From Right Field: An Issues Issue – MTGO = Magic: The Gathering’s Offline

Here’s what I propose. During the week after Regionals, from Sunday, May 2nd, 2004, through Saturday, May 8th, 2004, spend no money on fake cards. Buy no tickets. Just play with whatcha got. And play. And play and play and play. If no one spends any money for an entire week, I think Wizards might get the idea that we’re serious. Businesses get the hint when you hit ’em where it hurts.

When Magic: The Gathering Online (hereinafter”MTGO”) was announced, I guffawed. Who was going to pay more for fake cards than for real ones? Sure, theoretically, the cost is the same, not more. Who actually pays suggested retail for Magic packs, though? The only time you do is if you buy them at Target or Mal-Wart. I have never visited a card store that charged MSRP for Magic packs, ever.

Everything about MTGO struck me as wrong from the beginning. Why charge people for fake cards? Why not just charge them for server time? Then, Wizards of the Coast (hereinafter”Wizards”) announced why they were doing this and charging full price for fake cards. Their reason/excuse was that they didn’t want to take any players away from the retailers that were the reason that Magic even exists.

The sentiment was nice, but the logic was flawed. The only way to not take any players away from retailers was to not launch an online version of the game in the first place. If even one person spent money online that they would have instead spent in a store, they’ve taken money away from a retailer.

Furthermore, Wizards justified the full retail price in this way.”Hey, if you collect a full set of fake cards online, you can redeem it for a full set of real cards! How wonderful is that?”

You mean if I spend much, much more on fake cards than I would on real cards, I can get a full set of fake cards, and trade them in for real cards? Cool. I get to keep playing with the fake cards online after that, though, right? I don’t? What kind of deal is that?

Please, don’t p!ss on my head and then tell me it’s raining. What’s the”deal” in that? Sounds like the one that Robby Metz made with me in second grade. If I gave him my milk money, he’d make sure that he didn’t punch me in the face every day. Gee, thanks.

Accordingly, I predicted a very swift and painful demise of MTGO.

Boy, oh, boy, was I ever wrong.

Who woulda thought that people would pump so much hard-earned money (is it ever”easily-earned money?”) into fake cards that could be taken away at the whim of the people who sold them to you? Read that user agreement sometime, and then ask yourself this. Would you buy real cards from a retailer who said,”Now, before I give you these, you have to agree to this long list of demands, including a few that are very vague. If you take the cards, you’re saying you agree to all of this. If you’re ever in my store and break any of these rules, I’m going to go through your box and take those cards back, and you won’t get any money back. Agreed?”

“You betcha!” you replied with relish, giving him your credit card.


Apparently, MTGO has a couple things going for it. First and foremost, it’s based on Magic, one of the greatest games ever invented. In my mind, it ranks in the top four games ever created along with Scrabble, chess, and strip poker. (God bless the man – and I’m sure it was a man – who decided to combine poker with getting women to take their clothes off.) Second, there are a lot of folks who just can’t get to a friend’s house to play Magic when they want. Especially the married guys.

(Man, am I lucky to have Luanne. She actually wants me out of the house playing Magic. I guess she’s thinking”at least I know where he is.” Or am I being naïve? We don’t have a pool boy or a yard boy or anything like that. So, I’m probably just being paranoid. Aren’t I?)

I probably never would have gotten involved in MTGO, except for the fact that I accidentally won an online auction for two Flooded Strands last year. It was a simple mistake that I’m sure that many people have made (he said, hoping not to sound like a complete buffoon). I didn’t notice that it was for MTGO versions of the cards, and I won the auction. Being the ethical guy that I am (and also wanting to protect my rating), I paid for the fake Flooded Strands. Of course, I didn’t want them to go to waste. Plus, I had to have an MTGO account to get ownership of them. So, I picked up a copy of the software, too. What the heck, right? I’d see what all the hubbub was about.

I loaded the software. I found that I could get packs or a theme deck”free” since I had paid for the software. Wow,”free” fake cards. How very generous of them. I mean, think of all of the trees it takes to make fake cards. (I heard from one reliable source that it takes up to one hundred trees to make a single card. Mostly, though, that’s because trees don’t have opposable thumbs. So, making anything is very hard for them and takes several working together to complete the simplest tasks.)

