Eternal, and Hearthstone Economy versus Magic Economy

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.

Magic 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.

Hearthstone Economy

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 commodification 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.


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15 Responses to Eternal, and Hearthstone Economy versus Magic Economy

  1. Nathan Brown says:

    I’ve had a lot of the same thoughts. I’ve been through a couple of “attempt to create a TCG” phases and aside from the inherent design difficulties the most challenging aspect has been trying to imagine an economy that doesn’t feel like it’s exploiting the players. Even Magic’s economy has that problem because so much of it depends on random boosters. Yes, online most boosters are drafted and provide some inherent value that way, but a booster pack is mostly just a lootbox by another name and hits all the same psychological buttons. I like the Fantasy Flight business model of non-random card packs from an ethics perspective, but it has the CD album problem where you have to buy stuff you don’t want in order to get what you do want and it’s not conducive to Limited play (or microtransaction-based business models, since it more resembles traditional video game DLC or expansion packs), so it falls short in implementation, in part because it limits the audience.

    I’m interested to see what sort of model Valve’s upcoming game, Artifact, uses. The rumor seems to point at something more like the Magic economy, which is encouraging in a way, particularly if it prices things more reasonably than Wizards does in Magic Online. But that does bring its share of problems, because if cards in competitive decks are too low in supply, having a competitive deck in that game could easily approach the price of a competitive Standard deck, which strikes me as too high a value. We’ve seen just how high the market prices of rare cosmetic items in Dota or CS:GO can be (if you aren’t familiar, they can be nearly Black Lotus-level) and that’s for objects with no gameplay value at all. The approximate values of competitive Hearthstone decks are significantly lower because the cost of a Legendary isn’t affected by its popularity.

    A sort of dual economy model has been bouncing around my head as a better way to do a CCG economy that tries to capture the benefits of several different models while being somewhat more ethical. The basic idea is that you can obtain every card in the game either Hearthstone-style or Fantasy Flight-style. You can pay a little less per card (in either in-game currency or real money) and roll the dice or you can pay a little more and know what you’re getting. It has the side effect of largely capping the amount a person can spend on the game, which means the game doesn’t exploit compulsive gamblers the same way. It eliminates a big part of the uncertainty of the free-to-play grind for those who that bothers by bypassing the “how much dust was this pack worth” question. It doesn’t provide the trade experience or the “my collection has value” experience, but I think that’s a worthwhile trade-off. Furthermore, I think that it might actually make more players spend more money overall by converting free-to-play or low-level spenders with a particular mindset into low or mid-level spenders, despite capping whale revenue. I think game developers are blinded by the obvious profitability of whales and really really underestimate how many people don’t spend money on lootboxes because it feels like throwing money away and would prefer to either grind for it or not have it if there is no other way to obtain it, but would buy the item directly if it were available. These are the people who will buy the cards for a deck but won’t buy packs except to draft with. They value certainty and they want to know what they’re getting for their money. Games like Hearthstone and Eternal don’t currently have any way for this kind of person to feel comfortable spending money on the game outside of Limited and the occasional “adventure”-type expansion. The dual economic model, like the Magic model, catches those people as well as the people who like rolling the dice but it avoids the other issues of a secondary market that you describe.

    • TheZvi says:

      To me, that’s the Hearthstone model without the random elements, or with them restricted, and I do think that’s potentially a lot more healthy than the randomness model. You’d roll the dice a bit in the beginning perhaps, then once you have a decent amount of the stuff you’d lock and load, depending on the weights. And it’s certainly good to have a cap and avoid forcing players to go through all the busywork.

  2. michealvassar says:

    That’s a wonderful ambition!

  3. Doug S. says:

    Magic Duels was a no-trade model. Unlike Hearthstone, you would never get a useless duplicate card when opening a pack, but there was no way to guarantee a specific card

  4. DominusMaximus says:

    The best digital card game will be the one where the designers would automatically deem it blasphemous that any player wouldn’t have 100% access to all of the cards. In other words, that a player’s “grinding” would be fully devoted to experimenting with the cards, instead of the ridiculous act of having to first collect those cards. Why is this so? Because such a designer’s obsession would be to create a game that rewards excellence and creativity.

  5. Matthew says:

    I don’t think one gets pingback from Tumblr, so in the interests of not disagreeing with people behind their back, I have taken issue with the underlying premise there:

    • TheZvi says:

      Magic is a great game, in addition to its metagame. There are tons of interesting moments and decisions during games. I’m actively confused by the claim here.

      Obviously my claim of best of all time is aggressive. I may be a bit biased. Or a lot. Reasonable people can and should disagree on that, and I think that Go and Chess have reasonable claims. I’ve played a lot of both (and it’s odd that you’d think I hadn’t). One can certainly take simplicity and elegance and lack of randomness over what Magic has to offer; I’ll respect that. If Chess had a better way to balance unbalanced players, that would count for a lot.

      Go is better at this, but gives me a headache and plain old isn’t fun for me. The game just doesn’t give me anywhere to stop and feel OK with it, and felt more and more like work. So I stopped playing.

