The Magic: The Gathering Arena Mastery System makes me want to play less

The explosion of Fortnite has been weird, even when compared to previous all-consuming gaming trends the blocky voxel games after Minecraft and hero shooters post-Overwatch. But the biggest design virus from Epic Games’ megahit has been the battle pass, the experience-based progression system with a microtransaction twist. Traditionally, there’s a free tier with a pretty basic set of rewards (and plenty of empty space) and a premium tier that costs real money and gives out real prizes. Everything from Call of Duty to Dota 2 has adopted the system, and now even card games are dealing in. Technically still in open beta, the Magic: The Gathering Arena Mastery System is that battle pass system that pushes players to play every day to reap maximum rewards. And after playing with the new system myself, it’s having the opposite effect, and I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be digging into the Arena.

Magic: The Gathering Arena Mastery System | Swords to Grindstones

Magic The Gathering Arena Thief of Sanity

Basically, Magic: The Gathering Arena now wants you to fully dedicate yourself to its spell slinging action. Players used to be able to acquire several free packs a week as well as enough gold to participate in drafts and premium events. There were limits on what you could earn for free, but you got so many cards that continuing to play was fun. After a single long night, you could put the game aside and play something else for a few days before circling back and getting more. It was a great system that let players feel good about pumping money in when they felt like it.

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With Arena‘s Mastery system, there’s a hard limit on the XP you can earn in a single day. Playing for about 45 minutes will max out your points, and then you’re done. Just like before, you can play for as long as you like, but now it actively feels like you’re wasting your time. If you recharge your challenges after a few days and come back, you potentially miss out on XP that could get you further up the battle pass. Even if you purchase the premium rewards and come back every day, it’s currently impossible to get to the very end of the Mastery chain. The developers state that this will be remedied by completing as of yet unrevealed challenges. That means players will have to invest further time researching limited-time events just to make the most of their purchase.

No matter how you choose to play, there will now be sessions when you just don’t get packs. You may get progress towards something, but you come away with just a loss of time. Sure, playing Magic is fun in its own right, but when you have systems and graphics designed specifically to entice players, it saps the fun away. It’s another example of game design pushing players towards endless microtransaction spending. Prior updates introduced cosmetic card styles and other accouterments sold only in the cash shop. You don’t want to be the player with the default cards, and the developers know this. Spend $20 on the Mastery system and you’ll get plenty of exclusive card styles to show everyone that you’ve got money to burn.

Magic: The Gathering Arena Mastery System | Ignite the Beacon

Magic the Gathering Arena Card Styles

Of course, the system would be even more insidious if you could work your friends over, but that’s impossible. The open beta lacks a friends list and any way to match with people you know, as Magic Arena runs in its own client away from services like Steam. It’s an obvious missing feature that the developers say they’re working on. Of course, they did find time to implement an animated cat that battle pass owners can pet during games, and that’s apparently a much higher priority than basic functionality. It’s similar to the Epic Games Store and its months-long lack of a shopping cart. In both cases, things that don’t rake in the money take a back seat to anything that could put companies more in the black.

Another feature that supposedly won’t put Wizards of the Coast in the black is supporting older sets. The company has stated repeatedly that Arena is designed to reflect the physical card game’s “Standard” format. This means that sets will rotate out of the main modes over time, making a big investment in the Mastery system that much more of a questionable endeavor. Why should I spend hours every day grinding for booster packs that will be booted from the game in a year’s time? While there are token “Historic” formats available for play now, there’s no indication that they’ll offer the same XP rewards that the main modes will. If you’re already on the Mastery grind, you’ll just have to keep investing more and more.

Magic: The Gathering Arena Mastery System | Return to Zzzyxas’s Abyss

Magic: The Gathering Arena isn’t the first multiplayer system to be upended by this style of progression. It certainly won’t be the last. As publishers scramble to find new ways to survive in a world that looks increasingly unfriendly to loot boxes, they have to grasp at every predatory practice they can devise. When you make purchases feel less like a choice and more like a mandate, you go into the mobile realm and attract only the richest of whales. Maybe that doesn’t make much of a difference on your bottom line. Maybe that even nets you more cash in the long run. However, for any of these games, a gain in income comes with a loss of trust. The most dedicated of players know when a game goes bad, and word gets around.

Ultimately, it’s just a shame that it had to happen to this particular title. For myself and many of my friends, Arena was a nostalgic return to a game we all loved. Playing full games of digital  Magic casually is a dream come true. We’re not the type of players who are going to drop hundreds of dollars. However, we are the type of players who would purchase something from time to time. All those same friends thrilled by Arena tune out whenever I start to detail this new Mastery System. In embracing such an aggressive push towards premium purchases, you’re losing the audience that lived through the horrors of Mirrodin and the thrills of Ravinca the first time around. Unless some drastic changes come to the experience, I’ll be joining them, putting my digital longboxes right next to my physical collection at the back of my closet.