Arcane Teachings – Magic Online, Live Play, and You

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Tuesday, March 11th – Magic Online: a blessing and a curse. Testing and drafting on MTGO can be a fantastic experience when flowing smoothly… but throw a server crash in there, and we have tears and tantrums galore. Today’s Arcane Teachings sees Tom look at the strengths and weaknesses to online play from a self-improvement perspective, and argues that although the benefits are there, they maybe aren’t as tangible as it appears…

The introduction of Magic Online forever changed the landscape of competitive live Magic. Webites like this one and others have always existed to serve players, but before Magic Online there was nowhere that players could go to play competitively at any hour of the day or night from any part of the world. Because of this, the overall quality of play across high-level Magic has grown immensely since then. However, there is a significant disconnect between Magic on Magic Online and Magic in the real world. Live and online Constructed metagames rarely match up, and there are many skills that are important in live play that online play simply does not teach. In this article, I hope to cover the ways that a competitive player can use Magic Online to assist his or her success in live tournaments and how not to get tripped up by it. If you play almost exclusively online, some of the article may not apply. If this is you, then I think you’re missing out — there’s something visceral about live play that online play simply does not replicate for me, and if live Magic didn’t exist, I would likely never touch Magic Online. That aside, let’s go.

One of the more intoxicating features of Magic Online for many players is the existence of twenty four hours a day draft queues. For many of my fellow mages, there is no Magic more enjoyable than draft. I am more of a Constructed man myself, but sometimes the draft bug does strike me and I find myself spending parts of my bankroll on Limited tournaments. However, the main problem with drafting on Magic Online is that it’s hard to learn efficiently there. I was alerted to this about a year ago when I asked Benjamin Peebles-Mundy and Chris Ripple what they would recommend I do to improve my Limited game. Oddly, they both said that I should immediately stop drafting on Magic Online and start doing tons of team drafts in real life. The reasons for this are many. First, on Magic Online, when you draft a bad deck and lose the first round, you only get one match to figure out why it was bad. In a team draft, on the other hand, you are stuck with that deck for as many rounds as you have to play, so you get some quality time with it. Second, team drafts require each team to build their decks together, so it’s easy to get input from your teammates about card evaluations and deckbuilding decisions. Perhaps the fastest way to improve is to steal technology from others, and team drafts are a great way to set up opportunities to do that. Ben and Chris both think that the Pittsburgh tradition of doing tons of live team drafting is why players from that city are often ahead of the rest of the world in terms of draft technology.

There is now a growing number of people who organize team drafts on Magic Online, but from what I have seen, the character of these team drafts is much different from live team drafts in the important ways. In live team drafts, deckbuilding is a collaborative process; it’s easy to just switch chairs with someone to get a second opinion on something, but it’s a lot harder to switch deckbuilding screens. The inability to watch your teammates’ matches next to you is another problem. This leads to much less interaction between teammates, and it seems to me that an online team draft feels much the same as an online single-elimination draft, except that you usually have some warning about what removal spells and bombs your opponents have after the first round.

For Constructed, Magic Online offers an incredible opportunity to the competitive player in the form of around-the-clock Constructed tournaments against consistently competitive opposition. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is that online tournaments mimic the conditions that real live tournaments are played in ways that just playtesting can’t; there are real prizes on the line, real opponents who want desperately to beat you, and no takebacks. These are all conditions that it’s good to be used to being in when you get to the big show.

Another advantage of Magic Online is that Constructed tournaments online are much less of an investment than live tournaments, so it’s easier experiment with things online. Playing a “fun” or “experimental” deck in the one live tournament per week that you can play may feel like a waste of time compared to playing a real deck, but when you play in a single-elimination eight-man tournament on Magic Online once every day, trying something crazy feels like much less of an investment. Luis Scott-Vargas is the person who pointed this out to me, and he certainly takes advantage of that and seems to think that the freedom that he has to “mess around” on Magic Online is important to his creative process.

I have run into two issues with preparing for Constructed tournaments on Magic Online. The first is that the online metagames moves far, far faster than live ones. There are a number of reasons why; eight-man queues fire every ten to twenty minutes so there’s always a tournament to play in at any hour of the day, every premier event can be watched by any interested player on the server as long as replays are enabled, and cards are far more liquid on Magic Online due to bots so deck switching is much easier. This stands in a pretty strong contrast to live play, where most people only find out about results from tournaments they are present for, tournaments in a given format may happen once a week for most people, and the process of acquiring the physical cards for a different deck can be very difficult. People playing more events in less time with more information and easier card access means that metagames evolve online much faster than in real life.

