Considers issues raised by: Artifact Embraces Card Balance Changes.
III. Card Collection and Ownership
What does it mean to own a card?
In different games, with different principles, online and offline, it means different things.
Let us begin in good old paper Magic: The Gathering. What does it mean to own a card?
In its literal sense it means you physically own a card. This is my Black Lotus, or my Lightning Strike. The cardboard belongs to me and no one can take that away.
In a more interesting sense, it means I own a card that I can play in games of Magic, from the tabletop to the biggest tournaments.
There are catches.
The first category of catch is that the card might not be legal, or not legal in its current form.
Wizards can ban or restrict the card in various formats. Formats widely played can change, making the card no longer relevant or legal. Wizards can also errata the card, to change what it does.
To reassure players, Wizards has implemented a variety of measures against this.
They’ve stopped all power level errata; cards can be changed because to make them work as intended if a mistake is made, or to fix other rules or consistency issues, but not because the card is too good or too weak.
They’ve stopped restricting cards entirely outside of Vintage. They’ve promised not to ban (or in Vintage restrict) cards lightly, only doing so in the face of super strong evidence, and even then actively seek to lift such bans whenever feasible. When such moves do prove necessary, their announcements (link to a recent example) share their reasoning and data so players can better anticipate future actions.
Bans remain a concern, but Wizards has built a long track record of responsible behavior, so their impact is minimal except in cases where bans are likely for the right reasons.
A second category of concern is that what it rare today may be common tomorrow. Wizards might reprint your card, perhaps at a lower rarity, inflating the supply and depressing the price. This came to a head when Wizards printed large quantities of the Chronicles set, crashing the value of many cards. Wizards has since spent decades reassuring players that they will print cards, both new and old, responsibly.
The lynchpin of this is the reserve list. Wizards has promised that key old cards will never be reprinted. This has become a valuable costly signal that Wizards will treat all of Magic responsibly. If Wizards were to break the reserve list, it would allow many more players to access the Legacy format, which extensively uses many cards from the reserve list, and Wizards would make a lot of money from selling the cards. But by doing so, Wizards would destroy the faith of its players in the long term value of their collections, card prices would crash, and a key pillar of the game would be gone. This would devastate all cards, not only the cards on the reserve list, because of the signal it would send about Wizards’ governance and future intentions.
Wizards has printed a number of sets in the Masters series, including Modern Masters, Vintage Masters and recently Ultimate Masters, which provide new copies of many of Magic’s most valuable and popular cards not on the reserve list, increasing player access to the Modern format. The resulting increasing popularity of Modern, combined with the new cards having new art and being printed in responsible quantities, meant that older copies of the same cards increased rather than decreased in value. The high prices on the Masters packs have, I believe, been a key part of this success. There is some reason for concern if such policies continue, but in the medium term this has (at least to me) reinforced Wizards’ reputation of being responsible shepherds.
A third category of concern is power creep. There is the temptation in each set to print cards more powerful than those seen previously, in order to shake things up, keeping decks and games fresh and new, and giving players motivation to buy the new cards. Doing this hurts the value of old cards, and by anticipation of new ones, and also damages the quality of your game as the balance is destroyed.
Another solution to all these concerns is provided by the Old School format, and other similar formats that preserve older cards and sets. These provide a permanent place for older cards, with their principles heavily invested in protecting that value. These formats are a key reason older cards are so valuable and that the prices of the oldest cards have exploded.
I can think of three additional concerns.
One is that Magic will lose its players and times and places to play, resulting in a loss of value and utility for its cards. A second is that Magic players will lose their respect for the officially printed cards and start widely using proxies and printed copies. A third is the threat of counterfeit cards. All are continued threats that will never be eliminated. I continue to be surprised and impressed that the problem of counterfeits in particular has not become far worse than it has.
As a resident of New York City, of course, I also have the issue of storage costs, and as an adult with children, sorting costs also loom large. These, rather than the above concerns or issues of cost, are what limit my physical Magic collection today.
Overall, Wizards has provided robust ownership of physical Magic cards.
Other physical games provided varying degrees of ownership. The biggest threat in these games is typically power creep.
All of this has echoes and implications as we move into the digital realm.
