Mike Dunn and I had an opportunity to talk with Ryan Spain, Creative Director and Tony Mayer, Senior Project Manager for Magic: The Gathering Online. We were able to talk about the transition from Wizards of the Coast to Daybreak Games, the strengths of Magic Online and exciting upcoming developments for Magic Online.
[Chris Wyman] About a year ago Magic Online transitioned over to Daybreak games, how has that process gone? What changes have been created for Magic Online and how does the future look for Magic Online?
[Ryan Spain] It was a difficult process. We all knew it was going to be a difficult process that ended up being uniquely difficult in ways that were different from studios that are traditionally acquired by Daybreak. They normally take on a whole studio that’s making a game and incorporate that studio. In this case, it was carving out one title from Magic, from Wizards of the Coast and transplanting a single title over to Daybreak. On the one hand, it might sound like it’s easier. On the other hand I compare it to a hand transplant, where it’s easy to describe but when you get into the details of how you’re actually going to make that happen. How everything is going to function, be connected, and work with the new host. It’s a whole slew of unknown challenges that you peel away one at a time and so it’s hard to predict how long it takes because you solve one problem and it reveals a new one that you couldn’t even understand until you’d solve the one that was in the way.
We had dedicated teams of engineers on all sides. You had Wizards of the Coast as one entity involved, you had the Magic Online dev team as another entity involved, being the ones moving, and then you had Daybreak as being the receiving company. All three entities needed careful coordination. It was a long difficult process, but we got it done. That has allowed us to turn and look towards the future and that’s what’s been so exciting. Through the process we knew that the game was headed over to Daybreak where the new management was looking to invest, looking to grow, and looking to take this game where we all feel like it can be. We got over those hurdles and have been eyes downfield ever since.
[CW] How do you feel about the health of Magic Online right now? What are you most proud of overcoming in the transition and what are you still hoping to improve for Magic Online?
[Tony Mayer] We have become a lot more transparent with the community. We have been responsive when we needed to, especially during slip-ups. Beyond that, just talking to the community more. We’ve set up a whole bunch of different venues to talk to us in the last year Discord, Twitter, Facebook, all those things are new to Magic Online since last year. We’ve grown that. We’ve experimented a lot with events and having different types of offerings. Different types of timings. Different types of players being served. We’ve been able to improve on our card creation velocity. We’ve been able to make Commander decks again. We’ve been able to get some quality life improvements in. It’s been a very good year in that respect.
[RS] Format parity is one of our challenges and one of our most important distinctions. Our card catalog depth is our greatest strength. In order for it to continue to be a strength that needs to stay current. While I don’t think Magic Online has ever been a perfect one for one representation of any eternal format, there’s always a card missing or a card broken here and there. Largely, we maintain this. Parity with paper, that’s extremely important and has become more and more difficult to maintain. Making sure that you can build the Commander deck that you want on Magic Online, or the Legacy deck or the Modern deck. All the pieces need to be there and functioning. Wizards of the Coast has really ramped up, both the quantity of unique individual cards, the quantity of variations of those cards, and the complexity of those cards. With a lot of added card count from Wizards of the Coast coming in ancillary products, like, Commander releases. Those are just naturally going to have more complicated cards. We just get the card load and lay it down. Job one is keeping the card pipeline flowing and keeping our formats current. If we don’t have that, we’re not offering authentic enough experience to players. That’s our advantage right now.
We have things no other digital expression of Magic has. We have things that even the paper game doesn’t have. Like affordable Legacy. You can come and play with some of the most powerful cards of all time. You can have them in your collection and not have it be something that you mortgaged your house to acquire. We are lowering the barrier to some amazing classic Magic experiences. We’re really at the forefront of the Modern scene. If you’re going to be a competitive Modern player you, come on over. We got you. That’s the type of player we’re trying to lead into right now because we already have those features. When Tony listed the things that he’s happy with and the things that we’ve been doing that are exciting for us. It all tends to be in the range of things that are low development effort because we are a bit of a skeleton crew. Right now, we’re hiring by the way, you can check out the Daybreak job section. The Renton location is going to be the Magic Online positions. So in a world where we can’t just magically have engineers working on whatever we want. Tony and I need to figure out how we can improve life for players without tapping on the shoulders of a bunch of engineers.
