It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times: My Take On Magic Online

As a programmed version of Magic, MOL will both at once suck you in and then spit you out. It is a beautiful rendition of our favorite game, with shortcomings that will likely nag you to no end.

I’ve been somewhat reluctant to get started with this review of the new online version of Magic. My feeling was either that it is going to be too long or too short; I guess we’ll find out about that.

Just about the time that I was going to write up my first impressions, the pricing scheme plans came out and left a bad taste in just about everyone’s mouth – mine included. I mean we know that what most people really wanted was a better, updated version of the old Apprentice program, including its price, so that we could build up Constructed decks and do neato playtesting all night long. Obviously that’s not the direction that Magic Online is going. Wizards price policy for the Magic Online product is based on the idea that if Magic Online were cheap, it would hurt local retail card sales.

I’d have to ask if Apprentice hurt local card sales? Or Suitcase? Or the Microprose game? Or the Playstation game? Okay maybe mentioning that Playstation abomination was going a bit too far, but the idea is the same. Never before was a computer program version of the game released with any worry about how that release would effect the real life card market nor has the game seemingly suffered from the availability of cheap or free online play. We all wanted Magic Online to be cheap so we could continue to buy all of the same amounts of cards from our local retailer or Star City while also having a full collection of virtual cards. Most players want both – and will take both if they can afford it.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.*

As a programmed version of Magic, MOL will both at once suck you in and then spit you out. It is a beautiful, computer-programmed rendition of our favorite game with shortcomings that will likely nag you to no end.

At least that is how it is with me. I guess it’s time to elaborate.

By now, you probably know the basics. Magic Online does indeed represent Magic the Gathering in its fullest online incarnation. It opens with an in-program tutorial and then follows up with access to just about every type of organized play one can imagine. There are many forms of both Constructed and Limited play, covering almost all of the bases. There is always some sort of draft going in multiple varieties. You can draft”casual” or in a”sanctioned” room. You can draft 7th edition, Invasion block, or Odyssey block. You can organize”team” drafts and sealed events. You can even play multiplayer Sealed deck games!

In Constructed play, the options are just about as varied. You can duel casually or can sign up for tournaments. There are numerous multiplay options including”free for all” (although you can actually only attack left) (Which sucks – The Ferrett), two-headed giant, three-headed giant, two versus two, three versus three, and emperor. This just about gives everyone a format that they can get into. Well almost…

You are limited in a way, in that you can only play these games with cards from the Invasion set onwards… And Wizards has said that that will be as far back as Magic Online goes with its card sets. There will not be any foil virtual Black Loti floating around, or dual lands to be played -which means that it won’t bring anything to help Extended and Type One players hunt up competition on a non local scale. This is perhaps understandable; it would be quite a chore to implement every Magic card ever printed into the game.

Heck, they can’t even implement every new card as of yet! Certain cards are absent even from the new sets, like Mirari from Odyssey. As it is the beta, it may be that every new card will be implemented eventually once some of the kinks are worked out, but I wouldn’t be so sure that that is the case with tricky cards that do stack manipulations like Mirari and Radiate. This is to say that with Magic Online, you may never get all of the cards that are available off line and that you would like to play with.

Now, I’ll go through what I’ve found out and thought about with more specific elements and formats in mind.

Your Cards and Trading

This is pretty straightforward. The game keeps your cards in virtual binders that you can look at in either picture form or list form. The program contains a full assortment of handy search functions for organization and deckbuilding. The same functions can be utilized when perusing another players set during a trade which helps you narrow down a search. Trading is pick-and-click, and simple in execution once you’ve successfully haggled with the other person. There is a trade room available where folks are continually posting their trade stock and wants. Also, you can open a trade with any person whose name is listed in any room or game. This is quite handy, as you can initiate trades with clan members and opponents. If you see your opponent play a Shadowmage Infiltrator that you need, maybe he has extras you can trade for.


