MTG Arena, Throne of Eldraine und mehr: Mark Rosewater und Jeffrey Steefel im Interview

Alexander Gehlsdorf

Mit MTG Arena konnte das Kult-Sammelkartenspiel eine ganz neue Masse an Spielern erreichen, aber auch allerhand ehemalige Fans zurück ins Boot holen. Ich durfte mit Mark Rosewater und Jeffrey Steefel, zwei der wichtigsten Köpfen hinter dem Spiel sprechen.

Anfang Oktober 2019 hat MTG Arena dnach knapp zwei Jahren die Beta-Phase verlassen. Zeit genug, um das Spiel in eine umfangreiche Erfahrung zu verwandeln, die für jeden Spieltyp etwas zu bieten hat. In meinem Test musste ich jedoch feststellen, dass gerade Gelegenheitsspieler derzeit noch zu kurz kommen.

Kurz vor dem Ende der Beta-Phase hatte ich die Gelegenheit, sowohl mit Head Designer Mark Rosewater, als auch mit Jeffrey Steefel, dem Vice President von Digital at Wizards, ein Gespräch zu führen. Beide Interviews sind englischsprachig und ungekürzt.

Mark Rosewater

GIGA GAMES: Throne of Eldraine follows a top-down-design, similar to Innistrad. How did the design process of these two sets differ from one another? Where there any new lessons learned?

Mark Rosewater: The biggest difference between Innistrad and Throne of Eldraine was that we found an overlap of many of the components in the fairy tales and Arthurian legend (for example, the big bad wolf, Prince Charming, evil step-parents, wish granting faeries, and a spinning wheel all show up in multiple tales). This allowed us to design a lot of open-ended pieces that could be mixed and matched in game play which allows the players to recreate classic fairy tale moments or make their own twisted tale. The other big difference is that the audience has a better knowledge of the source material allowing us to dig deeper with our top-down designs. Dr. Jeckyl & Mr. Hyde got us one design in Innstrad. Jack & the Beanstalk got us seven designs in Throne of Eldraine.

GG: How do you balance cards and content for new versus established players?

MR: One of the cool things about a top-down design is that it can hit both audiences. The newer player has the familiar source material to make the card friendlier to approach while the more advanced player can enjoy how we used Magic’s mechanics to capture the flavor. The other big trick we use is making the common cards friendlier for newer players and the rare cards more so for the established players as it makes any one booster less intimidating while allowing the set as a whole to have a lot of things for the established player.

GG: Will Showcase Frames appear only in Throne of Eldraine or also in future sets?

MR: Showcase frames aren’t just a Throne of Eldraine thing. They’re a new addition to the game that players will find in every Standard-legal set. Note that execution of the showcase cards will vary from set to set. The storybook look is just a Throne of Eldraine thing. The next set (Theros Beyond Death) will have its own unique showcase frames that makes sense for the theme of that set.

GG: How do you design the game to keep older and eternal formats accessible? Is there an optimal way to provide players with reasonably prices format staples?

MR: We’re always looking for reprint possibilities throughout all our various products. The one restriction is the cards have to be appropriate for the primary format of that product. For example, we won’t put a reprint in a Standard-legal set if we don’t feel it’s appropriate for Standard. There are a lot of desired cards in a lot of different formats, but we keep a list of what players are asking for so we can always be on the lookout for appropriate reprints.

GG: Dominaria featured a mono-colored cycle of strong, rare creatues like Goblin chainwhirler which made it viable to play strong mono-colored and therefore fairly budget decks - which great for new players. Throne of Eldraine features a similar cycle. Are these cards designed with budget-friendly play in mind?

MR: Monocolor themes (such as we have in Throne of Eldraine) are always designed with budget players in mind as monocolor themes have historically proven good for the budget player.

Jeffrey Steefel

GIGA GAMES: You will be launching MTG Arena on the Epic Store. Does that mean that the game will finally get a friends list?

Jeffrey Steefel: We know friends are important. Theres’s a lot of social connectivity that is not in the game yet, and we absolutely want to have it. It’s just a matter of what we’re doing in what order.

