I would like to interrupt my weekly article to take a look back at the whole year. This seems like the best, and only, week I can get that done. The previews for Theros Beyond Death are gearing up. We’ve seen a few interesting cards over the last few days, but I’m going to save all of that for next week.
Sets and Patches
Thinking about a whole year of a game that iterates like Magic is a difficult task. The additional complexity of patches in a game that supports Magic makes this article even harder. I figure the best way to break down what happened within Arena this year is by patch. Each patch brought something new to Arena, and looking back we’ve gotten quite a bit of change.
Ravnica Allegiance (RNA)
Patch 0.11 ( January 17 )
On January 17th Ravnica Allegiance was released with Patch 0.11.
The major feature the patch was Duplicate Protection. Before Duplicate Protection, any fifth copy of a rare or mythic was simply added as a minimal percentage to your Vault progress. After Duplicate Protection, you will no longer open fifth copies of rares or mythics. Instead, you will receive gems in the rare/mythic slot if you’ve collected a full playset of all cards in the rarity the pack rolls. This was a welcome change, and encouraged people to start opening packs earlier in a set’s life.
This change also meant they needed to adjust the daily and event individual card rewards. They significantly lowered the number and frequency of Rares and Mythics in both the expected rewards and the random upgrades.
During pre-season 2, starting February 1st, they opened up the ability to play best of 3 in the ranked queue. This was a change that many had asked for since pre-season 1 was only best of 1.
Patch 0.12 ( February 14 )
With the second major release in 2019, we got to see the first divergence between the Standard banned list and the Arena Standard banned list when Nexus of Fate was banned in best of 1.
Also in February Discord integration was added to the game. This was a nice addition, and one that I have used extensively with the Discord communities I’ve been a part of, but some viewed it as a band-aid approach to replace the much anticipated friends list.
Patch 0.13 ( March 27 )
In the last patch of the cycle before War of the Spark, many of the cosmetic options currently available were introduced.
While card styles weren’t a surprising addition, their implementation left a bit to be desired for some. Regardless of their reception, they have been a regular inclusion in prizes for special events and ladder performance.
Also in this patch were the first card sleeves. The original offering were both regular and ‘exquisite’ sleeves for each of the Ravnica guilds. These added a nice level of customization and collectibility eventually being available both inside and outside of the game.
The avatar offering was also expanded in this patch as they included an avatar for each Guild leader on Ravnica, and also brought back Huatli and Angrath from one of the early closed betas.
For non-cosmetics, Sparky and practice matches were added to the client. This finally allowed players to test their decks out a bit before taking them into real games. Sparky offers a very basic AI opponent with a vastly under-powered deck that simply represents an inevitable loss if you don’t do anything to stop it.
War of the Spark (WAR)
Patch 0.14 ( April 25 )
On April 25th War of the Spark was released on Arena. Most of the other updates in this patch were related to the interface or how we play. Among them were several changes to the way we interact with planeswalkers, uncounterable cards having a red border while on the stack, improved auto-tap, and better indication of sources and targets while effects are on the stack.
Patch 0.15 ( May 23 )
The first “Chronicles” event series was introduced part way through the WAR cycle. These events were a bit revolutionary as they did not have an entry fee, and allowed you to keep playing through unlimited losses. Each weekly event had a different theme, like Planeswalker Momir, Singleton, or Pauper, and they allowed you to earn the stained-glass planeswalker card styles.
Also added during War of the Spark was the 30 minute per player match clock. It was a welcome addition to combat stalling tactics and infinitely looping Nexus of Fate. Once a player’s timer has expired, they lose the match.
The Basic Land Filter was finally added to the game just before Core 2020 was released, allowing players to select their preferred basic land type when building a deck. Prior to this change, there were hoops to jump through if you wanted anything but the default basics.
Core 2020 (M20)
Patch 0.16 ( July 2 )
The release of Core 2020 introduced the Mastery system to the game. Similar to passes for other games, the Arena Mastery system included two reward tracks that could be earned, one free, and the other costing gems. The free track replaced the three weekly packs, and gave a few Mastery Orbs to unlock card styles. The paid track allowed you to earn packs, card styles, random individual card rewards, and other cosmetics.
