Last updated on October 18, 2023
Pay Tribute to Me | Illustration by Aaron Miller
We’ve all heard the discourse about whether Magic: The Gathering is “pay to win.” The game in total has so many different formats and styles of play that it’s difficult to say for sure about Magic as a whole. However, there’s one area where the game definitely does seem pay-to-win, and that’s Magic: The Gathering Arena.
MTG Arena is marketed as a free-to-play game, so if you’re new you might think that you can just play the game and grind in-game currency to be able to afford packs. However, anyone who has played the game knows that you won’t get very far without spending some real money.
What is MTG Arena?
Arena Trickster | Illustration by PINDURSKI
MTG Arena is one of the two ways to play Magic online. It was released in late 2018 and has become the focal point of Wizards’ more “digitally prominent” approach. It’s quickly grown in popularity since it was released, mostly thanks to its use in organized play and the pandemic.
But MTGA doesn’t have access to all of the cards and formats like Magic Online. It only has cards from Ixalan onward as well as its own Arena base and Alchemy sets. This means older formats like Modern aren’t available, and new formats like Historic and Alchemy are there to give the Constructed format some variety.
MTGA’s primary difference from paper Magic and MTGO is its claim of being free to play. But this claim isn’t entirely accurate, and any paper Magic or MTGO player knows it costs money and is sure to have some skepticism.
Defining “Pay to Win”
Final Payment | Illustration by Victor Adame Minguez
One thing that I think is important to lay out before I discuss why Arena is pay-to-win is to explain how I’m defining the term. I’ve seen a common misconception that the phrase is meant to be completely literal. That is to say, some people hear “pay to win” and think it means if you spend enough money you’re guaranteed to win, but that’s not really the case. For example, a while back Star Wars Battlefront 2 was accused of using pay-to-win mechanics because players could spend real money to buy better upgrades. However, even if a player bought all the most expensive upgrades, they could still lose a game if they entered a lobby and just faced the wall the whole time.
Pay to win simply refers to a game where spending money provides players with a clear advantage in the game. It doesn’t mean players who spend more automatically win all their games; it just means that a certain amount of money is required to stay competitive in the game.
What Exactly Does “Free to Play” Mean?
Glimpse of Freedom | Illustration by Clint Cearley
There’s an important distinction to be made between free-to-play (F2P) and completely free. Games that are F2P often aren’t entirely free; they offer a basic level of access for free and hide other aspects of the game behind an instant paywall or near impossibly-long grind.
Completely free games have no paywall or grind barriers and are completely available to be experienced and played, though sometimes there are cosmetics for sale. A great example of this type of game is Path of Exile, which allows all players to access all levels of content for free and sells a bunch of cosmetics to generate revenue.
MTGA is in the free-to-play category, but its “basic level of access” is barely that. I want to direct your attention to a few other F2P card games first so we can see just how Arena fits into this market.
Hearthstone, one of the most popular digital-only card games of all time, is another F2P card game that has a lot of similar aspects to MTGA. There’s a rotating standard and evergreen format, new cards are regularly released and available through packs, and there’s even a gold system where players can earn currency through play to buy packs of cards. This may seem like an identical business model to MTGA at first glance, but it has one incredible difference that makes it much more accessible.
Hearthstone has a dusting system. Players can destroy cards from their collection for a premium currency that they can then use to craft specific cards of their choice. This may seem like the wildcard system in MTGA, but Arena players can’t dust old cards to get new wildcards. This system is something that the community has been asking for, but it hasn’t been so much as hinted at by WotC.
The lack of a dust system is what pushes MTGA farther away from being a F2P game in the conventional sense. But what does a true F2P game even look like? The answer to that is Riot Games’ Legends of Runeterra.
Legends of Runeterra doesn’t have any packs or dust and cards are unlocked by playing the game. Players can build complete collections by earning XP, which gets easier the more you play. MTGA will never even be close to this level of easy access, but it’s important to see where the game stands on the digital-card-game spectrum.
