Thoughts on Magic Duels design

 

Someone recently asked me if i recommended Magic Duels, and i had a really hard time saying yes without some major caveats.
That got me thinking exactly why that was, which led to this post in which i want to explore some of the game’s issues and how they could potentially be mitigated.

I’ve been playing Magic Duels almost every day since it came out.
The game has many problems but, to me, its biggest one is its barrier to entry for new players. Paper Magic also realized they had this issue, and that led to a whole rethinking of their design process which they dubbed New World Order (essentially, the reduction of complexity in common-rarity cards).
I feel that Magic Duels needs to find its own New World Order, and i have a few suggestions as to the underlying issues behind their design.


 

The first issue has to do with the game’s social difficulty curve.
Different people can face social actions with different ease, and this ease can change dramatically from person to person. I know this because i’m an introvert, and people who can small talk for hours are basically wizards to me.
The idea behind designing the social difficulty curve is a form of accessibility, in that game designers should anticipate that not every player can face the social challenges their game presents with the same ease, and it is the designer’s job to ensure that there is an appropriate curve to facilitate the players into taking on these challenges. Extra Credits made a few videos explaining this concept in more detail, and they’re well worth a watch.

Let’s take a look at what options Magic Duels presents to a player. We have the story campaigns, play against the AI, play against friends, and ranked play.

The story campaigns are the player’s first introduction to the game, and double as the game’s tutorials. The players use pre-constructed decks against AI opponents, and there are no penalties for losing. This mode has no social difficulty; so far, so good.

The campaigns don’t last for long, however, and very quickly the player will be forced to explore the other modes.
This implies that the player must create their own deck; fortunately, Duels has a very helpful deck building mode that allows players to quickly and effortlessly create a deck of their favorite archetype, which considerably reduces the social pressure of creating an “acceptable” deck.
So what can the player do with this new deck? Hopefully, they’ll have been introduced to the game by friends which they can play against for a while. But playing against friends has no currency rewards, so they’ll need to explore the other modes soon enough in order to improve their decks.

How does one gain currency in the game, without buying it for real money? At the time of writing, players can do matches against the AI to gain up to 15 coins, ranked matches to gain 30 coins, or do daily quests that can net them up to 120 coins. Clearly, daily quests are the way to go here, especially if you don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to the game.
This leads me to the first problem: Duel’s daily quests are designed to reinforce ranked play.
This wasn’t always the case; with every expansion the quests are tweaked, as are their rewards. At the time of writing, however, the changes they made were to make the vast majority of quests only count during ranked matches.
This is problematic because ranked play is the mode with the highest social difficulty, and at this point the player may not be nearly prepared enough to get into it. So if the first quest a player sees is a ranked quest, and the next day they get another ranked quest, it’s very easy to declare that the game is just too socially difficult and drop out.

I’ve played every single Duels games for as long as they’ve been coming out. Until Magic Duels, i didn’t play a single online match, because the very thought of it gave me social anxiety.
When Magic Duels came out and i got through the story campaigns in a few hours, i was left with a choice: grit my teeth and try the ranked matches, or play a few AI matches and never pick it up again. I decided on the former but it wasn’t terribly easy, and it took me more than a few matches to get rid of the anxiety. And this is from the perspective of a very enfranchised player; why would new players subject themselves to that?

The solution to this is simple: have the majority of daily quests count in non-ranked modes.
It’s fine if they don’t give out the maximum number of currency that a daily quest allows, that will give the player something to aspire to. But if they’re getting a ranked quest every day, their options become severely limited.
Additionally, tweaks like ensuring that the first daily quest is non-ranked, or having the probability of ranked quests increase as the player’s rank increases, would ensure the best case scenario for all players.

So, we’ve covered the story campaigns and the play with friends modes; the next step before ranked play is playing against the AI.
This type of mode can get very boring very quickly if the AI gets repetitive. The AI in Duels has many different archetypes to keep things fresh, but these are reset on every expansion. This is done because it’s important to showcase the new mechanics and show the players what they can strive for, but it has the side-effect of getting repetitive very, very quickly. For a player not yet prepared to tackle ranked mode, this is a death knell.
It would be a trivial matter to give the AI access to archetypes from previous expansions, and it would greatly increase the replayability against it. To keep showcasing the new mechanics, just have the probability of using previous archetypes increase as the player buys boosters from the most recent expansion (and consequently becomes more familiar with the set, not needing the showcasing as much).