The very small amount of intersection between live and online meatagames means that it’s a bad idea to make metagame-based deck decisions for live tournaments based on Magic Online. A deck can be in a great position for the online world but be poorly positioned in real live metagames. Before Grand Prix: Vancouver, small aggressive Red decks had died out almost completely online. I knew that I was weak to them with Next Level Blue, but I thought that I wasn’t in danger of playing against many of them. Max McCall warned me that Red had been popular at the PTQ in Seattle the weekend before, but I bravely soldiered on and played Counterbalance anyway. Then, I hit two Red decks in the first two rounds I played. Perhaps this was just bad luck, but there were enough Red decks in the room that playing against two of them in a row wasn’t that strange. Paying attention to PTQ Top 8s is a much better way to keep tabs on what the real world is doing than Magic Online.

The other issue for me about preparing for Constructed on Magic Online is that I often get narrow views of whole formats after going on runs of either playing against the same decks or runs of victories or losses. In live tournaments, one can look around and see other people playing other matches in the same format with different decks and how other people playing the same deck are doing, and that keeps me grounded when I get frustrated or overly optimistic about a deck. It’s harder for me to keep perspective when the only thing I get to see is my own match. Watching replays helps when I play in premier events, but there’s nothing else to see while playing in eight-man queues, so it’s important to remember that your matches don’t exist in a vacuum.

Regardless of the format, playing a ton of Magic Online makes you better at the mechanics and strategy elements of live Magic, but it often hides the fact that it is after all a card game and a people game, not just a strategy game. It’s important for people who play mainly online to spend some time playing in real life before big tournaments, to reconnect with the issues that playing a card game in the real world can present.

One thing that Magic Online does not teach you is the skills of physically handling cards in ways that do not reveal information. Online, the program does all the work of shuffling, tutoring, and so on for you, but in live play you can give away advantages by doing things as mundane as shuffling in ways that reveal your deck to your opponent, or accidentally showing cards in your hand. There are also mechanical ways to hide information from your opponent that aren’t relevant when you aren’t face to face with your opponent. Perhaps the most important of these is mixing the card you draw every turn into your hand before you play it. If you draw a card and play it straight from the top of your deck, you give your opponent information about the rest of your hand. Of course, you may choose to do this deliberately for effect in certain circumstances, but if you are too used to hiding behind a computer screen you may not notice opportunities to do this either. Shuffling cards to hide information is also relevant with cards like Gilt-Leaf Seer and Sensei’s Divining Top. If you don’t put on a show of shuffling the cards around, an observant opponent may be able to track the top of your deck, which is not desirable. It’s rare that you will play against someone who is on that level, but you’ll want to be aware of this when you do.

Another aspect of live play that Magic Online does not emulate is the ability of your opponents to figure out what you are thinking about by watching you. Spending time focusing on one area of the game while your opponent can see it is a dead giveaway about what is important. If you are playing Blue-Green Tron and you count your mana with your finger, your opponent will know that you may be close to a lock. If you’re playing the burn deck and you stare at the cards in your hand while deep in thought, they’ll know that they may be dying in a fire soon if something doesn’t change. These things aren’t relevant online, but live play often forces you to find clever ways out of situations where you need to look at something and would like to hide what is important from your opponent.

One particularly masterful doing that I heard about secondhand from Sam Stoddard was that in the Top 8 of a PTQ for Pro Tour: Kuala Lumpur, Craig Krempals drew a Boggart Birth Rite near the end of a very long game. He needed to check his graveyard to see what he could do with it, but he needed to do it in a way that did not tip his opponent off to the fact that he had a Birth Rite in case he wanted to use it on an instant-speed removal spell. The problem was that Craig was sitting sideways and would not have a clear view of his graveyard without contorting himself in a noticeable fashion. His solution was to make a big show of adjusting his chair, and in the process he got a nice look at his graveyard. I don’t know how the story ends, but this is exactly the kind of next level out-of-game play that someone who got their chops on Magic Online may not think about, and it can make a huge difference.

Magic Online is great fun and a wonderful tool for practicing. However, single-elimination draft queues can be hard to learn from, the online Constructed metagame is not at all the same as what you’ll find at live tournaments, and the big tournaments that matter are all played live and with physical cards. An appropriate mix of online and live play will keep you ready for that.

Grand Prix: Philadelphia is this coming weekend. I’ll be there, so feel free to stop by and say hello. To readers who are going, travel safe, good luck, and have fun.

Tom LaPille