With Legends of Runeterra on the “ultimate free” side, Arena lies on the near complete opposite end of the spectrum.
How Does Magic Fit into the Free-to-Play Category?
Phyrexian Arena | Illustration by Svetlin Velinov
The simple answer is that MTG doesn’t fit into the F2P category. Magic (and the idea of a collectible card game) wasn’t designed with a digital version in mind. Collectability suffers when the medium where you’re collecting is shifted or when there’s suddenly new mediums in which to gather.
Magic has done an incredible job at reinforcing that a pack of 15 cards costs $4 and buying specific cards is only possible on secondary markets or trading with other players. This is the core element of the game, and it’s the very heart of what being a TCG means. When you create a digital version you suddenly have an entirely new medium to balance your business model in, and WotC chose to make Arena the digital version of paper Magic instead of leaning into what a contemporary digital card game looks like.
The problem with this is that they’ve already done it! Magic Online is a quality product that does everything paper magic does, but on your laptop! You can play any format with any card, trade with other players, buy packs to get cards, and even buy singles from an infinite number of online retailers.
So why make a new client? The answer to that lies with trying to capture a larger audience in a larger market: people who play video games and other online card games.
How Is Magic Arena Pay to Win?
Blood Price | Illustration by Antonio José Manzanedo
The main advantage you get when you pay for Magic Arena is access to more cards. The free-to-play starting card pool is pretty small, and grinding for packs in the hopes of getting the exact right cards you need can take a long time. By paying for wildcards, you can have instant access to a competitive deck.
Now, you might be wondering if it’s possible to simply rely on free packs and daily rewards as a method of collecting the cards you need to create a competitive deck. While it’s technically possible, the main issue is time.
A new Standard Magic set is released about every three months or so. Each time a new set is released, the metagame changes. This means players have to reevaluate and rebuild their decks to incorporate or respond to the new cards that have been released. This gives you a pretty small window to grind out enough free wildcards to create a competitive deck and actually use that deck before there’s all new cards completely changing the game. If you want to have a competitive deck and be able to play with it for as long as possible before a new set comes out, you’ll really need to be paying for wildcards.
Apart from set rotations, there are other ways the meta can change even more quickly than three months. One major way that this can happen is through bans or rebalancing of cards. While Magic Arena does reimburse players with wildcards when a card gets banned, this doesn’t always cover the full cost of the damage. If the card that was banned was a major component for making your specific deck competitive, you may need to build a completely new deck. You’ll likely need more wildcards than what you got back, causing you to have to pay more money if you want it quickly.
The Current Problem with Wildcards
There was a sense of hope in the MTGA community with the introduction of wildcards. It seemed like there was a way to get more value from your purchases so packs with no useable cards still gave you some progress. While this is true, it’s still a far-less efficient or effective than a pure dust or trading system.
Getting wildcards without spending money in Arena takes a long time, and it’s not quick enough to keep up with an ever-changing format like Standard. Wildcards still have an incredible value. We can calculate how much one is worth since you get a wildcard every 6 packs, not to mention the chance to get extra ones in your packs.
How Expensive Is a Competitive Magic Arena Deck?
Price of Knowledge | Illustration by Dan Scott
To give you an idea of how much you’d have to spend on wildcards to create a meta deck, I took a look at the 5 most popular decks from Standard, Alchemy, and Historic according to MTGDecks.net. I then found the average number of rare or mythic rare cards in each of these decks and their sideboards. Using that, I calculated the amount of money you would have to spend on wildcard bundles to create the deck.
A rare wildcard bundle costs about $10, and a mythic rare bundle costs $20. Each of these bundles only comes with four wildcards in them. There’s no way to buy a single bundle, so if you need 5 wildcards of a given type, I’m going to count that as two bundles towards the price of the deck since you can’t just buy one.
