Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Some Thoughts on Magic Online, Part One

It's been an interesting summer for Magic Online.

It's been about a year since the permanent transition to version 4 of the online client, a transition that was designed to allow future improvements but also brought with it a great deal of confusion and frustration that ended up alienating a lot of what I would term the casual players on Magic Online. But since that time, the overall experience seems to be getting better. Bugs were addressed, load times decreased, and generally things are working the way they are supposed to, or at least as well as they ever have.

But then last month, Wizards made a major announcement that they were radically changing the way that Constructed events would work going forward by introducing a new currency called Play Points that would exist alongside tickets. Play Points can only be earned by playing in Constructed Events, can be used as an entry fee for almost any event (both Limited and Constructed), but otherwise cannot be traded for or obtained in any other way. Alongside this change, Wizards also increased the entry fee for Daily Events up to 12 tickets (or an equivalent amount of Play Points) while essentially decreasing the overall prize payout (since you were now awarded Play Points rather than tickets). Finally, Wizards also essentially eliminated Daily Events for Pauper, Legacy, and Vintage, replacing them with what amounts to 8-man queues.

Not surprisingly, the response from the online community was overwhelmingly negative, leading many people to sell out and walk away from the game. In fact, some have estimated that in the course of two weeks the Magic Online economy lost 12 percent of its value. And while lots of players are certainly still playing on Magic Online, there is still considerable grumbling about this decision.

If you're interested in the economics behind the decision, how it affects your expected value from an event, or anything of that sort, you'll find plenty of information on that available elsewhere. What I want to explore is why Wizards made this decision, and why players are so upset by it. Actually, I think the reason is pretty simple: Wizards is eliminating the ability to "make money" in Magic Online.

Tickets, as a commodity, have an actual monetary value. They can be purchased for approximately one dollar, can be traded to players or bots for cards, and can even be redeemed for actual money from a variety of different sources. None of these are true of Play Points. Their only value is letting you enter into another event. So even if the only change Wizards had made was to replace the tickets given out as prizes with an equivalent amount of Play Points and left everything unchanged, players would still be upset. It's as if you've gone from awarding cash prizes to awarding Monopoly money. Playing for Monopoly money still might be fun, but it's certainly not the same thing as winning cash.

And it doesn't take a genius to figure that out. Sadly, this means that Wizards probably knew very well that this change was going to be very unpopular. Yet they did it anyway. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is an intentional, strategic move on their part to accomplish a particular goal. But why would they want to eliminate the ability to win actual cash prizes? And what are the potential changes in an economy where what you own in Magic Online doesn't have any actual value? That's what I want to explore next time.

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