Streaming And Magic

Pro Tour Champion Shaun McLaren has just started streaming Magic Online matches, and has some thoughts to share about what it will take to make Magic more watchable and accessible to a broader audience.

“What’s the best way to get better at Magic?”

It’s a common question with a short and simple answer that’s fairly obvious: play lots of Magic. Immerse yourself in Magic.

The “long answer” of how to get better has taken up pages and pages over years and years of strategy articles and won’t ever finished being answered. But the short answer covers most of the basics: play Magic and you’ll get better. One of the best ways to do this is with Magic Online. For all of its quirks, bugs, and failings, it’s what we’ve got to work with. It’s almost always available and it’s the only place you can go to play pants-optional Magic (unless you’re going to some very interesting places for FNM).

Everything is being shared online and Magic is no exception. Twitch.tv and streaming in general are relatively new forms of entertainment, but they are growing and they are glorious. Watching Magic being played is also a great tool for learning how to play.

It’s kind of strange for the uninitiated to “get” streaming, especially smaller personal streams that aren’t playing in competitive events. Why would you ever want to watch someone play a game rather than just play it yourself? There are plenty of reasons though, from wanting to check on people you find interesting à la The Truman Show, to chat with others who share your interests, to learn how to get better at the game, to see a challenge completed, to see something embarrassing or funny or amazing happen to another person live, to get together to support a cause, or just to turn off your mind for a little while and forget your worries.

Streams aren’t necessarily the most concentrated form of entertainment, they can be boring with plenty of downtime. You might have a stream open in the background and not be entirely focused on it, or hop from channel to channel and come back later. I’ll often have a stream playing as I write as a kind of background music, so if I ever make a mistake or typo, it’s probably because something incredibly interesting happened on the stream and I got distracted and lost my train of armadillos.

So how does Magic fit into the world of streaming? I think the professional side of coverage has been improving with things like the Standard Super League, Pro Tour and Grand Prix coverage, and of course SCG Live does, quite frankly, a phenomenal job week after week… the viewership reflects that and shows just how much interest for Magic there can be. If you’re interested in reading ideas for improving coverage, check out this thought provoking series written a few years ago.

Today I’ll focus on the little guys. The individual streamers playing Magic Online and sharing it with the world. I’ll give my thoughts on the current landscape, the pros/cons of streaming using Magic Online, and some potential improvements.

Ready Player One

I recently got into streaming about a month ago in May…

Actually, that’s not entirely true, I did stream for a week during Christmas in 2012 and even won a Return To Ravnica Block Sealed PTQ while doing so.

It was an incredible experience since it all happened before I was a known Magical entity. I kept climbing viewers the whole day and for the grand finale I had about 400 viewers, plus my dad and my brother behind me, despite no webcam, no sound, a poor internet connection and my hand being blocked to prevent ghosting. It was quite the event for me and hopefully for anyone watching.

Since then, I think I always looked at streaming with rose-colored glasses, since it was a great week: eating Oreos, being with family, and goofing around, all while winning at Magic.

So that might give you an idea why I started streaming again, but there are plenty of other good reasons to get started as well. Here is a list of the top benefits and then a (longer) list of cons for playing Magic Online while streaming.

Positives To Streaming Magic Online

Yup, Magic Is Still Awesome

There are plenty of people that play Magic and plenty of people that want to watch other people play Magic. Although the barrier to entry might be steep for the average viewer to understand the rules of Magic, once you’re in you’re hooked for life.

Therefore I think the pool of Magic players and watchers are a little more dedicated and attached to this intricate, complex game that they put hours and hours into learning and leveling up in.

Connecting with other Magic players is great. After a while, you begin to speak a certain language, one that only other Magic players understand. One of the things I especially enjoy is you can interact with fans without having to type. I find it takes much more effort and thought to respond to a question in text. Being able to answer questions in a stream of consciousness way is much quicker, more natural, and allows for an actual dialog to occur.

Basically plenty of people like Magic and want to watch it, no matter what the platform for doing so is.

Massive Gains

Magic Online continues to be the best way to practice Magic at any time in a high-stakes environment. Since the barrier to entry is high and the value you gain by playing Magic Online is low, most people who play are serious about getting good and serve as excellent competition.

Start streaming and you’ll be practicing under at least a little pressure since it’s embarrassing to misplay in front of anyone. This is great experience if you ever find yourself in a feature match being streamed to thousands, or even just a PTQ finals with a crowd watching.