Here’s what I found for the average price in each format:
|Format||Mean Number of Rares||Mean Number of Mythic Rares||Approximate Cost|
Aside from the cost of each deck, it’s also important to note how difficult it would be to get enough wildcards to build the average decks listed above without paying for bundles. A rare or mythic rare wildcard shows up in a pack about 1:30 packs. This is based on chance, so you could get one more often, and you could get them less often. Every six packs you open, you get a free rare or mythic rare as well. Even if you’re playing Standard, where you need the least mythics on average, you would possibly have to open over a hundred packs just to get the mythic rare wildcards you need to build a deck. To put that in perspective, even if you max out your wins and get the highest daily challenge amount of coins, you can only buy a single pack that day with the coins you get.
Also, it’s important to note that players are limited to only purchasing 10 wildcard bundles of each rare and mythic rare. That means once you’ve run out of your purchase limit, you’ll need to resort to buying packs to get wildcards. This method becomes much more expensive, making the prices of creating a new deck go up significantly.
You might have noticed that I’ve only talked about Constructed formats. It’s true that Limited isn’t quite as adversely affected by Arena’s pay-to-win aspects, but that isn’t to say it’s perfect.
My Own MTGA Experience
Near-Death Experience | Illustration by Dan Scott
I don’t know if you can tell by the fact that I write about Magic a lot, but I’m a big fan of the game. Even Arena. I probably play MTGA nearly every day, always buy the Mastery Pass, and sometimes even buy cosmetics. I’ve gotten mythic multiple times and have been playing for nearly a decade, so I think these factors combined with the fact that I play Arena a lot gives me a somewhat solid soapbox to preach from.
MTGA absolutely requires a consistent investment to get going and consistent re-investment along with high playtime to always have a collection ready to go. This is the way Standard has always been in paper Magic and I’m not surprised that it’s the same online. Of course, you can literally play the game for free and get rewards so it’s still more rewarding than the paper version.
My biggest qualm regarding the game as it stands now is that it takes too large of an investment to get the point where playing every day gets you enough packs to maintain a collection. I play a lot so my wildcards just pile up until a new deck releases, then I re-gain all of them as the set plays out. But it takes a lot of money to get to this point, usually a few hundred dollars.
I think this is generally unacceptable for any video game, but games that have an element of collection and trading are obviously an exception. But MTGA doesn’t have trading so the money I put into it has no way to be exported into something else. I can trade my rotating Standard cards ahead of time to get store credit at my LGS, but I can’t do anything with old cards on Arena. That’s where the problem lies.
Risk Without Reimbursement
Risk Factor | Illustration by Chris Seaman
Playing Constructed formats always has some level of risk, especially when you’re playing top-tier meta decks. Bans and restricted announcements crush a deck’s value in the meta as well as the price of their individual cards. Arena is no exception to the banned and restricted list for Standard, and Historic has one too. But you have no way to get rid of your banned or restricted cards so you’re subject to the whims of WotC. While they usually give wildcards for every card you own that’s changed or banned, there’s been an exception.
With the release of the Alchemy format, players didn’t receive wildcards for cards that were changed in Historic because they were changed for Alchemy, but not Standard. This included very popular cards that were critical to the success and power level of certain decks, which meant many players were left empty handed.
Luminarch Aspirant is a great example of this. To make matters worse, WotC also released a new mythic-level human 2-drop, Captain Eberhart, that effectively replaced it in the decks it was previously in. This cut players deep and was a large blow to those who now have a far worse version of the playset rare card, with their next-best option being a mythic-level card they’ll need multiple copies of.
This isn’t something that’s going to happen once every year or two, either. Block releases are basically quarterly, sometimes more often, and they usually bring at least some level of change to the meta. New decks are created, old decks are modified or shift focus, and this causes a constant reinvestment on the player’s side if they want to keep up.
Draft And Arena’s Economy
Harness Infinity | Illustration by Seb McKinnon
Draft is probably the best way to build your collection on MTG Arena for free. You open packs to play, you get packs as a reward, and you also get gems which you can spend on packs or future Limited events. However, unlike Constructed which you can play as many times as you want for free, every game of Limited costs you in-game currency.