Also introduced with the Mastery Pass was the first pet in Arena, the Elemental Cat. The Elemental Cat was unlocked when you purchased the Mastery Pass, and upgrades to its look were earned at later levels.
The Mastery Pass was fairly controversial upon release. It wasn’t initially understood that all 100 levels would be earn-able with regular play, and that to complete the pass, players would need to buy up to 10 additional levels. Wizards quickly came out with codes and events to increase your Mastery level, but it is still unclear if it was intended to be so close. Even using all codes and events, and maxing out my experience daily, I was barely able to make it to max level by the end of the cycle.
The Elemental Cat also caused quite a kerfuffle, as players claimed that the cat was to blame for some of the client’s performance issues. There were certainly a few days where players could freeze, or even crash, their opponent out of the game by spamming the cat’s color change. Even after that issue was fixed, players still turned to the cat as a source of instability in the program.
Patch 0.17 ( July 25 )
The Plane-cation events started with patch 0.17. Similar to the War of the Spark Chronicles, these were weekly special events with different formats each week. The Plane-cation events were free to enter, and allowed any number of losses. They awarded new lands such as the Rebecca Guay promos, Unhinged full art, Zendikar, Mirage, and Return to Ravnica basics. These events also helped to progress your Mastery level.
However, they differed from the previous Chronicles because they ran for a much more limited time, starting on Sundays and concluding on Tuesdays. This has caused a bit of headache since the number of days is so limited. WotC justified the decision saying that they see the most play on Sundays.
Patch 0.18 ( September 4 )
Also known as the Brawl Patch, 0.18 brought one of the most anticipated game modes to Arena. If only as a temporary event, it confirmed that Brawl game play, and utilizing the Command Zone was not only possible, but worked amazingly well. In the Courtside Brawl event, players had to chose from one of the Brawl pre-con decks.
Throne of Eldraine (ELD)
Patch 1.00 ( September 26 )
Finally officially out of Beta, Patch 1.00 brought Throne of Eldraine to the client. Along with ELD came rotation. This marked the first time the game had officially seen a rotation. The previous year, when Kaladesh and Amonkhet blocks rotated out of Standard, they had a complete client refresh and wiped everyone’s collection, refunding any gems spent. This year, they had to give us something to do with our rotated cards, so they introduced Historic.
Historic has suffered from controversy since it was announced. Originally, they had planned to have cards that had rotated out of Standard cost two wildcards instead of just one. Then, once Historic launched, they didn’t give it it’s own queue, rather opting to let the client decide if you were playing a Historic deck, and match you with someone else playing a Historic deck. These actions caused a lot of concern within the community, with many feeling like WotC were trying to bury the format, rather than letting us play with our rotated cards.
Also with the patch came a new Mastery season. The ELD Mastery Pass included extra items as “Renewal Rewards” that were aimed to help players cope with rotation. This Mastery season seemed to be much better planned out. After some quick math it was clear that players would easily be able to reach max level with the experience available.
Patch 1.01 ( October 24 )
Brawl is officially released in its full capacity on Arena with patch 1.01. Players are now free to build Brawl decks and join the Brawl queue on Wednesdays. Brawl and Historic/Friendly Brawl is also available as a direct challenge option. You can play against your friends at any time.
Within just a month of the patch that introduced ELD, Field of the Dead (from Core 2020) was banned. The card, along with Golos, Tireless Pilgrim completely took over the meta, and was deemed too oppressive. At this point many players were expecting some bannings from the Green/Blue Oko decks, but Field was the only ban.
Festival of the Fae was the Chronicles event for ELD, but again, there were differences from previous versions. This time players received showcase styles of Adventure cards. Also, the events now cost gold or gems to enter, which the previous two series were free. This change did not sit well with players and indicated from WotC their intention to continue attempting different monetization strategies. It is my thought that they are using these events as a way to funnel gold out of the economy. They are counting on more players will buy packs with gems or through their pre-sale bundles with less gold.
Patch 1.02 ( November 21 )
Many players felt like the Friends List was an integral part of a cull client release, and when it wasn’t included in 1.00, it was a bit of a let-down. Thankfully, the Arena team was quick to get it into the client on the second major release after the game came out of Beta.
