Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #210 – Whither MTGO?

Read Peter Jahn... at StarCityGames.com!
Magic Online has become a huge part of my Magic playing. It is currently in something of a transition – or crisis, if you believe the naysayers. I want to look at where MTGO is, where it is going, and what needs to be done.

Magic Online has become a huge part of my Magic playing. It is currently in something of a transition — or crisis, if you believe the naysayers. I want to look at where MTGO is, where it is going, and what needs to be done.

Where We Are Now

Right now, MTGO is in version 2. It still has much of the original code written by the original contractor. The game and rules code is good, and scalable, but the transactions code is limited to a single server.

What that means is that MTGO lets a few people play a very good game of Magic. They can draft, play Constructed, etc. They can even trade cards, watch replays of games, and so forth.

The downside to the un-scalable transactions server is that, while a few people can play great virtual Magic, a lot of people cannot. The transactions server handles log-ins, trades, draft creation and pack distribution, replays, etc. Once the number of users hits 4,000 or so, the program lags, and it sometimes crashes.

Crashes are annoying as hell. Last night, I was playing EDH. I had Anger and Tsabo Tavoc in my graveyard, one opponent at 6 — with no creatures — and the other opponent at 3, and totally tapped out. I did the classic FOFEOTIW (Fact or Fiction end of turn I win), and revealed Profane Command. I could have untapped, drained one out, killed the other with a hasty legend — but the program crashed.

Crashes are not all that common, really. But crashes are like stubbing your toe — they are annoying, but not really damaging. You also tend to remember stubbing your toe a lot more than the times you walk past the dresser without doing so. Wizards is also really good about issuing refunds when crashes affect drafts or online tournaments.

That said, they still have to stop.

With any luck, they will. Wizards is planning to release version 3 of the software shortly. That’s true for some value of “shortly.”

Wizards announced that it was working on version 3 a long time ago — years, I think. They entered into “beta” and an open “beta” over a year ago. They experienced problems, and more problems, and eventually stopped the beta and went back to design stage. Then more betas, more changes, more delays. Finally, late last year, Wizards put up an official countdown clock. Just like NASA.

Just like NASA, that countdown is now holding at 19 days until launch.

I’m really torn about the new version. On the one hand, stability has to be better. On the other hand, I will probably have to learn the quirks of the new interface. (Learning the old interface took some time, and cost me some games.) On the gripping hand (anyone get that obscure reference?), the last version change — version 1 to version 2 — was a disaster. MTGO was up, down, unstable, and nonfunctional for a long time. I really hope Wizards learned from the last time around, but that remains to be seen.

MTGO is a fairly significant source of profits for Wizards, so I expect that they will treat the transition carefully. They know that they are going to be as careful as possible — but I also know that software mistakes happen.

The Transition

Assuming that the countdown resumes, all online play should be moved from v2 to v3. Wizards has warned up to expect the program to shut down for a week or so, while all the databases are transitioned from the old program to the new program. After transition, everything — ratings, collections, etc. – should be intact. Wizards has a lot riding on this, because players have a lot invested in the program. If players lose cards, it would be a PR nightmare for the company. I fully expect that Wizards will be putting a huge effort into making sure that nothing like that happens.

Nonetheless, I will be exporting a CSV of my entire collections on both of my accounts, as well as taking screenshots of my ratings and so forth. I will also stop trading and drafting a few days ahead of the shutdown, just to make sure my collection is stable. I will make my entire collections untradeable a few days before the conversion as well.

Once we are up on the new servers, in v3, I will download another CSV of my collections, then import them into Excel and do a comparison. That should immediately highlight any changes. Moreover, I will probably avoid trading with anyone I don’t know and trust for a while, until I am sure of how the new trading functions work, and that there are no exploitable bugs in the program.

Those are just cover-my-ass protections: I really don’t expect any problems. Even if they happen, I’m not sure that a CSV will help anything: it would be way too easy to modify a CSV for Wizards to rely on customer-provided CSVs to recreate accounts. Still, it will reassure me that nothing has been lost.

What v3 will Bring Us

Stability. Please, or there will be no point to the whole exercise. The new code and servers should be stable, even if the number of users exceeds the current limits — or far higher numbers.