      I’ve played quite a few board games. I’ve been to the World Boardgaming Championships twice, and played in finals of Through the Ages (twice) and Advanced Civilization. Of modern board games my pick is definitely TTA.

      I haven’t done true 18XX but I have done 2038 and Baltimore & Ohio, both of which were solid and fun, but I don’t see their claim to being in the top tier. Maybe one year the scheduling will work out for 1830 on day one of WBC.

      I’ve played maybe 25-50 games of Race for the Galaxy; it’s a fun little game, but to think that it’s better gameplay than Magic is weird, man.

      Strangely, Netrunner I think has a claim to be one the best of all time as well, but as a game not a metagame; its meta wasn’t great but it plays wonderfully, including out of the box. The new Android iteration is much worse, but still basically Netrunner, so still very good.

      Interestingly, I know a lot of poker players who also play Magic, and without exception they think Magic is a far better game. Poker bores them mostly at this point, they just like the money. I try to keep my poker in small doses to avoid getting too bored.

      I looked at your list of reviews to compare perspectives, and alas have played exactly zero of those, nor did any of them appear to be century games. I’m not sure how you picked them.

      In any case, thank you for posting here, you are right that pingbacks don’t work from Tumblr.

  6. benquo says:

    I don’t think the problem is markets per se – it’s allowing the value of cards to float in the global financial economy, which contains lots of ways to earn currency totally unrelated to playing Eternal. If Eternal’s economy had the right sort of capital controls, price signals could enable local exchange in ways that generate genuine efficiencies, without e.g. making running a totally unrelated pyramid scheme (or running a genuinely good and successful but entirely unrelated business) elsewhere an effective way to win games of Eternal.

    Burning Man seems, to some extent, to be able to do this. Actually-mostly-enforced anti-scalping rules mean that many, perhaps most, tickets are allocated on the basis of social capital within the Burner community. While US Dollars are one of many resources that can be converted into Burner currency, you need other inputs as well, not all of which are fungible with Dollars. Transaction costs are high, and there are sharply diminishing returns.

    Of course, the Eternal team may legitimately want to make a profit, which means they need to accept money somehow, especially if they don’t want to sell their users as commodities ads. The obvious way to do this is to set up a buy-in structure that bakes in the right diminishing-returns curve (so Mark Zuckerberg can buy a fucking incredible deck if he’s willing to sell Facebook, or a pretty awesome deck for $100,000, or a fucking incredible deck for $10,000 and a year or two of playing the game instead of being a full-time CEO, and broke people with internet access can still compete). They’d also have to force transactions to be public (or at least registered to them) and reserve the right to delete any card that had ever been scalped. Possibly the community would still grow too large for that sort of thing, at least insofar as it relies to some extent on community cooperation, but then you can segment the community in various ways, etc.

    I think this might be related to optimal currency zone theory, and am reminded that I still owe the world a review of some of Jane Jacobs’s lesser-known works. One thing she gets very right is that a real city (i.e. a center of economic activity) should usually have its own currency, because currency needs to function as an internal signal of relative priority, for a community to learn how to make more things.

    • benquo says:

      Per me si va ne la città vibrente,
      per me si va ne l’Etterno lavore,
      per me si vere va la concorrente.

      Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:
      fecemi la divina podestate,
      la somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore.

      Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
      se non etterne, e io Etterno duro.
      Lasciate ogne dollares, voi ch’intrate.

    • TheZvi says:

      Writing the next article and quoting this reply. My confusion is on the cities having currencies thing. I don’t get it. If Yorks are exchangable for Dollars, all you did was annoy everyone. If Yorks aren’t, how does anyone do business and how does this state of affairs last more than thirty seconds before I make a market? Seems to me like a city is either way too small for an optimal currency area (e.g. for reasons of monetary policy) or way too large (e.g. if you want to actually create a new sacredness category)?

  7. (First time commenter. I saw a citation to your blog on Slate Star Codex and recognized your name from back when I used to read

    Something I’ve been daydreaming about lately is an online card game that’s basically institutionalized budget Magic. Cards would have a point value, and your deck’s point total could not exceed a certain amount (with maybe multiple point brackets as formats of sorts). The cards’ point values would then change over time based on how often a card is featured in decks (and maybe how successful those decks are). A card is heavily played, it becomes more expensive so it’s harder to run in your deck. Cards that are seldom seen become cheaper, and you could balance the better, point-heavier cards in your deck with junk to bring the point total down. I’m not sure whether a game like this exists already, but I wouldn’t be surprised that it does and I just don’t know about it.

    This is very distantly related to the topic of this post, but I can’t help mentioning it whenever the issue of game economies comes up. If I understand correctly, you’re trying to solve the problem of letting people trade their random pulls for other random pulls without letting people trade their random pulls for money. Now, trade without money is barter, and a centralized mechanism based on users’ haves/wants lists can make sure every wanted card gets an owner without shafting anyone (too hard). Last week I heard someone in game theory class mention something about barter mechanisms, so I might ask them about it. Anyhow, since individuals could not easily control whom their cards go to, it would be much harder to link a cash value to a card.

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