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Not just another rant about Magic Online

January 3, 2015

I want to make a confession. When this post is published it has been a full year since the last time I booted up Magic Online. And how do I feel about that? Well, this tweet that I retweeted the other day capture my current state of mind pretty well:

I’m in the boat that a growing amount of players, with varying amount of chagrin and contempt, have found themselves in; we love Magic and we want the ability to play it digitally as well, but the offered product for doing that doesn’t meet our expectations. And I mean, most of us are willing to overlook quite a lot, but there is a line somewhere exactly how much one is willing to overlook for the required input of time and money. That line has passed for me personally, along with several others at this point.

I’m not writing this to pile on comments regarding what the interface of Magic Online leaves to be desired, the stability issues and more. A lot has already been said around the Internets and to most of the constructive feedback and complaints that have been mentioned and raised I can only solemnly nod to in agreement.

No, I’m writing this to put some light on another area of potential improvement of Magic Online that isn’t as much discussed. Let me get into it by first posing a question; is it important that Magic Online accurately replicates the experience of playing the paperback version of the game?

Right now, Magic Online is in most aspects a very close replica of “the real thing” in the ways of how the game works, how tournaments are run, how trading work etc. The largest deviations between the two in my book is the renown in-game clock, together with the they way triggers are much more clearly announced and handled on Magic Online compared to the paper version but with the cost of being much more time consuming to handle and in extreme cases downright unmanageable. These deviations have in a few cases led to popular decks and combos in the paper version not having the same success and popularity online as the shenanigans these decks and combos are trying to pull off might not be feasibly executable in a timely fashion on Magic Online (Elf combo or Project X of past formats comes to mind as examples of this phenomena). I’m not necessarily saying this is for the better or the worse, that’s just how it is. But disregarding these things, at large paperback Magic and Magic Online are the same in the way that they operate (or at least try to).

Personally my answer to the above question is in the line of “not very”. I mean, I don’t want to mix with the core functionality of the game, but I’d be happy to switch things around with the surrounding settings if it would lead to a better user experience.

Now, let us fast forward to a (hopefully not too distant) future where most of the fundamental kinks that Magic Online currently has have been sorted out and amended in a pleasing fashion. How could Magic Online and its functionality further be tinkered with to increase the user experience? Assuming that the consensus answer to the question above is on the “no” side of the spectrum, I think there are some interesting things one could consider.

During the past year I have picked up Solforge and playing that game has been a common pastime of mine for hours every now and then previously occupied by playing Magic Online. In that game, or other up-and-coming online TCGs/CCGs and/or whatnot like Hearthstone, everyday tournaments are run significantly differently compared to Magic Online. On the latter “queues” and Daily Events are currently run very much in the same fashion as pick-up events and other public events during Grand Prixs are being run in real life.

The way typical Swiss rounds works means that there is overall a significant amount of time between rounds that any given player will spend not actually playing Magic: the Gathering. Time which if not used for a visit to a bathroom or grabbing some food is time that any given player will feel as largely wasted. There are some clear administrative benefits of running events in this fashion in the flesh, but can’t we streamline things for the digital version?

If we go back to Solforge and Hearthstone, these games have everyday “events” based on asynchronicity. You enter an event, either with a constructed deck or first you do some sort of drafting from a limited card pool, which subsequently puts you in a matchmaking queue which pairs you against a player (that have also enter the same type of event) with an identical record to you or at least closely to your record (with “closely” being broader the longer time you spend in the matchmaking queue). Each of these events are set to a certain amount of rounds per player, which means that once this set amount of rounds have been played by a player, said player is done with the event and then get some sort of prizes depending on how fell he or she fared.

In addition, there is no requirement that any player play through all of these rounds at once. After each and every round the player has the choice of entering the matchmaking queue again, which means that a player may for example settle with only playing a couple of the total amount of rounds during one sitting. He or she can then log off and return later to finish the event. This asynchronous event structure means that the time between rounds is almost completely in the hand of the players, which largely means less time sitting around feeling like they are not doing anything.

Now imagine Daily Events and 8-man queues on Magic Online being run on a similar principle as described above? Wouldn’t that be sweet, or what? Of course this asynchronous model isn’t really applicable for higher profile tournaments like PTQs or MOCS events, or for typical booster drafts as you want to constrict the player field to only to the players that were drafting from the same pool of cards. But for everyday constructed and sealed events this seems to me like that it would be a solid improvement for the total user experience. And heck, I’d imagine that Wizards would get more players to play in random events on Magic Online if each and every player would get more freedom on how many rounds they have to play during a day, in addition with nothing really having to care about any Daily Event schedule.

I’m only scratching the surface here with mentioning what could be done with the tournament structures on Magic Online, there are surely several more areas where there are room for improvement and innovation if we allow ourselves to deviate from the paper version of the game.

I think the question I presented earlier is going to be a crucial one for Magic Online moving forward considering future development. Of course as I mentioned at the start of this post, Magic Online has some basic issues that need to be addressed first and foremost, but that aside I feel that Magic Online is handicapped in several aspects in comparison to similar competing games like Hearthstone because of the bond with the paper version of the game. If said bond with the paperback version could be given some more slack I think there are some interesting places future development could take Magic Online.

Credits were credits are due to the games and teams behind Hearthstone, Solforge and more, but to a certain extent I feel like that the hype and limelight these games are receiving is part of Magic Online being in the state that it’s in right now. And I think that is a pity, considering how good of a game Magic is.

To return to the tweet that I kicked off this post with; I love Magic, and I really wish my feelings for Magic Online were even remotely on the same level as for the paperback version of the game. One day, maybe?

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