IV. Digital Card Ownership
Ownership of a digital card, like ownership of all digital goods, is a trickier, more slippery concept.
To what extent do you own a card on Magic Online? In Magic Arena? In Hearthstone or Eternal? In Pokemon? In the remarkably fun old Xbox 360 game Culdcept Saga?
In Culdcept Saga, your cards are yours, as part of your save file. No one can take that away, unless Microsoft forces an update upon you that does so, although that seems unlikely at this point. You don’t need a central server to play. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you can’t sell your cards other than by transferring your entire save file, and it would not do you any good since they aren’t worth anything, nor are there any assurances of rarity. It is easy to ‘mine’ whatever you want via grinding, if you so desire.
In Pokemon, as I learned from former fanatic Ari Lax, there is great news. You can transfer the Pokemon. You could also spend hours upon hours grinding to get those perfect Pokemon, as for true competition nothing less than a perfect Pokemon will do. Since it takes so long to generate the Pokemon for sale, there exists (or at least, there existed) a marketplace for them. Their price was presumably based on the cost to grind them. Or if you look at things from a crypto perspective, they required mining, and Pokemon works via proof of work. I’d say proof of play, but few if any ‘players’ crafting perfect Pokemon are going to make that miscategorization.
You even have a decent amount of protection against the Pokemon being modified or confiscated, since the game is played without a central server that can change what the cards do and rule your particular copy invalid.
Not half bad. In a real sense, one can be said to own your Pokemon. If you catch them all, you can keep them all.
Eternal and Hearthstone offer a less generous picture.
If I own a card in Eternal or Hearthstone, I only own it in the context of my account, on the company’s servers. If they change a card, which they frequently do, the old card is gone. If they banned the card, or rotated it out, it would vanish. If they confiscate your account, that’s it. If they take away a mode of play, you can’t get it back. Surplus copies are almost worthless, as they don’t permit variations where extra copies would be allowed, and you can’t transfer or sell them, only destroy them for a small fixed return in dust or shiftstone.
Packs are given away daily, with reward systems that sometimes hand them out like candy, while other times being stingy. When you get rewards, it feels worthwhile because it is saving you from having to spend money or lose access to cards, but the sum total of all possible rewards is a fully unlocked game until the next expansion rolls around. If the game were to fail, the servers would shut down, the game would become unplayable and your cards would be worthless in all senses.
That’s quite the grim picture. They take away buying and selling, transfer and independent play, and any practical expectation of respect for value earned, but still demand unlocking all cards one by one. This leaves games that demand a grind to keep you playing, and give you nothing in return except the right to keep playing. Even when there’s a fun game under there, most time spent with the game largely fails to find it. I’ve discussed my dislike for such models before.
Don’t get me wrong. Things could be so much worse on all such fronts. True best-practices-following mobile games make you appreciate how truly generous, and not-utterly-utility-destroying, Eternal’s or Hearthstone’s business model is by comparison. As an example, see Plants vs. Zombies Heroes, a game I was pointed to by good friend Sam Black. There seems to be a solid lane game hidden under there, but we will never know. We’re too busy letting the phone play ads to get gems to buy a pack.
Magic the Gathering: Arena is a step up from Eternal and Hearthstone on the card ownership front. Cards can’t be modified due to their ties with physical Magic: The Gathering, and banning cards means banning them in physical play. This makes your ownership relatively secure.
That still leaves all the other weaknesses of the free to play economic model (minus some marginal other improvements Arena makes). Play is confined to Wizards’ servers, under their rules, and their judgment that you continue to own an account and its cards, with their database being the only judge on whether you own a card. You can’t buy, sell or transfer cards outside of buying gems in the official store. Wizards is free to give out cards like candy at some point in the future. Even the default formats of play are sometimes rotated in and out, and could disappear entirely. If you left your Arena collection alone for several years, you would be unlikely to have much of value or be able to competitively play anything upon your return.
There is tons of cool stuff one can do with Magic (or to a lesser extent Eternal or Hearthstone) cards. Many weekends on Arena feature one of these cool things! They charge you in-game currency to play. Then after a few days the opportunity is gone, perhaps never to return.