A Quick Draft, where you draft against bots instead of other players, costs 5,000 gold to play. At most you can make 1,500 gold a day, and that’s if you get a 750 gold daily challenge reward instead of a 500 gold one. This means if you’re playing every day and completing all your daily wins, you can do a Quick Draft for free every three days. Rewards earned from Draft events can help accelerate this process, but if you’re brand new to the format, it’ll take you a while to get good enough to start earning more in rewards than it costs to play.
Premier Drafts which allow you to draft with other players will cost you 10,000 coins. While they have better rewards payouts, it takes you longer to save up that many coins as a free player. Alternatively, players can spend real money to buy gems, which can also be used to play drafts. A Quick Draft costs 750 gems or about $5 depending on what method you use to buy gems. A Premier Draft costs 1500 gems, so about $10. Paying makes it much easier to practice drafting because you won’t be having to wait days between doing it. While paying doesn’t give any in-game advantages for drafts, players who pay are still at an advantage due to the extra experience they can gain drafting certain sets.
Another aspect worth noting is that the more costly Premier Drafts are also the only way to consistently practice drafting with the newest set. Quick Draft frequently rotates between different sets. If you’re trying to draft more often by using that game mode, you’ll be stuck switching between sets. This makes it more difficult in a free-to-play model to get good at drafting any individual set. This has the effect of lowering your win rate, and therefore the rewards you’re earning. It also means you’ll be at a disadvantage if you compete in any Arena Opens as players who could afford to practice a lot on the most recent set are going to have a much better idea of how to draft it.
You may have heard players talking about “going infinite” on MTG Arena Draft, and they point to it as evidence that Arena’s economy isn’t quite as bad as people say. I think it’s important to take a look at just how likely it is to actually pull that off in order to really understand why it’s not a very viable option.
Debunking “Going Infinite”
Astral Arena | Illustration by Sam Burley
When we talk about going infinite on Arena drafts, this references the idea that you can win more than you pay for the draft. If you continue to earn at least enough to pay for your next draft, you could theoretically continue drafting forever without having to reinvest any money into Arena or wait for daily challenges. However, actually pulling this off can be pretty difficult.
Looking at Quick Draft, you’ll see that you need to win 6 best-of-one games to be able to draft again. Once you lose three games, your draft event ends, and you’ll need to start over. This means that you need a win rate of at least 75% to go infinite on Quick Draft.
When it comes to Premier Draft, you only need to win 5 best-of-one games, meaning you need about a 71% win rate. While this is technically more likely, it’s important to remember that Premier Draft is a timed Draft involving other players. Not only will you have more pressure on you than you would in Quick Draft, other players may be able to more effectively shut down your strategy in a draft than a bot can.
The method of drafting that requires the lowest win rate to go infinite is Traditional Draft. You play three best-of-three games no matter what and then get rewards based on how many BO3 matches you won. This method only requires a 66% win rate, but again you’ll have to be up to drafting against other players on a timer. This method also requires you to be effective at sideboarding between games since you’ll be playing the same opponent at least twice each match.
If you’re a free-to-play player who is new to Draft, it’ll be very difficult for you to get to the point where you can be winning this consistently. It’s also important to remember that Wizards of the Coast can restructure the way rewards work whenever they see fit. The fact that they haven’t changed the Arena model to make going infinite impossible shows just how rarely it must be happening. If players were cutting into the company’s bottom line by consistently going infinite with drafts, Wizards can and most likely would change it.
Completely Free Conclusion
Final Payment | Illustration by Victor Adame Minguez
Magic Arena may technically be free to play, but you won’t be getting very far without putting some money into it. Even if you aren’t interested in playing competitively, your starting card pool will leave you with very limited options when it comes to deck building for fun. Meanwhile, players who do pay for the game have the huge benefit of a larger card pool and enough wildcards to keep up with the rapidly shifting meta.
Do you think MTGA is pay to win or do you disagree? What are your thoughts on Magic in general being pay to win? Let me know in the comments or on Draftsim’s Twitter.
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