Last updated on May 16, 2022
Pay Tribute to Me | Illustration by Aaron Miller
Magic has been around for an eternity as far as tabletop games go. It’s seen a lot of games, genres, and mediums come and go. One thing that seems to be around forever is the internet, and that certainly shaped WotC’s design philosophy in recent years.
A product of that shaping is MTG Arena, which is the more polished online game client for Magic. It’s definitely not without its quirks and glitches but its financial setting and in-game economy has been an increasing topic of discussion in the community. Specifically the bad parts.
A big part of what makes MTGA unique is its claim that it’s “free to play.” But (spoiler alert) I don’t think is really true. While the game is free to install and you get some basic cards to start off with, it quickly becomes a money sink that’s deceptively expensive to the average player.
Today I want to talk about just what it means to be a free-to-play game, why MTGA isn’t one, and give you some examples why it isn’t actually so free in the first place.
Let’s jump right in!
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 MTGO and paper Magic is its claim of being free to play. But this claim isn’t entirely accurate, and any paper Magic or MTGO player is sure to have some skepticism.
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.
Why MTGA Isn’t Really Free to Play
Blood Price | Illustration by Antonio José Manzanedo
Since the market already decided what a F2P card game looks like, WotC is trying to get the best of both sides. They’re trying to take MTGO and repackage it in a more visually appealing and deceptively pay-to-win box. In their attempt to be the best of both worlds by selling packs and mimicking the model of other online card games, they’re making a worse product.
There has to be a way to get everything for free, which in this case is earning gold by playing so that you can buy packs plus getting wildcards by opening packs to get the singles you need. But this isn’t a sustainable business model so we have gems and the option to just buy things. The workaround to buying gems can’t be too efficient or quick, it has to have some degree of annoyance or time-gating to incentivize just buying the packs like you do in person.
This system isn’t inherently bad. It gives you a way to get to your goal without spending money. But it also leaves you with hundreds of garbage commons and unplayable rares that sit in your digital binder for eternity while you desperately try to farm up the wildcards you need for new decks. Arena is the only game where this happens.
Hearthstone lets you dust unwanted cards for portions of new ones, MTGO lets you trade or sell them, and of course you can do the same in paper Magic. This essentially means players get the negative effects of all other games without the upside of having some kind of meat grinder to put all of the unused cards into. That’s wasted money and something that drives the average price of everything related to MTGA up.
There’s the vault, which slowly builds up as you open cards you already have a playset of, but that isn’t nearly enough. The vault takes hundreds of cards to unlock only to give you a couple of rare wildcards in return.
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.
The Price of a Wildcard
Price of Knowledge | Illustration by Dan Scott
You get a different number of gems per dollar you spend on Arena based on how much you spend, with increasing rates. For this calculation I’ll use the $99.99 option, which gives 20,000 gems (200 per $1 USD). This gives you enough gems to buy 99 packs since packs are sold in bundles divisible by three, so you’ll have 200 gems left over. This also effectively sets the price of a pack at $1. Now let’s use this to calculate how many wildcards on average you get from 99 packs and figure out the price.
Wildcards come from a pity timer, and you get one every 6 packs. It gives you a rare one every time you complete the cycle which happens four times. You get a mythic wildcard instead on the fifth cycle. You may think, “wait, since packs are 200 gems which is $1 USD, doesn’t this make wildcards $6?” You actually have a 1/30 chance to open a rare or mythic wildcard instead of a rare or mythic card in your pack. But this wildcard replaces the card you’d open so you only have a 1/30 chance of getting a mythic wildcard if you would’ve opened a mythic. Since you have a ~1/8 chance to open a mythic out of a pack that means you can expect to get a mythic rare wildcard once every 240 packs on average. However, there is a hidden pity timer for this 1/30 drop rate, that increases up until you eventually get your guaranteed rare and mythic wild card from the maximum 30th pack.
This means that the price of a rare wildcard is slightly more than $6. Here’s the full calculation of just how many wildcards you’ll get on average from your $99.99 investment:
Wildcards from the pity timer: 13 rare wildcards, 3 mythic wildcards.
- A cycle of 30 packs gives you 4 rare wildcards and 1 mythic wildcard. Multiply this by three to calculate for 90 packs plus an additional single cycle puts you at 96 packs. The three remaining packs won’t be enough to trigger another pity timer card.
Wildcards from packs: 3 rare wildcards, 3 mythic wildcards.
- 1/30 packs gives you a rare and mythic wildcard, 3*30 is 90 which gives you 3 rare and 3 mythic wildcards per 90 packs.
This puts your total sum of wildcards at 16 rare and 6 mythic. Now it’s a simple means of dividing the cost ($99.99) by the outcome:
Rare wildcards: $99.99 / 16 = $6.25 per wildcard
Mythic wildcards: $99.99 / 6 = $16.67 per wildcard
Keep in mind that this is going off the average scenario. You could get luckier and have a better go around or even get mythic wildcards from the Mastery Pass, but this is closer to the true price you’ll get in the long run. The price of these cards can also be used to price out the value of the top meta decks and give you an idea just how expensive it is to get into the formats.
