announced in early 2019 that it was replacing its long-running Pro Tour circuit with the newly minted Mythic Championships. Where Pro Tours had always been a paper event, the Mythic Championships included both paper and Arena tournaments—something the company never attempted with the streamer-unfriendly MTGO.

However, combining the two formats under one competitive umbrella presented a lot of issues, Saffron Olive told me, and it seems like Wizards of the Coast agreed. Less than a year after the first Mythic Championship, Wizards replaced them with the Arena-based Mythic Invitationals and the paper-based Players Tour.

“Having two different pathways for tournament play—one for paper and one for digital—can be a good thing,” said Saffron Olive. “There are still a lot of differences between paper and digital play, especially with Arena.” He speculates that Arena might become home for the competitive formats that feature Magic’s newest cards, like Standard, while paper-based competitive play might focus more on Magic’s “legacy” formats, like Modern or Vintage, that include cards not available on Arena.

These changes have required huge adjustments for players, pros, and casual viewers of both the digital and paper games.

“It feels a bit … weird?” said Partlow of the recent push toward competitive play on Arena. “I respect that Wizards wants to brand Arena as an esport, so pushing that concept makes sense. It’s weird that there isn’t a public audience that can watch the Mythic Invitational games live, for example. I imagine in the world of technology this is not difficult to achieve.” This results in the Arena-based Mythic Invitationals feeling “lifeless” for viewers, Partlow said, and she worried that digital clients have the unfortunate tendency to remove the “Gathering” aspect from Magic: The Gathering, a problem she sees across a lot of esports. “I remember a time when couch video gaming was common.

“Magic has been around long enough to have an identity which extends outside of pixels and polygons. I would like to see more public engagement at these events, similar to what League of Legends and Hearthstone does. There is a clear demand for people to attend these events.”

Above: A Magic: Pro Tour trophy

Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Players, though, have good things to say about the experience of playing in the digital events. Scott-Vargas thinks the Arena-driven competitive events are “incredible.” As Magic’s first foray into true esports, “they are a completely different experience than their paper counterparts,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to two of them, and both were fantastic experiences. I mean, getting to walk on stage while fireworks are going off? All that’s missing is some entrance music and we are practically talking pro wrestling here!”

Scott-Vargas is known in the community for his sense of humor, and was perhaps being glib with me, but it’s clear that Wizards sees Arena as a tool that will help reset the perception of Magic as a complex game people play in stuffy tournament halls and cramped local games shops.

“We have a new system for Magic competitive in 2020 that leans into the strengths of the individual platforms,” Cao told me. I spoke with him just before Wizards announced that Mythic Championships would be split into the Players Tour and Mythic Invitationals.

“Arena makes for a great broadcast environment,” he continued, “and opens up qualification paths for players in regions that don’t have top-tier competitive play available. It also provides any player, regardless of skill level, a head start on figuring out the meta, because we have traditionally debuted new card sets in Arena before tabletop, and you can play new games at a much quicker pace [on Arena] than on tabletop.”

“Arena is impacting competitive play both by offering a more fun platform to play and practice and by expanding the opportunities available,” said Scott-Vargas. “Magic being a much better viewing experience on Twitch deeply impacts competitive play in a positive way.”

In February 2019, legendary Brazillian Magic player Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa piloted a complex “Azorius Control” deck in his defeat of Porteguese player Márcio Carvalho to claim victory in Magic World Championship XXVI. It’s the first World Championship win for Damo da Rosa. It’s also the first time the Magic World Championship was played on a digital platform.

“There really aren’t many benefits to broadcasting paper Magic compared to digital,” Saffron Olive told me. “If we ever get to the point where Arena has all of the formats (which is likely still years and years away), I’d expect we’d see all (or very close to all) tournament coverage to be digital.”

Saffron Olive believes that in Wizards’ “dream world” all competitive play will eventually move to digital platforms, while paper will remain the realm of formats that emphasize the Partlow’s “Gathering” element, like Commander and casual kitchen table games.