GG: What are you plans for Historic?

JS: Rotation for the first time is a really big deal for a new game. So our team has been working very hard for about six months to make sure we’re doing it in the best possible way. We’re going to be ready to talk about it very soon.

GG: When Brawl was first announced it received little to no support at first and players soon moved on. How will you create an incentive for people to play Historic?

JS: Hopefully players have seen that we want them to have fun playing the game and that we’re going keep working hard and responding to whatever shows up in the game. We’re still learning. We’re probably going to be forever. There’s never been this kind of version of Magic before, so we’re always striking that balance between it really being Magic in every way but feeling right in a digital form.

GG: Kaladesh and Amonkhet block were part of MTG Arena during Alpha. Currently, they are not playable. Are you planning on bringing them back?

JS: It’s all part of the conversation. We have small portion of Magic content in Arena right now, and we have enough content available to us to keep us busy for the rest of the century. The real question is: What is the right and what is the best content to be added to Arena as we move forward? What’s the right combination of things that people want to play that they’re familiar with, and they can’t yet – versus – maybe there’s some new experiences that they weren’t able to have before?

GG: It sounds great in theory to add a bunch of old sets to Arena all at once, however this can be quite overwhelming. Especially for free-to-play players Most of them have enough trouble keeping up with just the latest set. How will you try to avoid splitting the player base into free and premium players?

JS: I think you guys have already seen that we try to give bite sized experiences for new players when they come in. Whether it’s pre-constructed decks or the Mastery Pass, our goal is to open the curtain slowly to someone who’s never seen it before because it is very overwhelming if you’ve never played before.

GG: You will also be launching the game on Mac. Will this only be possible through the Epic Games Store or will you be able to download the MAC version on the website?

JS: That’s the idea. We’re not talking about when yet, because that’s still in development. The goal here is that this is all and. You can also get the game through Epic and also there are lots of fans who are also in the Epic ecosystem who may not know about Magic so that is hopefully going to bring more and more people to the Magic community. We don’t want anything to get in the way of someone playing the game.

GG: What’s the biggest advantage for you to cooperate with the Epic Games Store?

JS: It’s all about bringing more people to the Magic ecosystem. Right now a lot of the people that re playing Arena are Magic players, friends of Magic players, people that have known Magic throughout the years and it’s great to see them all playing the game. We want to reach out much more broadly. We want more and more and more people playing. Make the community stronger and stronger. So everywhere there’s an audience that we’re not reaching we want to go. So Epic is our first stop. Mac is a stop that will happen after that. Lots of opportunities beyond that that I know players asks us about all the time. But we want anyone, anywhere, anyway they want to to be able to play this game now that we know it’s really fun and it really works.

GG: Let’s talk about Brawl. After the initial disappointment in the format it’s great to see it being played on MTG Arena. It’s very accessible since nobody needs full play sets of chase rare to play a decent deck which makes it a great option for newer players.

JS: I think this one of the first examples that we’re seeing of the opportunities that we have. Now that we have two major platforms for Magic. There’s all kinds of ideas constantly happening in paper for future sets and for formats that want to do and now we have another place to learn about those formats. Maybe they turn out to be things that we can go further with in the digital version but are still true to the paper version and our hope is that over time it works both ways. What we learn from our Arena players may inform some things we haven’t thought of in paper yet. And in fact those teams are working more and more closely together everyday, which is really really cool.

GG: I also like the perspective for streamers. I noticed that during the Singleton Event because there is so much more variance and surprise in there instead of just jamming the same Tier Decks over and over again.

JS: I think we have different audiences watching the streams. Some people are watching the streams who actually want to watch somebody refine and refine and refine and then there’s a large audience of people who just want to have a great time and you’re right: The more variety there is, the more choices, the fast the experience can be – and I think we’re just at the very beginning of what’s going to happen with streaming. I can’t wait.

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GG: The Pokémon TCG includes a key in every product that allows you to redeem that same product digitally. In MTG this is the exception rather than the rule. Will this change in the future.