Starting with Standard, let’s calculate the average wildcards necessary to build the top four decks and use that to figure out their actual price. I’m ignoring the price of common and uncommon wildcards since they come in such extreme abundance and you don’t need to worry about them. I’m also going to assume that you have no cards from the deck or any wildcards. If you have some of them or already have some wildcards then you can just subtract the price of the cards you already have from the sum.
Standard Deck Prices
- Mono White Aggro (43 rare, 0 mythic): $268.75
- Mono Green Aggro (32 rare, 2 mythic): $233.34
- Dimir Control (20 rare, 4 mythic): $191.68
- Izzet Dragons (21 rare, 6 mythic): $231.27
- Average Standard Deck Value: $231.26
Historic Deck Prices
- Izzet Phoenix (19 rare, 7 mythic): $235.44
- Golgari Food (27 rare, 4 mythic): $235.43
- Heliod Company (38 rare, 9 mythic): $387.53
- Azorius Control (46 rare, 5 mythic): $370.85
- Average Historic Deck Value: $307.31
Alchemy Deck Prices
- Orzhov Clerics (41 rare, 0 mythic): $256.25
- Gruul Werewolves (32 rare, 10 mythic): $366.7
- Esper Control (38 rare, 6 mythic): $337.52
- Rakdos Vampires (33 rare, 10 mythic): $372.95
- Average Alchemy Deck Value: $333.36
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.
Drafting to Infinity
Harness Infinity | Illustration by Seb McKinnon
You might be interested in drafting as a way to play the game and build a collection when you realize the daunting cost of Constructed formats. After all, you can go infinite drafting if you play well enough, right? While this isn’t wrong, it isn’t as easy or as efficient as you may think. Let’s get into the win percentages and see what you’re working with.
You have to win all three of your matches to make your entry fee back in gems from a Traditional Draft, which gives you twice as much as you spent. Winning two out of three gives you only 1,000 gems and 4 packs. This is technically more value than you put in but it’s not enough to draft again. Keep in mind that you don’t need an exactly 100% win-rate to go infinite.
If you 3-0 one draft and then 2-1 the next one, you still have gems from the previous two victories that can pay for another. But you’ll need to 3-0 at least once out of every four drafts with the other three having a 2-1 record to keep going. This is a 75% win-rate, which is incredibly difficult and not sustainable for most players.
Premier Draft is much easier to go even or profit from. Instead of playing just three matches, you play until you either lose three times or win seven BO1 matches. It has an identical entry fee but a much better reward system in terms of gem prizes. To break even, you have to win five matches before losing three, which rewards you with 1,600 gems and 4 packs. To maintain this forever you need a win-rate of 62.5% and you can never lose the third game before you reach five wins.
This is much more obtainable, especially if you’re an experienced drafter and can complete a few 6- or 7-win drafts to pad your gem stockpile for when you inevitably only win three or four matches in a single draft.
If you like drafting and you’re good at it, I’d say just enjoy the benefits of profiting cards. But I wouldn’t recommend this as a strategy to newer players since drafting requires extensive game knowledge both in the actual draft and in the games themselves. It’s unlikely a newer player hoping to build a collection will be able to succeed with this method.
By the way, using Arena Tutor is going to help you quite a bit in accomplishing this goal.
Going Completely F2P
Astral Arena | Illustration by Sam Burley
Going completely F2P would mean you never enter any credit card details at any point. You never buy any gems, you just earn them by drafting or joining events with a gold entry. This is obviously a lot more work and more time consuming to get meta decks and build a collection as opposed to the instant availability of paying money.
In MTGA you can earn daily rewards for playing the game as well as from a single quest. The daily rewards cap out after 15 wins and award you a total of 750 gold. This combined with the quests giving 500 to 750 gold means you can make up to 1,500 gold in a single day. You can also earn up to 750 XP from these, which progress you three Mastery Pass slots. This can earn you a pack or two a day which is a helpful boost.
With the rewards available you can expect to get at least 18 packs a week, assuming you get the max number of rewards and complete the most possible quests. This isn’t bad overall but it’s going to take a long time to get to where you want to be when you need 40 rare wildcards for a Standard deck and you’re only getting one wildcard every 5 to 6 packs. Of course this is the absolute worst case because you can still win packs and get cards from drafts or prereleases that you spend your gold on, but it’s still an awful return rate in the long run.
Completely Free Conclusion
Final Payment | Illustration by Victor Adame Minguez
Arena leaves a lot to be desired, but its issues are completely fixable. There isn’t some overall macro-level issue that prevents it from ever being an amazing game. Magic is an incredibly well designed and well balanced game which eliminates an entire series of problems regarding game design that new games can suffer from. Just adding some sort of dusting system or more rewards would completely revolutionize the in-game economy and make it much more friendly. The only question is: will Wizards do anything about it?
I’ve said my piece, but I want to know what you think. Let me know down below in the comments or over on our Draftsim Discord.
And like I said, if you are braving it out there on the mean streets of MTGA, make sure you have Draftsim’s amazing (free) app Arena Tutor by your side to help you out.
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