That’s been in the realm of some of the experience you’ve seen around different events styles. The return of the sixty four player single elimination queues. One of the things I’m proud of is our revision of the Vintage Cube. That’s a cube that had gotten updated every iteration, but kind of had grown a little stale. We’re good at card collations and card selection. I can do that without an engineer. So we have been looking at ways to improve the experience for players in ways that don’t require digital shovels in dirt. It requires working within the tools we already have. So things like revising the cubes and what we’re going to put in the chaos offerings. Rethinking event structures and all access availability. Those types of experiments are things that we do right now. We learn a lot even from the ones that don’t work. Maybe even learn more than when something isn’t going well or doesn’t have a lot of participation. That’s our customers telling us different very important things. A lot of experimentation within the tool sets that we already have to try to better understand what players are interested in experiencing on our platform.
[CW] What specific things would you like to highlight about Magic Online that Magic Arena can not do? You’ve mentioned the card depth and special event, but what would you want players to know about above all else?
[RS] Today, right now, above all else. I want you to know that this is where competitive Constructed players play eternal formats. If you want to prove you’re the best at Modern, Pioneer, Legacy, Vintage, and Pauper, these are formats that we support digitally with rules enforcement that you’re not going to find anywhere else. There’s all sorts of great tournaments to show your prowess. If you’re an aspirational player, there’s roads to professional level play within our system through those formats. I’m probably preaching to the choir. If you are out there listening and you are a competitive eternal format player, then you’re probably testing on Magic Online. If you’re not, you might be slipping behind. It’s the place for that level of play.
The other key selling point is the ability to faithfully reproduce your favorite Commander deck from your kitchen table. You can play against two or three other players in a Commander game on our system. That’s our biggest growth area. We have something that is unique to the digital Magic ecosystem. It just needs a little more love. Because our game challenges new players unfairly. When I talk about serving Commander players the first thing that comes to my mind is just serving new Magic Online players. Right now, you start at the top of the mountain when you join Magic Online and you already need to be a dedicated player. A deep Magic player who wants the experience of competitive Modern so much that you’re willing to figure it out. What else are you going to do? It’s really a problem when a lot of our players stick with us because we are the only option for competitive Modern. I don’t want you to be here because we’re the only option and you had to endure a difficult on boarding experience. I want you to have a great on boarding experience and be happy that you’re here.
While we can get a lot of our top competitive-minded players in the community to get over that hurdle and join us on Magic Online. It’s a tougher sell with people who have other means to enjoy Magic the way they want. If we don’t make it easy and fun to get into Magic Online and to learn to play it. Learn to build the decks you want and do what you want in the system. We’re not going to be able to attract and keep the more casual Commander audience that we have the ability to serve, but we just don’t have a good welcome mat. We don’t have a good waiting room. You feel a little lost when you start the game right now. So our initial priority, in terms of what we are going to shovel and dirt to affect change in the system, is the on boarding experience. We need to change how that feels and works and motivates players. Hold their hand better and show them the options in the game. Just do a better job at keeping you once you give it a try. That’s the immediate, roll up the sleeves priority, is just keeping the players who give us a try better through improving their initial experience.
[CW] Being able to play Commander fully online is a truly unique offering. Do you feel that commander is the focus of the future?
[RS] Definitely a focus. It’s an untapped market to throw out some business speak but it’s true. We simply have the ability to serve an audience that we’re not attracting because we haven’t put the work into attract them or the work in to keep them happy once they do give it a try. It’s tough to say anything is the focus in a game as broad and deep as Magic Online. Is it a top priority? Absolutely. This is the area of largest potential growth we have. There’s so many Commander players who don’t even know about us. That it’s such a more casual demographic. Now, the deep long time Commander players are going to be well versed in all things Magic. I imagine a lot of the readers here fall into that camp. A lot of newer Magic players gravitate very quickly to the Commander world and just literally have no idea that we are even an option for them. Both awareness in the community that we are a destination for that audience. Then creating the improvements to serve that audience are certainly a major play for us in the next year plus.
[CW] What are other things that players of Magic Online can look forward to?
