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OPINION: It’s time for Magic: The Gathering to make an esports play

It’s time for Wizards of the Coast to commit to digital Magic: The Gathering (Magali Villeneuve/Wizards of the Coast)

I’m an old Magic: The Gathering player. I learned the game as a little kid during the Ice Age block in ‘95 or ‘96, started attending Friday Night Magic events somewhere in the Invasion set, and was playing competitively up until I left for college in 2006, during the Ravnica block.

From there, M:TG and I fell out of touch. I focused on school, went on to land gigs in games journalism, and eventually esports. I played some Magic with friends here and there, but never really had the time (or money) to get back into it.

When Hearthstone’s closed beta came out in 2013, my craving for a collectible card game led me into Blizzard’s waiting arms. It required less of a time commitment, less money, and was just generally more accessible than the game that so heavily inspired it.

Recently, Gwent entered public beta. Before that, there was Eternal. And The Elder Scrolls: Legends. And Duelyst. All of which are good-looking, mechanically interesting games that could make for an interesting spectator experience.

Now, in 2017, Hearthstone is one of the biggest esports in the world. It’s far and away the most popular spectator card game. Magic: The Gathering, despite its 23-year history and enormous fan base, struggles to establish itself as one of the big guys on Twitch. Sure, it gets up into the five digits’ worth of viewers when a big tournament pops up, but it’s nothing in comparison to the viewership that Hearthstone gets.

I want Magic to regain its throne as the biggest CCG in the world.

As it stands, MTGO isn’t good enough to compete with Hearthstone (Jason Chan/Wizards of the Coast)

Why now?

The time has never been more right for Magic: The Gathering to take over the digital card game esports space. Hearthstone is at its peak popularity, and yet no one has really risen to challenge it. Pros have been looking for something with greater depth for a while, some even going so far as to leave the game entirely for others in the same genre.

You know what game has 20+ years of proven competitive depth? Magic: The Gathering.

With a properly supported competitive scene and a strong digital platform, Magic could take over the space. Wizards of the Coast has been intermittently discussing what they’re calling “Magic Digital Next.” Hell, there’s already a bit of hype starting up around the newly confirmed Magic MMORPG. The hype is there, the fans are waiting.

Why Magic, in particular?

There’s no game quite like Magic: The Gathering.

The first collectible card game, Magic has gained and retained popularity since it was first published in 1993. Wizards of the Coast has developed and expanded on its mechanics year over year, making the already brilliant design of Richard Garfield even better (though not without hiccups) as time has gone on. Put simply, it’s still the most well-regarded CCG on the market.

With almost 25 years of history under its belt, Magic has a proven track record. Both players and WotC have sustained and evolved the game to a point where it can truly be considered one of the finest competitive games in history.

What’s more, it has already solved a lot of the problems that Hearthstone has been struggling with in recent times. It’s got a multitude of era-based formats, a strong sealed scene, and a draft mode that puts Blizzard’s offering to shame.

And yet, Magic’s competitive scene has always thrived just under the surface of big-time spectator games. It’s got a massive player base, but due to its complicated nature and difficulties surrounding the spectator experience, it’s been sadly left out of the esports conversation while Hearthstone and its ilk thrive.

Magic’s esports future relies on making it easier to watch (Steve Argyle/Wizards of the Coast)

How do we fix it?

The “easiest” answer to fixing Magic’s spectator issues is to fix Magic: The Gathering Online. Yes, yes, everyone has been complaining about the game since its release in 2002, demanding higher production value and easier-to-use UI elements.

Hearthstone crushes the UI side of things. Blizzard’s perpetually impeccable design aesthetics have made for a card game that’s incredibly easy to watch.

Of course, Magic has always been primarily a physical game. As such, the real challenge of getting it to the highest tiers of spectator games is to ensure that anyone watching a live physical game will gain an understanding of the game.

For someone like me who has been out of Magic for a while and would love to watch a Pro Tour match from time to time, that means ensuring that I know what every card from more recent sets does to really understand the game.

“But Taylor,” you may proclaim. “Perhaps you should git gud and learn everything before watching a serious Magic: The Gathering competition.”

I say to you, random reader that I’ve just made up, that is a very viewer-unfriendly mentality. To gain an audience worthy of the first page of Twitch, you’re going to have to give up some of your elitist attitude and bring the plebs into the fold.

The answer isn’t simple. With the complexity of cards and mechanics in M:TG, it’s hard for broadcasters of the physical game to keep viewers up to date with the cards being played. In a digital space, as proven by Hearthstone’s card previews, it’s much easier to show what cards are as they’re being played.

The future of Magic as an esport, just as with any esport, is contingent on how easy it is to watch.

WotC plz?

Of course, none of this is exactly easy. Building a service that can recreate the enormously complicated game of Magic: The Gathering in a presentable, enjoyable to watch manner takes a huge amount of time and effort.

But if Wizards of the Coast manages to pull it off, expect Magic to take the CCG esports space by storm, just like how it’s dominated the physical space for so long. Its massive player base is poised and ready to make the jump to digital, we just need a reason.

I’ll be waiting.

Follow Taylor Cocke on Twitter @taylorcocke.