From physical to digital – Magic: the Gathering

Magic: the Gathering is a collectible card game born of the physical realm which has increasingly migrated to digital over the past years

Physical cards
Physical cards

An overview

Magic: the Gathering (also known as Magic or MTG) is a collectible card game launched in physical form in 1993. It features fantastical monsters, mages and spells placing players in the position of powerful “planeswalkers”. Players may summon these creatures and utilize powerful spells to do battle with one or more opponents – the last player alive declared the winner. Games often (d)evolve into highly technical primarily deterministic displays of logic and strategy, akin to that of chess – with significant experience holding a key advantage for those with many games under their belt [1]. Magic is a game dear to my heart – I’ve been playing on and off for about 15 years. It helped me form my original group of close friends in grade school – the vast majority of which I’m still close with to this day, as well as sparked my love for the space opera, logic, and games of all kinds.

From paper to digital

Three main strategic initiatives have pushed Magic from the realm of the physical to that of digital and beyond: The introduction of Magic: the Gathering Online, the creation of numerous videogames, and the current undertaking of a magic the gathering film.

In June 2002 Magic: the Gathering creator Wizards of the Coast, initially in conjunction with Leaping Lizard Software, launched Magic: the Gathering Online (also known as MTGO) [2]. This enabled players to collect cards online and play the game with those anywhere in the world (with access to a PC). By 2007, it is estimated that over 300,000 registered accounts existed for MTGO, with a Magic executive stating that “[Magic Online] is worth somewhere between 30% to 50% of the total Magic business [3].”

Additionally Magic has delved into the creation of myriad video games – which while drawing from Magic: the Gathering’s rich history, diverse character set, and underlying game characteristics is significantly disparate from MTGO. Think about combinations of role playing games and key MTG scenarios. Games have been released since 1997 to varied reception – some receiving critical acclaim with many others under a plethora of criticism [4].

Finally, Magic creator Wizards of the Coast is currently undertaking the production of a fantastical Magic: the Gathering film sure to be inundated with special effects et al [5].

An eye towards the future

Even with Magic’s growing user base (20M+), expanding product set, and growing geographical presence, there are two main ways in which Wizards of the Coast may take further advantage of the digital medium in order to buttress their market position and benefit their consumers. They may increase resources in support of MTGO as well as augment their position in the online gaming community as a whole.

I do not believe that adequate resources are currently spent on MTGO. The platform itself is no marvel and even today in 2016 still only functions on Windows while a significant subset of the player base operates on MAC and Linux. Moreover, the lackluster interface combined with the inability to play on all operating systems has led to the development of ‘offshoots’ such as Apprentice, Magic Workstation, and Cockatrice – most of which are unsupported by Wizards. By placing more emphasis on MTGO Wizards ought to be able to augment their platform beyond many of the imitators and completely control this market as they own the underlying resources and player relationships.

Secondly Wizards must truly understand the opportunity that is presented by online magic. Beyond a growing proportion of their overall player base (i.e., online players to physical players), the world as a whole is shifting towards online media, with online gaming much of its backbone. The viewing of others playing online games – known as esports – is particularly large, with strategy games an especially high growth segment [6]. Games such as Hearthstone and League of Legends (the former an online card game) are among the most popular esports – and even Magic: the Gathering – without any intention or resources behind it – has become a popular spectator sport. Magic can capitalize upon this with esports and online viewership offering significant engagement and acquisition opportunities [7]. The number one way new players today are indoctrinated is through friends who play – whereas watching online may remove the friction associated with needing to ‘learn as you go’ and buying physical or electronic cards to get started.


While Wizards of the Coast has realized that its player base desires online capabilities, it has been slow to move and has been riding on the coattails of the success of its physical game. By placing an emphasis upon online as the future of the business, they ought to be able to better run MTGO and catapult Magic to the position of a top spectator esport.

(798 words)



[1] Duffy, Owen. “How Magic: The Gathering Became a Pop-culture Hit – and Where It Goes next.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 10 July 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. <>.

[2] Villoria, Gerald. “Magic The Gathering Online.” GameSpot. N.p., 14 June 2002. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. <>.

[3] Villoria, Gerald. “State of the Game Interview: Magic Online.” GameSpy. N.p., 5 Sept. 2007. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. <>.

[4] “Magic Duels.” MAGIC: THE GATHERING. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. <>.

[5] Hopkins, Scott. “Fox’s Magic: The Gathering Movie Franchise Will Enable Hasbro To Sell Trading Cards For Years.” Seeking Alpha. N.p., 24 Oct. 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. <>.

[6] Casselman, Ben. “Resistance Is Futile: ESports Is the Future.” N.p., 22 May 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. <>.

[7] “Magic: The Gathering Is the World’s Best Esport That’s Not an Esport.” Dot Esports. N.p., 18 Mar. 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. <>.

[8] Image 1: Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <>.

[9] Image 2: Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <>.

[10] Image 3: Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <>.

[11] Image 4: Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <>.