[RS] Well, a lot of stuff is on the horizon. We are looking at the economy and how players want to have the cards they need to play in the events they want. You can think of us as a two-pronged business. We sell the ability to collect digital Magic cards, and we sell event experiences that you can use cards in. They’re very two distinct things and we have a lot of flexibility, you might think we might be constrained by Wizards. We have blank checks from both sides to figure it out and come up with the thing that makes most sense for the economy. You’ve seen us explore all access in different ways. All access for those not being aware, we have offered for sale one to three weeks, the ability to have nearly everything on Magic Online forever. You have a complete Magic Online collection for all intents and purposes of deck building and play. It’s a popular thing to have available. The common thing we hear when we offer it is, I want this all the time. In terms of the prime directive, we can mess with the economy. We can tweak some knobs and we can try different things. We can see what sticks. We can see what players do.
One of the unique features to Magic Online. Is peer-to-peer object trading. That we can go into a trade room and move stuff around between accounts. Most modern games have shied away from that because it is a complex beast and it changes the economy so much, to have that kind of flexibility and trading. We have it already so we should lean into that. General philosophy is we’re trying to lean into where we’re different. We’re trying to lean into where we’re unique and that’s definitely one of the places.
There’s so many ways that allow players to have access to the cards to play in the games they want to play in. We have to tread carefully. Back to the prime directive, the prime directive is that collecting cards on Magic Online should continue to matter. We don’t want to get to a world where an experienced Magic Online player would tell a new player to the system is don’t bother getting cards. That’s a suckers game. What you want to do is sign up for this or this, and then you don’t ever have to have a collection. That’s the best way to play this game. We don’t want that to be the message. We want the message to be, long term, the best way to play this game is to build up a collection of cards that you love and play a lot. There are these alternatives that if you want to try something, experimenting week, there are methods to do that. In the end you’re going to want to build up the cards you want. That’s what we want. That’s the goal. Both to keep collections mattering, but reducing the friction outside of the three core areas of actual fun on Magic Online. Deck building, drafting and playing, that’s the three experiences that tend to bring Magic players joy. That’s why they’re on our platform. Except for social if we know you are you in socials and other aspects that people have fun just chatting with other Magic players. Trade, navigating the lobby, getting into an event, all that is just friction on what people want to do. We absolutely want to reduce the friction on getting to the play experiences, deck building, and drafting. With the prime directive in mind that the choices should honor, a twenty year history of tradable objects and the very real economy that has sprung up. Collecting cards must continue to be important and incentivized. That’s the top line for every experiment we try and the question we asked ourselves about every economic swing we’re thinking of taking.
[CW] That’s Magic Online’s greatest strength, that it offers a true one for one experience with paper Magic. Compared to Magic Arena you have more economic options with Magic Online. Is there anything you would like to highlight Tony?
[TM] I just want to talk about the growth of premier play. We sold out a 672 player limited event this past weekend. People are very excited. People have been very excited about premier play even though it now is a step lower as far as getting to the regional championship instead of directly to the Pro Tour. We are seeing participation grow. People are intrinsically wanting that online play experience. It’s been a joy to see that grow. It’s been a joy to see the tremendous response. We did the sixty four player Vintage Cube, and just Vintage Cube in general. Some of Magic’s top streamers getting particularly excited when they came back. Growing that community has been good and we are looking forward to growing it even more.
[Mike Dunn] How does Magic: The Gathering Online fit into the overall Magic: The Gathering ecosystem? Across the board, physical product, digital product, etc. Does Magic Online compliment physical play or is it intended as a replacement? As someone who isn’t as deep into Magic, I’m curious because I’ve dabbled in Magic Online over the years. There’s been enough time in between when I’ve tried it that it’s changed considerably over time.
[RS] For starters, it tends to be about the competitive advantages. Why are we leaning into the things I mentioned? That’s what we offer that nobody else does. That’s the heart of the thing. While Wizards of the Coast is looking to move forward with Arena and wanted to put all their focus on this one digital product. They understood that they’re moving forward with a product that is not providing the community with a full suite of digital experiences. That’s on literally a format level. Something I explain to my family or friends who know what I do for a living, but don’t play the game at all. I try to compare it to if you were coming over for some gaming this afternoon. I would never say to you, “Do you want to play cards?” I would say to you, “Do you want to play Spades? Do you want to play Hearts? Do you want to play Bridge? Do you want to play Poker? What do you want to play?” Cards are merely a description of the toolbox from which you decide what to play and Magic is the same way, right? You would never say to a Magic player, “Do you want to play Magic?” You might, but immediately the question would be, let’s narrow that down. Different experiences for different folks.