I also feel there has been a trend of streamers and Magic Online grinders putting up solid results recently, and I expect that trend to continue.

Problems With Streaming Magic Online

Not Widely Accessible

This is probably the biggest thing holding back Magic viewership. Hearthstone is easy to get into and learn the rules of the game, and I think their much larger viewer base on Twitch is largely due to this.

Magic is great to watch once you get past a certain skill level, but there is a high time commitment to reach that level of understanding.

As an example, I’ve tried to show my girlfriend the basics of Magic but I couldn’t quite catch her interest. This is probably a failing in my ability to teach the game but… I showed her Hearthstone and let her run wild with the tutorial and she got hooked. It’s free to play, the tutorial is interactive and fun, and you can plop anyone down in front of the Hearthstone client and they’ll be guided towards what to do next without any wrong turns for them to take or places to get lost and bogged down. You can essentially do no wrong when learning to play Hearthstone. Not so with Magic.

Potential Solution: Create a dedicated tutorial where Jace and friends guide you through the basics of Magic, step by step. Have this available when you start up Magic Online. As it stands, we have Duel of the Planewalkers and, of course, the gold standard of learning to play IRL. Having an excellent tutorial that can point a potential new player to learn how to play, or even learn how to watch, would be a great help.

Entertainment Vs. Quality Play

I find it very difficult to play high-quality Magic, and explain my thought processes, and be entertaining, and answer questions in chat all at once.

I hate to use Hearthstone as an example again, but it kind of solves this problem as well by not having any instant-speed spells. As soon as it’s your opponents turn, you can essentially take a break and focus on other things. In Magic, if you have any untapped mana you’re giving information away by yielding priority.

This isn’t necessarily an easily fixable problem, but it’s certainly a strike against Magic.

Information Is Precious + Set Lag

This is true of all games for streamers who compete at the highest levels, but giving up information is usually a big no-no when practicing for the highest-level events. There is also usually a period of time after Magic releases in real life before it releases online. Maybe there is a good reason for this (to encourage live play; it takes a lot of time to get the cards online) but it creates a gap where the relevance of what’s streamed is at an all-time low. Either way, this means you are highly incentivized to test in real life for Pro Tours, which is bad for streaming.

One potential benefit is that it gives potential up-and-coming streamers a chance to shine if Pros aren’t streaming before Pro Tours, but it seems like the number of Pros that stream a bunch is not that high anyway.

Potential Solution: Release Magic sets online earlier.

Low Stakes

Right now, Magic Online has the MOCS each month as the big events that matter, PTQs usually every week and some other Set Championship events from time to time that have never really caught my interest.

It is very difficult to turn a profit playing online, and even if you are a winning player you aren’t making much. Getting into Standard means that your collection is going to depreciate in value. Trading is time-consuming, and keeping up with price trends is even moreso. Savvy investors might be able to turn a profit but I just see having a collection as a tax to play whatever I want whenever I want, and hopefully I’ll win enough to stay in the black and buy more cards.

There’s nothing wrong with this, as obviously Magic Online needs to turn a profit and suck a little value away from the players, but right now the balance seems tilted too far towards the house, and it can be hard to even understand which events have the most value. Why doesn’t Magic Online ever use tickets as prizes? You can enter phantom tournaments and get phantom points back. Simple. To be fair though, if I don’t like it I can stop playing and this has been an issue forever, so I’ll just leave my thoughts at that.

There aren’t many good high-stakes events to stream. Who cares if you 4-0 a Daily Event? The stakes are very low. Let’s just go ahead and compare this to Hearthstone again. Hearthstone has a ranking system. It is prestigious to get Legend on the ladder, and once you do you have a little number saying what rank you are. This makes it clear to viewers who is doing well. Anyone who is #1 Legend in Hearthstone that decides to stream is going to get viewers.

Potential Solutions:

Make things that matter.

Weekly or monthly competitive leagues that show your rank in a big shiny number telling you what rank you are. Wins get you a better rank. Prestigious prizes and MOCS invited at the end of the week to the highest-ranked people.

Weekly/Daily high-stakes tournaments. Big ticket buy-ins, make them single elimination so they go quick and add an extra sense of urgency and danger.