I, for one, can’t draft my way out of a wet paper bag, since I more or less live in the sticks and no one drafts locally. Netdraft was pretty clunky for me, and my team didn’t really draft either. As it is while I generally know the basic”rules” for drafting, like creature and land ratios and that removal is king, I never seem to win much. As it was this sort of started to make the rares look better and better to me as picks considering I started with such a skimpy collection with Magic Online. Then I found out that rare drafting wasn’t hurting my already falling limited rating. So I kept at it. I guess it is for you to decide on how you feel about what I was doing. I know that most hardcore drafters don’t like to see rare-drafters, but I know that it’s a pretty easy way to pick up five or six rares off of a three-pack investment. Then I got to thinking: With the proposed idea that one can trade off virtual set for real ones, it might make things quite interesting. The payoffs in drafting are going to be the hottest ones. If you are either very good at drafting or at rare-drafting, trading, and building sets, it may pay off more than well. Excellent drafters will be able to win packs over and above what it will take to get into the next draft, and could find themselves on the edge of business-like status. Their surplus winnings could easily be traded into sets. Rare-drafters may either have a tougher or easier time depending on their trade skills. All in all, I can see that it may well stick that ol’ tone of greed over the whole thing, which would make folks just generally a tad more pissy. Heck, the game is free and there’s already a plethora of pissy folks hooked up.

(Does anyone else find the phrase”a plethora of pissy” as amusing as I do? – The Ferrett, giggling uncontrollably)

Beyond this there isn’t a lot to say. The interface is quite nice and you have options to look at either your picks or your opponent’s icons. Should you get disconnected for any period, the program does an absolutely horrendous job of making selections for you so that you can play once you return to the game. At first, I thought that it perhaps made just random picks… But I did a little test of watching the machine make”timed out” picks for me and I’m pretty sure it took not the best card available, but the worst one, so that the guys on either side of me could really load up and crush folks.

Sealed Deck

This is pretty straightforward and works much like in real life. You get your tournament pack and get busy. Build your deck and crush dreams. There wasn’t a lot of action with this format, but I’d expect it to pick up in season.


Of course, the game gives you a very good approximation of the real-life Constructed game: That is its main meat and potatoes. The interface is generally straightforward, but one should prepare to make mistakes early in priority decisions and other selections. Global Ruin is a much better spell online because about half or your opponents will botch the selection and take on a full Armageddon instead. My advice is that when in doubt, right-click… And then cross your fingers.

After this the most interesting facet is the game clock that is used in tournament play. With it, each player is allotted thirty-five minutes of the normal fifty minutes of match play and if you use up all of your time you lose. It sounds simple enough. It really isn’t.

The problem is that the time one uses in playing is as much about how well you can manipulate the priority switching in the game as much as it is about not stalling. This may not be easy to explain – but with more complicated decks and control-type decks, you have to have more priority stops so that you don’t miss reacting to an opponent and doing things like using Ice to tap their land and working end-of-turn plays. This takes time for you to pass priority, even if you didn’t really do anything. In real life, I most often play control, yet in all of my time playing I’ve taken only two draws in organized match play and never have been warned for stalling. With Magic Online, I regularly timed out in matches with certain decks. It was almost impossible to do end-of-turn manipulations with Holistic Wisdom with my Instant Guitars deck and finish a match… Not because I didn’t know what I wanted or needed to do, but doing what I wanted took so long. In real life, these plays would take mere seconds, while with Magic Online they would take ten times as long – and all the while, my clock would be running. In order to”offset” this, I was forced to play very fast and while there wasn’t a problem in thinking the game through, there was a problem with making mistakes in manipulating the program and passing priority. Speedily click the”okay” pass priority button one too many times and it may well cost you a match. It’s not that these things can’t be overcome… But suffice to say that it may well take some people more than a little time to get used to this idea and get enough practice with it to feel comfortable. I don’t know. I still don’t feel comfortable, but have only learned to get by with the clock function.