Magic Online attempts to render your cards as your cards. You can buy and sell them freely with other players, so long as you go through the game’s interface. Recent cards can even be redeemed for physical cards. Wizards brought its record and reputation as responsible steward and promised explicitly not to print more than a small additional amount of each product each year, to maintain collection value. A full Magic Online account, with four copies of each card, at one point was worth over $20,000.
Then came the treasure chests. Wizards removed and broke its promises about quantity of reprints. While there were positive short term effects on the Magic Online economy, and one can make a case that cheaper Magic is better long term for all, collections have tanked in value as they are inflated away. One is reminded of governments that realize they can print money, as the currency slowly is drained of its value. With Magic Arena’s new popularity, there is additional fear that Wizards will stop supporting Magic Online. With play only possible on its servers and all the accompanying restrictions, there is real danger that the platform will not even survive more than a few years out.
Magic Online extracted a ton of money from many players, myself included, by providing a way to play Magic on a computer and doing a good enough job with card ownership and collection value to justify the investment. I can’t say I didn’t get my money’s worth in good times and good practice, but it is sad to see that things could not be sustained. Better stewards, and better ways of protecting against corporate policy changes, proved necessary.
This brings us to Artifact.
Artifact makes its cards transferable. That’s huge. You can only sell them through the steam marketplace, which is bad, and it charges a hefty fee on each trade, which is worse. By default you get paid in steam credit. But even crippled, the fact that you can trade at all is huge. It is such a relief to be able to buy cards directly at reasonable prices. at all, and to sell even at a substantial discount.
Valve also, prior to the recent update, promised a philosophy of not modifying cards except in extreme situations, and made a point not to give away packs unless money was spent or tournament entry fees were risked. Combined with a commitment to a million dollar first prize tournament, and Valve’s long term credibility and track record, there was reason to trust an investment in an Artifact collection.
There were catches, of course. Other big limitations existed on card ownership. You can only play Artifact on Valve’s servers, with its official play modes. Your cards are entries in their database. They could in theory confiscate your steam account at any time, or more likely they or you could be hacked. The game could shut down and take your cards with it, or play modes could shift and rotate.
I have always been of two minds about whether I mostly own the games I have on steam and on similar download services, since I can’t lose or misplace or damage them and the kids can’t destroy them, or if I mostly own the games I have physical copies for. Same goes for music and other media. In practice I’ve been far happier with services like steam, but the omnipresent danger is definitely there. Our ownership, and in an important sense our civilization, grow more fragile.
I still can’t get my phone to reliably resume playing podcasts I had already started, if I go into the subway and lose internet access. It’s a problem. But I digress.
Last week’s changes take away two important pillars.
Players are now given packs and event tickets as a reward for play. The rewards are limited in scope, so in their current form this should not have too big an impact. There is already danger, if too many players who are exclusively playing limited get periodic card rewards and then dump them into the community market.
At current levels I expect this to not be a major impact. This concern is more about potential future rewards that would have a larger impact, and the anticipation by players of those future rewards and their economic impact. Once the central bank of Artifact proves willing to print money to give to players, its currency will forever be suspect as a result.
My first level model says that there should be a decent amount of ruin in the system here, as players substitute buying off other players for the purchase of packs, and the damage starts when the sum of this effect and the cards from packs won in the prize queues, and the collections of players who buy the game then dump all they have, adds up to beyond a critical amount versus the number of players. Thus, increasing the number of active players who keep and expand collections, and thus both increasing demand and reducing available supply, can easily more than compensate for this effect indefinitely as long as Valve is expected to behave responsibly. It would still caution me away from extra cards as a financial investment, but not be sufficient to drive me away from holding a full set for its mundane utility.
The other change is the one I described in the first post. Valve pivoted from a philosophy of modifying cards only in extreme cases, to a philosophy of regular, gradual card balance changes, which is more in line with how they approach a game like DOTA 2.
There are many good (and bad) arguments for and against power level changes on cards. If these changes drive player participation sufficiently, other considerations might overwhelm the downside risks even for card ownership.
That downside is the direct impact on ownership, both short and long term. It is not small.
