Bringing the Magic to Artifact

Anyone familiar with collectible card games (both real and virtual) should be aware of the debt owed by the genre to Richard Garfield. Magic the Gathering was Garfield’s first and most successful game to date and the yardstick to which all other CCGs are comparable. The two-player head-to-head turn-based format Magic uses is the one we see most commonly even in competitive esports streamed some 25 years after Magic’s launch.

Perhaps auspiciously, that 25-year anniversary will also herald the release of Magic the Gathering: Arena, the latest online iteration of the original game. Not only that, but the announcement of Artifact (the CCG loosely based on DOTA 2’s lore) also came with the revelation that its publisher, Valve, had drafted (a little CCG joke for you there) Garfield in to help turn the concept into a full-fledged game. For more information on what we know to date about Artifact, check out Alex Sprackling’s excellent reveal article here.

What makes that announcement even more interesting is that by attaching the Garfield name to the game, not only do Valve add some interest through transferred legitimacy (hopefully getting some MTG players to sign up along the way) but it also makes it clear that other games (MTG:A included) aren’t able to do the same. Sure, Magic is well enough established that it shouldn’t need a totemic figure to draw interest, but it’s a clear indication of how seriously Valve are taking the genre and the game.

Indeed, maybe Wizards of the Coast should have picked up Garfield. Their last foray into digitizing their money-maker didn’t exactly set the CCG or esports worlds alight. Introduced in 2002(!) the online version of the game is for all intents and purposes simply a direct port of the card game. Perhaps that’s doing it a disservice, however – it still boasts tournaments with six-figure purses. Wizards continued to try to break the esport/vCCG market with updated stand-alone games in 2013, 2014, 2015, and with “Magic Duels”. It’s trying to do the same with the upcoming Arena. Whilst a core of MTG players and a few curious newbies (myself included) gave some of them a shot, they never really got serious traction. I’d contend that the reason for that is the reason they had the level of success they did – that they were Magic. Being constrained by the mechanics of the card game which they needed to appeal to their offline core customer base meant that the uninitiated were deterred by the clunky UI necessary to realize those mechanics.

That brings us to Magic the Gathering: Arena. The non-disclosure agreement has dropped, allowing players to stream the early beta version of the new game. Without giving too much away… it’s Magic. I feel almost like I’m repeating myself here but: it’s pretty much an attempt to make a direct port of the physical card game. Having seen some MTG:A streams I think I can say without fear of contradiction that it’ll appeal to a core of MTG players and a few curious newbies (sense of déjà vu rising). The UI still doesn’t look anywhere near as polished or intuitive as the other games that it’ll be competing against, and it’s tough to see how well the announced release on mobile will work. It is, however, important to remember that it’s still in beta.

With every iteration of the virtual version of Magic we’ve seen Wizards of the Coast attempt to replicate the gameplay and rulesets of the physical version. Perhaps it might be time for Wizards to recognize that the two markets are different, and if they want to pick up casual mobile players then they need to return to the drawing board to create something with the flavour of Magic but without the strict adherence to the core game itself.

Garfield, on the other hand, has moved past Magic. After the creation of the “original” CCG, he moved on creating more CCGs and other games. ‘Netrunner’ and ‘Vampire: the Eternal Struggle’ came next. These are the ones I cut my teeth on. It’s fair to say that neither had the colossal success that Magic did – and continues to do – but at the same time, both were very different from their antecedent. That’s something that anyone put off by the attaching of Garfield to the Artifact project should take note of. VteS, in particular, is a similar prospect to Artifact, with Garfield being attached to a project with established concepts and lore and creating something wholly different (5 player games, anyone?) from MTG. I think that will mean Artifact will have the benefit of Garfield’s insight into games and the genre without the hangover of having to stick to emulating an existing card-based version online.

All in all, bringing in Garfield to assist in creating a wholly new CCG is good news. It means Valve are invested in making something playable and long-term. As for MTG:A – it’ll still appeal to its core of players who like the familiar, but will that be enough to create a sustainable mobile CCG or a new esport? I remain unconvinced.

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