Magic: The Gathering has just finished celebrating its 25th anniversary year, and concluded it with the announcement of the Magic Pro League, an officially sponsored league made up of the 32 top players of the last year that will allow those players to earn a living playing Magic. Major tournaments have been rebranded and altered as well, with an influx of cash from parent company Hasbro into the prizes to encourage more players to chase that dream. The changes have had a mixed reaction among players of various stripes. There are still questions of what competitive play at more local levels will look like, and official coverage of some of these events has been sparse versus the past.
Additionally, last year a new video game client called MTG Arena was released into public beta (it’s pretty good actually). Built in Unity, the game is far more aesthetically pleasing and responsive. The game focuses on recent booster set releases – called Standard Format – with no plans to add older formats. While most players see a free to play, well designed, and reliable game a good thing, there are a lot that also fear it will eventually replace the traditional card game.
This all comes together at PAX for one of the first big outings in Magic eSports proper: the Mythic Invitational. An exhibition game made up of the Pro League, various influencers and streamers, and 8 players who earned entry by playing Arena. Last weekend, they had been competing for a total of $1,000,000.
Sam Carpenter met with Bear, the director of eSports for Wizards of the Coast on Sunday, the last day of PAX East to discuss Arena, the invitational, public reception and plans for the future of Magic in its new digital form
– Travis Hymas
Sam Carpenter, TYF Staff Writer: First of all, congratulations on the launch of the Magic Pro League, it’s a huge deal that players can now support themselves while playing the game at such a high level. How long has the MPL and all these eSports initiatives been in the works?
Bear Schmiedicker, Director of E-sports (@Bearfromspace): It’s been in the works for, well competitive play has been around for 25 plus years, and as we were looking to supporting Arena we took a lot of our learnings from the tabletop side and figured out “Okay, what makes sense for digital and what can we learn from either our competitors or other eSports; and what’s unique to having both tabletop and Arena going on at the same time?” So the system’s been like, there’s different versions of the system that’s been floating around for quite a while now, but we really landed on something last year and then we announced it – we announced the prize pool and kind of how that system worked at The Game Awards in [December]
Sam: Right now, the MPL as a whole has 32 players, right?
Bear: Yeah, that’s correct.
Sam: But this tournament has 64 competitors, right?
Bear: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.
Sam: In the future, do you think the number of players in the MPL is going to increase or will players be rotating?
Bear: I think we’re still evaluating the size of the MPL. We had the MPL set up with 32 right now just because of how the rankings worked and how the merit based system worked from the tabletop side so we wanted to make sure that pros that were in that system had a shot to compete on the Arena side. We’re still digging into plans and learning a lot from the Invitational and the Arena Mythic Championships – they’re going to happen later this year – to figure out if there’s any changes or tweaks that need to happen to the MPL next year. But for now, for this year, you’ll be able to see all 32 pros competing in the events.
Sam: Moving on to this specific event – the Mythic Invitational. Can you tell me what sets this one apart from all other competitive Magic events? This is quite the big one.
Bear: It’s our first Arena event. So we really wanted to showcase and kind of make a splash to show to fans who might have got put off by Magic; just like “Hey this is a really complex game” or aren’t really into card games just how fun the game is and how easy it is to watch now. We’ve had the booth open since Thursday and we always have a crowd and over at the PAX Arena I think we’re filling about 400 seats right now that are watching the top…
Bear: Yeah. So I think people are finding it and looking like, “Oh wow, this is really, really cool.” Because Arena does a really good job of communicating the overall board state or the power of creatures or spells and so even if you have no idea what that card does, you see a dragon pop out of a card or you see a lightning bolt, you kind of, you understand what’s going on in a match. Versus…it’s really hard to understand paper at a table. But there’s a place for that!
Sam: You mentioned that you filled out about 400 seats to watch the tournament. I think it goes without saying you guys are definitely getting a good reaction from this?
Bear: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. We are beyond excited about the reception for both the event and just…how even casual fans or really entrenched Magic fans – they are all stopping by the booth just to see what’s going on. My favorite reaction is a lot of folks are walking by the Arena booth we have now and they don’t realize it’s Magic because we haven’t had this type of presence at PAX before outside of tabletop stuff. So they look up and see kind of what they’d expect from an eSports tournament and they’re like, “Oh, wow! This is Magic, this is super cool. I was not expecting this.”
Sam: I walked by with my mom earlier and she the first thing said was “Wow, Hearthstone got a lot better.”
Sam: So, I know players are entering two decks into this tournament instead of traditionally entering one single deck and a fifteen card sideboard. Is this an idea to showcase more variety in decks or is there another function? Do you think you’re going to be doing something more like this in the future?
Bear: So when it comes to formats, I think doing it in a digital format for Arena is really really easy because we can have an one-off event, we have specific goals, we know what we wanted the format to accomplish, so we’ll be able to take those learnings back to the office in Seattle and figure out: “Did this format accomplished our goals? Are there weak points, tweaks that we need to make?” We’re not committed to a format forever, what we’re really trying to do is find the best format for Arena. So I don’t know if you’ll see Duo Standard again but we’re gonna take that back to the team and have a lot of conversations and dig through that stuff. But when it comes to formats…it’s just really intrusive to do on the tabletop side. I mean, the scale of all the local game stores and having that format change is just really intrusive and messy versus “Hey, we put it in the client” or “We have it at an event” and then we can evaluate it from there.