If I expect cards that prove successful to be made less powerful, then that bodes quite poorly for the long term value of my investments, and is a crippling blow to speculation on the basis of card utility. My cards and deck might not only not be the most powerful option available, they might not even work the same way tomorrow. My ‘ownership quotient’ has gone down dramatically. There is a reason Valve is offering to buy back purchased copies of these cards at their post-announcement prices. We won’t have that fallback from future announcements, so if I was going to buy other cards likely to eventually get worse, such as Annihilation, I would severely discount the long term investment value, and evaluate mostly on the basis of short term utility.
V. But Does Anyone Care?
Degrees of card ownership and collectibility vary greatly from game to game.
You can have the ability to buy and sell freely (Magic: The Gathering on paper, or a future crypto-based game), buy and sell within the framework of the game (Magic: The Gathering Online), buy and sell within the framework of the game for a fee (Artifact), or not have that ability at all (Hearthstone, Eternal or Magic Arena).
You can have an absolute guarantee of rarity (older paper Magic: The Gathering cards, or perhaps a future crypto-based game), you can have a guarantee of cards beyond a fixed base being printed only when intentionally paid for (Artifact before the change, Magic: The Gathering Online before treasure chests, in-print Magic: The Gathering paper cards), you can have supply be restricted in real ways but with substantial free or incidental influx (Artifact after the change, Magic: The Gathering Online after treasure chests), or you can have lots of influx continuously (Magic Arena, Eternal, Hearthstone and similar games).
You can have the freedom to do what you want with your cards without a central authority (paper Magic, or a future crypto game), you can have reasonable dedication to allowing flexible constructed game forms indefinitely but not limited play or alternate rules sets or other weirdness (Magic: The Gathering Online), or you can be restricted to the few options currently offered to players in an attempt to solve coordination and critical mass problems (Magic Arena, Artifact, Eternal, Hearthstone and almost every digital game ever).
You can have insurance against cards changing or being banned on a whim (Magic, and pre-change Artifact), or confiscated from you, or not (most everyone else digital).
If you want to create enduring collectibles, these are crucial issues.
But seriously: does anyone care about any of that?
Some people care. I care. Proof by example.
Collectively, do people care? Or do they mostly just want their game to be fun and people to play it?
My belief is that they care if you give them a reason to care. Or, they want to care, but they don’t have to care to enjoy your game.
Good collectibility is one potential asset among many. It has value. So do other things. It also has downsides, as it risks forcing a market mentality on a leisure activity.
Some people come for collectibility and card value almost exclusively. Some people don’t care about it at all, or actively dislike it. Others like it along with a wide variety of other things.
The reason I care about it is partly because it adds interesting strategic layers and options to the experience, and because they create value, reward players and allow games to charge a lot more money, allowing these games to be created, to exist and to support communities and prize pools.
VI. Four Paths
The bigger reason to care is because most of the alternatives people implement are fundamentally broken, to the extent that they ruin games.
The concepts of randomized paid incremental play components has become best practices in games. Most implementations are a nightmare.
See my previous commentary regarding Eternal, or Richard Garfield’s A Game Player’s Manifesto. Eternal’s model is comparatively generous and friendly, even when held against similar games like Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering Arena, and it is a different order of magnitude of bad when compared to true mobile freemium hell that follows ‘best practices,’ which destroys far more than all of the value. Trying to play Shin Megami Tensei D-2 or Plants vs. Zombies Heroes, games that on important levels are trying to be my jam, made me cry.
Games have four known technologies regarding pricing, revenue and ownership. Each has its own logic.
Option one is true mobile freemium hell. I view this as a true deal with the devil. You bombard players with impetus to spend absurd amounts, make the game not fun, let a few big spenders get addicted and take their money. Such games should be avoided on principle, even when they still have some fun in them.
Option two is friendly freemium. This includes Hearthstone, Eternal and Magic: The Gathering Arena. I view this as a path dependent bad equilibrium. Players see the rewards in such games as being ‘paid to play’ in an emotionally resonant sense, and want to see numbers going up as they play. I understand and sympathize. Players thus demand and accept their competitive games becoming grinds, and violently protest (see Artifact’s reception) when games are not such grinds. Players thus talk about wanting a ‘generous business model’.
