Inside SCG – The Road Warrior / The Real Deal

In this new weekly column, we bring you inside StarCityGames.com to see the strategies, thoughts, trends and feelings about Magic from inside the minds of the StarCityGames.com employees themselves! To kick off this inaugural column, we’ve got Chris Woltereck’s quest to qualify for Worlds ’08, and Ben Bleiweiss’s thoughts about how to fix Magic Online!

Introduction: Hey everyone, Ben Bleiweiss here! As you can guess, we’ve got a lot of gamers working here at StarCityGames.com — some great men and women who are enthusiastic about TCGs, video & computer gaming, board gaming and RPGing — gaming of all sorts! I thought to myself — why limit this here column space to The Real Deal each week, when I might not have a burning issue to talk about (don’t worry, this week I most certainly have a bone to pick with Magic Online)? We have a wonderful pool of intelligent people working right here at StarCityGames.com, and every one of them has something worth talking about.

Chris Woltereck has been meaning to write regularly for a while, both because he wants to share his love of Magic, and to get better as a writer. I thought to myself — why not split my regular column in two, and give him that shot? And then I thought to myself — why not allow other people here in-house to have the same opportunity? Over the course of this column, I’ll occasionally be turning over my half of the column to one of my talented friends and coworkers at StarCityGames.com to share their thoughts with you, the community.

This week’s column is kicked off by Chris Woltereck, our inventory department manager. Chris is currently one of the top 100 ranked composite players in the United States, has been to a number of Pro Tours, and is on a quest to play Magic every week for a year. As for me, I’m the General Manager for StarCityGames.com, and a weekly columnist for the Building on a Budget gig at MagicTheGathering.com. This week, I’ll be talking about the problems with Magic Online, and what Wizards could do to fix those issues.


Since this will be more or less my introductory article for StarCityGames.com, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Chris Woltereck, and I have been playing competitive Magic since Urza’s Saga. I work at Star City Games as the Inventory Manager, and I love every minute of it. Magic has brought me a great deal of joy. Traveling across the world to compete at a card game is something I never would have imagined possible. It is rather hard to describe the feeling you get when you step off a plane in a foreign country, knowing you are going to compete at the highest level, at an extremely challenging game, against the greatest players in the world. It is actually quite flattering to be able to compete in as many Pro Tours as I have, as it is not an easy road to travel, and many obstacles have to be overcome.

I am fortunate enough to have done fairly well playing Magic. In the last two years I have participated in 5 Pro Tours, won several Star City Games $1,000 tournaments, as well as a Star City Games Power 9 (that allowed me to own my very first Black Lotus!). Those are just some highlights, but believe me, I have played in a lot tournaments. Thousands and thousands of miles traveled, all so I can pick up cardboard spells and sling them at my opponents. My goal has always been to achieve Level 3 (or “Make the Gravy Train,” as it was called before the introduction of the Pro Level System), but participating in 3/5 Pro Tours a year and rarely playing in Grand Prix’s won’t quite cut it.

The most frustrating thing I have encountered is constantly finishing outside Top 32 at every Pro Tour. I always seem to be one round out every time, finishing 43rd, 44th, 45th…. Of course, this was before they changed from Top 32 Qualify for the next PT to Top 50… ouch. Luckily enough my love for the game has never been stronger, and the people I have met along the way more than make up for “almost getting there.” Now you know the frustration, which leads me to the problem.

After a 5-4-1 performance in Valencia with Domain Zoo (including a 10th round ID with Andre Coimbra, for an extra Pro Point) my Constructed rating was going to be hurting. That being said, I had entered Valencia 33rd in North America on Composite raiting. Too bad for me I left there with a cold and sitting in 51st place. Top 50 was essential so I could compete at Worlds again this year. I was going to have to play to boost my raiting. I needed two points in any format to sneak in. So I entered FNM and ended up going undefeated. There was a $1,000 Star City Game tournament on Saturday which I could have to participated in to insure my spot. I was pretty lucky to have won the last two $1,000 tournaments back to back. With that in mind I still just decided to play it safe, knowing that a single loss would knock me out of a spot in New York.

The day of the tournament I watched from the sideline while playing sealed deck with Pete Hoefling. I regretted my decision not to play during round 2. Not because I was worried about missing my spot… I regretted not competing. Magic is such a huge part of my life and I just passed up a chance to play in a tournament. With the thinking that “it allows me to play in a future tournament,” it makes perfect sense, but deep down it still feels wrong not to play Magic. So I watched other people play all day long, and I thought to myself “I’m never going to do this again. I don’t deserve to play in Worlds.” Passing up a tournament, especially in a new format, is something that will not happen again.

