The Magic Online Championship Series Should Not Exist

Brian Kibler shares his thoughts about the Magic Online Championship Series after his first experience with it ended in a crash this past weekend.

Early last week I happened to realize that I had enough Qualifier Points from Magic Online Championship Series (MOCS) Season 11 to play in the Finals event. Not only that but the MOCS was scheduled for Saturday and I was actually home over the weekend. This combination of circumstances meant that I was able to play in the MOCS for the first time ever. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t.

I was excited to play in the MOCS. I had never played in one before, and the opportunity to qualify for the Magic Online Championships seemed awesome. I have played in pretty much every other type of event that Magic has to offer—the Pro Tour, the World Championship, even the old Invitational—but not the Magic Online Championship. Not only is the Magic Online Championship a unique event in which it would be exciting to compete, but the winner of the event gets $25,000 and an invite to the World Championship next year—a qualification is worth a huge amount.

I scheduled my weekend around the fact that the MOCS was on Saturday. I travel a lot between conventions for work and Magic tournaments, so I don’t have a ton of free weekends at home. I went out to a club downtown on Friday night to see one of my favorite DJs play with a big group of friends but ended up leaving early so I could get home and be rested for the tournament in the morning. I had multiple people offer me tickets to BlizzCon, which was going on over the weekend, but I turned them down because I planned on playing in the MOCS instead.

I woke up before my alarm and after too little sleep on Saturday morning just like I do at major tournaments. I was excited to play and nervous about oversleeping, and my body knew it. I had a great deck that I’d been working on for weeks that I felt had great matchups against the field I expected. I was looking forward to my chance to show just how good it is to the world.

I lost my very first game in the first round of the MOCS but didn’t lose again for a long time after that. A few misclicks nearly cost me. I don’t play nearly carefully enough on Magic Online, a symptom of the fact that I never play major events on the client. I managed to prevail despite my blunders. I won some completely crazy games, including one in which my opponent hit Forest and Abrupt Decay consecutively with Nightveil Specter, the latter of which he was actually able to cast thanks to his singleton Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. I was keeping my friends and fans updated on my progress. I was 4-0, then 5-0, then 6-0, then 7-0.

When I picked up my seventh win, I was really excited. I was sitting at first place overall in the tournament and essentially guaranteed a Top 8 finish even if I lost the last two rounds thanks to my tiebreakers. I had been cruising along all tournament and felt confident in my ability to close things out. My deck was performing incredibly well, and barring misclicks I was playing very well. I’ve won a lot of tournaments in my life, but I’ve never won a MOCS and here I was pretty much in the Top 8 already!

In the eighth round, I was paired against a local San Diego player who I know. He asked if we could somehow intentionally draw, and I told him that’s not possible on Magic Online. We wished each other good luck and started to battle. We were just a few turns into the first game when it seemed to me like he was taking an inordinately long time to make a decision. I typed in chat to ask him what was going on and then immediately got a notice that I had been disconnected from Magic Online.

My heart sank. Was this really happening? I rushed to reopen the program and get back online. I input my username and password and sat stuck at the login screen. I closed and reopened the program and tried again. Same thing. As I restarted again, I posted on Twitter:

I tried again and again and again to log back on. I restarted my computer. People on Twitter were saying that they too had crashed and were also having trouble getting back online. Then people started saying that they were able to get in, and my hope returned that this could be salvaged. I finally got back online from my laptop, and this is what I found.


And that was from this:


My previous Twitter post was something of an understatement. I was more than not pleased. I am not a person who gets angry, and I was absolutely furious. I sat at my computer just staring at the screen. Well, staring at the screen and posting nonstop on Twitter about the sheer absurdity of the situation.

It took over an hour and a half from the time of the crash before there was any official word about the situation. That official word was that the tournament would be rescheduled for next Saturday and everyone who was 5-2 or better at the time of the crash would be invited to the new event. Additionally, everyone who was still in the event when it crashed would receive ten booster packs and a foil Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author] as compensation—pretty much the equivalent of finishing in the Top 32 of the event.

Now, I’m sure there are people for whom that kind of compensation seems reasonable. I am not one of them. I can’t play in the makeup event—it’s rescheduled for next weekend and conflicts with Grand Prix Washington DC, in which I’ll be playing. I am not interested in ten packs and a promo card. I did not play in the MOCS to win packs. If they had offered me compensation equal to the entire first-place prize barring the invitation to the Championship, I would still be upset because that invitation is the only reason I bothered playing in the first place.

They might as well give this out as the promo card for every MOCS because this is basically what their compensation feels like:

Make-up events and product compensation completely overlook the fact that people value their time. And I don’t just mean that in a monetary sense. I’m not a lawyer looking to clock billable hours, but I am a busy person with a lot of demands on my time. I chose to play in the MOCS because of the potential to win, and I made sacrifices to do so. Not only did I spend nine hours playing in the event itself, but I missed out on other things I could have spent my weekend doing, like going to BlizzCon and visiting with friends who I haven’t seen in years (where by the way they had a Hearthstone Invitational tournament that drew an enthusiastic crowd and 100K concurrent viewers on Twitch—and it didn’t crash).

The fact of the matter is that as soon as you involve prizes in a Magic Online event that are external to the program itself you lose the ability to compensate people in the event of a crash. If a Daily Event or Premier Event crashes, you can easily award people some amount of tickets and packs and maybe some QPs, and they’ll generally be appeased. That’s what they’re playing for after all.