If the program can handle larger numbers, I would expect Wizards to start advertising it. Right now, with the number of players at release events or special weekends regularly hitting numbers that crash the system, Wizards dare not seek out new users. With better code and servers, however, Wizards has every reason to try and get new players onto the program.

I have no idea what methods Wizards may use to get players online. I could see a lot of options.

Wizards has already experimented with discounting packs. Last week, Masters Edition I went off sale. On the last day, Wizards offered a discount: 40 packs for the price of 36. That is not a huge discount — just 10% – but this is the first time that packs have ever been sold at less than full retail price. This could be viewed as the equivalent of buying a box in the retail world. I have preordered Morningtide from StarCityGames, but I did not pay 36 x 3.99 for those boxes. Paper retailers always provide a box discount. The 40 packs for the price of 36 could become a standard “box” discount online.

I can hope.

Wizards can also promote MTGO in a lot of other ways. One very strong method might be to include coupons for online product in the player rewards mailings. Currently, I get a mix of tokens and textless promo cards based on the number of tournaments in which I have participated. Adding a few coupons for online drafts or online product might help bring in a number of new players.

For that matter, Wizards could even include some sort of coupon for online cards in paper packs. Packs already include rules inserts and tokens — they could also include a coupon or code for a random online card. Imagine busting a pack, logging on MTGO and entering the online card shop (which is now integrated into the program) and doing the digital equivalent of scratching off your scratch ticket — and getting a random card. Sure, you will probably wind up with a current, no-value common, but you might get something decent. More importantly, it might encourage people to play online.

If one coupon per pack seems too much, I can see Wizards offering coupons or credits as bonuses for entering store tournaments. Play in four City Champs, get a free online draft set. TOs might be able to give out two random five dollar online coupons at a PTQ or FNM. The options are limited only be Wizards creativity, and their marketing assessments (because they want to involve the stores in pushing MTGO, not have MTGO cut into the paper sales.)

Most importantly, once the servers will support it, I expect to see a lot more players online. That should mean more drafters, and a chance to have other formats, like Mirage block drafts or Prismatic Singleton Constructed, fire far more often. That will be all to the good — more players means more opportunity to play for all of us.

What We will be Losing

MTGO v3 will launch with improved server stability, trading, the ability to run drafts and premier events, casual play, etc. etc. — but not everything that MTGO v2 currently has. A few of the losses will be significant.

The first loss will be EDH. Elf and Lee Sharp basically programmed Elder Dragon Highlander as an labor of love, in thier free time, and I doubt that they will be able to recreate that anytime soon. I absolutely love EDH, and have spent far too many hours playing it recently. I have even spent tix buying cards like Tsabo Tavoc and Empress Galina — cards that are good in this format, and only this format. I will miss it a lot.

More importantly, the last word from Wizards was that Leagues may not be initially available in v3. Leagues are a nice introduction to competitive play for newer players, and I expect Wizards to work hard to bring them back, at least in some form. However, they will be missing at the launch.

Most importantly, rumor has it that multiplayer will also be limited or missing at the launch, and it is not clear how soon it will be restored. Multiplayer is not a huge profit center for Wizards, but it is a very popular area, especially for casual players. It is also an area that promotes sales of a lot of Tier 2 cards, such as Forgotten Ancient. Card sales and prices are a big problems (to be discussed below), and multiplayer will have an effect on that. Wizards needs to get multiplayer back soon.

Another thing that we will lose with the conversion, at least initially, is the card trading bots that dominate the singles markets. I don’t know how easily or rapidly bots which can interact with v3 will be created, but until they are widely available, buying and selling cards will be a lot more primitive. Which leads us to the topic of card prices.

Card Prices and Market Efficiency

Prices for old cards have been stratifying significantly recently. The prices for the cards from old sets that are played in Tier 1 Extended decks are sky-rocketing. Vedalken Shackles, Engineered Explosives and so forth are in double digits, while playsets of cards from Invasion block , like Vindicate and Meddling Mage, run hundreds of dollars each. Even chase rares from newer sets, like Future Sight, are in double digits. Tarmogoyf is over 30 tix.

On the other hand, prices for anything not featured in a Tier 1 Standard or Extended deck is falling like a rock. Cards like Wild Mongrel and Nantuko Shade have lost a huge portion of their online value.