JS: It’s a very complicated thing and I won’t speak for Pokémon, but they went through a lot figuring out how to actually make that work because once you have an economy that’s depended on different environments and you’re trading value back and forth between them you have to be really really careful that you’re not … again, anything that gets in the way of players experiencing Magic the way they want to and so you don’t ever want anyone to feel like „Oh boy, now I have to do that if I want to do this“ so it should always feel like it’s something that extra to what you already have. But of course we’d love for this entire ecosystem of Magic to be one giant family but you can see we are being very, very about the way we experiment. You can imagine there’s hundreds of ideas of things that we want to do, but we just keep on trying things and I think some of them are working and some of them won’t. I imagine our players will tell us when they’re not working.

GG: 2020 will be a big year for eSports including MTG Arena but so far all of that happens outside of the actual client. What are your plans for features like a spectator mode?

JS: So spectator mode: I’ve actually worked on other games like MOBAs and things like that where it’s more obvious what spectator mode should be. There’s a lot of design work we have to do to figure out „what actually should that be?“And obviously you want broadcaster to be able to show both sides of the match and understand what’s happening and show results more quickly. I can’t talk about when but one very important thing that’s on our road map is a data pipeline so that all the events and things that are happening inside the game that we know about – we want to expose those to the player and those are the kind of things that you want to expose during a spectated event. It’s just a matter of how many things we can do all at once. But absolutely.  You know it’s interesting: Doing a spectator client for a card game is a tricky thing. You want people to be able to click on the graveyard or see what cards have been exiled. Some of that has been made available through third-party plugins right now and that will continue to happen for a while but ultimately, when we integrate it, we don’t want it to be just little pieces. We want it to feel like it’s really a part of the game. I know how it sounds: I feel like every game I’ve ever worked on I’m like „Yes, we absolutely want to do that, we’re working on that.“

GG: This leads me to my follow-up question: A lot of information about the game is presented through Twitch extensions. So your goal is to eventually provide that data yourself?

JS: Provide the data, yes. I have done this for a lot of different games. There’s this balance between „Do we want to do everything?“ because actually the fan base and the third-party groups are going to do a better job, ultimately, of providing what players really really want, and they can be more current because they’re players themselves – not that we aren’t – but what we can do is make information from inside the game available. But we have to do that very carefully, and we have to do it in a way that we know is going to work and that’s the thing we’re focused on more rather than create a whole bunch of applications.

GG: MTGO releases a list of 5:0 decks on a regular basis. However there is no equivalent to analyze the best-of-one meta in MTG Arena. Is this something you also want to address with the data pipeline?

JS: It’s obviously something that we are going to be able to do. We are even doing that for the design team of Magic. They have a lot more information about how people play Magic and that’s helpful for them. On the other hand, part of the experience is a deck tech coming after a new set and evolving through competitive play, and we want to make sure we don’t take away from that as well. But the more information we are able to provide to players about what they’re doing the better, but we got to it very carefully and make sure that’s it’s 100% correct and that it works.

GG: This might be a Hot Take but the one thing I did like about the controversial Dual Standard format was that it gave us a clear picture of which BO1-decks were good in the meta. I can’t think of a single source when I can get reliable information about the BO1-metagame even though it is the go-to-format for a lot of players.

JS: That’s a really interesting and challenging thing about this game compared to any other game that I’ve worked on digitally. It’s that we have an audience, especially our competitive audience and there’s a very clear picture of what Magic is and what it should be that we need to keep providing. On the other hand we’re bringing lots of people to Magic who might not have played it in a long time or have never played it. They want a slightly different experience like what you’re talking about and it all has to exist inside the same game. So that’s the balance that we’re constantly striking. Dual Standard was an experiment that didn’t entirely work, partially because of the timing. There may be things that we try and do that don’t work because of where the game is in its evolution and sometime in the future. I’m not saying we’re going to do Dual Standard in the future, but we want to be able to keep experimenting and making the game better and exploring in ways that maybe we haven’t been able to do with Magic before this but at the same time keep proper Standard very very clear and very very intact.

GG: One of the two ways to qualify for the Rivals league is to reach Mythic 1.200.

JS: Yes, that’s the number for now. We’ll see what it ends up being.

