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Five Ideas for a Better Magic Online

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Hey there! This week, I won’t be writing about one particular competitive format, but instead, I will be focusing on one of the most important things for competitive Magic: Magic Online. I will start off by discussing why Magic Online is so important. Then, in no particular order of importance, I will talk about five distinct topics that would lead to an improved Magic Online experience.

The Importance of Magic Online

Privileged Position
This year marked the tenth anniversary of Magic Online, and before it was released, it was available in beta for quite some time. This means that for over half the years Magic has existed, there has also been a possibility for official online play.

I think a revolution in Magic started around the time Magic Online was released, and it is the start of some form of “modern Magic.” What I think has happened is that formats mature much faster than before since there are a lot of people playing all the major formats around the clock on Magic Online. Whereas totally news deck would emerge at Pro Tours and take people by surprise very frequently in years past, these days, most decks are already well known before events. There are also smaller geographical differences between metagames, as Magic Online serves as a great equalizer in making information available to people around the world.

Most competitive players I know use Magic Online not only for testing, but as a proving grounds and competitive environment in the form of the Magic Online Championship Series. The competition is very fierce on the higher levels of Magic Online, which include the aforementioned MOCS and Pro Tour Qualifiers, making the field much tougher than your average Day 1 at a Grand Prix.

All this means that Magic Online is incredibly important for competitive Magic, and it would be hard to imagine modern Magic existing without a platform similar to Magic Online. However, no matter how important Magic Online is, it is far from being a particularly good service. In my studies and work, I have familiarized myself with service and user experience design, so I will try to comment on Magic Online both from this professional point of view as well as from the point of a Magic player and user of the service. Several others writers have expressed their views about Magic Online, and I’m sure to touch on some of the same issues, but if an issue is big enough that several people take the time to write about it, it is probably something that should be fixed.

Public API

Magical Hack
This first improvement is not something that has been talked about very much, so I’ll start with a quick explanation of what this means. API stands for “application programming interface” and is basically a list of commands you can perform in a program. These are typically used in programming languages such as Java as a way of listing the various built in functionalities that you can use out of the box. It is very popular for web services to have a public API that allows for third-party add-ons or applications to use data from the web service in question. Examples of services that do this are Twitter and Flickr. With the Flickr API, you can build your own service that, for example, finds images with a certain tag.

Magic Online currently has almost nothing in the way of pulling useful information out of it. Decks from Daily Events are listed on the official website, and you can export your own collection as a .CSV file, but other than that, there is not much you can do. There are a lot of great possibilities for third-party applications if you only had access to gaining a tiny bit of information out of that big black box that is Magic Online. Even something as simple as checking whether you own three or four Hellriders while not at a computer with Magic Online would be amazing and very easy to implement via a web interface—if only the necessary infrastructure existed.

This does not directly impact the actual gaming experience once you are playing Magic Online, but I think it is important to have a healthy ecosystem built around Magic Online. And part of this ecosystem is giving creative individuals the ability to create new and interesting ways to make the most out of our favorite game.

Service Stability

The Abyss
This is one of the main points that is brought up time and time again. You are winning round after round in a PTQ or Premier Event, and then someone flicks the Doom Switch, and you are left with nothing. This can be extremely frustrating, as you have just invested a good chunk of your time and have nothing to show for it except for frustration and anger. Especially if you have a lot of other things on your plate and not many hours a week to play Magic Online, this can feel very discouraging. While Wizards does provide automatic refunds in most of these situations, that does not give people their free time back. The fact that people, myself included, continue to play Magic Online after this happens is a good indicator of just how much people are looking for an outlet to let them play Magic from their homes. If this would happen in a game that had more direct substitutes, people would just switch over. Even though I know almost nothing about MOBA games, I would assume if this happened continuously in League of Legends, people would just switch over to DOTA 2.

I think server stability is more important to have working flawlessly than in-game bugs. I realize that the number of card interactions can lead to some unexpected bugs, and while these should of course also be avoided, I think the server issues are more severe. The fact that the whole service can crash speaks of bigger problems in the infrastructure than just a few holes in the code.

This is not just a player problem, as Wizards would surely save money by not having to put in extra hours to do these emergency repairs; plus, less of a downtime means people are spending more money as there is more time to play.

And speaking of the downtime, having Magic Online go practically inoperable six hours a week for all revenue purposes seems to be something that could be improved. I understand that all events need to have a chance to finish before the server is taken offline, but surely there has to be some more effective way. Especially for us Europeans, the downtime on Wednesdays means that we don’t have much time to play at all. Other games, such as World of Warcraft, solve some of these problems with having geographically-localized servers that are basically separate from each other most of the time. This would make the downtime easier to manage, but otherwise, it would not really be a good solution for MTGO due to the existence of PTQs and other similar events.

Bringing It Back

Humility
From a service design perspective, taking away features that users like is a very large risk and worth avoiding if at all possible. It is usually better not to implement features than it is to implement them and then take them away. In this case, some of the features that I am talking about are ones that many newer players don’t even know existed. Most would tell you that, yes, leagues existed in some distant past, and they were fun to play even though the structure was perhaps not the best. Only a small percentage would tell you that they remember playing in Team Sealed events and that they were amazingly fun. After having discussed the subject with some friends, we concluded that the main reason Team Sealed was removed when going from beta to the first live version was ownership of cards. In real life, Wizards does not have to take a stance on what to do with your cards once you are done playing a Team Sealed tournament, but on Magic Online, there would have to be a solution for this.