After AI play, all that’s left is ranked play. This is, in my opinion, a huge spike in the social difficulty curve. Not only are you playing against strangers, but you’re also essentially being rated on your performance as soon as you start. If that’s not a recipe for anxiety, i’m not sure what is.
The solution here is also trivial: have a non-ranked single match mode. This would give out less currency, of course, perhaps as much or a little more than the hardest AI, again to reward the player for stepping up and to make them strive to reach ranked mode.
In addition to smoothing out the social difficulty curve, this would also allow players to test out new decks before bringing them to ranked; i certainly know i’ve struggled with this, building new decks but being unsure how they would work in the “real world” and not wanting to jeopardize my ranking, ultimately restricting experimentation.
Sure, there’s the Two-Headed Giant mode which has no impact on ranking, but that adds not only mechanical complexity due to it being a completely new mode that takes longer to play, but also additional social difficulty due to putting you in a team. I know i certainly haven’t touched it in over a year with the game.

So, to sum up, my thoughts on smoothing the social difficulty curve:

  • Have the majority of daily quests count in non-ranked modes, to allow a player to improve to a point where they feel ready to take on ranked, and not force them into it before they’re prepared;
  • Give the AI access to archetypes from previous expansions, again to allow the player to test their decks until they’re ready for ranked, while not getting bored by the repetitive AI;
  • Have a non-ranked single match mode, as a stepping stone between “offline” play and ranked, allowing the player to dip their toes in battles with strangers without immediately being rated on their performance.

 

Alright, so the player has successfully traversed the social difficulty curve into ranked play. Or maybe they never had any issues with getting there at all because, as previously mentioned, they’re wizards. Duels isn’t done with making their progress difficult. Let’s discuss card pools.

In the beginning, there was Magic Origins, and all was good. Everyone had similar access to the same card pools, similar play times, and ranks were somewhat reflective of the player’s skill and deck strength.

Then came the expansions.

Magic Duels resets your rank whenever a new expansion comes out and a new “season” begins. Which makes sense, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of an incentive to keep playing once you reached the maximum rank.
The problem is, the card pools are unaffected by this. So now, suddenly, you have players being matched at the same rank with vastly disparate card pools, fresh new players being pitted against players who have access to the entire previous expansion’s cards.
As more expansions come out, the problem gets worse and worse, and it becomes impossible for new players to compete.

Again, this is a problem that paper Magic had, and one that they’ve already solved with formats.
I believe that a Legacy and a Block format are the strictly minimum requirements for the game to survive, the former allowing you to use every card you own while the latter allowing only cards from the latest block (plus the starter box). This would essentially give every season two separate ranks, one for legacy and one for block.
While less trivial to implement, ideally previous block formats would always be accessible, perhaps in non-ranked formats, to let people play with their largest card pools while gaining currency to invest in others.

Duels has had promotions in which an expansion’s boosters are cheaper for a short while. I would say that these should be permanent, and older expansions should always be cheaper (alternatively, newer ones should always be more expensive). This would help newer players quickly get to a point where they can compete, while not significantly harming the economy due to older players already having the cards they need from those expansions. If paired with the aforementioned Block format, this should significantly increase new player retention as they improved in their league while simultaneously getting ready to advance to other expansions.

There are other features which could be implemented to extend the game’s flexibility, like game modes which don’t use the player’s card pools such as Draft or Sealed, but these would be significantly harder to implement. As i understand it, Stainless Games don’t have a particularly large team and are stretched thin as it is, so i wouldn’t expect this to be a viable option any time soon.

So, how to potentially fix the disparity between card pools?

  • Block and Legacy ranked and non-ranked formats, the former allowing you to use all your cards and the latter forcing you to use cards from a single expansion, to give players more of an equal standing on new seasons and allow new players to compete;
  • Older expansion boosters should be cheaper, to allow new players to increase their pool more quickly and help them reach a point where they can be competitive enough to want to stay in the game, especially if paired with the Block format above;
  • The previously mentioned non-ranked single match mode would also allow for new players to play with other players that aren’t playing ranked and improve themselves that way;
  • Fixed card pool game modes, like Draft or Sealed, that while being significantly more challenging to implement would certainly help players with smaller card pools stay in the game, while significantly increasing the retention of players in general.

 

These are my general thoughts on Magic Duels’ barrier to entry problems. I have plenty of additional thoughts regarding their approaches to other aspects like monetization and QA, but those don’t fall within the scope of this post. Feel free to contact me for those, Wizards of the Coast / Stainless Games. CV on request. Just kidding. But seriously.