The game Eternal (that is my referral link), created by Magic professionals including lead designer Patrick Chapin, is modern Magic: The Gathering, with some simplifications and tweaks, on a phone, with a Hearthstone interface and economy.
That is super high praise.
Magic: The Gathering is the best game of all time. Eternal gives you the core Magic game play, things like mana bases and Magic-style attacking and blocking and even a stack. It even gives you genuine drafts. And it does all of that on a phone, with a good free play experience. Like Hearthstone, it looks crisp and good, plays light and fun. And in contrast to Magic: The Gathering Online, it works. Which is nice.
Do I have quibbles? Of course I have quibbles! I hate the move to 75 card constructed decks instead of 60. The changes to the color pie don’t work for me. The Eternal community takes its names for the colors and color pairs seriously, as opposed to winking every time they say ‘time’ and ‘primal’ instead of white and blue. Legendary cards are a bit ludicrous. Organized play isn’t where I’d like. I feel like there’s a better way to do social. Things seem copied from Hearthstone or Magic that feel like they don’t belong. But these are quibbles. I can’t argue much. The game is great, and there’s lots of little things I’m really happy about.
Two things rise above quibble.
I want an ‘old school’ Magic experience. I want players’ hands, lands, colors, decks, spells, creatures, right to attack and so forth all up for grabs. Most players, studies show, disagree. Players want to play their cards, cast their spells, fight with creatures. A little control and a little combo is good but mostly men need to be fighting, or players won’t be happy. Eternal certainly has control. But like modern Magic, Eternal can’t surprise and twist its premises. I’d love to see a modern take on old school, with Armageddon and Winter Orb, Mind Twist and Moat. I also miss true power: Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Black Lotus. I have some ideas. But despite the name, that is not Eternal.
What I want to explore here is the economy.
The original Magic economy is simple. Wizards sells you packs, you get cards you can keep, trade or sell. Cards are worth money. Most are worth very little since supply exceeds demand, a few have limited supply and lots of demand and are worth a lot (e.g. a Black Lotus once went for $20,000).
Players can trade, but that’s work. Work sucks. So the default nowadays is to buy and sell. Offline that’s dollars, online that’s tickets or credits for tickets, the dollars of Magic Online. Offline the bid/ask spread on cards is wide because traders have huge physical costs, so players can’t be turning over collections all the time, but online they can. Using trading robots, the prices for online cards have become standardized and tight, so you only pay a few percent to buy a card and then sell it back later. The trading interface’s terribleness is all that keeps this contained.
Magic events online and offline have prizes, usually packs and sometimes cash or invitations to tournaments. Players can ‘grind’ such events to gain cards at a lower price than buying them, and sufficiently above average players can ‘go infinite’ and outright profit from playing, building collections for free. These prizes push cards into the economy, so the value of packs declines. Buying online packs with dollars, instead of trading for them, is a sucker’s game.
The Hearthstone economic model, which Eternal copies, binds your cards to your account. You can destroy unwanted and surplus cards to gain dust (sandstone in Eternal) which can be used to make new cards at a much worse rate. So everyone gets the cards they need most, and there’s no check on supply of top legendary (Magic calls them Mythic Rare) cards.
You can also buy packs of cards or other in-game activities in exchange for dollars. As in Magic, you can enter events that offer prizes for winning and give you a better deal than buying packs.
Unlike Magic, there are also rewards you earn from completing ‘quests’ that are available daily, which reward you for things like winning games, winning with different types of decks or in different types of games, or in-game effects like playing resources or dealing damage. Eternal adds to this a prize for your first win of the day against another human.
Studies show the daily quests and rewards are highly addictive and motivating. I am not fully convinced such tactics are ethical, or should be legal! While they remain legal, they will be industry standard.
Hearthstone attempts to calibrate such that if you play well and do the daily quests, you can mostly keep yourself in cards, barely, for free. It’s quite the grind. Eternal aims similarly. A key difference is that Hearthstone draft doesn’t let you keep your cards, so it’s practical to let players who do well ‘go infinite,’ whereas Eternal drafts do let you keep the cards, and therefore exhaust your currency supply no matter how good you are.