Although you could say that Team Sealed was never a “real” feature, as it was only available on the beta version, it was still a feature that was removed. Originally, Magic Online was in beta for a very long time, and for many players, the transition between beta and live version mostly felt like just continuing to play the same game. For these persons and at that time, this was a feature that was taken away from them. If Wizards somehow manages to solve this problem, perhaps by making them phantom events, I would love to see Team Sealed events on Magic Online again.

Wizards has often stated that leagues are being brought back soon, but there has been no definite schedule for this as far as I am aware. The main reason that I, and many others, think leagues are important is that they cater to a prospective audience that is not being that well catered to at the moment, especially when it comes to noncasual play. I’m talking about people who want to play Magic Online for, let’s say, eight hours a week but who can’t invest three hours at a time, but rather around one hour each day. For these people, leagues are ideal, as they allow you to spread out your gaming time more evenly while still having access to a competitive arena.

Improving the UI and UX

Glamerdye
This is another major topic that many people have written and talked about lately. Wizards is currently testing what they call the wide beta, and the new version is scheduled to take over the current version sometime of the nearish future. Nobody knows exactly when this is going to be, and many people are extremely unhappy with the redesign of the client. I could write a whole article about the problems with the wide beta user interface (UI) and user experience (UX), but there is not enough space in this article to talk about these aspects more in-depth. The short version is that there are a lot of things that need to be improved with the current version. If you would like a professional view of the UI-and-UX subject, I’d be happy to write something in my field of expertise.

There is, however, one thing I would like to talk about regarding the user experience of Magic Online, and it has to do with the emerging online TCG genre. During the last year, there have been a lot of new games emerging in the online TCG genre. First, it was mainly smaller game studios, such as Stoneblade Entertainment’s SolForge, but now with Hearthstone, bigger players such as Blizzard have also entered the market. These games have primarily gone the route of being video games that are played with an interface involving cards, while Magic even in its online form is still very much an online representation of something in the physical realm.

I would really like for Magic Online to stay away from the video-game direction with a lot of effects and animations. I feel that the authentic user experience would suffer if Wizards tried to copy what others are doing. I think the main reason other online TCGs are taking this video-game approach is that it caters to their main audiences. By making the game more like an action-packed game with incredible visuals, it is easier to convince existing video gamers to try the game. While this is fine, I think the Magic brand and gaming experience does not really need this, as it is already so well established.

Aspects such as automatic shuffling and the clock are, in my opinion, straight improvements to the physical version of Magic, but I think most people would still agree the physical version has that something that is missing from the digital realm. We are surrounded by digital services, so having something that is actually physically tangible can be a real advantage in the entertainment field.

Reverse Redemption

Reversal of Fortune
My fifth and final idea is one that has nothing to do with Wizards but that is still an idea that I think would benefit the Magic Online ecosystem. I came up with this idea when I was talking about Magic Online in general with my friend during our time in Amsterdam for the World Magic Cup. Currently, you can redeem cards from Magic Online. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, you basically collect a complete set (one of every card) and then tell Wizards that you would like to have these as physical cards. The cards are then removed from your account, and after a while, you receive a package with the complete set as physical cards. You can also do this for foil sets in the same way. This means that you can turn digital cards into physical cards, but not the other way around. Wouldn’t it be cool if this worked both ways?

Wizards probably does not have a big interest in making this happen, but this does not mean that a third party would not. There are already several companies specialized in selling mainly digital cards and, as such, own very large collections of Magic Online cards. These companies often also sell physical Magic cards, so they have an interest in having an inventory of both physical and digital cards. The whole idea here would then be that consumers like you and me box up our complete physical sets and send them to these companies and then receive the same set on Magic Online. And because we are talking about a smaller actor than Wizards, nothing is stopping the reverse-redemption company to accept single cards.

This sounds like a significant amount of work just for converting cards from physical to digital, you might say, so why would someone want to do this?

Well, for starters, physical Magic sets are mostly more expensive than the Magic Online equivalents. This means the reverse-redemption company would probably make a profit, encouraging companies to offer this service. And if the deal is not good for a certain set, the companies don’t have to offer reverse-redemption for that set. While it might be more lucrative for individuals to sell their physical cards and then use these funds to buy the digital equivalents, it is also much more of a hassle, so by having access to this service, you are paying a bit extra but saving time. If you are looking to liquidate your collection and move to playing purely online, this might be something you are interested in.

As mentioned, this could work for individual cards as well, but there the threshold for using the service is higher, as it is less of a hassle to sell just a few individual cards and then buy the same cards online. This might work in some cases, but I would suspect it would not be nearly as popular as the reverse-redemption for complete sets. The costs of bringing this up and running for an existing actor should not be very significant, and there is not very much to lose in trying it out.

Discuss

This articled turned into a very lengthy one, so thanks are in order to those of you who took the time to read through all of my ideas and reasoning. Part of the reason I am writing about this is to spark conversation about these topics. There is already a fair bit of this going on, and I think all discussions about the future of Magic Online are healthy for the game—and also helpful for Wizards in trying to construct a better service. If you want to tell me what you think about my ideas or ask questions regarding the reasoning behind them, please feel free to contact me either via the comments section below or directly via Twitter. All other comments, ideas, and suggestions are also greatly appreciated.

Next week, I will try to return to writing about some competitive Magic. I will be going to Grand Prix Prague this coming weekend, so I hope to have some victorious stories to tell.

Thanks for reading,

Max

@thebloom_ on Twitter

Maxx on Magic Online

You can find my music on: http://soundcloud.com/bloomlive


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