GG: This is a great opportunity for people who are not able to compete in paper Magic but it does require a lot of grinding to keep your rank up. Are you looking into more competitive, top-heavy events for players who may only have time to play on the weekend? Events like the Competitive Metagame Challange come to mind.

JS: These are all things we’ve considered. No one has ever done this before. We’re going to see how the first half-season goes, and we’re going to be watching it very closely and surely we’re going to make adjustments along the way. It’s an unwinnable game in some respect, so we spend a lot of time talking to players who are more casual players, and we’ve talked to a lot of professional players to find out: What’s the best possible balance of the way that people can climb their way up to the top of the ladder? I mean, think about professional players that have to understand that there’s now a chance to go back down to rivals. That’s a whole new concept for someone. So everbody’s compromising a little bit so that everybody can participate.

GG: Will more players allow you to offer more game modes since empty queues will be less of a problem?

JS: We have so many people playing right now that queue size and things like that isn’t really a problem, which is great. In fact, that was fairly quickly, once we started open beta we haven’t really had an issue with not enough people in the queue. But you want to be careful about splitting into so many queues but that’s not really the issue. It’s more a matter of … it’s such a complex game experience and it’s all built around the same content so we do want to experiment, but we want to be careful that our experiments don’t destabilize the whole experience.

GG: So events like the Plane-Cation are a way to test different game modes?

JS: That’s what we do, and we watch it very closely to see what people like and it’s interesting to watch the data on how people play and what their behavior is and how they’re participating, how many times they come back, and then we look at what people are saying and sort of compare the two to get a real picture of what’s working and what isn’t. Cause you don’t really know.

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GG: How many people are playing MTG Arena?

JS: I have all kinds of numbers but that’s one thing we don’t talk about. For lots of reasons. We don’t disclose our numbers. But it’s large. Lots and lots of people playing all the time which is why we have no trouble getting a match in the game, no matter what time of day and night or what day of the week it is. It’s beyond our expectations and it continues to be beyond our expectation so we want to keep growing it.

GG: MTG Arena is the first big project coming from the Digital Games Studio at Wizards of the Coast. What else are you working on? I remember an MMO announcement a few years back.

JS: We’re basically turning Wizards of the Coast into a digital game publisher. But this is and and not or. Traditonial Magic – paper – is bigger than it’s ever been. The more we do with Arena the more people are playing on paper and that was always the goal. Magic is something that should be even bigger than it is. Dungeons and Dragons is something that should be even bigger than it is. So far that seems to be happening.

GG: Earlier this year you announced Valor’s Reach, an MTG mobile game. We haven’t heard anything from it since.

JS: We did soft-launch it in the Nordics. It’s very much in the testing phase. We’re still learning. One of the really exciting things about mobile and some of the other platforms is that you can actually do this sort of isolated things. You can go in really early and learn and adjust. For something like Magic Arena on PC we kind of had to do that on our own with tests behind closed doors because the minute we are on a PC, with our Magic community, there’s no such thing. We don’t want people to get too far ahead of us when we’re still figuring out what is actually a great experience. We want to make sure that this is the experience it’s going to be before it comes out.

GG: What ever happened to Magic Portal?

JS: The Companion App. This very much launched this week as a beta. When that is fully live it’s going to be like any traditional application in that’s it’s just continuing to grow.

GG: So the Companion App is what Portal evolved into? It’s not going to be two different apps?

JS: No no no. I think they decided to be less clever. „It’s the portal!“ No, it’s the companion app. The brand of the Portal App is officially dead. I think we were calling it Lantern and all kinds of crazy things.

GG: Final thoughts: I really hope Historic will be more than just regular play queue.

JS: I will tell you that I have not seen my team spend this much time and effort, design work, working with the marketing teams, working with our community teams, working with all kinds of people in the community literally for six months to get this as right we possibly can. We are taking this extremely seriously and I guarantee you that not everyone will like everything but hopefully we struck the right balance. We make mistakes, but we really hope the community feels like we’re having a constant dialogue, and we’re really listening and responding ‚cause that’s what we want to do.

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