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Set rotations in Magic The Gathering: A mobile F2P perspective

We explain a content management structure that could boost both engagement and revenue on your title. Which Magic: The Gathering has used to monetize its audience in a sustainable way, for ~20 years.

At any mobile game out there with a long legacy, creative teams struggle on thinking how can they make their players - many of which have a long, overpowered collection already - keep interested on new content.

This article puts the focus on a content management structure that could boost both engagement and revenue on your title, and which Magic: The Gathering has perfected while successfully monetizing its audience in a sustainable way, for almost 20 years now.

(This is the first part of a series: here we will explaining the basics of the system, and then there's a second part - to be released soon - where we will explore how a model like this could be adapted to Clash Royale...)

MAGIC 101

For those that don't know about it, MTG is a very competitive physical collectible cards game (CCG) where two players aim to defeat each other by commanding summoned creatures and casting all kinds of spells which alter or introduce new rules.

It was released in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast, and since then it has grown into a multi million dollar franchise which includes several videogames, novels, comics and an upcoming Netflix series.

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BTW in 2019 they released a superb new digital version of the game for free. Check it out!
If any of you is playing, add me as a friend at JB_DEV#02100

MONETIZATION IN MTG

The primary monetization method on MTG is fairly easy to grasp: they sell new cards.
New cards come in sets: groups of ~270 cards that are released at the same time, and which share the similar theme, lore and newly introduced game mechanics.

Of course, the trick for this monetization model to work is that the new content needs to be necessary to remain competitive. Otherwise, players would just stick to the decks they already own and wouldn't give a cent to our friends at WoC.

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Sets are regularly released every quarter, which means +1.000 cards per year.

So let's first quickly see what are the usual methods to achieve this, and then we'll enter on what Magic specifically does.

Main content escalation strategies and their issues

As we explained before, this is an unavoidable issue for almost any game which relies on the introduction of new content, and it's universally tackled in one of two main ways:

  • Either through stat escalation, which means putting bigger numbers on the new stuff, which then can obliterate anything released before.
  • Or by orthogonal differentiation, which means that the new content mechanics counter or is somehow more effective than the previous dominant strategies.

STRATEGY #1: STAT ESCALATION

Out of the two, stat escalation is by far the most common and simple method to keep player interest, and in fact is the one I've used the most on the games I've worked on.

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In Despicable Me: Minion Rush, we made so that the difference between costumes (other than how cool they look) was the size of the bonus they granted (+10% bananas, +15% bananas, +25% bananas...)

If there's anything that product managers hate, that is uncertainty. So there's a lot of of them that will defend pure stat escalation as a sustainable way to generate new content without major headaches to the designers (lots of mobile RPG titles do this).
But it has its own issues...

  • First, it is not very fun, since it doesn't alter the gameplay, generating no new strategies or synergies.
  • Eventually, it also devaluates the appreciated future value of the content, as it makes players understand that it will become less valuable overtime, when the next escalation happens.
  • And it completely removes value of previous content, for the older content will be simply skipped by players that come anew into the game, generating zero revenue.
  • And ultimately, it is extremely Pay2Win, which will end up churning a lot of players which of the lower spending range. Which means that high paying users won't have anyone to play with...

STRATEGY #2: ORTHOGONAL DIFFERENTIATION

On the other side we have orthogonal differentiation, which is so unsuited for long-run service games that it usually appears in combination with stat escalation.

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An example of this hybrid model is Monster Legends, where newer monsters combine both bigger stats with unique combat characteristics that make them perfect counters for the previous metagame.

Unfortunately, pumping up an endless amount of orthogonally differentiated content has problems on its own:

  • It makes content much harder to create and balance, since players will combine an ever growing list of old content with the newer ones and find game breaking combos which ultimately diminish the fun.
  • It generates content cannibalization, by eventually creating cards so useful that removes future need to buy anything else.

Since adding infinite amount of different cards would make Magic: The Gathering unmanageable, how did they manage to keep it sustainable and fun?
Because MTG has a card obsolescence system: Set Rotations.

How do Set Rotations work?

Summarizing, this means that every time there's a rotation, the oldest 4 sets that were still valid on the main competitive mode (Standard) become no longer valid to play there.
Discontinued (deprecated) content remains in the game, albeit with limited usefulness, for it can still be used in secondary - yet prestigious- formats such as Legacy or Vintage.

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Rotation happens once every year, between September and October.

This structure of set release and rotation generates movements on the meta in 3 time cycles, each of which means an additional incentive to build new decks (and spend money):

  • Annually (Set Rotation): This is hardcore deprecation we just explained, which forces reluctant players to move to the new content. While this sounds heavy, it's actually the less impactful on the game meta.
    
  • Quarterly (Set release): Whenever a new set is released, the meta evolves:
    Some new strategies will appear, empowered by the new mechanics on the released set, while other may suddenly be countered by the new cards and be rendered useful...
    This means that, during a year, there's 4 organic micro-rotations.
    New sets will have the advantage for 3 months, before the next one is released and the status quo changes. A strong incentive for any engaged user to get them.
    
  • Less-than-quarterly (Card banning): Another action which may revolutionize the meta between the release of the next set is removing from the game or ammending a card which is key to a specific dominant strategy.
    This - obviously - is met with strong controversy from the player community.