The amazing appeal of the game is how broadly it appeals to gamers because of its customizable nature. Because I can make it mine it really appeals to a wide gamer demographic. It’s certainly part of the game’s success. Arena simply does not provide the experience that digital Magic players have come to expect. They are moving forward with Arena’s strengths. Wizards recognizes Magic Online still plays a critical role in providing a digital Magic experience that nobody else does. Even in the case of the places where we do, we both offer Standard. We both offer Draft. We’re offering it in a very different economic model. A lot of a lot of players have stuck with Magic Online. Maybe they find the Arena flow experience better, but the economy is not for them. They don’t want to have a trapped value account that nothing can ever be traded, or taken off. There’s something about the ebb and flow of cards coming and going from my account.That little market feel of, I’m going to get this card while people haven’t figured it out yet. Or, oh this card is overvalued, I’m going to sell it. Those are things that players get to think about. That cards do have different values. There is different demand for cards and it affects how many tickets it’s going to take for you to get one into your collection versus all mythics are equal to a mythic wild card. That’s a completely different acquisition system that is not for everybody. We technically are both offering Bridge, but we’re offering Bridge with an economic model that simply appeals to a different type of player. A lot of our players are here because of the economy and because of the benefits they see in that as opposed to trapping their value on a platform that does not offer trade.
[MD] Magic: Arena is more like a thin slice? Magic Online is a much more comprehensive experience?
[RS] We go all the way back and use the card analogy again. With Magic all these formats need more than 52 card decks. They use a wide variety of cards and so that’s where the authenticity comes in. We offer authentic digital play experiences for Magic formats that no other digital platform offers with rules enforcement and official support. That’s why we’re here. If Wizards of the Coast had felt that Arena was fully ready to take on all the needs of every digital Magic player, they probably would have looked to sunset this game. We’re not close to that and so it’s not sunset, it’s daybreak. I’ve worked on this game under the management of Wizards of the Coast and I work on it now under the management of Daybreak. Daybreak is more flexible and more willing to invest in what the game needs to really thrive. I’m really thankful for the flexibility too, first getting the transition complete, getting us over the finish line, and taking root on the Daybreak side. With no expectations or pressure to do it a certain way. Only the recognition that this game has room to grow, has an audience to grow, and has features to add. That there’s no need to sunset a game that is humming along and has this level of amazing complexity. This game is a marvel. Sometimes some things break and cards don’t interact right? We hear about it when it happens but for thirty thousand unique Magic cards to be digitally interacting with rules enforcement as smoothly as it does. I feel blessed to be working on this game, and I’m so impressed with the engineers that we’ve had over the years. They connected it all together and kept the train going.
[MD] Have you maintained a strong user base throughout the transition?
[RS] It has changed. This is one of our challenges. One of the things we’ve needed to do is throw out the dogma and re-examine everything about what and why with Magic Online because it really does change. The incentives are different.For example, Vintage Cube was for Wizards of the Coast, something they introduced at the tail end of a format. When the new standard format draft popularity is waning. So, let’s bring back Vintage Cube. That’s not necessarily the point of it. We’re more like no, the Vintage Cube is our reason. It is our standard set. That’s why we are looking at how to put more Vintage Cube on the menu. Because players love it and it’s good for us. We weren’t offering it more because Wizards of the Coast had reasons for not offering it more. We’re effectively managing a different ecosystem of play experiences.
Another factor that’s a huge one, is rejiggering the economy and rethinking how players have access to cards to play. Is the fact that the are Arena disrupted the circle of life of Magic Online. New players come in, draft heavily, and acquire a bunch of singles that they don’t want because they’re drafters. They trade them off to players who want them for Constructed. So those cards get into the hands of Constructed players who want them. The cycle is complete. A big hit to Magic Online’s player base was the introduction of eight player human drafting on Arena. Until then, a lot of people had been sticking with Magic Online for drafting because they want to draft against seven humans. Then when Arena offered that, players can do that over there and we lost a lot of the drafters. That’s like cutting down the rainforest, they were our oxygen makers. Who’s going to make the oxygen now that they’re over on this other platform?