Expand upon the idea of the MOCS with a Magic Online Grand Prix. Daily Qualifier Tournaments. Winner takes all, gets an invitation to a 365-person tournament somewhere with lots of prizes.

Weekly tournaments with fun restrictions, more crazy Limited formats. Make it fun and competitive. That’s like the definition of Magic.

Potential Fun Restrictions:

  • Only allow legendary creatures and basic lands.
  • Only four-drops.
  • Single Elimination Momir Tournament!
  • Give everyone matching decks with one of each planeswalker.
  • Strange hand sizes and life totals.
  • Auctioning off decks like they used to do at the invitational

Maybe it’s just too hard or too much work to do anything, but I would like it if something happened.

Problems With Magic Online

The client is laggy. I have a computer that can handle it but using an old computer causes major lag and makes it difficult to stream.

Lots of downtime between rounds. This a problem at all times, but I can at least watch a movie or surf the internet when I’m not streaming. There are ways to mitigate this, like playing against viewers or playing in two-mans, but those are both very low stakes. There should be a better tournament format for streamers. High stakes, no waiting. Leagues.

Getting Started Streaming Magic

Don’t stream to get rich and famous, and don’t play Magic to get rich and famous. The road is long and bumpy with plenty of setbacks, and you’ll burn out long before then if that is your primary motivation. There will still probably be that little voice in the back of your head that suggest that it’s possible for you to become rich and famous, and that’s fine, but it can’t be your only reason. You have to enjoy the game by itself and be fine with failure.

If you are looking for more viewers though, here would be my suggestions:

  • Put Up Results. Stream while your temperature is high and you’ve just had some exposure coming off of a high finish.
  • Get Good. Master an archetype and teach it. Viewers will come wanting to see a specific deck in action being played well.
  • Get Wacky. Play the crazy new deck that was just discovered or invent your own. Be the next Travis Woo.
  • Gimmicks. Have a “Thing.” People want to be entertained and if you’re not being bottom-of-the-barrel boring that’s a good start. Listening to Pan Flute music got a great reaction from my viewers and it became my Thing. These can develop naturally or you can come up with your own ideas.
  • Networking. Go into other chats and put yourself out there. (No, don’t troll or spam. That doesn’t help you.) Stream for your friends and local Magic players.
  • Be Yourself and Enjoy. Stream because you enjoy the game. Don’t do it expecting to get popular unless you are dedicated as hell. Different people will like watching different things, so be yourself and attract the audience that really wants to watch the real you.
  • Create Stakes. Make up challenges or goals to get viewers invested in watching. I attempted to do a 9-0 Challenge, which is winning three eight-mans back to back to back (which I essentially just made up) and it seemed to get people much more invested in watching than if I’d just played three eight-mans with no goal. People would check in to see how I was doing and be just that much more invested in the outcome instead of just watching random matches.
  • Don’t Compare. There will always be bigger and better fish than yourself so don’t try and measure your worth based on anyone else. Don’t compare yourself to Gerry T who has more viewers, followers, subscribers, fans and everything really, than you even though he started streaming about the same…

    Ahem, not bitter. Don’t do that.

  • Just Do It. Have skill, commitment, and personality. You succeed at Magic and streaming the same way you succeed at anything: dedication. Be consistent. You want something, you commit.


That there are so many good long-time Magic streamers proves that there is an audience for Magic streaming. NumotTheNummy, HAUMPH, and Darkest_Mage are the most active big fish at the moment. There are also dozens of smaller streams at any given time with people just like you and me who want to share their love of Magic if you’re willing to scroll down a little and show them a little love. Check someone out at random. Check someone out because someone else told you they were interesting – I hear _Elantris_, GabySpartz, Halcansan and SuzyTheGnat are particularly worth looking in on. Check someone out that nobody seems to be watching – maybe they’re great fun but just getting started, like I was with that PTQ I kind of sort of accidentally won while I was streaming. Not everyone has to be Pro Player Michael “The Darkest Mage” Jacob or GerryT to be worth watching, they just have to be playing something you find interesting.

Hopefully some of these ideas will see the light of day. Right now I think the bottleneck for growing interest in the individual Magic streamer is Magic Online. The future of Magic Online will certainly help dictate our portion of the streaming pie.

What is your relationship with streaming? Do you have a favorite little Magic stream you want to call out? What do you like to see and not like to see when you fire up a Magic stream? What would you like to see implemented in Magic Online?