I missed two or three questions on my driver’s test when I was 16 years old. I still remember this one:
“True or False: A turn signal is a form of two-way communication”
I think about it every time I click my blinker on in traffic. I thought, at 16, that the guy making space and letting me into the lane was “communicating” with me in return. I know, at 30, that blinkers just signal intention, and don’t open up a dialogue. I find myself coming back to this test question as I play Arena.
Many Arena grinders that I follow on Twitter have long disabled emotes. They cite opponents who click off a “Good Game” before they swing for lethal, like some pre-combat handshake delivered with digital spite, as good enough reason to leave the feature muted. They have to defend themselves from tilt. Why give poor sports the satisfaction? I’m not all that competitive, so I leave the emotes on. I also need “Oops” because I’m not a very good Magic player.
Like turn signals on a car, these five emotes disguise themselves as a system for two-way communication. In theory, the emotes add to the excitement of playing digital Magic. In practice, Arena feels like sitting in traffic.
Maybe “sitting” isn’t enough. Arena often feels like merging onto a five lane highway, clicking off “Oops” after “Oops” as I fight to break even on gems. The on-ramp is crowded, the motorists aggressive, everything is moving at a hundred miles an hour. As I contemplate my third turn, a time-out bar flashes on screen and starts burning through the rope. Make a decision, now. Now.
And I notice as I pile on the gameplay errors that I get angry. But it’s a familiar anger. It’s the same rage that bubbles up while fighting traffic, some blinding and thoughtless ire, a fury so embarrassing if caught on hidden camera. I lose my composure and it scares me. I’m not this way. Why is the game making me feel this way?
Negative Feedback Loops & Gambling
Parallels between Magic and gambling have haunted the narrative since the cracking of the first booster packs. This is the first time, though, that playing Magic has ever felt like gambling. I’m admittedly prone to a good spin of the wheel myself. I used to enjoy my trips to Vegas, in The Before Times. It was good for me, once a year, to indulge in chance. I’ll bet $100 on the Super Bowl every season, too; it’s a cheap thrill.
“If I just win five games, I get my money back!”
Arena has turned losing into a compelling reason to buy more gems. But in this system, Magic’s deep and layered variance gives the house the edge, every time. Hand-smoothing algorithms that reduce variance live in an ethically gray space. Eliminating non-games in best-of-one matches means that players will inherently feel like they have agency in their losses. Because I got to “play” the first few turns means that, next time, I have to make better decisions in the draft. So I should draft again!
Buy more gems, lose to variance, repeat.
Let me clarify that I understand that variance isn't always the determining factor for game losses. I know that ownership for decision-making and accountability build strong character, that in every loss there are lessons. I understand these maxims as they apply to limited Magic. The difference is how I feel when I lose.
In The Before Times, when we could draft in person, I was fine with losing. It felt different. I could spend three hours of my time, once a week, to meet new people, relax, Kibler-flick my seven-land opener as I contemplate a mulligan on the draw. A terrible 0-3 draft in person meant I’d still walk away with a couple of new cards for old commander decks, or hand them over to a kid who thought the world of me, a “famous Magic YouTuber,” or just return them to the shop with the acknowledgement that in the draft chaff live the tiny margins that keep this passion project operation afloat. Participation packs were a staple, too, a fun consolatory prize for drafting Door to Nothingness in hopes of living the dream. I’d bike home late at night with the love of the game in my heart, calm and content. The streets were empty; there’s not much traffic after FNM.
Admittedly, winning on Arena is very fun. It is compelling and invigorating, like hitting your numbers on the wheel. It leads to more drafts, almost immediately. Who cares if I lose to variance now? I’m playing with the house’s money. This one is free. But the next draft, that’s when it gets Serious again. That’s when I will Pay Attention and not make Play Mistakes.
Buy more gems, lose to variance, repeat.
All of this is built into the digital client. Every price point for gems, every tournament structure, every event, every skin, is designed with the intention of capitalizing on variance. Variance is Arena’s greatest asset. The bells and whistles, the flashy animations, the fake currencies keep the transactions quick and smooth. It’s a 24/7 operation, which means you can draft all night. There’s no traffic when you don’t leave the house, or rather, the House.
I know that "digital games are casino houses" is not a new narrative. Connecting a couple of dots between Arena’s mechanics and why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling about a game I supposedly love was enough for me to understand that this isn’t healthy. It’s not healthy for my finances, for my emotional well-being, for how I spend my free time.
Recently I started playing webcam EDH, the joyful silver lining for fans of paper Magic who miss the warmth of a pre-pandemic world. I’m losing there, too, but it feels good. I’m not alone on a highway yelling at faceless, anonymous drivers, clicking on “Good Game” turn signals in response to a muzzled “Oops”, all amounting to a dystopian two-way, one-way conversation. There are no gems, no carved hands, no impulsive decisions or burning ropes. Just some fresh air to breathe while we’re still stuck in our houses, longing for the future times when we can be together again, far away from traffic, some time, far away.