You get a spike of a card. Like, The One Ring that is suddenly a four of staple in our most popular constructed format at a price point that’s out of range for most people. Suddenly we were scrambling again. There’s friction between you and playing the event you want to play in. Even with a willingness to pay some money,that was a ridiculous ask of players. You’re going to have to drop six hundred dollars on tickets to get a play-set of one card that’s in the system. That’s unhealthy, right? For us it’s about navigating and identifying the things that are unhealthy in the economy. Fixing them in ways that adhere to the prime directive of making sure collections continue to matter. Reducing the friction on players and getting to play in the events that they want to play in.
It’s just a different ball game with a different set of incentives under Daybreak than it is for Wizards of the Coast. It’s a different piece of the puzzle for Daybreak than it was for Wizards of the Coast. We are trying to look at that eyes wide open and find the wins for both us and for the players. What do we need to change so that our most dedicated players are happier? Happier with how they’re getting cards and how they’re getting to play and what they want to play in.
[CW] What are you most excited to bring to players in the future?
[RS] Well, it would have been updated Vintage Cube, but we got that on track. I love where the Vintage Cube is at and that’s gone really well. To bring it full circle back to the upcoming on boarding stuff that is what I am most excited to bring to players. To bring an experience to new players that keeps them here. For the existing players, what I’m most excited to bring you is more players. More opponents for you. If we grow the user base, we grow the population. This is good for everybody. As an experienced player, he’s talking about new players’ stuff or on boarding stuff. That’s not for me. What do I get? Everybody wins when you improve the on boarding experience because we all just want a community of happy gamers playing digital Magic together. If we don’t attract and keep the new players, it all falls apart. I’m just really excited to really rethink what we’re offering new players, how we’re presenting it, and what they’re getting
One of the problems of the new player experience is that you get new player tickets when you get an account upgrade. They are for a queue that’s only for new players and it rewards more new player tickets. So what are we telling people to do? Are we saying stay over there and new player land? Are we saying come join us at the big kid table? There shouldn’t be that distinction. I think we need an experience that is a no-brainer to bring new players on board with, but has some appeal to existing players.
Next, we are reintroducing and refreshing the Super Jump event. This is a powered up Jump Start. So you take the Jump Start concept and we did Super Jump a year plus ago. It’s the Jump Start concept but with half decks made specifically for Magic Online going way back in the game’s history. What we’re doing with the refresh though, is it’s going to be Phantom. It’s not something you’re going to own. This is just a play experience. We’re powering it up and you know we talk about competitive advantages and what we have, that Arena doesn’t. We have cards going all the way back to Alpha. We have the most busted cards ever printed. Now you can play with them right out of the gate. I want to welcome new players to Magic Online, you pick your Super Jump half decks. Look, your opening hand contains a Mox Sapphire. That’s pretty cool.
I want to remind people that we have old school cool and are going to lean into it. If you want to play with some of the most powerful broken stuff ever. If you’ve never before or you want to remind yourself, we’re here for you. That’s a great example of rethinking the experience and from the ground up in terms who are we trying to capture? Who are we trying to keep and what do they want out of the system? What is special about our experience and how do we show them that? An experience right out of the gate that loads you up with powerful cards in a fun easy play experience that rewards you.
We’re going to introduce a prize wall system for the store so that instead of trying to decide what the new player wants. A more carnival style where you take your winnings from your initial Jump Start event and you go pick what you want. Is it that shell of a Commander deck because you came on this system to play Commander? Redeem for that. Is it that free draft token because you’re here for Vintage Cube? Get that draft token. Is it that shell of a Modern deck that you can then build upon it? Making sure players can self-path off and that both, new and existing players want to play because it is an awesome experience. That’s the type of thinking that we have around that, and that’s what I’m excited about. Creating a sensible fun introductory experience to what I think is one of the most amazing games ever made.
You can find out more details about the recent improvements to Magic: The Gathering Online at their website:
Chris began tabletop gaming in college and quickly fell into the addictive world of cardboard. Beginning with D&D and Catan he became an enthusiast of all things gaming; analog or digital. Chris, now a recovering MtG player, loves connecting with people via gaming through RPGs, board games, and video games. A particular favorite is testing friendships through social deduction games.