This is where I’ve spent most of my time. I’m a multi-play player at heart who hasn’t had a way to get together with enough folks to make a good multiplayer game. The allure to me then is, of course, that Magic Online has a rather well implemented multiplayer system. I already mentioned the variety of game types; however the game doesn’t include the granddaddy of multiplay, which is the true free-for-all”chaos” game, where anyone can turn on and attack anyone at any time. The Wise Ol’ Ferrett was the one that pointed out to me that the attack left form of the game lends itself to slower control decks, which thus bring about longer games with less politics. Less politics may mean less fun, and most multiplayer games take quite a while to begin with. I wouldn’t sit down to one with less than an hour to spare for a game like two-headed giant or two to three hours for emperor or a six-way game.

Other than the lack of the”chaos” game, Magic Online multiplayer is generally well implemented although it does seem that multiplayer may be on the back burner of priorities. Some ideas that are supposed to be implemented before public release aren’t yet functional in the beta test version. The limited targeting rules for Emperor aren’t yet functioning, and I had a bit of a run in with some kids that though it was fun to line up three stupid red burn decks and burn out the opposing emperor in two or three turns. Of course, no one is supposed to be able to target the Emperor until his lieutenants are dead. Also, at this stage the emperor can’t pass creatures, which is another feature that is supposed to be coming around but hasn’t yet.

Perhaps most troublesome is that while there are clocks aplenty to”gauge” your play in constructed tournaments and while you are making draft picks, there isn’t one to keep multiplayer games going when you are almost always going to see someone either drop out or have some disconnection problem during a game. Six-player games are often held up when priority passes to an absent player. Emperor games, plus the two- and three-headed multiplayer versions, are often abandoned for similar reasons.

It’s Not All Wizards’ Fault

As I say, the game is beautiful and has tremendous upside, even at the beta stage. The true downside of the game may have little to do with the program, but perhaps more with the users that use it. Just like any online gaming community, Magic Online is rife with lowlife scum that care for nothing more than ruining everyone’s good time or at best being more grumpy than they have a right to be with a game that is, at the moment, still free. This isn’t going to change. Just like with Apprentice, you are going to get those folks that disconnect and bail when the game doesn’t go their way. Magic Online does provide some relief to this in that you can form a clan with your friends and the game auto loads a chat window for your clan every time you run the program online. This helps so that you can get games with folks you know, so that you know that they will follow through with the games and make things enjoyable. Still, it is my feeling that in whatever way that Magic Online can be warped, it will be. There will be cutthroat vicious traders ripping off anyone that they can, jerks who want nothing more than to ruin your multiplayer game, and hackers doing their thing. I’m no expert on hacking, but I rather expect something to happen.

One interesting idea that I ran across is that the game will become available to be played much like Apprentice, with direct connections bypassing the Wizards servers. Similar things have been done with other multi-user persistent online games. While I don’t know that the main servers will ever be successfully hacked, I expect the fight to be a least somewhat taxing to Wizards and possibly the games servers from time to time.

And not everyone is a creep. There are plenty of good guys out there that you’ll meet and make friends with and become clan members with. It ain’t all bad.

Will I Play It?

I don’t know. At this point, I think not. I can’t afford to have the sort of collection that would make the game fun for me in the way that I envision it – and even if I were to afford it by, say selling my real cards and re-investing in Magic Online, I think the numerable downsides would perhaps sap too much of the fun from the game. Not to mention that this would be doing the opposite of what Wizards claims to want with their pricing structure: That is, forcing me to choose between online or real life play. Wizards may well be able to make the game almost perfect, but I’m not sure that the community would ever mirror itself to that idea.

What may be worst about all of this is that the pricing scheme has sent a nagging thought into my head: Is it worth it? I mean, is the whole of Magic the Gathering worth it? When you compare what you would have to spend to get the desired results with their online game as compared to other online games you have to start to wonder. I have Mike Mason voice whispering all the time to me:”Everquest… Play all you want… Less than $10 dollars a month…”

Ah, were it that I could roll back the clock to a year or so ago when Magic Online was just more or less a dream and me and Mike and Scott were playing heated and fun Apprentice matches nightly… And cursing that game’s shuffling mechanic…

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”