Why Is Wizards Using Us To Beta Test Magic Online?

Why isn’t there a dedicated group of Magic Online testers that are given the time to really test out the system? Each Magic expansion has a core set of testers that plays and practices with the product extensively to make sure none of the cards are too powerful or too weak such that it will ruin the enjoyment of the game. In fact, this is the hallmark of Magic that Wizards is proud to trumpet. So in light of the sad and unprofessional cancellation of Chuck’s Virtual Party this weekend, where is the core group of testers for the Online game to make sure that our enjoyment isn’t ruined?

Imagine this scenario:

You’ve known about States since the beginning of October. You’ve been scouring the Magic websites every few days, devouring any information you can about the upcoming event. If the word "States" is mentioned anywhere in the article, even as a footnote, you will read top-to-bottom. You’ve made sure to get permission from your parents, spouse, children, or whoever might possibly prevent you from spending the entire day playing Magic. You’ve called all your Magic-playing friends to see who will be participating in the big event. The rides are all arranged. Your excitement has started to bubble.

It is now less than 48 hours before the start of the tournament. You spend time flipping through a stack of Magic cards haplessly thrown on a table just to give yourself a little refresher. Mostly, though, you’re making sure there is no last-minute excuse that could prevent you from entering the tournament on Saturday. You’ve done all your homework, caught up on any lagging work assignments, even put out the trash a day early. Friday night has rolled around, and instead of your usual sloughing off in front of the T.V. or heading down to the local game store to play Friday Night Magic, you’ve chosen to stay home and get your laundry done. You’ve even remembered to throw a couple of cans of Coke in the refrigerator so they’ll be nice and cold for the morning drive. One last-minute trip to the grocery store to get a dozen chocolate-drizzled donuts for breakfast, and your head is resting on your pillow at a comfortable midnight.

Saturday morning is greeted with your presence for the first time in months. You’re awake, dressed, and eager to chat with the gang of Magic friends that have congregated in the driveway. Backpacks are thrown in the trunk along with the required supply of sugar – a jumbo-size box of Nerds, a bag of Twizzlers, and three-pound bag of whichever brand of chip was on sale this week. With people locked shoulder-to-shoulder but comfortable enough to breathe deeply, your caravan heads out on the short jaunt to the tournament venue.

It doesn’t take long to reach the tournament site. Not that you’ve noticed the time – you’ve been so engrossed in conversations about game play, sideboarding, and general Magic player gossip. With an excited grin plastered on your face, backpack slung over your shoulder, and Magic deck cradled in your sweating hand, you proceed through the lobby to what looks like the registration table – a lone computer resting on a folding table, surrounded by a bunch of backpack-laden teens. There appears to be no line, so you step right up to the computer. You finally notice a small woman partially hidden behind the behemoth of a monitor and get ready to state your name and DCI number.

The lady stops you in mid-breath and says calmly and automatically, "I am sorry. We had to cancel States because our computer is down."

The anger instantly wells in your throat – but before you can get out a single word, the woman at registration provides her canned response. "We’re sorry, but the tournament won’t start again until we can get the computers working. You can keep checking in, but there’s a 99% probability that nothing will happen today. You might as well go home."

Would you stand for this? Do you think Wizards would dare allow such an occurrence to tarnish their reputation?

You would think the answer is a resounding no to both questions, yet this scenario is exactly what I experienced this weekend…. Online.

I had to miss States this year because of shoulder surgery. My right arm is strapped to my side with a sling. Being only right-hand-dexterous, this meant that I wouldn’t be going anywhere this weekend. Though I could rely on a few friends to transport me to the event, the thought of trying to play seven or eight rounds of Magic one-handed was not very appealing. Add the need for a judge to shuffle my deck after every game, and suddenly there is a real possibility of making many other people around me quite grumpy. I was left with only one course for Magic this weekend – Chuck’s Virtual Party. Magic Online became my States event. I scoured the Magic Online website every day, looking for updates, voting for my favorite promotional cards, and reading any announcements in the message boards made by Chuck "party-man" Huebner himself. I was also logging into my online account every day right before the big event – I wanted to make sure that my free cards had appeared in my collection.

