Reflecting Ruel – Testing with Magic Online

Tuesday, August 31st – Magic Online is a valuable testing tool for Limited and Constructed formats alike. Today, Hall of Famer Olivier Ruel shares some online tips and tricks to help improve your game.

Today’s article is a little different to my usual article fare. I’ll not be writing about “classic” gaming strategy; instead, I’ll discuss the use and optimization of Magic Online as a playtesting tool.

The more I play the online game, and the more I talk to people about it, the more I discover hints, tips, and tricks that I could use to make the program work better for me. Whether you are a Magic Online regular, a casual MTGO player, or you’d simply like to give the program a try, here is some advice which should definitely help you.

Before I start, I would like to say that when I first considered writing an article such as this, I wondered if the content would be strategic enough. However, I quickly realized that the topic definitely bore strategic fruit. Indeed, even the parts of this article which may look the least technical (“How to Save Time on Magic Online”) may turn out to be the most interesting from a strategic perspective.

The ability to make the best play in any given scenario springs from many things: personal skill, experience, and so on. However, it also springs from the ability to focus on the game, and on the game alone. The more external pressure you feel (your fear of losing, distractions from spectators, clock management issues, and so on), the less you will be able to concentrate properly on your game. Becoming familiar with the skills behind ignoring the pressure, or playing faster, is something that can be mastered, be it in real life or online. My collection of handy tips means you need spend fewer minutes on the distracting details, and more time on the game itself.

How to Record Your Draft Picks

Go to Menu/Settings/Personal Settings. Then click on Game Play, and check the Advanced Settings options. Click on Enable draft recorder, and the list of your picks will be saved in Documents/Games/MagicTheGatheringOnline/Drafts. This is the tool I use in my “Drafting With Olivier” column; it is also pretty useful if you want to look back on a draft you’ve recently played, to discuss your choices with other people.

Other Gameplay Settings

The Set Stops function will determine when you receive priority. While many people choose to have stops on every step, to make sure they don’t skip anything important, you usually don’t need more than four stops on each player’s turn.

On your turn, you should select the following stops:

Main (Pre-combat)
Declare attackers
Declare blockers
Main (Post-combat)

On your opponent’s turn, you shouldn’t need more than:

Beginning of combat
Declare attackers
Declare blockers
End step

If you are mostly playing Constructed and are not running any tapping effect, you can even skip your opponent’s beginning of combat stop. Of course, this can be so important in Limited that I like getting used to having a stop there.

If, at any time, you need to play effects at other moments (in any player’s upkeep, or end of combat for instance), you can click on the boxes at the bottom left of the screen during the game. A symbol in the top left of a box will mean there is a stop during your opponent’s turn, while one at the bottom right will mean you’ll get priority automatically on your turn.

Once in a while, sadly, you know the game will come to clock management, where both time-pressed players simply keep on passing priority by clicking Okay or pressing F2, F4, or F6 (we’ll get to these keyboard shortcuts a little later). There is actually a better way to avoid losing a single game to substandard clock management, no matter how bad your connection is, whenever you are “winning” the clock management race, even if it’s merely by a single second. Simply go back to the Set Stops screen, and remove them all. From then on, the only thing you’ll have to do is discard at the end of your turn, and answer your opponent’s spells (an automatic F6 at the beginning of each turn will do that, but we’ll get to that shortly).

How to Keep Priority

Talking about priority, once in a while you’ll need to answer your own spell. To do this without passing priority, keep the “control” key pressed from before you click on the first spell you’re casting like to the moment when it is on the stack. Only then can you release the control key, and priority will be yours.

When a Hand is Revealed

Whenever Player B plays a spell or ability which makes Player A reveal his hand, he will not see the revealed cards in the same order as Player A. They won’t be displayed randomly, but in the order they were drawn. This information can help you retrace your opponent’s plays, and to anticipate what may be coming from previously-cast cards such as Ponder, Scry spells or anything which manipulates the top of the library. Most of the time this is irrelevant, but considering the number of current decks that run Ponder and Preordain, the information can actually be quite important!

Catalog Your Limited Decks

Whether you have a deck you think is special, or a deck for which building was questionable at the time (which happens a lot in Sealed, for instance), it can be pretty useful to reload the deck for further examination. In order to do this, go to Deck Editor. Then click Load/Local Deck/Default Folder/TournamentDecks. There, you will find a list of data files, all starting with “Match” and followed by a series of numbers. The naming convention makes it a little tricky to retrieve a specific deck. However, if you remember (approximately) when you played the deck, it shouldn’t be too hard. For instance, if a data file is called:


3-4-2010 is the date when you played the deck, and 4:49:39pm is the exact time at which you submitted it. If you know when you played, finding the deck should be piece of cake.