Sam: Do you think you’re going to keep moving forward with all the tournaments in Arena? If so, what makes Arena better than the classical tabletop?
Bear: You’ll definitely see more Arena events. We have three more – Arena Mythic Championships that are going to be happening throughout the year. We also have MPL seasonal play where the 32 MPL members will battle it out in weekly seasonal matches in mid-May. I think what really makes Arena stand out from tabletop is what I mentioned before, just having really crisp visual effects and sound effects that communicate that board state and that power to fans. For me, I just started Magic in December and I was actually really really scared to go to a local game store and start slinging spells on paper ‘cause I was like, “I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m gonna look like an idiot.” And Arena gave me that space to kind of just figure things out and discover the mechanics because there’s 25 years of history – granted, not in Arena – but there’s just a lot of depth. Being able to walk through a tutorial system, and seeing cards highlighted for any of my available moves in any given turn it’s like “Oh, I totally forgot that that land turned into something and I can tap for something. Okay, cool, I’ll use that instead.” It’s been a really, really good learning opportunity. And I think that translates to the eSports program and broadcasts as well.
Sam: Another aspect of the format of this tournament is that games have been best of one, as opposed to best of three in traditional Magic. Do you think you guys will keep with best of one and if that works out would that ever translate to tabletop?
Bear: I don’t think that will translate necessarily to tabletop. Ben Drago, my counterpart on the tabletop side, thinks Bo3 plus sideboards really fits paper Magic really really well. For Arena, who knows? Like I mentioned before, all we’re gonna do is take a look at the metrics, do a bunch of analysis and kind of figure out “Hey, we wanted the format to accomplish this. Did it do that? Where did it miss? What levers can we pull to actually do that?” Is it best of one, best of three, is it introducing sideboards? Is it doing something really kooky? Who knows. But really, you need to balance a bunch of different things with formats. One, it needs to be competitive for the players. Two, it needs to be akin to the experience that you have at home, because I truly believe that any eSport should mimic the experience of you or I or anyone else – that’s how they play at home. Because, a lot of the main reasons a lot of people watch eSports is to just get better at the games. So it needs to mimic that in some way. And it just needs to be entertaining; it needs to be as fun to watch as it is to play. Those are three very hard levers to balance in a way that meets all of those needs perfectly. I’m not sure if best of one is going to stay around forever, but we’ll definitely see in probably a couple of weeks. *chuckles*
Sam: My next question, it kind of gets to what you were just talking about a minute ago about trying to balance the experience as to what people experience at home. During the period of time where players could qualify for this Invitational playing Arena, there was a little bit of criticism about how much play time people needed to cross the line. Are you guys thinking about trying to make these qualifiers a little bit more open, a little bit easier for players to get into?
Bear: Yeah, absolutely. I think the last thing we want to do is kind of burn out players on a ladder grind, I think part of that was just the limitation on the technical side. I think going forward we have some systems in place that I’m not ready to announce but for the Mythic Qualifier weekends, it’s the top 1000 Mythic ranked players and they go through a qualifying tournament so there will be a system in place to accommodate that versus just grinding the ladder straight.
Sam: What do you think is the most exciting thing in Magic eSports coming up?
Bear: I think the most exciting thing is that this is our first event, obviously, but after this we’ll be engaging with eSports organizations, partners, sponsors, and people that you’ve seen in this space; so I think you’ll see a further level of investment from those folks and not just from the Wizards (of the Coast) side. And honestly, it’s just the content that we’re putting out this year – three more Arena Mythics, an ability to see digital play is really cool, especially with how excited everyone is with the Invitational. And then the seasonal play, which I don’t think is something Magic’s done before; so having kind of a split to split seasonal play for the MPL folks is gonna be a fun piece of content to try and figure out. *laughs*
Sam: Very last question, when you play Magic how often do you play and what do you like to play?
Bear: I play a lot. I just started in December, but I don’t know how many games I’ve logged at this point. I grinded the ladder in Arena last week and hit Mythic with a mono-White deck; it was super super fun. I’m also the type of player that gets kind of bored, so what I’ve been doing is watching the decks that have been played at the Invitational and then copying them and if I don’t have the cards, kind of subbing stuff in to see like “Oh, do I like how this deck is playing out?” because I’m still learning. I’m really digging a Golgari Graveyard deck right now, I think it’s just really fun tossing stuff in the graveyard and toss really big creatures out on turn four. I’m playing…uh what’s the other one I’m playing…a four color legendary creature deck, there’s a card that lets you return all legendary creatures from the graveyard onto the board, so it’s pretty funny to see a Planeswalker and then like, six dragons pop up on the board at once, that’s usually an immediate concede. *laughs* Favorite color is black, though. It’s just something I’ve always gravitated to. Not a big fan of blue. *laughs* I know a lot of people aren’t but I’m not one to yuck on other people’s yum so if you really really like blue, have at it. It’s your way to play Magic.
You can watch the Mythic Invitational on Magic’s Twitch channel below, and catch up on the debrief by Bear Schmiedicker on Wizards of the Coast’s Esports portal on their website.