Insert Column Name Here – Why Magic Online Failed

Read The Ferrett every Monday... at StarCityGames.com!There have been apocalypses predicted for every change to this game that I’ve ever seen…. And none more so than Magic Online. Magic Online would be the death of Magic, it would fail miserably, it would get hacked. We all knew it, and people wrote tons of articles at the time telling us what would happen. So I went back to the halcyon days of 2002 to see what people were saying at the time, and I compared what they were worried about to what actually happened, just to see how accurate the Magic community is as a whole at seeing things coming. Which led, in turn, to kind of a snapshot of Magic Online as it stands today.

One of the things that I find fascinating is the “tempest in a teapot” nature of the Magic community, where any change is met with a storm of posts and angry pronouncements. Any alteration to the “core” of Magic follows a pretty reliable pattern:

People hate it because it’s new, they threaten to quit in vast numbers, they foretell the death of Magic as we know it. Then the change arrives, and most of them don’t quit (or, worse, come crawling back a year later), and Magic goes on.

There have been apocalypses predicted for every change to the game that I’ve ever seen…. And none more so than Magic Online. Magic Online would be the death of Magic, it would fail miserably, it would get hacked. We all knew it, and people wrote tons of articles at the time telling us what would happen.

So I went back to the halcyon days of 2002 to see what people were saying at the time, and I compared what they were worried about to what actually happened, just to see how accurate the Magic community is as a whole at seeing things coming. Which led, in turn, to kind of a snapshot of Magic Online as it stands today.

Here, with links, are the various reasons people cited as to why Magic Online would kill or harm Magic, along with my notes as to the accuracy of their predictions:

Magic Online Will Be Too Expensive.
“In case you hadn’t heard, Magic Online is dead.”
Shawn Forney

If you were to read the Intarwebs in the days before MODO went live, you would have thought that the pricing scheme from Wizards was a sure-fire way of killing their base. We had to pay full price for a pack? When you could buy discounted packs at the store?

What kind of BS is this?

Some claimed, flatly, that if the packs cost more than $2.00 apiece, “The program will fail.” Some even thought that the pricing had to be an “obvious PR ploy” by Wizards, who would shortly reduce their prices and look like good guys. Surely, the prevailing logic on the Internet went, there was no way that Wizards could get away with this.

Accuracy: Totally Frickin’ Wrong
There was one person who did say that they thought Wizards could get away with it, and – *cough* – it was me. (Thank God — if I was wrong, I’d be eating some serious crow right now.) I mentioned that that Everquest — a first-person exploration-and-combat game that was far more expensive to program and update — seemed to get by just fine with $9.99 a month per subscriber. Then I said this:

“Sure, at $3.29, they’ll take a huge hit. There will be very few people willing to play. But you know what? I might be tempted to draft on Magic Online once a month when I’m bored. And if I win, I get free cards to play in other drafts! Bitchin’.

“That’s the critical ten bucks right there. If there’s no draft at my local store that night and I’m in one of my insomniac moods, I might well pay for Wizards’ entire investment right there.

“Ten bucks a month.

“And you know there are psychos who will pay more….”

In fact, thankfully for me right now, that’s pretty much what did happen. There’s no way for sure of saying how many people do not play Magic because of the pricing scheme… But those of us who do fill their coffers quite nicely.

Then there was the idea, which nobody really glommed onto in public, about “going infinite” — being so good that you could play all the games you liked just by trading. That dream, I’m sure, has also kept Wizards rolling in dough from pro wannabes.

Also, as some people have noted, Magic Online is in a way much cheaper for them, weirdly enough, because they pay more but they get to play the cards more. Which makes sense; why buy a box of Time Spiral that you don’t have anyone to play with, when you can buy some packs that will see continual nightly action?

(One of the things I didn’t think about was, of course, that Wizards can’t price their packs for less than retail. If they do that, they’re undermining their retail store base, and they will get punished for that. So really, we should have seen it coming.)

MODO Will Get Hacked, And That Might Be The End.
In one of his most famous articles (it got Slashdotted), Geordie Tait said this:

“The r33t h4XX0rs haven’t even started to go to work on Magic: Online full tilt. If there is a security hole, they will find it and abuse it, and the great white father who sits near the servers will have to do a rollback, and all of your work will be undone for days or weeks.”