Top 5 of 2019
I want to look back on both the best and the worst things that happened in 2019. These are completely subjective. I invite discussion as to what you think were the best and worst things of the year in regards to Arena.
What makes game like Fortnite and League of Legends to insanely profitable are their lean-in on monetizing cosmetics rather game modes or powerful items. In free-to-play online games, cosmetics are king. While Arena is a bit different, in that they’re trying to monetize the game pieces (cards), the game modes (events), and the game personalization (cosmetics), I’m thankful for the cosmetics we can earn through events and the ladder.
4) Mastery Pass
After the initial pass in Core 2020, the Throne of Eldraine Mastery Pass seems to be in a great spot, giving a ton of rewards for about $20 (US) worth of gems. Additionally, they have continued to improve the rate of level acquisition, making it easy for people who play regularly to reach max level. Hopefully they continue to offer the paid pass with this level of rewards and ease of completion.
3) Improved Client Stability
While there are still problems with client stability, after the huge drop in performance with Core 2020, it has been clear that they are making it a top priority. They’ve continually improved frame rates, reduced hitching and lag, and have generally improved the client with every patch.
2) Friend’s List
It’s not unreasonable to have expected the friends list with the initial release of the game, but that won’t keep me from being thankful that it is in the client. The inclusion of the friends list makes it easy to find and challenge friends to direct matches. I’m looking forward to their future plans with deck sharing and better functionality.
Ever since they announced the Brawl format with the release of Dominaria in 2018, Arena players have been begging for it’s inclusion in the client. The format isn’t overly popular in paper, but it seemed like such a natural fit for Arena. We finally got it this year, just over a month ago. I’ve already had more fun playing Brawl than I’ve had playing anything else in the game. Brawl, and Historic Brawl are going to be a staple in Arena for its entire lifespan. I’m glad that I get to play the format!
Bottom 5 of 2019
I would be remiss if I weren’t to include some of the lowest points of 2019. We’ve had quite a few. WotC is trying to walk a fine line between making a lot of money, and driving people away from the game in droves. While none of these individually would signal anything nefarious, we need to remain vigilant in voicing our opinions if we plan to continue spending money on the game.
5) Draft Bots
One of the recurring complaints every set was brought to a head with Throne of Eldraine draft. It quickly became clear that players could reliably draft extremely powerful mill decks without much effort. While it was noticeable before ELD, the mill decks brought the issue to the forefront. It’s very clear now that we need either much better draft bots from the beginning of a format, or they need to open up live drafting with other players.
4) No Permanent Brawl Queue
While the inclusion of Brawl was one of the best things to happen in Arena in 2019, the decision to not give it a permanent queue was a low point for a lot of people. It is understandable that WotC thinks that people will spend less money if they only need one copy of a card. Though, Brawlidays feels like a slap in the face as they are now asking us to pay to play with the cards we’ve already acquired, without any real prize support.
3) Standard Bannings
It’s no secret that bannings don’t do any favors to the confidence in Magic formats. They do hurt a little bit less in Arena, since WotC just gives us wildcards whenever they ban a card. But that doesn’t stop it from lowering our confidence in putting together decks. This is especially true for people who are trying to play without spending any money. I’m sure there were a large number of people who put together a Golos/Field of the Dead deck only to see Field banned and much of the rest of their deck lose most of its usefulness.
Bannings are never a good thing for the game. Having 4 cards banned within 6 weeks isn’t something anyone wants to happen. At the same time, these bannings were very necessary for the health of Standard. It was clear that those two decks were going to ruin Standard as long as they were left unchecked.
With Arena trying to position itself in the market, having such an awful meta isn’t an option. I’m glad they’ve allowed themselves to be nimbler with bans in the coming year. But I also really hope we don’t have any more. While my collection is nearly complete, and bans don’t hurt me at all, they lower confidence and interest in the game.
2) Historic Mistakes
Early in the Beta, when WotC decided there would be no dusting of cards in your collection, it was important for them to have a plan for a way for us to continue to play with the cards we owned after they rotated from Standard. The promised format was later revealed as Historic. It is an Arena-only format that features all of the sets available in Arena since it came out of Closed Beta, or Ixalan forward.
