Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #194 – MTGO Status Report

Read Peter Jahn... at StarCityGames.com!
Two and a half years ago, I first downloaded MTGO, started playing and wrote my Diary of an OnLine nOOb series. I’ve been playing ever since — a lot. I want to step back and see what the online game is like, how it has affected my paper play, and where it is going.

Two and a half years ago, I first downloaded MTGO, started playing and wrote my Diary of an OnLine nOOb series. I’ve been playing ever since — a lot. I want to step back and see what the online game is like, how it has affected my paper play, and where it is going.

Without question, MTGO has meant that I play more Magic, more often. In the year or so before I installed MTGO, I would draft once or twice a month at the local FNM, show up at Misty for the serious Magic night once or twice a month, and drop in at Pegasus for casual and multiplayer about as often. I would play or judge at PTQs, prereleases and so forth, and play some at home, but that was about it.

The biggest problem was travel times. Getting to and from the local stores meant a 30-45 minute drive, each way. My multiplayer groups foundered on the same problem — mainly because most of the players moved out of state.

After installing MTGO, my paper Magic playing stayed about the same. I still draft once or twice a month, but my results are better. My rating is back up around 1800 — not astounding, but not as bad as it was. I still drop in on the casual groups occasionally, but not as often. I don’t play much with the Wed. group, but that is because of other conflicts. Same problem with Summer Magic: Misty scheduled the tourneys on the same day as the public TV planning meetings.

Life happens.

However, while I can’t play paper Magic all that much, I have been playing a ton of MTGO. For example, if I wake up early, I can play Standard for an hour before breakfast. I can get home from work at 7pm, get dinner, then still get into a draft. I can play for an hour, do chores for an hour, and keep that up all day. It is just convenient.

It’s addictive. Right now, I am writing this on my laptop, sitting on the deck overlooking Lake Superior. On the plus side, it is gorgeous. On the downside — no Internet access. I can’t play. I’m suffering withdrawal.

Overall Overview

I have looked back on some of my early writings about MTGO. Back then, I thought that, although the program had some annoying quirks, they were few, and that the rules enforcement was a really good feature. I also whined about how expensive it was to get the cards to play competitively. I had problems with the interface, and occasionally lost games because I timed out. I also noted that the program could crash, on occasion, but that Wizards was working on version three, which should solve some of those problems.

I have now learned the interface, so I almost never time out anymore. Other than that, not much has changed.

Server Stability

MTGO crashes. There’s no way to sugar coat that. At times of heavy load, it can suddenly drop — usually when I’m about to win the game (yeah, right.) Actually, crashes are not really all that frequent, and I typically only experience one or two a month — usually during heavy usage events, like release events or very popular Premier Events.

In most cases, a crash happens, MTGO comes back in a couple minutes, and the events continue. Crashes that actually end matches and events are rare. Think I have filed for refunds of lost product maybe three times in 30+ months, and Wizards customer service has always given me refunds without problems.

It helps to have the match / event number. I rarely have problems, but I still start every draft or PE by writing down the event number.

People keep saying that Wizards should just buy more servers, or whatever. It is not that simple. Apparently, when Leaping Lizards built the original program, they designed the game program to be scalable, and allowed it to use multiple servers. The log-in and transactions part of the program, however, was not written to support multiple servers. For other games, that might have worked, but not MTGO. MTGO has a ton of transactions load, including log-ins, trades, card purchases, and stuff involving settings, avatars and so forth. The program cannot handle the numbers at really peak times, and that portion of the program cannot support multiple servers. Basically, Wizards is stuck with that mess until it rewrites the program.

MTGO Version 3.0

Wizards is in the process of doing just that. However, I made that statement in my first weeks online — over 30 months ago.

The current program was plagued with bad stability, and it does not support some strongly desired options, like better auctions, card shops, better support for multiplayer games, etc. The current version has a few strong points — a decent interface and good game play.

So, for version 3.0, Wizards decided to completely replace the interface.

Yeah, exactly.

Wizards also held a public beta of Version 3.0 late last winter. The new interface stunk. It was dark and dreary, and the card text was impossible to read. Now dark and dreary interfaces were a standard of computer games for years — mainly to hide imperfections in the graphics. I have always hated dim graphics. I was seriously concerned about the interface.

After a couple months, as I recall, Wizards pulled the beta. They replaced the interface completely. They have also reopened the beta.

I have the beta loaded on my big machine. I have tried to run it any number of times. Just recently, I have actually gotten the program to start (a huge improvement — it used to hang repeatedly partway through the updates and start routines.) I cannot yet navigate, and have never successfully gotten into a Draft or Constructed game. I have not really tried all that hard. When I get it up, I mess around for a bit, then quit. I can always play version 2.0, and I have been involved in the Tenth and Masters Edition betas. Playing in those is easier, and more fun. Sometime I will work my way through the new interface, but I am not convinced that this will be the final version, and I have no interest in learning the trick of a new interface. I just want to play Magic.