Note that Magic Arena, the future Magic digital game, plans as per public announcements to use the Hearthstone model. I’d comment further, but game is in beta and they’ve asked for confidentiality.
Trade is Great!
If you allow cards to trade, the cards have monetary value.
This has huge advantages.
Markets are awesome. Players who want cards most get to buy them. Players who don’t value popular or powerful cards can sell them or trade them for money or other cards. Building a collection means you create something of value, potentially great value; getting into Magic early was quite profitable. We get the joys of trading and speculation, and the ability of Wizards to ‘print money.’
If strategies become powerful, playing them becomes more expensive, whereas other strategies become cheap. This creates a balancing effect and encourages diversity. A funky deck that uses a lot of rares no one wants is still cheap! If the deck doesn’t work out, little is lost.
Compare this to the Hearthstone model. If you want a card, you’ll need to create it. That’s not something players can do often unless they’re spending a lot of money. Dust supplies are highly limited! So when using dust, players aim to create the most powerful and versatile ‘good stuff’ cards they can, or the cards for tested tournament-level strategies. Now the best of the rarest cards are seen everywhere, and the other legendary cards are effectively even more expensive, and mostly unavailable. Creativity and variety are discouraged.
Even worse is the fear of wasting what little dust you have. If you create a card and later open it in a pack, and now have more copies than you can play, you’ve wasted most of that dust. That’s a huge feel-bad moment when you open the card you’ve created, replacing what would have been a feel-great moment when you get the exact card you want, and a fear every time you bust open a pack. Thus the temptation to hoard resources and not spend them, or feel bad about using them, even when you know what you want.
While building your collection, you’re gaining the ability to play, but you’re not building something of value. In theory, I could sell my account, but few will do that, it’s tied to other things, and I doubt it would fetch much cash anyway. When one is done with Hearthstone or Eternal, the cards sit around unused and unloved, forever, and no value is regained. Early adapters don’t get rewarded much.
A whole side of the game, and its rewards, has been cut off.
Trade is Terrible!
If you don’t allow cards to trade, the cards don’t have monetary value.
This also has huge advantages.
Markets are alien things people hate. It says something that I have taken multiple full-time jobs that are primarily about trading, and even I hate trading Magic cards. I hate it. It’s time consuming. It’s annoying. You’re constantly worried about being ripped off, and feel bad ripping others off. It makes everything a commodity, measurable in cash. If I only lose a few percent when I turn cards I randomly open in packs into cards I want to play with, I no longer opened possibility or awesomeness or phat loot. I opened dollar bills.
Lotteries are exciting in their own way, but it’s not the same thing.
This then bears on the rewards one gets from playing. If a card game tried to reward me for playing games by paying me money, that would not work outside of professional competition. There’s no way they can offer enough. What’s my hourly rate? A few dollars an hour if I’m lucky? That’s far worse than zero.
Remember Diablo III? Originally it had an auction house where everything could be bought and sold for real money. This turned its phat loot into pennies, making the game no fun. When they took the auction house out, the game became fun. Markets force you to use them, and think in their terms. See Polyani, and beware the commodification of labor, land, money and in-game digital objects.
Those cool incremental rewards you were handing out? Not only are they worthless, they’re now also worth money. So what happens? An army of bots comes out to collect that money. Now you’re playing whack-a-mole at best, or looking on helplessly at worst. Every reward must be robust to infinite accounts mindlessly clicking infinite buttons. That’s a hard and unsolved problem.
When playing free games like Hearthstone and Eternal, I know there are two modes I can be in. I can play for free and enjoy the fight to be competitive, conserving and growing my resources. Alternatively, I can buy in fully, and have everything I need, with the only goal being to be the best. There’s no in-between. Once the cards are worth money, I’m doomed, since my time is so much more valuable.
Trade Is Life!
We have nice things because of trade. We have Magic in all its glory because of trade. Although the no-trade policies solve a lot of problems, I still can’t get away from them being unhealthy and wrong. They remove market incentives in order to create Skinner boxes. A Skinner box built around an awesome game is still also a Skinner box.
But the problems are real. The no-trade model is winning for reasons.
The key will be figuring out how to evolve into a new mode that gets the advantages of free trade without imposing such a burden, or forcing us to give up so much that people find fun. I believe solutions exist, and I intend to find them.