“Whether or not this actually happens is another question,” Saffron Olive continued. “Pro players have a long history with paper Magic, as do many people inside Wizards, and I’m not sure they will accept paper coverage and tournaments going away all together. Regardless, I do expect the balance to continue to shift towards digital and away from paper over the next few years, barring something catastrophic happening to Arena.”

Winds of change

Change doesn’t happen overnight, as evidenced by the streamers I spoke with about the preferred platform among their viewers. Amazonian’s viewers regularly refer to MTGO as “a spreadsheet simulator,” while Lewis’s audience has been drifting back to the older platform after an initial honeymoon period with Arena. “I think there was this overall excitement that we might finally have a dynamic, state of the art digital MTG experience,” Lewis said. But then the cracks appeared. “Now many players are revisiting Magic Online, as its only real fault is a silly looking interface.” In his experience, most Magic players would rather play “real Magic.” They want to collect and trade cards with other players, “and that is causing a lot of scrutiny and disinterest in Arena.”

For Lewis’s YouTube audience, though, no digital version of the game quite beats the original. “The truth is that paper Magic still rules supreme. A video about Arena is not going to be as successful as a video about which protective sleeves are best suited for keeping your paper cards safe.”

Given this popularity among his fans, Lewis is concerned that the recent focus on Arena for competitive play comes at too high a cost. “We’ve seen a near complete dismantling of the organized play system that Magic has had for nearly a quarter of a century,” he said, echoing concerns from other players like Saffron Olive and Matt Sperling. While Lewis agrees that Arena is the best way to watch competitive Magic, he sees opportunity for both formats to thrive. “I think that moving high level play to Arena makes a lot of sense,” he said. “However, I do think that if there was proper interest and resources that the quality of paper gameplay coverage could be increased dramatically. I think there’s room for both, and I think both benefit the game in different ways.”

No matter what happens, the game’s future rests in Wizards’s capability to develop and maintain a healthy and balanced community of players no matter how they play the game.

“I think we are at a very critical crossroads,” he told me. “I think Wizards may be looking at Arena and wanting to make not a supplement to Magic: The Gathering, but a replacement. The problem is that you should never put your eggs in one basket.” They need to recognize that Magic is strongest when all platforms are supported, he continued. “But I don’t think that’s what is happening.”

Paper and digital Magic can co-exist Lewis told me in a follow-up email. “I feel very strongly that they can grow to further develop one another, but the company that makes the game has to want both to succeed, has to see the value in both, and I am very worried all they can see right now are digital dollar signs.”

Magic: The Distancing

During the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in March, Wizards of the Coast announced sweeping structural changes to organized Magic play, including the cancelation of April’s Players Tour Finals and the May 2020 Mythic Invitational. At the same time, Wizards of the Coast partner Channel Fireball Events announced the cessation of Magic Fests through Mid-May. Channel Fireball Events announced Magic Fest Online as a replacement, but by the time mid-May came about, unconfirmed rumours began circling on social media that Channel Fireball Events was in dissolution, and all future Magic Fests would be canceled. The future of competitive paper Magic in 2020 was dead in the water.

With paper Magic: The Gathering relegated to kitchen tables and webcams, Wizards of the Coast and its partners made efforts to shift the focus of competitive play completely to Arena. Wizards of the Coast announced the Magic Online Super Qualifiers on March 20, which would give MTGO players an opportunity to compete for a spot on the Players Tour. At this time, Wizards of the Coast provided a road map for competitive play outlining how previously canceled Players Tour events and upcoming events like Mythic Invitational Core Set 2021 would be moved to Arena. They also announced a new event called the “2020 Season Grand Finals” and would feature the Top 16 from the Players Tour Finals and Mythic Invitational vying for a $250,000 prize pool.

On May 24, Wizards of the Coast banned Grand Prix Austin champion Austin Bursavich for a Twitter thread he posted on May 13 revealing many of those upcoming changes to competitive play before they were officially announced.

“Bursavich made the tweets because he claims the members of the MPL and Rivals were already alerted of the information coming in the announcement roughly five days prior to his posting,” said Nick Miller of Star City Games. “Bursavich wanted to balance the playing field, pointing out the head start the MPL and Rivals members got by knowing the format and structure of the Players Tour events in mid-June, weeks before everyone else.”

