How Hearthstone Beat MTG Online
Trading Card Games (TCGs) almost wouldn’t exist without the premiere Wizards of the Coast (WotC) legend that is Magic: The Gathering (MTG). Now owned by Habro, MTG is the world’s most-played trading card game by far. Yet the company has tried, for nearly as long, to get the electronic version of its game going, and has had a long history of failure at that, despite having virtually grown up alongside the advent of the World Wide Web.
Meanwhile Blizzard Entertainment, best known for electronic games including its flagship World of Warcraft (WoW) role-playing game, launched Heathstone in 2014. Hearthstone could best be described as an augmented TCG, based on the WoW universe. With ports to Apple and Windows on the desktop, and Android and iOS on mobile, Hearthstone has quietly moved into the niche that should have belonged to Magic, and eaten its lunch there. That’s an ironic development.
One of the chief problems in developing a satisfying online MTG product is that development has to be outsourced to third-party publishers, and WotC has a lousy track record in misfired collaborations with MicroProse, Acclaim, Atari, Sega, and more. On top of that, the long list of electronic MTG offerings has stumbled from various setbacks, including poor support, poor design, and platforms fading into obscurity just when they were getting it right.
Magic The Gathering Online (MTGO) has been their best stable version, while the latest development, MTG Arena, is launched out of beta with high hopes. Both of these are Windows-desktop-platform only. In addition, players complain of buggy crashes, limited card pools, and the expense making it so playing the virtual version for virtual cards is almost as expensive as collecting the real paper cards.
Bad bureaucracy seems to be the primary problem with MTG electronic ports. Part of this is up to MTG honcho Mark Rosewater, who has drawn steady fire for his utterly random micromanagement of his vision of the game, suffocated by his petty agendas. WotC also can’t seem to conceive their profit model right for electronic versions.
Hearthstone has smartly looked ahead and seen that mobile must be supported first for an online TCG to take hold. Then on top of that, they have simplified the TCG template by making a smaller game, while taking advantage of the electronic format to augment card design in line with developments in the meta game. They use the innovative crafting system to dust and craft cards at will, negating price inflation for individual cards. Finally, they are generous with their content; it is entirely possible to play the game for free, and to acquire every card in the game, through daily quest grinding. Hearthstone itself pulls in billions every year.
But finally, Blizzard Entertainment has adhered to a “manage best by managing least” philosophy. This light touch, where fun comes first and agenda comes last, has breathed life into Hearthstone while online MTG has languished under the weight of years of disappointed fans. Perhaps WotC should stick to what it does best: paper cards.