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Student comments on From physical to digital – Magic: the Gathering

  1. Thank you Brandon for this post. It brought a lot of memories of my friends gathering at public places to compete and trade cards with one another!

    Based on your article, I believe that there are 2 additional benefits that the digital space brings to card games, such as Magic:

    1) Reduced frontiers, allowing people from all skill levels and geographic locations to virtually meet and play. Beyond the enhanced community experiences that this model provides, it also allow players to improve their skills faster, as people from all over the world can comment the output and decisions made during the game.

    2) Huge advertisement platform, as people all over the world are drawn to watch matches, both live and in re-runs. Companies that target demographics that play games such as Magic can take advantage and promote their products in places that are close to their consumers hearts.

    Looking into the future, I would like to know if you think that virtual reality can generate a new disruption in the industry. Imagine playing with cards and actually seeing the card’s characters moving and doing an enchantment. I believe this can even be extremely fun for non-heavy players like me. If I could join the game just by using my ‘Oculus’ and see everything that is happening while my husband or friends play, it would be better than going to Disney.

  2. It is extremely interesting to see how Magic has survived in an era increasingly defined by e-sports, but it hasn’t been without bumps. More and more, a game’s success is tied to how “watchable” it is given the free marketing it receives on streaming sites like Twitch and YouTube.

    Magic is performing quite well. In 2015, player count grew 10.5% and player spend grew 16.7%[1]. However, as I write this, Hearthstone has 95k viewers on Twitch, while Magic has 10k, despite Hearthstone being an objectively less complex and more chance-based game. In 2 years, Hearthstone has achieved the same revenue that it took Magic 20 years to generate. MTGO is regularly panned by users and physical Magic players and it sometimes seems like Wizards is trying to kill it. While Magic’s business model (giving players a rich card game experience) is superior, Hearthstone’s on trend fully digitized operating model has allowed it to excel.

    In Magic’s case, it may even be falling behind precisely because of its superior operating model. The higher complexity and technical skill of the game may make it more rewarding to play, but it also makes it much harder to follow on a streaming site. Hearthstone’s far simpler gameplay was designed with spectators in mind, and even features witty audio and visual cues to help guide the spectator through the match.

    I agree with your conclusion that they should focus on the online experience, and I would go as far as to say they should completely overhaul it. Wizards is currently treating MTGO as a cash cow – all of the content and game design is able to be leveraged in both the physical and online games, so the only costs to digitizing the game right now are slight software integration time for newly released cards. On the plus side, cards cost a similar amount online without any of the costs of physical production (cardboard, ink, packaging, distribution). If they were to improve the online experience by making it easier to follow for spectators by improving animations and UI, it would definitely add more design costs to the releases of new sets. However, I would argue that the topline improvement resulting from the increased exposure would far outweigh the higher costs.


  3. Role player games like Magic are fundamentally about immersive yourself in the experience – of being a different character, of being part of another world. Therefore I would imagine (as Catherine notes above) that one of the biggest opportunities for Magic is Virtual Reality. VR would allow players to immerse themselves in the Magic experience to an even greater extent. It also allows for more spectator possibilities, which you suggest is a growing trend. Is this something that Magic has looked in to?

    I would also be interested to know if they could develop mobile application technology, which would allow a much broader base of users to be involved in the game. Desktop gaming is becoming less and less popular as people’s lives shift from their computers to their phones…if Magic does not adapt there is a risk it could become obsolete.

  4. Brandon – this is a very interesting post and a fascinating topic!

    I know you are an avid gamer and I wanted to share with you an additional example of a different kind of game that I played a lot growing up that has also been disrupted by technology – LEGO.

    LEGO nearly went bankrupt in 2004 and underwent a significant restructuring before it divested a couple of its unprofitable divisions and focused on converting its core LEGO constructor games in a digital format.

    LEGO used its core design capabilities in physical games and used a digital platform to “hand over” the design of its games to its fans, which led to the creation of new digital games, such as LEGO Digital Designer. [1] Building off of the success of this first digital game, LEGO then expanded into movies, other video games, and LEGO Mindstorms.

    It would be interesting to see whether Magic will be able to capitalize on its strengths (immersive experience, technical complexity, etc.) and be able to innovate and expand into VR and other verticals, similarly to LEGO.

    [1] Bruce Weinelt et al. (2016). Digital Transformation of Industries: Digital Enterprise. World Economic Forum. Accessed November 2016.

  5. Interesting article Brandon, thanks! What’s fascinating to me in the shift of MTG to online is 2 things:

    1) How this affects the revenue model – I would think pre-digital, most MTG revenue was selling cards to players. Once you go digital, could you then have a subscriber model where everyone gets dealt random new cards each week or month?

    2) How the social experience changes. You mentioned that you formed a lot of close friends playing MTG with them growing up. To what extent did the in-person social aspect impact your love of the game? Is digital only possible for those who have been exposed to the strong in-person social experience? Would a first time MTG player in digital be as loyal?

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