Saving a Decklist

If you want to save a decklist, in order to give it to a friend for instance, click on Save As in the Deck Editor. Then, in the dialog box, choose Local Text Deck, and chose the location where you can find it more easily.

Some Online Tricks

Let’s get back to the game itself. There are tricks you can perform on Magic Online which are not necessarily intuitive, as they would be pointless in real life. Let’s say, for instance, you are convinced your opponent is running a card which changes a target (such as Swerve, Ricochet Trap, or Willbender), and you have to play a spell which your opponent would be happy to redirect (Ancestral Vision, Time Warp, and so on). In such cases, you can simply target him. There is a big chance that he won’t notice, and he’ll play his redirection spell and be forced to choose you as the new target. Such things are Hail Mary plays, and the starts will only align once in a while, and thus you should only try this as a last resort, but it can be a game decider.

A much more common occurrence is facing countermagic which requires you play extra mana in order to cast your spell (such as Mana Leak, Broken Ambitions, etc.). The best way to play around these cards is to tap extra mana while casting your spell. This way, your opponent must adapt and react not to the mana you’re holding open and the untapped lands he can see, but to the untapped lands he can see plus the mana you have in your mana pool. I used to do this pretty often, even when it risked mana burn, but now there is simply no reason not to do it. Of course, the more expensive the spell, the less obvious it becomes.

Saving Time

One of the biggest difference between Magic Online and the real thing is the clock. In real life, once in a while you have to fight in order to avoid a draw. On MTGO, you must play fast in order not to lose two points, but three points. In order to avoid losing a lot of time, playing fast and having a good internet connection is very helpful (of course), but the difference between two opponents’ speeds resides in how familiar they are with the many shortcuts a game of Magic Online offers.

As I mentioned earlier, setting the correct stops is important, but you can save a lot more time with the proper use of the keyboard. Here is a list of the shortcut commands and what they do:

F2: Pass priority. It is the same as clicking on “Okay.”

F3: Remove all autoyields, and override F4 and F6. Without this command, playing with the keyboard would be pure suicide. You almost always have time to undo a misplayed shortcut if you realize your mistake quickly.

F4: Pass the turn unless something occurs. That “something” can be an attack from either player, or a spell or ability played by an opponent. On your turn, if you have any creature that can legally attack, it will stop automatically. However, if your only guy is a creature which can only attack if a certain condition is met (like Gargoyle Sentinel), the game won’t stop unless you met the condition before pressing F4. If anything does happen and gives you priority back, then you will have to press F4 again.

F5: Look at your face-down cards. Not so useful in the current popular formats.

F6: Don’t do anything this turn. You can still attack and block, but nothing more. It saves a lot of time, but it is still pretty risky to use at first. The classic way to using it is to press it at the moment you don’t have anything more to do on your turn, and at the moment your opponent untaps if you don’t have a thing to do on his turn. If you notice your opponent is going incredibly quickly, and thus is probably using F6, you can still try some “F6 special” moves, such as Lightning Bolt on Putrid Leech, which would never make sense in any other situation.

I use F6 on almost every turn, but I can only afford to because I am used to it and because my left hand’s fingers are on f2, f3 and f6 during every single online game I play. If you can’t access f3 pretty fast, f6 is just way too dangerous.

F7: Until the end of the current game, put all triggers with the same text as that trigger on the stack automatically, if they do not target. While it may not work for Valakut, it is still pretty useful, in particular with the Landfall ability.

F8: I have heard the F8 key is useful, even though I never knew what it did. Apparently, it passes priority infinitely when you are in a loop (Such as Ring on Ring on Ring) which you can’t get away from. As this kind of situation doesn’t occur so often, I haven’t really checked yet.

And eventually, in the same way F2 stands for “Okay,” F9 stands for “Yes” and F10 for “No.”

I mentioned autoyields when talking about F3. When your opponent plays an activated ability, or triggers an ability, the ability will go on the stack like any normal spell. If you right-click on that ability, two options will be offered to you:

“Always yield to FX: triggered/activated ability from Card’s name.”

… Or…

“Yield to FX: triggered/activated ability from Card’s name until end of turn.”

Unless he’s activated the same card several times, and you might want to answer it later in the game, (Steppe Lynx plus fetchland when you’re tapped out, for instance), you will go with the first. However, if your opponent plays a second copy of the said card, you will have to repeat the process. And same goes if it leaves the game (via bounce, Astral Slide, reanimation spell, etc).

It is very likely there are things I still don’t know after a decade of using this program, just as likely that there are things I have not explained which you would like to understand. If there is anything on the subject you would like to share or ask me about, please do so in the forums!

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

Olivier Ruel