For a 20+ year old collectible card game created in the time of physical media, Magic the Gathering is looking pretty good. It has 20 million(1) active players, over 13,000 unique cards, a movie in the works(2), and is the biggest brand in Hasbro’s portfolio(3). (Yes, this is the same company that has brands like Star Wars, Transformers, and My Little Pony.) It is a sneaky popular game; everyone knows at least one person that has played it. The ‘geek revolution’ has furthered its popularity by removing the usual stigma attached to playing ‘kid’ card games (no disrespect to Yu-Gi-Oh! or Pokemon). It is the first collectible card game ever created and is considered the yardstick by which all card games since have been measured. (And there has been a lot of wanna-bes – I’m looking at you, Sim City the Card Game.)
But with all that going for it, it is a game that that has been primarily played with physical cards in a world that is now dominated by digital media. So with that in mind, ‘Magic Online’ (a direct port of the game) was launched in July of 2002 for the PC with the idea of conquering the online realm. On February 2007, despite being plagued with numerous issues with the client (they were already on their 3rd new version of the client), Magic Online had a respectable 300,000 registered users(4). Considering Magic’s pedigree, that was thought to be a good measurement for the entire online card game market.
Enter the mega-IP producing Blizzard Entertainment and their online-only card game entry: ‘Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft’. The game was initially released on PC in March of 2014, and then smartly developed for Android and iOS. Scoring an 88/100 on Metacritic, it became an overnight sensation hitting 40 MILLION registered users in 20 months(5). For comparison, if we generously assume a linear growth of Magic Online, they are sitting at approximately 975,000 users today (Magic Online has not released publicly the number of user accounts since 2007). Meanwhile, at its current growth rate, Hearthstone will be sitting at 326 million users once it has been on the market as long as Magic Online has been (roughly the population of a little nation called the United States of America).
Hearthstone has cashed in on its “deceptively simple, insanely fun” mantra, making it an easy-to-pickup game that can be played on numerous mobile devices. To give an idea of its simplicity compared to Magic, consider the number of words on each card. In the classic set of Hearthstone, a card’s rules text is an average of just over 9 words. Compare that to the first core set of Magic (Alpha), which weighs in at over 18 words per a card. The latest Magic set, ‘Oath of the Gatewatch’ comes in at a whopping 24+ words-per-card average(6).
Magic’s design was groundbreaking in 1993 but it shows its age when ported to digital realm. While Hearthstone is designed to dance around today’s phone screens with aplomb, it just doesn’t seem feasible Magic’s complex game design will ever be able to accessible on those platforms. The difficult truth for Magic is it can’t change its core gameplay or rules without invalidating physical cards in player’s prized collections (a table-flipping geek riot would quickly ensue at numerous gaming convention halls).
One option is to continue to put out paired down versions of Magic such as ‘Duels of the Planeswalkers’ and ‘Magic Duels: Origins’. Unfortunately these games are limited versions of the physical card game, so they are not a true analog to the game 20 million people play on cardboard. The best Magic can hope is to clean up its current PC version to capture as many physical Magic card players as possible. This idea seems tenuous at best; as recently as 2013 a server crash caused a revolt in the player base evidenced by a crash of the secondary card market – a drop of 11.1% overnight(7)!
In order for Magic to reassert itself as the undisputed king of card games in both the physical and digital realm, it needs significant band-aids and/or a complete makeover in its online presence. Meanwhile, the S.S. Hearthstone seems to be chugging along just fine.
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