I”picked up” the Green and White Judgment preconstructed deck called Spectral Slam. Why not? It had Mirari’s Wake in it. Throw in two Flooded Strands to make sure I got the White mana while thinning the deck, and away I went.

I have to admit, it was fun. I could play Magic anytime I wanted. If I couldn’t sleep, which happens often, I could load up MTGO and go. Of course, I could only play that one deck, but what the heck. I could play, and that’s what mattered. Still, I had only spent $17 on the thing.

Since then, Wizards has only gotten another $23.58 or something like that of my money. I just had to buy two of the Darksteel precons that had two Skullclamps in it. That way I could have four Skullclamps.

“Wait a minute there, Nipsy. You – YOU – of all people have spent more than forty bucks on MTGO? ‘Ha,’ I say.”

Well, actually, I’ve spent more than that on MTGO. Once I started, I wanted to have some flexibility. So, I went out and won a couple of auctions for four sets of commons from Legions or Mirrodin or whatever. They weren’t expensive, but they weren’t from Wizards. So, actually, I’ve spent more on MTGO than forty bucks. It’s just that only forty of it went directly to Wizards.

“But . . .”

I know. I know. It seems hypocritical. I rail against the thing, and here I pump good money into it. Humans are amazing. We can justify and rationalize almost anything. Wanna blow up dozens or hundreds or thousands of innocent non-combatants? Well, they are members of the enemy’s society. Cheat on your wife? It didn’t mean anything. Besides, she’s been cutting you off.

Spend money on fake Magic cards? When it works, MTGO is a blast to play.

Oh, didja read that? I wrote”[w]hen it works.” MTGO hasn’t been working too well lately. That is the real cap in my buttocks. I refuse to give Wizards any more money for tourneys, drafts, packs, etc., simply because of how shoddy the thing is. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to have paid real money to draft fake cards and then get kicked off. There’s some sort of compensation when that happens, I’m sure, (isn’t there?), but how do they know that I wouldn’t have won the whole thing?

Meanwhile, last week (or two weeks ago when you finally get to read this), the paying MTGO consumers got to be the beta testers for three days.

Do you know how absolutely wrong that is? For any other computer program or system, when a new version is beta tested, the beta testers are a select group. That group may be huge, but it isn’t just the entire consumer group. The beta testers are also compensated in some way, either through salary because it’s their job, or through some other sort of swag. It’s not just a select few of the beta testers that are compensated, either. It’s all of them.

Why was that MTGO beta testing so wrong? Because you don’t ask your customers to pay good money to do your work for you!

Think about that. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday (April 6 – 8), people who had paid to play with their cards were not able to. They had to try to jump into a game that was started at approximately whenever someone felt like it. It was very frustrating. I know. I watched it all.

On Tuesday night, the UT Lady Vols were again trying to get by the UConn Lady Huskies (again unsuccessfully) for the NCAA title. So, I figured I’d log on at the same time and see what was up. For the entire period of the game, which was excruciating as is, I never once got to play a game.

Now, I know that because of the basketball game, I wasn’t as vigilant as most folks. But not being able to play a single game for hours and hours? The people who did get to play were providing free testing for the developers. The next night, I sat around for two hours. I finally got into my first game. Of course, I didn’t get to play and had to get to bed. I watched the rerun of the first Smallville episode with Christopher Reeve while this was going on.

[I was playing in a league where I was 5-0 after day 1, before the developers advanced the leagues by a week. I then tried to play five more matches off and on for ten out of the next twenty-four hours and only completed three. In ten hours. Not only was it an utter waste of time, but I felt supremely agitated by the fact that we were told prizes would be based on how you finished in your events, and I literally could not get the server to respond fast enough to actually complete five league matches in ten hours. – Knut, tired of hopping on the bash Magic Online bandwagon, but needing to vent]

Wizards’s”thanks” for all of that? People who got to the prize rounds on the beta testing and won anything will get that prize on the live server. Wow. More free fake cards. Only if you were one of the fortunate few for whom the thing worked, though. That would never fly in any other setting. With any other software or system, if you had beta testers, they all get some sort of compensation even if they can’t do anything because the system doesn’t work. The fact that they gave up their time is consideration enough for the compensation.

Hey, Wizards, here’s an idea. Those cards cost you guys nothing. How about prizes for everyone who tried to join a game and couldn’t? How about prizes for everyone who started a draft and got booted? How about free fake cards for everyone who wanted to play at those times with the fake cards that they had already paid for and couldn’t? Cost to Wizards: zero. I take that back. Someone would have to write a twelve-line piece of code to distribute the prizes. Cost to Wizards: zero since that person is salaried and wouldn’t get overtime.