Which is true. Certainly, that sort of thing had happened to other online services, and there was no reason to expect that it wouldn’t happen to Magic Online.

Accuracy: Mostly Off, Though It Could Just Be Luck
Has that happened? Not really. At least, not that we know of.

Now, we do have issues with people abusing the timer, and there are annoying things like The Trade Hack, and people with easily-guessed passwords have indeed been ripped off. But that’s not the same as an actual cheat, like some of the hacks you can pull off with CounterStrike or even Apprentice (though they may have patched Apprentice — I dunno, I don’t play it any more).

If there’s a way to stack your deck in MODO, I have yet to hear of it. (And given how deck tech leaks all the time, I have a hard time believing there’s a secret trick that’s been kept locked in a vault by the Cigarette Smoking Man.) Nor have I heard of a widescale “Someone figured out how to counterfeit a hundred Tarmogofys and trade them all” issue. MODO’s been surprisingly secure, though I don’t know whether it’s a question of an amazingly secure programming type, or the fact that it hasn’t hit the critical mass necessary in order to attract the real pros, or that Wizards is Real Good at covering up.

My suspicion: It never attracted the right attention. Yeah, there’s a lot of money in MODO, but compared to the number of people who bought, say, Guitar Hero, it’s small potatoes. It may well be that it’s just not on anyone’s radar. Only time will tell.

Bugs and Server Crashes Will Kill MODO
A corollary to Geordie’s article is that hackers might not kill MODO, but server crashes and bugs might. By the time the fate of MODO was being discussed we already had a beta, which most people could get on, so we knew that the program at least mostly worked… But lousy programs could kill the experience.

Accuracy: We Had No Idea.
Interestingly enough, in some ways the system has been worse than people predicted. From what I hear, Magic Online has a single server point of login access… Which is to say that when you log into Magic Online, it all goes to one computer. If that computer gets overloaded — as it does routinely during any sort of Premier Event — then everyone gets to go bye-bye.

So what we have is Wizards’ biggest tournaments being guessing games. Hey, will I get to the finals? Who knows?

But interestingly enough, this hasn’t dampened enthusiasm. MODO’s become such a worthwhile tool that we put up with it. (And Wizards of the Coast has gotten pretty decent at the “Whoops, here’s yer cards back” dance.)

So how do I judge the accuracy? The fact is that the predictions probably weren’t dire enough in pointing out the instability of Wizards’ servers (and rumor is that it may not change for the much-vaunted MODO 3.0). But they also didn’t count on the fact that people would just put up with it.

So… You were right. But wrong. Well… done?

(There have been some high-profile bugs, as Geordie later followed up on, but by and large the cards work the way they should. It does actually replicate the way things go in real life. Maybe that’s why we put up with it, even though I often feel like a live beta-tester for the big W.)

We Do Not Own The Cards. Wizards Does.
As many pointed out, the we do not technically own the cards we purchase. In fact, the name MODO comes from “Magic Online Digital Objects,” which Wizards owns in perpetuity. There is no guarantee that we will continue to own them; Wizards can take them away from us at will.

More importantly, if Magic Online folds, then the money we have sunk into it goes away. At least with Magic the real-life game, we get to keep our cards and play at our kitchen table. If MODO tanks, that sinking Titanic drags our investment with it.

Who would play with that Sword of Damocles hanging overhead, my friends? Who indeed?

Accuracy: True, But….
…nobody cared. Perhaps we were inured by EverQuest, but in the days of World of Warcraft, people are way too used to paying money to get things that aren’t technically ours. And the biggest worry — that MODO would get shut down — has turned out to be not true as MODO is a rousing success, so really all you’re concerned about is accidental deletions. Which are thankfully rare to the point where I don’t know anyone it’s happened to.

Magic: Online Will Kill Magic: Offline.
Strangely enough, we didn’t get too many articles on this, but it was brought up enough in our forums that some people wrote rebuttals to the idea. The essential idea was that people would only spend money on one set of cards, and if Magic Online was it, then the paper game would die.