But when you start getting external prizes involved—particularly things like invitations to the Magic Online Championship or the Pro Tour—you enter a completely different space. Now that is what many people are playing for. If the prizes for the MOCS were just packs and foil Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrublands[/author], I would not have bothered to play. I would not have blocked off my entire Saturday of one of my few weekends home for a chance to win some virtual cards. That is not something I care about. And you can’t just generate additional Magic Online Championship or Pro Tour invitations to hand out to people who were in a position to win them, so there’s nothing they can reasonably offer me that will make me happy.

Once you lose the ability to compensate people for a crash, you need to have some kind of failsafe for the situation in which a crash occurs. I’m not going to contend that Magic Online simply shouldn’t crash—while that’s a romantic notion, it’s simply not a reasonable expectation for any kind of complicated program that’s handling thousands of concurrent connections. But you should have a way to deal with the event of a crash that can actually offer a satisfying resolution for the people involved.

It’s not like this is a new issue. Magic Online has suffered from crashes that have resulted in unrecoverable states for important tournaments for a long time now. I know Patrick Sullivan was doing very well in a Magic Online PTQ a few months back—when that event crashed, he got some packs and the ability to play in a makeup event. From what I’m told via Twitter and Reddit, this isn’t even the first MOCS to crash—it’s something like the fourth. The MOCS is the flagship event series on Magic Online, and nothing has been done to provide a reasonable solution to these tournaments crashing despite the fact that it has been happening repeatedly for months. The only reason it’s getting particular attention now is because it happened to me and I have a big soapbox that I’m not afraid to stand on and shout.

Let me tell you a story about another game. I play a lot of League of Legends. I’m not very good, but I enjoy it and enjoy watching top players compete in tournaments streamed live. Last year I got tickets to attend the playoffs leading up to the World Championship in Los Angeles. I was excited to see the best teams in the world battle it out. Unfortunately, it pretty much didn’t happen. The League of Legends client was designed to be played online, and intermittent problems with the Internet at the venue caused multiple games to crash in unrecoverable states, several of which were in the very late stages and close to a conclusion. They were unable to finish even a single match—between powerhouse teams CLG.EU and World Elite—before the venue was set to close, and they had to call the event off without a resolution.

What did Riot (the company that makes League of Legends) do? Well, not only did they refund the ticket prices for every single attendee who came to watch the event and give all of them game currency and merchandise worth much more than anyone paid simply as an act of goodwill, but they also recoded their game to run on a local server so they would never have these kind of problems again. Oh, and they did it in the course of three days.

Riot was founded in 2006. League of Legends was released in 2009. Magic Online has been out since 2002. I understand that there is a difference between a video-game company and a paper-game company that happens to produce a video game, but the difference in responses is outrageous.

How does Magic Online not have the ability to recover a tournament in the event of a crash? Why is the state of an event not saved after every round? Why isn’t there a way to restore an event from these saved states? If you could restore a tournament from a saved state at the beginning of a round, at worst you’d have people lose the results of a single match if they happened to finish before a crash occurred instead of having every single person in the tournament lose all of the time they invested. I’ve seen DCI Reporter crash at a paper event and the judges scrambled to reconstruct the event from the records they had saved. Why can’t Magic Online do that?

Without the ability to adequately handle the seemingly inevitable crashes that plague the program, WotC should not run events that they cannot appropriate compensate for. Until there is a way to restore events that are compromised, the Magic Online Championship Series should not exist. Nor should Magic Online PTQs, like the one run on Sunday after the MOCS that managed to make it to the ninth round before also crashing. Both major Magic Online events this past weekend crashed. Both of them have make-up events scheduled for next weekend. And if those make-up events crash too? Pretty soon every tournament on Magic Online is going to be a make-up event for another tournament that crashed. Much like turtles, it’s make-up events all the way down.

I understand that software is complicated—better than most since my company is producing a digital collectible game ourselves. I believe that the people working on Magic Online are smart people who want it to succeed. But I’m sick of reading about how Magic is breaking sales records every quarter and that it’s many times as big as it’s ever been and yet there is apparently no budget to actually get Magic Online into a state that isn’t an absolute embarrassment. And it’s not like this is something that will be solved by the new beta client—fixes to these issues are all server-side stuff that has to happen no matter what your interface looks like.

The PTQ that crashed on Sunday had over 700 players. That’s $21,000+ in entry fees from that event alone. With so many people playing on Magic Online and so much revenue coming in despite the problems, it’s not surprising that nothing has been done to fix things. Why allocate significant budget to improve something that’s already so profitable? Hell, there’s a part of me that hopes Magic Online is always a garbage program because that’s all the more reason for people to play SolForge. But even if I’m a designer of a competing product, I’m also a huge fan of Magic, and it pains me to see things in the state that they are.

Being able to play Magic against people from all over the world at any hour of the day from the comfort of my own home is amazing. I was even thinking in the middle of the MOCS how great it was being able to take my dog out for a walk in between rounds or to be able to be playing in a legitimately meaningful competitive event with him on my lap. But the event can only be meaningful if you can reasonably suspect it will finish so the results of your time and effort can actually matter. These days that’s not a bet I’d be willing to make.

Tying Magic Online to physical Organized Play at this point is a joke. Inviting the winner of the Magic Online Championship to the World Championship threatens to undermine the latter event unless “willingness to tolerate repeated server crashes” is a characteristic you’re looking for in a World Champion. You can’t expect people to take the results of online tournaments seriously when they’re repeatedly compromised.

I am not going to play in another MOCS event until something is changed. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that Magic Online is an integral part of my job to make strategy videos and practice for tournaments, I’m pretty sure that after my experience this weekend I would quit the program altogether. That is precisely what I recommended on Twitter after the whole debacle—and it looks like a lot of people out there agree with me.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just listen to what Magic Online itself is telling you.