Raiting invitations were locked on the following Wednesday, and I found myself three points out, 52nd on Composite rating in North America.

Serves me right.

I should have seen this one coming. Instant karma is always going to get you. Traditionally, I should have felt upset, but I was calm. I deserved this, as I refused to rise to the challenge. Everyone at work gave the “Ahh! I’m sorry that happened” response. I always smiled, shrugged, and said “It happens.” Everything was much more saddening that I admitted. How could I be upset? I made all my own decisions. After work I just relaxed and reflected. I will spare you all the inner thoughts, but they lead to “The Challenge”

Playing 52 tournaments in 52 weeks.

I realize this is possible by simply playing in 52 FNMs, but I plan to travel in order to play in higher lever events. I may play in more than 52, considering some events have a ton of side tournaments. I will miss many FNM tournaments due to having to leave on Friday in order to travel to such events. My main focus will be on Pro Tour Qualifiers, Grands Prix, and Pro Tours. There are many tournaments ran by Star City Games that offer huge prizes, such as the power cards in the power 9 tournaments, or dual lands, or simply a ton of cash! I think The Challenge will be a true test of my Magic credentials.

Through the weeks, I’ll have plenty of stories to tell you of my Magic adventures. I might even find my way into doing some coverage of the metagame scene from time to time. Hopefully I will find myself back on the Pro Tour along the way. That’s The Challenge… now let’s see if I can get there.

On Friday November 2nd, I set out to the first of many tournaments. I decided to play a Makeshift Mannequin deck at our FNM in the store. Kenny Mayer won Virginia State Championships with it, and it looked like an amazing board control deck. I changed (+2 Liliana Vess -1 Phyrexian Ironfoot, -1 Epocrosite) from his original list. I had to change the sideboard to reflect my store’s metagame. I finished 3-1, with my only loss being to a Pickles deck. The deck is full of synergy, and I just love it. I was planning on playing it again, but it put two players in the Top 8 of the Grand Prix the next day. So now it is no longer under the radar. I guess my initial thoughts of it being an amazing deck got some pro backing. I have been talking about the deck quite a lot in our forums.

The next day I drove to High Point North Carolina to play in a Limited PTQ with three of my friends. I was happy with the deck I constructed, though it did not have the power of some of the decks out there. I ended up playing a U/W/b deck splashing Black for Nameless Inversion, Eyeblight’s Ending, and Wydwen, the Biting Gale. I tried to build a consistent deck, although I was tribally split with 7 kithkin and 6 merfolk, with Aven Changeling doing double duty. I drew round 1… I was in control, but needed about 4 more turns to kill my opponent. I am an extremely fast player, but my opponent kept playing Vigor, and he played very slowly.

The tournament was 7 rounds, and unfortunately I did not know I had 6 rounds of Incarnations and Planeswalkers ahead of me. I ended up 5-1-1 when the dust had cleared. They announce the Top 8… I came in 9th. Nice! I was the only player with 16 points to miss the Top 8. Draws are the kiss of death sometimes. Luckily I was happy with the record I put up, and left with some packs and a smile. My finish was based on me playing tight the whole day, and on the back of 2 Broken Ambitions and 1 Faerie Trickery. I have always felt counterspells are really solid in Sealed, and they didn’t let me down this time. I would suggest taking another look at them if you are not happy when you open up your PTQ pool.

A 3-1, then a 5-1-1… not a bad start!

I will be traveling this weekend to the Star City Games Power 9 Tournament in Chicago. I will be working the table with Ben, but I am sure I will get some Magic in. I’m sure I will get to see a lot of Vintage decks going at it this weekend. I plan to play some Sealed deck during the trip, since I will be heading to Daytona Beach for the Grand Prix next week. That is a solid 3,000 miles in 10 days. I will have a lot of time to write, that’s for sure. No problem… I still have 51 weeks to go. I am going to get there!

See you in Chicago!



If you only visit StarCityGames.com to read the articles, I highly suggest joining in on the forum discussions we have on this here site. Well that, and buy lots of cards from us! But seriously, if you don’t read the forums, you missed an absolutely wonderful talk about Ferrett’s article “In Defense of Rares.” Feedback turned to debate over the value of singles out of different sets, to the point where I broke out the calculator, threw together a bunch of figures, and showed that Future Sight is probably the best set to crack for singles out of any release in the past half-decade.

