Over the last five years card games have been salvaged from obscurity with deck builders and Living Card Games in the board game space, card battlers on mobile and Magic’s own revival. Card games are hip.
All of which makes the near nonexistence of a competitive online card game in esports bewildering. Whilst Duels of the Planeswalkers series is a good intro to paper MTG for beginners the game is too slow and offers none of the depth a reasonably experienced Magic player would need.
Meanwhile Magic the Gathering Online (MTGO) is a mess. I’d like to go in to the well documented problems and my suggested solutions to MTGO in another post, but for now it is suffice to say there’s a litany of issues ranging from it looking like a shareware game from 1995 through to it playing like a shareware game from 1995. To watch and play MTGO is painful, even for the most hardcore Magic fan.
As an MTG player I even occasionally feel angry at Wizards for selling me such a bad experience and then angry at myself for allowing them to sell it to me.
Once Hearthstone got in to beta the games industry (and less the MTG community) got very excited. Firstly because Blizzard rarely releases games and when they do they make a sacks of cash and secondly because everyone had seen card battlers on mobile make sacks of cash. Blizzard plus cards plus competitive online play plus mobile equals a gold mine.
Now I’ve spent some time with Hearthstone (I was in the closed beta) I’d like to share my thoughts on how Blizzard’s game will impact Magic.
First up, there’s no excuses for MTGO to be as bad as it is. The Hearthstone dev team is only 15 and they made something beautiful, sleek and stable. It’s considered and colorful and fun. This grows the pressure on Wizards to up the game with MTGO, especially if Hearthstone starts to eat its lunch which it just may.
When I started playing Hearthstone, I was bold enough to stay that it had the potential to steal me from Magic completely. In reality the game doesn’t yet have enough depth. What makes Magic so beautiful is that the decision making process is complex and the “right play” requires the consideration of a number of factors, least not your opponent’s ability to interact with your play.
In Hearthstone, however, if you have a little knowledge of strategy concepts such as card advantage, tempo and beatdown theory you can carry those over and make the “right play” almost every time as interaction is limited to the point of being nonexistent. This gives Hearthstone comparatively less longevity in theory, even causing Polygon to label it “a gateway drug to other card games”.
However, it’s very likely that as Blizzard continues to refine and build Hearthstone that the game will start to provide more of this strategic depth. Indeed it’s much easier for Blizzard to design in the depth of Magic than it is for Wizards to make MTGO as accessible Hearthstone.
Additionally Hearthstone has a great competitive leveling system, a drop-in-drop-out draft system, is considerably cheaper, runs on Mac and soon mobile. In every way possible Hearthstone is a better game that MTGO.
Yet MTGO has one big thing in it’s favor: It’s Magic: the Gathering. It has nearly twenty years of cards and a mature, dedicated and spending player base of twelve years. It has all of the new card sets and is the only place to get a competitive game at any time.
Wizards don’t need to sort MTGO out for that reason. In 2007 it was making 30% to 50% of the total money for Magic. If MTG is worth more than $200 million annually now we’re probably looking at $60 million a year at a conservative estimate.
Meanwhile at Blizzard $60 million would be much less than even the worst month in World of Warcraft. The scale that Blizzard undoubtedly has in mind for Hearthstone isn’t WoW’s level, but it’s bigger than $60 million a year for sure.
And ultimately that is what Hearthstone represents for MTGO: Not death, but a potentially huge missed opportunity. An opportunity to be meaningful in esports, to convert paper players in to spending more, to grow the Magic player base.
Yet, if the threat of Hearthstone kicks Hasbro’s execs and Wizards in to action it could also mean that us players get a better experience than some shareware from 1995. That’s the real win scenario for everyone.