Late Saturday evening was my scheduled day to play. I spent the morning picking up the clutter that had gathered around the house and paying my bills. I even sorted and stashed away piles of Magic cards that were constantly in danger of getting toppled by a stray swishing cat tail. Friday night was spent attending to my husband’s desire for attention, and I even managed to attend a social dinner party Saturday. It was 11 p.m. when I was finally able to make my way home. Nonetheless, I was alert and excited to play Onslaught Sealed, especially with the gift of an extra hour from Daylight Savings Time. Have I mentioned yet how much I was looking forward to getting an Akroma avatar to replace my uninspiring Serra Angel?

I set up my laptop on the card table I’ve erected in one of the spare bedrooms for my Magic mayhem. I run downstairs and grab some snacks while Windows taking its leisurely time starting up. So there I am, sitting in my cushy office chair, toasty slippers warming my feet, a cold can of Coke and an unopened box of Walker’s Pure Butter Shortbread Rounds at my side. My free set of Onslaught Sealed is in my account, and I am ready for a night of pure, unadulterated Magic entertainment.

I log onto Magic Online, close an enigmatic message from AlphaLackey, and hop into the Premier Events room. Without taking more than a glance at the screen, I join the first Onslaught Block Sealed tournament on the list. I decide to immediately cancel the second I see a request for two event tickets. I survey the Premier Events room a little more closely this time. Some of the tournaments that have already concluded are titled, "Chuck’s Virtual Party Onslaught Sealed." There are no such tournaments in the current event cue.

This is completely baffling. I stare stupidly at the screen for a few minutes, trying to decipher what is going on. A message with noticeable green type finally appears in the chat area:

“Due to the instability of the server, all Chuck’s Virtual Party events have been cancelled for the remainder of the weekend. No word yet on rescheduling. Go here for further information on the status of the event."

Obviously, my first course of action was to check out the message boards and see what is really going on. There is a single entry in the thread, offering a vague reason for the problem, a promise of round-the-clock effort to fix the situation, and another what-now-just-seems-pathetic apology for this "abbreviated party." The message has been there since 8:36 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. I decide to loiter around the Online world for an hour on the false iota of hope that maybe they are really working the issue, and that the problems will be fixed in a few hours. I sort some Magic cards strewn behind my computer while watching the Premier Events chat area. Still the same message from the adept, followed by comments of derision from other disappointed virtual players, interspersed by newcomers asking what is going on. I also eventually decipher that several of the players who participated in the first CVP didn’t get their Akroma avatars; however, the situation was getting resolved. At least they had a chance at an Akroma avatar.

One o’clock Standard time rolls around – I’ve already wasted my one extra hour from Daylight Savings Time. I finally just shut off the computer, frustrated, annoyed, and tired. Not the most comforting emotions to have while trying to lay down for the night.

I’ve seen servers crash before. I’ve seen code bugs before. I’ve also seen these problems get rectified, or at least worked around almost instantly when a dedicated team is assigned to the task. What I don’t understand is why these kind of problems keep cropping up and not getting resolved in Magic Online. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes dirty details of how Magic Online operates, but I do have at least some facts that I can use for theorizing:

1) At 2:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time today, Sunday, October 26, there are currently 3,733 people logged into Magic Online. That is at least three times more people than I’ve seen at any single, large-scale tournament.

2) Magic Online users pay full retail price for product purchased through the online store. There are no middlemen (distributors, retailers, etc.) to reduce the profit going to Wizards of the Coast.

3) In addition to product, each tournament participant has to pay an entry fee in event tickets – which, I assume, goes directly to earnings at Wizard.

At first blush, it sounds to me like Magic Online is a profitable and popular endeavor, and it was a wise decision for Wizards to start investing in online gaming. Granted, the profit probably doesn’t look as rosy if you take into account the computer equipment, technical support, and software engineers needed to maintain this system… But I have to believe that the maintenance cost is more than made up for with the elimination of the paper card distribution infrastructure.