Wizards — please think about that. I play MTGO because I want to play Magic. Don’t care if I can collect party hats for my avatar, or if the pictorial representations of the draft table have digital soda spills or not. Spreadsheet view works, for me, just as well. All I care about is playing Magic with the cards and by the rules. I don’t need cool new features — I need a stable interface so I can play a lot, against lots of new players.

The roll-out of Version 2.0 was a disaster. I hope that Wizards learned from those problems. I also hope that they learn from their experiences with the unusable interface.

I have some faith that Wizards can rewrite the program. I just hope that they spend their time and efforts on the Magic part of the equation, and not on the frills, window dressing, and Easter eggs.

I the meantime, I will play MTG Version 2.


One of the biggest reason for the transaction server crashes is the large number of automated buying / selling accounts on MTGO. These automated “bots” can make trades without their owners being involved. They are programmable — and the new ones can act like a store. You enter into a trade with a bot, and the bot displays its cards. If you click on a card, the bot automatically provides a price. The best bots also keep track of your spare change, and automatically credit you whenever you open a trade.

The bots have made it more difficult to trade casually, and very hard to rip people off (since everyone can easily discover the market price for any given card. The bots also make it easy to get a card — even at midnight on a Tuesday.

Given everything, I don’t mind the bots. I hate the spam and trash in the auction room, the ridiculous number of trade announcements in all the trading rooms — but the bots mean I can avoid all that.

I think one of the biggest problems with version 3.0 will be that all the bots will have to be rewritten, to work with the new interface. That may take a long time. Maybe Version 3.0 will have some great special features that replicate bots, or make bots unnecessary. I doubt it. I suspect that the result will be that everyone will have to return to electronic stores and suffer through the spam in the trading rooms to get singles.

I hope not. While I have discovered some honest and reliable electronic stores, I am used to getting cards immediately. I’ll miss that.

The Cost of MTGO / Accumulating Cards

I started playing online in Feb, 2005. At that time, I set a budget of $100 per month to spend on MTGO — with a little more to spend when I accomplished various big jobs, or sold furniture, and so forth. I also track all my purchases. To date, I have spent just over $3,800 on MTGO. Some of the resulting cards I have given to Ingrid, and some of the costs have vanished — buying tickets is like that. I have also landed a gig writing a column for another website — one that pays in store credit for online cards.

Yes, that is a lot of money. On the other hand, I have a job, two writing gigs, and I sell homemade furniture. It could be worse — one coworker has a boat. A real, sail-across-Lake-Michigan boat. A boat is often described as a hole in the water that you fill with money. MTGO is cheaper than a boat.

On the other hand, I can certainly understand all the kids and teens out there for who $4K is a fortune. Sorry, kids. This is why you study hard, get your degree, and get a good job.

As of now, I have a playset of all the Ravnica block duals, and most everything necessary to play Standard — before the last rotation. Now I am scrambling to get a lot of Future Sight cards, and am short most of the playables from Tenth Edition.

Some things never change.

Right now I am trying to accumulate Tenth cards. I bought 24 packs of Tenth — that’s $101 worth, then bought 8 more packs with some other earnings. I did a quick count — after three or four Sealed PEs (making Top 8 twice) and some drafts, I have opened 57 boosters, and have five boosters left to play with. Bought 32, won at least 32 more — that is not totally shabby.

On the other hand, I have one Treetop Village and zero Mogg Fanatics. I have still never opened a Wrath of God online, despite drafting Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Editions. [Yup, I’m in the same boat there — Craig.] Of the cards that I really wanted, I have opened one Paladin en-Vec, one Head Games, two Seismic Assaults, one Siege Gang Commander, two Platinum Angels, one Crucible of Worlds, two Pithing Needles (Woohoo!) and one Shivan Reef. I don’t even have playsets of any of the Constructed-worthy uncommons new to Tenth, except for Agonizing Demise — and I had two copies of that from when I was drafting Mirage.

Even with winning a fair number of 4-3-2-2s, and making Top 8 in half my events, I am probably not winding up with cards worth more than what I would have had if I had just bought singles. After all, four is enough for any number of decks, and I now have somewhere close to two dozen copies of Cloud Elemental, and almost four dozen Pacifisms and Aven Fishers.

So why am I obsessing on this? I am wondering whether to buy Masters Editions packs.

Masters Edition

About the time you read this, Wizards will have released Masters Edition (MED as the cool kids call it) online. MED reprints a bunch of older, never before released online cards. The set had 60 rares, 60 uncommons, and 60 commons. Online, the cards will pretty much only be playable in Classic, the online equivalent to Vintage. Classic is all about broken decks, superfast combos, and fish-like anti-combo decks. Actually, it is Vintage minus GAT, because Gush, Daze and the like are not available online.

I have been playing in the MED beta. I cannot say much — like Vegas, Wizards wants what happens in beta to stay in beta. Can’t say I have found many bugs — I have found a few, but they were all known issues. I can say that I have learned how to draft this set, and that I should be able to do as well in the MED drafts and leagues as I have in Tenth events.