The ban proved controversial among fans and pros, drawing support for Bursavich from many corners, including 2015 World Champion Seth Manfield. Bursavich appealed the suspension, but as of this writing the appeal has not been addressed.

“Magic esports was already in an unstable phase to start 2020 before the arrival of a global pandemic,” said Hipsters of the Coast‘s David McCoy. “And now that COVID-19 will be with us for a while, Magic esports has entered a period of unpredictable flux. The 2020 partial season is in ruins and the 2020-21 season, of which we knew very little about other than the start and end dates, appears to have changed dramatically.”

McCoy saw some upside to the shift toward online play for all top-level competitive events, especially for players outside of North America. “The (hopefully temporary) death of tabletop Magic and the rise of MTG Arena to take its place leaves professional Magic in a strange place. MTG Arena makes professional Magic much more accessible. Asian and (especially) Latin American players have always had a paucity of local events and have been forced to travel much farther distances to get to North America and Europe, where the vast majority of events in-person are held. Tournaments on MTG Arena don’t require travel, thus greatly reducing the cost for those players to attend.”

However, Wizards of the Coast came under fire for these decisions when it was revealed that players were not allowed to defer their invite to a later date. This was a disappointment to competitors like Morten Iversen, a longtime Danish player who qualified for his first Pro Tour earlier this year. In an open letter to Wizards of the Coast, Iversen lays out the emotional significance of being a Magic player and what the Players Tour means to the community.

Above: Wizards of the Coast had to make some significant changes to Magic: The Gathering during the pandemic.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Nobody could have predicted the dramatic shift in behaviour and social isolation required in 2020, McCoy continued, likening Wizard of the Coast’s attempts “to cope with the fallout from COVID-19 and is akin to taking a mulligan on the 2020 schedule.” McCoy pointed out the negative reaction to these changes from the professional Magic community, but concluded that there were no perfect solution to the dramatic upheavals brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an open letter to the Magic community, pro Magic player Eric Froehlich pleaded for the community to understand the difficulty of the situation and to understand how the participants in the Magic Pro League—a Wizards of the Coast-sponsored competitive league consisting of the best players in the world—were constantly working together to improve organized play so that it benefited as many players as possible.

“The truth is that when there are budget cuts or when changes happen that are bad for the players, it’s often for reasons so far out of the hands of OP,” described Froehlich.

“All of us want and need the same things,” he continued. “Whether in the league, outside of the league with aspirations to get in, completely uninterested in playing competitive but enjoy watching coverage, and Wizards want and need Magic to be successful. We want there to be a dream worth chasing with a clear path to get there. We want amazing competitions to watch and enjoy, to get to compete in if we’re lucky, but to at least get to dream about.”

On May 29, Elain Chase, VP Esports at Wizards of the Coast, released a statement officially scheduled Players Tour, Players Tour Final, and Mythic Invitational events to Arena. Beginning with the Zendikar Rising expansion set (fall 2020), Chase explained that organized play would shift “to set-based competitive seasons for the first time ever.” Chase also announced the cancellation of “all outstanding 2020 in-person high-level Magic events including MagicFests,” confirming the social media rumours from earlier in the month.

“We realize this isn’t what anyone wants,” Chase continued. “Most of us have forged friendships through the camaraderie of competition in far-flung places around the globe. Late nights in hotel lobbies, when players who had worked so hard for so long earned hard-won success, and tears and comforting when the bad beats hit. Hugs and high-fives and debates over the best way to roll to see who got to choose to play or draw. The nervous excitement before opening that first draft pack. And countless other small moments that we all share and treasure.

“Those thoughts will be at the forefront of our minds as we think about the future of tabletop play. But while the world rebuilds face-to-face gatherings, Magic competitive play isn’t going to wait; it’s going to continue online and from home. We change, we adapt, and we play on.”

Glimpse the future

So, should I go pro?

Above: So, should I go pro?

Image Credit: Jason Wilson/GamesBeat

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.

End step

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.