The friendly fremium model dramatically reduces the fun value of the game outside of the Skinner box of grinding, largely replacing it with the grind for most players. Such games need not be avoided entirely, if the game experience is sufficiently compelling. But one must proceed with caution, as you are facing addictive loops, and money spent is unlikely to go far or last long. Thus, one must have a commitment to not spend money on such games unless the need is great and one’s eyes are fully open, and you know exactly what you are buying.
Option three is a fixed fee for access to the base game, and additional fees for expansions. This is also known as the living card game. It is also known as how most games (and other things!) are sold. This model is great. There are lots of games in the first two categories I would love to give $50 to if that let me fully enjoy what the game could be offering, but there is no reasonable way to incrementally spend money. A fixed fee that then allows the game to optimize around my enjoyment is much better.
Even here, I still care about maintaining ‘value’ even though that could reasonably be viewed as silly. Consider the Steam Sale. Multiple times a year, many computer games are offered at extreme, 50%+ discounts, and periodically base prices are lowered as well. That which costs $60 on release day is likely available for $30 within the year, and $10 not too long thereafter. Given my opportunity cost to play games, you could argue I should not care, but I am still a trader and the experience is super painful. Compare this to my experience buying games for the Nintendo Switch, where I want digital downloads so I need to pay full prices from the store with no expectation that I will get a better price by waiting. There, I pay far more, and yes this means I buy and try fewer items, but if anything I feel better about the experience.
The emergence of Android: Netrunner and other living card games was a wonderful trend that I hope continues. I hope it also prospers online. If you are not going to embrace the marketplace in option four, this is what I want the business model to be. Pay Slay the Spire its $30, play the game as intended forever. Ideally, make a commitment to not discount that price, at least for a period of a few years, so I don’t feel like a schmuck every time I make a purchase.
There can still be entry fees and prizes, to give players motivation in their games, but the prizes need not take the form of cards. Like poker, the point is to give players motivation, so pay them in as close to money as possible.
Artifact does this for its limited play experience. You pay $20 for the core game, and can draft as much as you want. If you wish, you can risk $1 to keep it interesting and keep everyone motivated. Great!
The question I keep coming back to in the week following Artifact’s changes is, if we are going to balance cards continuously, should it have simply been a living card game with prize tournaments attached? Could it still become one and we compensate people who bought in? Why are we trading these cards in the Steam marketplace at all, at this point? Valve has already pioneered hugely successful ways of monetizing games like DOTA 2 that it could use again in Artifact.
The problems I have with Artifact’s new approach to card changes and awards are myriad, but the biggest is the mismatch it has with the business model of the full marketplace. How to properly embrace a true marketplace for a card game is a problem I have been extensively working on for many months. Continuously giving away and changing cards seems like the opposite of what one must do.
The fourth option is to create a marketplace. This is the solution for paper Magic: The Gathering, and Magic: The Gathering Online. It was also, to my delight, chosen by Artifact. Doing this involves a pact between publisher, players, traders and collectors. It also means taking good care of the market through effective monetary policy and thinking hard about issues of supply and demand. If that pact is maintained, the market is handled well and the game is a success, cards can be a great investment and everyone wins. Fall down on too many fronts, as Magic: The Gathering Online has sometimes done in the past and is now doing, and it goes badly.
For legal reasons, Hasbro has perpetuated the farce that it believes that Magic: The Gathering cards are not worth money. This has led to some absurd failures and poor functionality, particularly in Magic: The Gathering Online. It has also led to missed opportunities to embrace the marketplace and integrate it properly into the game experience. Countless hours would cease being wasted, transaction costs would shrink and new possibilities would open up.
I hope to soon get the opportunity to make a game of my own. My intention is that such a game will embrace the logic of the market, and integrate that into its design, its formats and its business model from the start. I am deeply excited to see what I can do with that, and with giving players full and real ownership of their cards. It comes with restrictions, but as Mark Rosewater often reminds us, restrictions breed creativity. I work much better under restrictions than without them.
Most importantly, when you embrace the market fully, cards become fully liquid, and collection management and acquisition ceases to be a huge time sink or the primary mode of game play. You come full circle.
For those who mostly want to make a card game that plays great, as Artifact does, it may finally be time to go the other way. Charge your money up front, or make it on other things. Free us from the Skinner box grind of needing to slowly assemble components one by one and the time sink of collection management. Free us to experience core game play.