Accuracy: Completely Off.
As it turns out, MODO became the go-to testing tool for people who played in real life. In fact, it’s almost necessary if you’re playing in PTQs to have a MODO account that you repeatedly fill with money. It’s less important for Constructed, where the metagame tends to differ from the day-to-day real life tournaments and getting the cards is sometimes a pain… But for Limited play, it’s a necessity.

Furthermore, MODO went a long way towards making drafts something “normal.” A lot of casual players were put off by the idea of getting seven of their pals together to try this expensive format, but MODO makes it easy to hook up. I think drafts have probably become more of the industry standard game than they were before MODO went live.

Again, it’s hard to say how many people moved from Magic: Offline to Magic: Online. There probably are quite a few who stopped playing in real life altogether… But then again, many of them may be the same people who really didn’t play that much in real life because they couldn’t find the people, so it’s a net win for Magic overall. And there’s probably some reverse traffic, from MODO to that physical world of happy booster-crackers.

Real-life tourney attendance is, as far as I know, up overall…. Indicating that either Wizards is making some kick-ass sets, or interest in MODO drives interest in real-life Magic tourneys, or both.

In fact, what’s interesting is what no one pointed out — which is to a large extent, Magic Online killed the dominance of American Magic. Time was that the Americans were the guys to beat in professional tourney play… But once Magic Online got out there so that the best could play the best any time of day or night, guys in really remote areas finally got to practice against someone worthy of their skills. No longer were you constrained by the quality of your pals down at the comics shop — no, you could draft against the very pros who made the headlines!

As a result, the closed American environment suddenly got opened up. All that drafting meant that people knew much sooner what the right picks were; there were no secrets. And we’re never really recovered from that.

I’m not saying America sucks. But we used to be the juggernaut; now, if it’s anyone who’s the big nation, it’s probably the Japanese. That, I think, is largely attributable to the globalization of Magic that MODO brought.

Nobody saw that coming. At least not anyone who wrote an article for us at the time.

The Professional Sharks Just Might Kill Magic Online.
Some folks worried that the pros would drive out the amateurs, who wouldn’t want to play and endlessly lose. In fact, Sean Roney and Jonas Kernagan said, “There definitely does need to be a segregated environment where players can learn and have fun, away from the hardcore pros… If no public campaign moves to change the game, we will end up with a corrupted Magic Online that caters only to pros.” (Although Bob Pitcher shot back, “I’ve heard that argument about real Magic for years, yet the game goes on and many, many people continue to play.”

Accuracy: Totally On, But Wizards Was On Top Of It
In this, they were correct, but Wizards was on top of it. The Leagues have been tremendous fun for Casual players since the beginning, the Casual room seems to be a good place for Constructed players, and the Avatar play seems to be going well. They’ve gone to some lengths to highlight their “fun” spots.

There’s been some serious adjusting of the prizes in the draft queues in an attempt to balance everything out — which peeved the sharks off a lot — but by and large, they’ve done a very good job there at trying to keep the Johnnies and Timmies satisfied along with the Spikes.

Rules Knowledge
I mentioned the fact that nobody saw the demise of American dominance coming. You know what no one else saw? How Magic Online would make us all better judges.

Oh, it can make us lazy, no doubt; you get used to that triggered ability coming up automatically (and many people complained in the old days that it just wasn’t right that bad opponents would get a pop-up window). But by and large, Magic Online’s restrictions of only allowing us to make plays that are valid Magic have created a community of people who know the game a lot better.

Everyone at a tournament now gets the stack, and understands “protection from X” a lot better than they used to. The “untap, upkeep, draw” is now a mantra. The rigidity of the game has actually made us much cleaner players, on the whole, and there’s a lot less sloppiness even in the real-life side drafts I do for fun these days.

That’s odd. But welcome.

Report Card: C+
Basically, the community overreacted to pricing (as they always do), and underestimated the tolerance of the audience. They did predict that the MODO client could be a bugfest, but by and large if the drafts work out we’ll tolerate the occasional “Whoops! Disconnected.”

The Weekly Plug Bug
This week in my nerd soap opera Home on the Strange, psychodrama-prone Tanner introduces Tom to his new and very strange friend Rayvyn Bloodwynd.

Rayvyn is a part of Tanner’s grand scheme. Beware.

Signing off,
The Ferrett
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