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MTG Arena is killing Standard, but maybe that’s okay

Paper Standard is dying in Magic: The Gathering, and MTG Arena put the knife in its back - but is the digitisation of Magic's premier format all bad news?

MTG Standard dying - a giant zombie behemoth being resurrected by the planeswalker Liliana

In the recent Hasbro investor webinar, Wizards of the Coast president Cynthia Williams touted MTG Arena as “a great success for the company”. According to Williams, hybrid players, engaged in both paper and digital versions of the game, have both the greatest satisfaction with Magic, and spend the most on the hobby as a whole: “40% more than the average revenue of Magic players across all expressions”.

They’re also the fastest-growing category of players, and WotC heads view MTG Arena, which has more than 10 million registered users, as a key part of the onboarding process for the game. “WPN stores say they see new players coming into their store who are ready to join that community after they learned to play Magic on Arena,” says Williams.

All that may well be true, and hey, that last part is how I found Magic. But this is still a bit of a rose-tinted view of the current state of the TCG. It’s not the case that MTG Arena’s success comes at no cost to other areas of the game. In particular, the death of paper Standard – has many, many different causes, from pandemics to pro leagues – but ultimately, I think, has to be laid at MTG Arena’s feet.

MTG Standard dying - a woman from Kamigawa looking at scrolls

Only one month ago, MTG design VP Aaron Forsythe admitted that “Standard play has dried up in many stores” and asked the open question on Twitter: “Why has sanctioned Standard play declined relative to other formats?”

Well, the simple fact of the matter is that, when it comes to Standard play, MTG Arena provides a better prospect for most fans than paper Magic. Who wants to spend $500 on a single competitive deck that’s good for six to twelve months, when – as long as you don’t mind the grind – you can have many, many of the best MTG Arena decks for a fraction of the price?

Who wants to wait days for a Standard game, or travel miles to reach one, when you can just jump in a queue and be matched with someone – who’s roughly on your level – in minutes? Plus, when you win a game on Arena, you’re rewarded, not with the awkward reconciliation moment you have to go through whenever you crush someone at a board or card game, but with a rank increase and smattering of gold and XP designed to release a precious dollop of dopamine. Impersonal and cold, yes, but it still satisfies the lizard part of your brain.

Then there’s the fact that Standard packs of paper Magic cards seem less valuable than they once were. The crazy number of additions to the MTG banlist around 2019 shook confidence, as players saw that all their most expensive cards could quickly become worthless paper rectangles. A more important issue: the sheer volume of Magic cards, for all formats, released in supplementary products makes it far less likely that more than one or two Standard cards from each set will be useful anywhere once rotation rolls around.

MTG Arena Standard dying - Nicol bolas dragon god artwork

The decline of paper Standard is a problem that naturally snowballs out of control, as the player pool dwindles, and one that may already be long past the point of no return. Perhaps, even with the Arena alternative, you could get people to keep buying into Standard while everyone else was doing it. But what incentive is there to build a Standard deck now? It’s like Magic fans have woken up from the simulation. They’ve realised playing a pricey format where your cards have a short shelf life is a bad deal and, after being offered an alternative, have naturally taken it.

What can paper Standard offer that MTG Arena cannot? I think for most there isn’t an immediately obvious answer. There’s the fact that physical decks can’t ever be taken away from you – but Wizards has made no moves to mess with digital collections, so players aren’t worried about that. There’s in-person tournaments, under-supported by Wizards and withering. There’s the social aspect, but – you all know what I’m gonna point to now – Commander offers (or is perceived to offer) a better social experience, a less competitive environment with more players, more hijinks, and a less expensive barrier to entry.

Perhaps it’s letting Wizards of the Coast off the hook too easily to say that if more people wanted to play paper Standard, paper Standard would still be ticking along fine. However, I don’t think Standard dried up primarily due to negligence from Wizards, but mainly because MTG Arena provides a more-accessible version of Standard that’s near-enough for most players – who are just looking for a 1 v 1 format that gets shaken up regularly with new cards and decks.

MTG Standard dying - Gandalf creating fireworks

Admittedly, the old guard of paper Standard players who want to be both competitive and social have been somewhat shafted – as have those who enjoy the tournament scene. But what we have right now works out pretty ideally for many Magic fans. You can get competitive for cheap on Arena, and then enjoy some card-slinging fun with friends at Commander nights, or playing Modern, or Pioneer, or Pauper – all of which avoid the pitfalls of rotation and lack a fully-fledged competitor on Arena. (Incidentally, I think Wizards will never, ever try and put Commander on MTG Arena – it would be way too risky.)

It’s pretty great! And that’s presumably why, as Wizards has noticed, the number of hybrid players is rocketing up. People want both the ease and convenience of digital Standard, and the sociability and physicality of paper MTG. Paper Magic will not die, even as paper Standard looks set to. Provided you’re not tied to one format, there’ll always be Gathering in Magic: The Gathering.

My main worry about the current status quo is that we could well be teetering on a knife edge. If the worrying whispers about slumping Standard set sales are to be believed, and the trend continues, will Wizards devote fewer and fewer resources to its premier sets? Will it continue casting about for new cash cows, while overloading us with Universes Beyond and Secret Lairs? Will the torrent of extra (fatigue-causing) products only intensify? Might we reach a point where Standard sets don’t get made at all? What will Magic be like then?