The Kitchen Table #124 – A Casual Look at Online Programs

Read Abe Sargent every Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, March 13th – Hello folks, and welcome back to the series that brings the casual acts to the stage. I am your producer, determining which acts are good enough to warrant some time in the limelight. Today I want to investigate the tools available to casual Magic players out there, including Apprentice and more.

Hello folks, and welcome back to the series that brings the casual acts to the stage. I am your producer, determining which acts are good enough to warrant some time in the limelight. Today I want to investigate the tools available to casual Magic players out there, including Apprentice and more.

Before I begin, two things:

First of all, I write these articles a while before publication, and only occasionally break into the order to publish a more timely article (such as the one about what Wizards could learn from WizKids). Thus, I wrote this article prior to the Wizards announcement of Magic: The Electronic’s commitment to Elder Dragon Highlander (i.e. Commander is being brought to the online-verse). This article would be slightly different if written now.

Second, and this has nothing to do with the article: a personal note to Paul Barclay…


Hello! I’ve been watching the Wizards takeover of Heroscape from the general Hasbro offices. I was worried with Craig no longer developing the pieces. However, what I have seen so far from you in regards to one of my favorite games is pretty good news, and although Wizards has had Heroscape for a short period of time, everything looks really good so far. You get a kudos from me. Pass that along to the other people working Heroscape, would you? Thanks!


Okay, article time. Let’s look at tools you can find online.

Some of my regular readers might recall that a while ago I grew frustrated with Magic: The Electronic. I decided to chuck it in and move on. During that article, I mentioned that I’d like to help players who needed an online forum to play their Magic games but wanted something different from the online Magic client.

Today, I am following up on that. One reason why I am exploring these programs in my column is because I want to give readers who enjoy online gaming some face time. Another reason is because, frankly, it’s past due. I have done playtesting using Apprentice in some of my previous articles, (such as My Basic Set, MagicShop, the Compendium, etc.)

I’ve used Apprentice before in my articles, but I have never written an article about what it is, or why a casual player might be interested. The same is true of other programs. I have realized that this is something many readers could find useful. I also once wrote an article on the various ways a casual player could use MTGForge in real life, but I lost it when I lost my hard drive several months ago, and I do not expect to rewrite it.

There are readers out there who want to scratch their Magic fix more regularly than they play Magic in real life. For them, online Magic makes sense. However, they may not have the money to invest in Magic: The Electronic. This in an article for them.

Similarly, there are Magic players out there who have the money, but do not have the time to acquire cards, fight with bots, and casual trade to acquire what they want. This is also an article for them.

Third, there are players out there who enjoy playing with older cards or wacky formats, and neither are supported by Magic: the Electronic. This in an opportunity for those players to find a new way to play online, and therefore this article is also for them.

What Programs are Out There

If you already know Apprentice, Magic Workstation, NetDraft, and other programs skip this section. If not, read on.

We will start with Apprentice, the godfather of them all. It is important to understand that Apprentice and similar desktop programs are a different piece of software than Magic: the Electronic. Although both sides are designed to allow you to play Magic online, that ends their similarity.

The Wizards client is designed by professionals. The game knows the rules of Magic, and therefore neither player can cheat. It also has all of the art, and there are some unusual cards printed that it can handle, such as a Wish. In the game, you actually own access to your cards (you don’t own them, technically, you just have access to them until Wizards revokes said access). Only cards which are programmed into the game can be used.

Apprentice was designed by volunteers during their spare time. It is free. Instead of a program that knows the rules and plays the game for you, it is merely a virtual desktop. You can click on a card to tap it, untap it, and so forth. It does not know the rules, so you have to know the game. In this sense, it is just like playing at the kitchen table. You can use any card in Magic, although some, like Chaos Orb, do not translate well to online play. You can use Unhinged and Unglued, so if you want to build a deck with BFM or tap an Artful Looter, Apprentice allows that.

Apprentice does not have the art, and can sometimes have unusual ways of getting around cards, like a Wish. If you cast a Burning Wish, the best way to get the card you want is to create a card, right there, with the given color, cost, name, and type (and power/toughness for cards like Living Wish).

In Magic: The Electronic, if you play an Aether Mutation, the game will bounce the creature and make the 1/1 green saprolings for you. On Apprentice, your opponent bounces their creature (assuming you targeted one of theirs), and you create a card, making a 1/1 saproling, and then copy it. This resembles real life, where you would physically put the tokens in play while another player physically returned the card to their hand.

On the other hand, Apprentice is not subject to “bad cards” like Magic: the Electronic. Bad cards are those that are bugged or programmed poorly, and do not work the way they are supposed to, until the next update. Since no cards in Apprentice are programmed at all, you are never playing a bad card. I once lost a draft in the final game when my opponent had no creatures out, and I had three, and he was down to five and no cards, then he topdecked March of Souls and played it. It resolved, but the client did not put any spirit tokens into play, so I was not left any beaters. Then, three turns later, after I killed his first topdecked creature with a removal spell, he played a second topdeck creature, and won with it. Had Magic: the Electronic allowed March of Souls to play properly, I would have won, because my three 1/1 spirit tokens would have gone the distance.

You never have to worry about issues like that with Apprentice.

Now, if you are going to play Apprentice, it is important that you understand these differences. You can play with any card that works online, including those from casual sets. You can play any Magic format you heart desires. There are no bugs in the cards, and it is completely free.

The downside is that Apprentice is merely a virtual desktop, and will not enforce the rules. Sometimes it can be a bit clicky (which means it can requires several clicks to do things that in Magic: the Electronic might take just one or two clicks) because you have to do more on the desktop. It can also sometimes take a while for a volunteer to make the latest set and get it ready for download.