The same thing has happened in Classic. A very few cards have great value: Force of Will is rapidly approaching 50 tix, while Vampiric Tutor, Lion’s Eye Diamond, and handful of other cards are worth a mint. The rest of Mirage block cards are worth practically nothing. More importantly, the average value of cards in a booster pack is, on average, generally less than half the cost of the booster.

There is a simple explanation for this. It is basic economics — the laws of supply and demand. The supply of bad cards in old sets is quite high, relative to the number of players who want copies. The converse is true of the chase rares. A lot of people want to play Vindicate in Doran the Explorer Extended decks. A lot fewer want to play Corrosion, or Shaku, Endbringer. The prices reflect that fact.

In the paper world, finding people actually selling a copy of Corrosion or Shaku isn’t all that easy. I sure don’t have them in my trade binder. You can get them from StarCityGames, of course — but part of the reason StarCityGames can charge $1.00 for cards like that is because they do have them. This difficulty in finding a seller with a card like Corrosion in stock is a barrier to efficient sales, and creates a price floor.

Online, the proliferation of trading bots means that anyone can easily identify any extra cards, then offer them for sale. The overheads are pretty much non-existent, so selling is easy. Finding cards is also relatively easy — you can hit a lot of bulk rare bots quickly. That eliminates market inefficiencies, so prices are driven down to actual value. For example, I looked for a copy of Argus Kos, Wojek Veteran (a card chosen at random). I found one in 15 seconds, in the $0.15 range. I could probably have found a half dozen sellers within a minute or two (if I had wanted to waste that time.) When it is that easy to comparison-shop a card, prices fall to value. The value of Argus is pretty low — the card, basically, stinks.

Card dealers have a problem, here. Their inventories have often been acquired at higher prices, to reflect and recover the costs that used to be incurred to accumulate these cards, back when trading was tougher, and bots did not exist. Those traders are being hurt badly in the squeeze. Wizards may have to do something to help these people — they dealers, especially online dealers — need to survive through the transition. With v3 — especially in the early days after the transition — bots may not be available. These dealers may be all that makes constructed play possible.

Going out of Print: MED & Mirage Block

I have another beef with Wizards. They have stopped selling Masters Edition I. It is done: all the cards that will be distributed are distributed. To their credit, Wizards did push MED heavily in the last few days. According to one Wizards source, Wizards sold 8,000 packs of MED in the last couple days.

8,000 packs is 8,000 rares. MED has 60 rares in the run, plus a few Foils. That means that Wizards provided thirty-three playsets of Force of Will in the last few days. I don’t know how many total MED packs were sold, but obviously not enough. Force of Will is rapidly approaching 50 TIX, and most dealers are sold out.

I did not get my playset.

Force of Will may well define the new Vintage — the online equivalent is called Classic. Vintage is a hideously expensive format. It is also almost never played. I actually own a full playset of the Power Nine, and all the trappings, but I have not been able to find a sanctioned Vintage tournament in years (aside from the Vintage World championship at GenCon.) I have seen lots of 5 and 10 proxy tournaments, which just shows that players cannot afford to play in the real thing.

Wizards should think about that when making a paper uncommon like Force of Will a rare in MED. That was all about money — but if Wizards actually wants to grow its user base, maybe it should not make too many formats unaffordable.

On the flip side, Wizards has announced that they are considering leaving old sets, like Mirage block, on sale indefinitely. That does mean that I will have far less desire to buy the packs anytime soon (I don’t really like Mirage Limited), and will never have an incentive to buy a bunch at the last minute. I’m not sure whether I like that or not. It depends — and part of what it depends on is how fast Wizards can grow its customer base. If it gets enough customers to actually have Mirage drafts fire more often than once a day, I may change my mind.

V3 is still at 19 days and holding. When it does launch, it will have a lot riding on it. I’m looking forward to watching that with a mix of nervousness and anticipation — sort of like watching shuttle launches, after Challenger exploded. When a shuttle launches successfully, it’s spectacular. Failures, however, are catastrophic.

I don’t expect failure. I just bought my first Vindicate and first Pernicious Deed — both for use in EDH at the moment. That purchase says I expect v3 to be great, and I just put another hundred dollars on that bet.

See you online.