So, theorizing that Magic Online is just as profitable as typical cardboard Magic, the following questions need to be asked of Wizards:

Why isn’t there a dedicated group of Magic Online testers that are given the time to really test out the system? Each Magic expansion has a core set of testers that plays and practices with the product extensively to make sure none of the cards are too powerful or too weak such that it will ruin the enjoyment of the game. In fact, this is the hallmark of Magic that Wizards is proud to trumpet.

So where is the core group of testers for the Online game to make sure that our enjoyment isn’t ruined?

I sincerely believe that it isn’t too costly (in dollars or hours) to create simulations for premier event gameplay and server loading to test the system out before a live launch.

Why does Wizards continue to release poor Magic Online upgrades and/or events? I am sure that there isn’t an underlying desire to spew out repeated bugs, but someone, somewhere, is making the decision to go ahead with a release without proper verification. The paper cards I purchase are usually of high quality – why aren’t those same standards applied to the online products?

As a corollary to the second question, why is Wizards’ first reaction to cancel a tournament when things just aren’t working quite right? I’ve seen tournament organizers bend over backwards to make an event run when printers have failed, seating capacity is a hundred players too low, and the air conditioner has broken down on a sweltering 98-degree day. It hasn’t been a pleasant experience – but the key is that the event happened. How much trouble would it be to allow players to play in paid events this weekend, recording the event number, and providing a refund to those registered in the weekend’s event? With all this information captured digitally, I have to imagine it would be much less work than what some of the TOs have had to go through to give people a chance to play in the event. Why are these same standards not imposed on Magic Online events?

And, on a totally different tangent…

Why does it take so long for Wizards to introduce new sets online? If I were able to get Mirrodin online close to the day of the paper release, my spending would increase a thousand-fold (seriously). I would have been able to practice Mirrodin Limited on a nightly basis to prepare for the Pro Tour Qualifiers to Amsterdam. As it stands now, all of the local qualifiers will be over before Mirrodin makes its debut online. End result: I only buy two starter sets to play in a couple of leagues over the Christmas holidays.

I understand that there are always growing pains with a new product, but I get this gnawing sensation that Magic Online is just a stepchild to their first-born paper product. If Magic Online is going to be treated like the full-fledged sibling it has the potential to be, then we need to let Wizards know how much we value Magic Online and how important it is for us that they pay adequate attention to their system. A single person spouting off their woes in an article on some Magic strategy site isn’t going to do it; we need to show Wizards how many people are truly out there, spending time and money using their online product. We need to make them aware that we expect to see the same quality standards used for paper Magic to be applied to Magic Online.

I urge all of you who were disappointed by "Chuck’s Virtual Fiasco" this weekend to voice your opinion and send an e-mail to [email protected]. Let them know just how many people they’ve turned off by their lack of judgment when it has come to marketing Magic Online. I’ll even make it easy by providing an e-mail you can cut and paste (just make sure to attach your name):

To Whom It May Concern,

I have been playing Magic Online for some time now, and enjoy it immensely. I think you’ve created a great product that allows me to play Magic when I would not normally have the chance. However, the events of this past summer have left me frustrated. I have tried to play in several special events, only to have them cancelled. Most recently, I attempted to play in Chuck’s Virtual Party tournaments on the weekend of October 25-26. By the time I had logged in, all the tournaments had been cancelled. I never got a chance to play or receive an Akroma avatar.

I think Magic Online is a great game, but I have spent too many hours trying to get online only to end up having to deal with being booted out of my game from server crashes or to find out the special event had been cancelled due to technical issues. I purchase online product regularly, but I am at the point where it is no longer in my best interest to support the online environment. Please consider putting more effort into the development and release of Magic Online in the future.


(Your Name)

(Your Login) on Magic Online

(Your DCI #)

One raindrop won’t fill a bucket, but several thousand will. With your help, we can make Wizards pay more attention. I’ve already sent my e-mail.

P.S. If you get a response from Wizards, please feel free to share it in the StarCityGames forums. If we know Wizards is paying attention, it might encourage others to write in as well.