Alright, next up we’ll hit NetDraft. You can do online drafts with Netdraft, and then save your file to reopen in Apprentice and build a deck there (It might also allow you to open your draft in Magic Workstation. It’s been a while since I played it, so I do not know for sure.) NetDraft will allow you to use any sets up through Time Spiral and 9th, so it’s out of date, no question. On the other hand, you can combine any sets you want for your draft, allowing you to draft Alliances-WeatherlightProphecy if you want. You could never draft anything like that on Magic: the Electronic.

Moving on, we have Magic Workstation. A lot of players find Magic Workstation to be a better program that Apprentice once you get used to it. If you do not like Apprentice, give Magic Workstation (MWS) a try. Similarly, if you like Apprentice, give it a try, because you might love MWS.

Now, if you are interested in MWS, please note that it shares the virtual desktop qualities of Apprentice, and has been more recently updated. Don’t download the card art, because it is illegal. It is also shareware instead of freeware, so you should pay for it to get the full version.

Magic Workstation is a virtual desktop, similar to Apprentice, but with a more modern interface, including extensive use of hotkeys. Some like one, and some prefer the other.

There is a new Apprentice-like game currently in beta called Daring Apprentice. This game, in beta, allows you to play offline, for solo testing purposes, and is up to date as of Lorwyn. It does not have multiplayer play yet. It supports 3D graphics. I have no idea if Daring Apprentice will ever be finished, but I spoke briefly with some people who said it is getting regularly updated, so I wanted to point it out for them, in case you are interested.

Another project currently in beta is Online Play Table (OPT). It was last updated on the 19th of January, which is promising. However, the program is not currently available for download, claiming to be fixing a bug. Perhaps it will be back up by the time this article sees publication.

Because it was not available for download as I was writing this article, I was unable to try it out. My understanding is that OPT is similar to other virtual desktop programs like MWS and Apprentice. Supposedly you can multiplayer and draft on OPT, but that is just from their own claims, I don’t know how stable it is or anything.

Before I move off the subject of downloadable tools, I want to check in with two more. One is Suitcase and the other MTGForge.

Magic Suitcase is a free downloadable program that you can grab to inventory and track your Magic cards. There is no game in Suitcase, but if you are interested, it’s a fine resource. Their database is updated as of Morningtide, so you know it is still getting regular attention, and that’s nice in this online world.

The other program is the most unique Magic software available, Forge. Forge is getting regular updates, so you can again be comfortable in that.

Forge is an offline game, where you draft cards against the computer, and then build decks and play against them. The cards come from all over Magic’s history, all the way up to Planeswalkers from Lorwyn (as of the last time I played, which was two months ago).

All of the cards are commons, including Wrath of God, Moxes, Ancestral Recall, and so forth. It’s an odd format, and frankly, I love it, except for two things that hold it back for me.

One is the smaller card pool. Even at hundreds and hundreds of cards, the pool gets stale quickly. I corresponded with the developer a few times by e-mail. He has a blog where he writes about coding new cards, which is a lot of fun to read. In that blog, he mentions finding duplicate cards, that enable him to program two cards at once, such as Damnation and Wrath of God. I e-mailed him a list of cards he has programmed and how he could extract them to other cards. For example, the program has Scryb Spirites, so I e-mailed him that Suntail Hawk, Flying Men, and Lantern Kami could all be made as well.

After adding more cards, the program is fun, and drafting lots of different cards is neat, but I feel that he needs to really amp up the number of cards in order to push the “any card from any set anytime” angle of Forge.

The other problem is the woeful AI. Frankly, in all of the games I have played with Forge, I have only lost one, once, to mana screw. I have never lost to the AI. It will Duress me, see I have a Wrath, and then proceed to drop every creature it its hand. It will Wrath itself when it has three creatures and I have one, in order to kill my one.

The AI in Shandalar is poor. The AI in Forge appears almost non-existent at times. It is also a bad drafter, often leaving power cards in the draft for far too long.

Of all of these programs, I have the highest hopes for Forge, but it will still take some work. Like I said, it is updated regularly. I am writing this on Wednesday, February 27, and the last update was yesterday. He is supposedly working on MTG Forge 2.0, with a new engine, so we will see how things go.

What Can I Do?

There are tons of things you can do online with these programs. For example, I have written nine entries in the Compendium of Alternate Formats (actually I wrote two more, but they were lost too).

Of those nine entries, how many could you play in Apprentice?

Bugwar, Tribal. Rainbow Stairwell, Elder Dragon Highlander, New York Format, St. Patrick’s Format, Just One Star, Chess Magic, and Scavenger Hunt Magic. You can play all nine entries online.

Want to draft Alliances-Urza’s Destiny-Morningtide? Say hello to Netdraft. Want to play a Rainbow Stairwell tournament? RS is an official format on Magic-League.

Any format you can think of is legal, so long as it translates to online gaming. Obviously, you can’t create a format where people get up and play duck-duck-goose in the middle of Magic, but you get the idea. Any deck size, any cardpool, any rules sets are yours to run.

Apprentice even has the rules to Chaos Magic in it, and you can play Chaos Magic against each other. (Chaos Magic is a format where very random things happen at the beginning of each player’s turn, and there is a long list of possibilities. Apprentice has the list in it, and can be used to run Chaos Magic).

Yes, it’s true that Magic: The Electronic is the corvette in the showroom, taking a lot of attention away from the other programs that are out there. However, when you look around, some of these programs are pretty sturdy.

Remember, there are large groups of people that cannot play the Wizards client. Check out some of these programs and see what you like.

Good luck finding a great program. Perhaps I will see you on the other side of a game one day soon!

Until later…

Abe Sargent