Here’s a cut from that post: (Go ahead and check out the forum thread itself for full details, and then come back here! I don’t want Ferrett getting more hits than me!)

Let’s try this math another way. Right now, we (StarCityGames.com) sell Future Sight Booster Boxes for $84.99. There are 36 cards in a pack, so the average value of a pack, unopened is $2.36. Let’s make a list of the Rares in Future Sight that are worth both more than $2.50, and have demand (are fast sellers right now):

Akroma’s Memorial: $4.50
Bridge From Below: $6.00
Coalition Relic: $7.50
Epochrasite: $5.00
Glittering Wish: $4.00
Graven Cairns: $7.50
Grove of the Burnwillows: $7.50
Horizon Canopy: $12.50
Korlash: $12.50
Magus of the Moon: $4.00
Nimbus Maze: $7.50
Pact of Negation: $6.00
River of Tears: $7.50
Slaughter Pact: $7.00
Tarmogoyf: $35.00
Tarox Bladewing: $2.50
Tombstalker: $7.50 v
Venser: $10.00

Total: $154.00

Now, there are 60 Rares in Future Sight. 60 into 154 is $2.56, which times 36 is $92.16. This means that, if we (StarCityGames.com) opened a statistically significant number of Future Sight boxes for singles, we would be making (just factoring in the GOOD rares) $7.16 more per box than selling them sealed. This does NOT include the other Rares we’d get from any given box we opened, plus foils, plus Uncommons (Of which there are quite a few good ones: Delay, Dryad Arbor, Keldon Megaliths, Narcomoeba, Riftsweeper, Street Wraith, Tolaria West, and Yixilid Jailer are all tournament-savvy Uncommons) plus Commons (almost all of which, admittedly, would be bulked)

I then go on to discuss the reasons why we don’t just open every box we have, rather than selling them sealed (condensed explanation: overhead from the manpower it takes to physically open, sort, enter, and file that product, versus just selling a sealed box), which led the discussion on a completely different tangent. Quote forum user NPC Phil:

WotC doesn’t make much of its money from online anyway. RL still wins, so yeah, the cards are probably worthless to the online crowd.

To which I dug up a very recent interview between Wizards of the Coast Brand Manager Worth Wollpert and Gamespy. (The full interview can be found here.)

GameSpy: One would presume that the digital objects are far more profitable for WOTC, since you can circumvent printing costs, shipping, and you can sell them for the full suggested retail price, instead of selling them at a discount to retailers. It’s also interesting to note that in the grey market, and in trades between players, the online cards have the same value if not more than the physical cards. How do sales of the digital cards compare to those of the physical cards, and how large a share of the Magic business does Magic Online make up?

Worth Wollpert: Without getting into specific numbers, North American MTG versus Magic Online, the online game is somewhere between 30% to 50% of the total Magic business. And we do sell most of our Magic in North America. It’s a good chunk of the overall international business. Magic Online accounts for maybe a third, maybe 40% of the overall number. It’s some real money and a big business for us.

Hands up if you thought that Magic Online accounted for between 30-50% of the total business done for Magic, as an entire game? I know that number blew me away, but for all the wrong reasons.

How in God’s Green Earth does Wizards of the Coast let Magic Online get run/programmed so poorly for a program that accounts for up to HALF of their entire Magic income?

Seriously, folks — we’re not talking about half of a million dollars here. We’re talking about one of the most valuable gaming licenses in the world, a product line that pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars a year! And the talk about overhead is completely right — Magic Online has profit margins that far eclipse paper Magic’s wildest dreams! No shipping costs. No printing costs. Full MSRP selling prices. The cards have to be made for paper Magic anyhow, so you can figure that R&D costs are at a 50% rate (half for paper Magic, half for Magic Online). What are your costs? Programmers, bandwidth, and servers.

As we all know, Magic Online has had a great number of problems over the years with buginess and server stability. This is not to say that Magic Online is a bad product — quite to the contrary, it is a fabulous program! And no, I’m not just saying this because I write a column for Wizards that is exclusively dealing with Magic Online. I’m saying it because it’s true. It has revolutionized global playtesting, has raised the overall level of skill in Magic to a much higher plateau, has allowed players to draft at will. Magic Online has given geographically disenfranchised players a way to play the game, and given parents/the working-class dad and mom a way to play Magic when going out would not be a solution.