The first mistake with the format was the announcement that they were going to be adding card to the format outside of normal sets. The initial examples they gave included ridiculously powerful cards like Wurmcoil Engine and Dark Confidant. Thankfully, the reality ended up being a bit more in-line with the overall power level of the format. But now there is going to be a bit of worry every time they announce the next set of cards.
The second mistake was the announcement of 2 for 1 wildcards and the removal of normal pack purchasing modes for Historic cards. This caused a level of outrage in the community that I haven’t really seen before. This announcement was a catastrophic failure, and that’s all I really have to say about it.
The final mistake with the handling of Historic is the hide-and-seek game we have to play with getting into a game of Historic. First, they’ve mildly hidden the ability to build a Historic deck behind an optional drop-down. If you don’t select Historic from that drop-down, you won’t ever see your Historic cards. Second, there is no Historic queue. If you queue into the regular play queue with a Historic deck, the game automatically pairs you with someone else playing a Historic deck.
Overall, it feels like they are intentionally trying to kill interest in Historic. This is in spite of players wanting badly to play the format. Sure, you could argue that they’ve opened up Best of 3 Historic in the Ranked Queue. But again, it’s mostly a hidden format. I hope they prove me wrong, and continue to support this format. Maybe they can give those of us who have invested a lot of time and money into our collections the unhindered ability to play with our cards.
1) Bad Decision Baiting
Several times this year WotC has made announcements about extremely unpopular changes to the game, only to walk them back after the community produces enough outrage over them. Certainly, the Arena community tends to get upset quite frequently. Though, there hasn’t really been a time that I remember, where the community went through a cycle of outrage that I disagreed with.
Between Duo Standard, impossible Mastery Pass completion, to Historic 2-for-1 wildcards, WotC has had a string of poor decisions that affect us as customers. The most egregious decisions they’ve walked back while taking other things away from us. They implemented duplicate protection while opening packs, but drastically decreased individual card rewards. They took back the Historic 2-for-1 decision only to obfuscate and hide the game mode. We got Brawl, but no Brawl queue outside of Wednesdays or paying 10,000 gold/2,000 gems.
I can’t reiterate enough that we need to remain vigilant and call out the poor decisions in a civilized manner. This game means a lot to a lot of people. It can be a great form of entertainment if properly curated. But, there is also a very real chance that the game will sour and become unplayable. It could happen if we don’t keep voting with our wallets and making our voices heard when WotC aren’t living up to our expectations.
Settle the Wreckage
I’ve run out of time to cover all of the things I wanted. I said nothing of the contents of the sets that were released. From the 5 guilds in Ravnica Allegiance, to all of the planeswalkers in War of the Spark. From the elementals of Core 2020, to the fairy tales of Throne of Eldraine. Truly this year was full of special sets with exciting themes.
I’ve also covered nothing about any of the decks that were popular. Though I do it on a weekly basis, it feels a bit wrong that there aren’t any decklists here. Decklists are a fleeting thing and only ever really useful until the next set is released. After that, they change, and the meta changes around them.
I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of other items here. Feel free to discuss what was most important or noteworthy of 2019. This can serve as a record of the very noisy year we’ve had in regards to Arena.
There are a lot of things to look forward to in 2020. Starting in January we get a new set in Theros Beyond Death. After that Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths, Core Set 2021, and we’ll say goodbye to our Ravnica sets when Zendikar Rising releases in the fall.
We will hopefully get 4 way multiplayer in the next year. And if we don’t, we will hopefully get improved friend functionality. They’ve talked about deck sharing in direct challenge. That couldn’t come soon enough.
They’ve also stated that they are planning to work toward Pioneer, and while I don’t think we’ll get there this coming year, building toward it will be great fun.
But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. The next stop is Theros, and you had better believe I’ll be keeping up with the meta decks and jank alike. I’ll continue to look at Brawl and Historic decks, and show off the latest tech every week.
I hope everyone reading had a great year, and will have a great year in 2020!
Until next year,
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