Magic Arena's Abrupt Shifts This Year Have Been Frustrating
With Magic: The Gathering Arena being my primary way to play my favorite trading card game, especially over the pandemic, I'm of two minds about Wizards of the Coast diverging the card pools of the paper and digital games. Moreover, I’m disappointed how the transparency for the future of Arena has all but disappeared this year.
Last week, Wizards announced more changes on the horizon, bringing a bigger focus to exclusive digital cards, mechanics, and formats to Arena. On the bright side, it's neat to see what design spaces Wizards has wanted to explore that wouldn't pan out well with physical cards. Also, I thought many of the cards from Jumpstart: Historic Horizons would cause a bigger stir, but the new additions didn't burn the game to the ground as my darkest fears predicted. The digital mechanics, while radical sounding at first glance, have luckily been rather tame, and the spells that did pose a problem were quickly changed to save Historic from consistent, broken combos.
On the other hand, I like playing with cards and decks I know I can buy, sleeve up, and take to my local game store for Friday Night Magic. Arena is centered around the Standard format, which is one hundred percent playable in paper. Sadly, that's not the case with my preferred non-rotating format, Historic, anymore, nor will it be possible with Arena’s new Standard-plus format called Alchemy. Both feature and rely on those cards and mechanics mentioned above.
I’m a relatively new Magic player, having started just before Arena hit beta, when I craved a client more modern than what Wizards offered in the aging (and still very active to this day) Magic: The Gathering Online. From the outset, Arena was never perfect, but thanks to clear communication at the launch of each new set of cards, I at least knew which big features I had to look forward to when a clear roadmap was presented. Unfortunately, that helpful glimpse into the future hasn’t been present in the State of the Game updates since January. Once Arena hit mobile platforms, all updates with each new expansion would speak on the stuff coming with that release, no longer looking at the outstretching checklist of cool things on the horizon.
A lot of the changes made to Arena have come somewhat fast this year, and typically Magic isn’t the kind of game to exactly turn on a dime. It’s a big slow boat, hauling countless cards and mechanics. Making adjustments usually take a while to implement. Expansions and products are developed years ahead of time, and a lot of thought is put into introducing mechanics that may rub folks the wrong way. It also provides a significant lag time where Wizards can drip feed what changes are coming or even outright announce something long before it takes place, which prepares the audience somewhat.
When it comes to Arenas’ big shift to separate the digital and physical landscapes, from what I can tell, very little to no heads up was given to the Magic community; a community that's been outspoken about wanting other, older Magic formats to hit the client. Earlier this year, the Arena team quietly shelved its efforts to bring the Pioneer format to the client in favor of the growing popularity of Historic. Mind you, this happened pre-digital exclusive cards. With the near exceeding flow of new content and cards – separate from the non-stop paper lineup this year –, Wizard's digital team is giving the perception it has the bandwidth to make older formats possible. Instead, it chooses to break new ground instead of filling the cracks in Arena's non-rotating format foundations.
Despite all of that, I'm willing to give the new digital format Alchemy a chance like I have every Arena decision I've found displeasing at first glance. Usually, it works out fine; other times, it doesn't. At the very least, Wizards has still been known to listen to feedback and course-correct, like its changes to its IP-sharing Universes Beyond products. Magic will always be changing. That’s what’s kept it alive for close to 30 years. At the very least, I hope the Arena team will return to delivering transparent updates of what's to come instead of dropping these literal game-changing announcements with almost immediate launches out of nowhere. Otherwise, another sudden shift could send even more players unnecessarily overboard from the ship for good.