In other words, if I spend a month’s budget on MED, I should be able to win at least an equal number of packs, possibly more. Since, so far, Wizards has not scheduled NIX TIX release leagues, blowing my $100 budget means buying 20 packs, plus paying entry TIX for Drafts and Sealed pools (and sealed will be a mix of Tenth and MED.)

With a little luck, I may end up with 40-50 rares, coming out of a month of MED play. Let’s look at the contents of MED, to decide if that is worth it.

MED Rares:

The money cards: (just one)
Force of Will

Combo Pieces that don’t have counterparts, so far: (two)
Diminishing Returns
Illusions of Grandeur

Playable in Prismatic — because they are played in Five Color: (six)
Serendib Efreet
Sylvan Library
Ankh of Mishra
Nevinyrral’s Disk
Winter Orb

Maybe Playable in Prismatic or Classic: (three)

All the rest — the stuff that probably won’t be playable in any format, ever, unless they get reprinted in Eleventh Edition:

Baron Sengir, Juzam Djinn, Khabal Ghoul, Thrull Champion, Chains of Mephistopheles, Hecatomb, Pox, Polar Kraken, Time Elemental, Vesuvan Doppelganger, Amnesia, Autumn Willow, Gargantuan Gorilla, Ifh-Biff Efreet, Primal Order, Tornado, Eureka, Balduvian Horde, Ball Lightning, Goblin Wizard, Marton Stromgald, Varchild’s War-Riders, Ydwen Efreet, Mana Flare, Jokulhaups, Argivian Archaeologist, Hand of Justice, Petra Sphinx, Preacher, Seraph, Crusade, Lord of Tresserhorn, Adun Oakenshield, Dakkon Blackblade, Phelddagrif, Jacques le Vert, Forcefield, Ivory Tower, Mirror Universe, Ring of Ma’ruf, Serpent Generator, Su-Chi, Tawnos’s Coffin, Diamond Valley, Island of Wak-Wak, Lake of the Dead, Rainbow Vale, Thawing Glaciers.

Would some of those be fun to play with — sure. Drafting the set, in beta, was fun. However, I don’t really know that blowing tix and budget for any of them is worthwhile.

Assuming I do well, I might open a single Force of Will. No one is ever going to pass one in draft. I have only a slightly better chance of getting a Winter Orb, Ankh of Mishra, or Armageddon — although I mainly play Prismatic Singleton, so a single copy of any of these would be useful. The question, of course, is whether I would be better off buying singles, or playing Limited to build my collection. Based solely on the rares, single looks like the way to go.

Of course, if I want a bunch of commons and uncommons, then Limited makes a lot more sense. Let’s do the numbers.

Playable Uncommons:
High Tide (combo, someday, once other cards are released online)
Animate Dead (reanimator)
Eater of the Dead (new errata makes it a combo element)
Hymn to Tourach
Goblin Grenade
Lim-Dul’s Vault (good tutor for combo)
Zuran Orb (probably only need one as tutor target)
Mishra’s Factory

Uncommons I like, and might play in casual:
Mystic Remora (multiplayer bomb)
Yavimaya Ants (purely for nostalgia — and even then not much)

So, ten of sixty uncommons that are worth having. Maybe — and of those, at least half are basically investments that won’t be good until some future sets are released — mainly Urza’s Saga, Legacy, and Destiny. Assuming I buy 20 packs, and win 20 more, I should end up with 80-100 uncommons. Of course, the more rare & uncommons I draft, the fewer packs I can win, so the numbers drop.

So, what about the commons?

Exile (good in multiplayer)
Lightning Bolt

Fun, but just for the nostalgia:
Fyndhorn Elves
Shield Sphere

That’s really about it, unless I want to pimp my decks with Beta lands. Hydro & Pyroblasts will only be useful in Classic — and Classic will be one really expensive format to play. Recently, the main decks were Flash and Fish. Flash is now restricted, along with Vampiric Tutor, but Fish is still strong. Fish also runs Meddling Mages, and a playset of those will cost me at least two month’s budget.

I can’t even afford Extended, at present. Realistically, then, I will just want the cards that can be played in Prismatic, and a bit of nostalgia. For me, that comes down to the following:

4 Armageddons
2 Exile
4 Winter Orbs
4 Ankh of Mishra
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Fyndhorn Elves
4 Lim-Dul’s Vault (unless it gets banned in Prismatic)
2 Yavimaya Ants
1 Zuran Orb

12 rares, 7 uncommons and 10 commons. Even if the rares are all 15 tix cards, I will still be much better off buying singles than buying cards for Limited.

Of course, release events can be fun. I may play anyway. If I play, I might open a foil Force of Will, and be able to sell it and recoup all my costs. I once opened a foil Vampiric Tutor, and sold that for 100 tix. The odds of that happening again — let’s just say it won’t happen.

Overall — I like MTGO. I’ll be playing it for the foreseeable future. Someday, Wizards will get version 3.0 together, release it, and we will weather the release hiccups. After that, the program should be better.

I’m be playing when it happens, and after.


“one million words” on MTGO