Now, before all of you code monkeys and server jockeys tell me that servers are often taken offline or that websites are often unavailable for routine maintenance, let me say this: I know. That’s for”routine” maintenance, though. This was three full days (this time) of”hey, I’m on the beta server again.” Although, it’s starting to look like that’s going to be the”routine” that we’ll have to get used to with MTGO.

That sort of stuff is supposed to be done when the customers won’t notice it or, in the case of a web site that’s always”open,” at hours that will affect as few people as possible. For example, a friend of mine is the MIS manager for Ripley’s Aquarium up here. (Their motto:”Yes, that’s really a shark in there. Now, stop dangling your kid over the side of the tank!”) When do they do their system maintenance? Very early on Sunday mornings. So early, in fact, that when it’s done, he can still get to church on time. You know what they do when they have to test a whole new system? This is just so wacky that I can’t believe it. What they do is… they don’t take the main, we-know-it-works system offline until they know the new one works properly.


I told you it was wacky.

Of course, if they didn’t do that and messed up, a bunch of rare animals would die. That would be tragic. If you’re less of a tree hugger than me and more of a tree-cutter-downer-for-profit, then think of it this way. That would be a huge financial hit. If you don’t care about either of those, then just imagine the smell of eight million gallons of dead fish.

My point is that I know that once in a while computer systems must be made unavailable to the end user and tested. You just don’t do it during business hours and then ask the customer to do the testing.

Unless you give the customer something. Please, don’t say that those”prizes” are something. The number of prizes given out versus the number of people who logged on was stunningly small. Besides, fake cards cost nothing.

We need to teach Wizards a lesson. Here’s what I propose. During the week after Regionals, from Sunday, May 2nd, 2004, through Saturday, May 8th, 2004, spend no money on fake cards. Buy no tickets. Just play with whatcha got. And play. And play and play and play. If no one spends any money for an entire week, I think Wizards might get the idea that we’re serious. Businesses get the hint when you hit ’em where it hurts.

Notice that I’m not suggesting that everyone should leave MTGO altogether. That would be fruitless for two reasons. First, no one’s going to do it. Too many people have too much of their money tied up in MTGO to just walk away. (Another piece of marketing genius – and I mean that seriously – as far as Magic: The Gathering goes. If you only charged people for server time, they wouldn’t feel so invested in the thing.) Second, MTGO is fun. I don’t want to shut it down. I just want them to start treating us better. We shouldn’t be beta testers. We should be customers. If they want to test a different program or server, then set up another network and hire testers. Better yet, ask a select group of registered players if they would like to be beta testers on a specific date. Then, if they log in on that date, they would get a certain amount of fake packs.

I shouldn’t be involved in the testing, though, unless I want to be. I should only be involved in the playing. If I don’t want to be involved in the testing, then, I should be able to play with what I bought. If they need so many people to test that they actually need customers to do the testing (which is probably the case), then they should still give us a choice as to whether we can log onto the live server or the beta server.

When my cable goes out for a day, I can get credit for one day worth of cable on my next bill. Yes, it may only be $2.25, and, yes, it may be trivial, since it’s only television. But I paid for the right to use it. If I can’t, I should be compensated for the inconvenience of not being able to watch South Park or The Shield or Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. I should be compensated for the inconvenience that MTGO has become.

Man, I can only imagine how mad the people are who have spent hundreds of dollars on the fake cards. Wow.

I guess the good thing is that this will never happen again.

Yeah, right.


I want to apologize for the lackluster article last week. After reading it on the web site and reading people’s comments, I have to agree. Not one of my best efforts. I was suffering from writer’s block. Coming off of the April Fool’s thing where I channeled Rizzo and then writing about The Princess Bride Conundrum, I was drained. I’d say it won’t happen again, but who knows. I’m only human. Kai doesn’t win every Pro Tour he plays in (does he?), and not all of my pieces will make you laugh your pants off. Sorry.

On the flip side, Sheila’s deck is awe-inspiring. If you look at what she beat to win her tourney, I’d say that’s some mighty fine results. Any testing I might do with her deck would only make it look worse. Trust me.

Chris Romeo

[email protected]