So for all of the upsides of Magic Online (both as a profit-making juggernaut for Wizards of the Coast and as an amazing program for the community to use to, well, play Magic), what gives? Why is the old version of the client filled with crashing issues and bugs each new set release? Why has it taken years to get an improved version of the client off of the ground?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know this — whatever the answers are, they aren’t the right answers, because Magic Online still has these problems. Worth says that Magic Online accounts for between 30 and 50 percent of Magic’s business — I say that if Magic Online were a stable program, that had no crashing issues and smooth set releases, whatever figure Magic Online is making right now would double. There are countless people who avoid Magic Online out of fear of crashing/bugs/unstable servers, and countless more who cut their playing time short due to these frustrations.

Let me tell you a story about a company called Blizzard. Blizzard, as most of you know, is the company that puts out World of Warcraft. Their track record as a company is ridiculous — each of their releases has drawn huge success, both critically and financially. The Warcraft series, the Diablo series, the Starcraft series, and World of Warcraft — all from Blizzard. Starcraft is literally the unofficial national sport of South Korea (with literally two television networks having shows dedicated to Starcraft cyberathletes — check out this for more details. It’s a fascinating read!).

Right now, World of Warcraft (their current flagship title) has over 9 million active subscribers, at around $15.00 a month. That’s approximately $135.000,000 in subscription costs Blizzard is bringing in each month, or $1.620,000,000 a year. That’s right — over a billion, six-hundred-million dollars a year. Some people have slightly lower subscription rates (due to multi-month packages), and some might not play an entire year, but there is no doubt that World of Warcraft, in-and-of-itself, is worth over a billion dollars.

This does not include licensing (toys, the TCG, T-Shirts, and hundreds of other pieces of merchandise) which most likely make World of Warcraft worth somewhere in the range of two-to-three billion dollars as an entity. How did Blizzard pull it off?

A) World of Warcraft is a fun game.
B) World of Warcraft has and is a community.
C) Blizzard has relentless bug-quashing and quality control. They have delayed releases of products (including the first expansion, The Burning Crusade) if they are not happy with the final, public product. This included Blizzard completely missing the Christmas season this year, releasing their product towards the end of January…and having the community go in a feeding frenzy because they knew that the finished product was going to be stable, and more-or-less bug free.

Now, let’s compare this to Magic Online:
A) Magic Online is a fun game.
B) Magic Online has and is a community
C) Magic Online (unfortunately) releases buggy patches (read: set releases), and patches (set releases) often cause the servers to overload, crashing the client and making the game hard to play.

I’m not suggesting that Magic Online could reach the number of players that World of Warcraft has — they have vastly different pay models (pay monthly versus pay-as-you-go), appeal to different crowds of people, and are completely different games. What I am suggesting — and in fact, this is the point of the entire article — is that Wizards of the Coast is sabotaging their own game and profit margin by not making Magic Online the best program it can be!

If I were in charge at Wizards of the Coast, I would literally spare no expense to upgrade Magic Online into a 99.99% stable, 99.99% bug-free platform, where the expectation was set releases that could handle an unlimited (to the public’s eye) server load, and where older cards aren’t constantly broken by new pieces of code. And when I say spare no expense, I mean it! I would hire tens of millions of dollars in manpower, spend tens of millions more on server and hardware upgrades, and do whatever it took to make Magic Online as stable as it could possibly be.

No matter how much I spent, I would recoup that money with a year as people flocked to Magic Online, which would now have the (deserved) reputation as a bug-free, crash-free program.

No matter how much I spent, it could do nothing but increase the long-term profitability and viability of Magic Online as an asset to Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro.

No matter how much I spent, it would not, and I mean WOULD NOT be more than the lost income from people avoiding the program, or using the program less, due to the problems it currently has.

I don’t know if anyone from Wizards of the Coast will read this, but I would implore them to pass this column along to the people in charge of Magic Online and financial decisions relating to Magic Online. If you’re a person who would spend more money on Magic Online if it were a stable, bug-free program, speak up on these forums! Magic Online has the potential to bring countless computer gamers into the world of Magic (remember, it’s not just for people who play the card game), and anything that Wizards of the Coast can do to make Magic Online the best it can be will only benefit themselves, the community, and the game in the long run.