Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #285 – Ten Reasons Why Real Life Magic is Better than MTGO

Read Peter Jahn... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, July 23rd – In the last couple of weeks, I have had time to play in, or run, a few big events, a handful of drafts, and some Constructed events in the paper world. I have also had a chance to play online a fair amount. Paper Magic and digital Magic are different. Let me discuss the difference – and why Paper is better than Online.

In the last couple of weeks, I have had time to play in, or run, a few big events, a handful of drafts, and some Constructed events in the paper world. I have also had a chance to play online a fair amount. Paper Magic and digital Magic are different. Let me discuss the difference — and why Paper is better than Online.

Note: This is part one of a two part series. Part two, “Ten Reasons Why MTGO is Better than Real Life Magic” will appear on another website, one dedicated to online play.

Let’s begin. I’ll do this Letterman style.

#10. The Road Trip

Way, way, way back in the dark ages, I wrote a tournament report for a now-defunct website. It started out talking about the drive up, and how I was talking up this great sideboard tech card — and how everyone else in the car fell asleep. The story looped around to how I made Top 8, on the basis of that tech card, and how someone else won the tournament with it.

The point is that I had a great story, which happened on the drive to the event. I can also tell stories about driving through blizzards and ice storms, about great meals and terrible meals, about getting lost, about bad directions and mizing the right exit, about who said what, and who did what.

I can also tell another set of stories about the trips home.

The stories are even better for larger events. The travel is further and takes longer, and the stories involve customs and airports, the beach at Waikiki, Fogo de Chao, the judge dinner at that stupid little diner at New York Worlds, or playing EDH in the Atlanta hotel lobby until 5am, when the taxi to the airport arrived.

Travel to and from Magic tournaments creates memories.

Travel to and from an online event goes something like this: I walked over to the computer. I sat down. I turned it on. I clicked some icons.

Memorable? I think not.

#9. Proxies

After each of the last couple of Constructed events at Misty Mountain Games, and during Magic casual nights at Pegasus Games, I have been playtesting the new Standard and Extended environments. We started doing that well before the prerelease. Obviously, we could not get the real cards ten days before they were available for sale. We did the next best thing.

We proxied those cards.

In some cases, we were using cards to stand in for other cards. Before the game, we’d say thing like “The Distress is actually Sign in Blood.” Alternatively, we would take bad commons and write the new card name (and info, if necessary) on the back with a Sharpie and sleeve the card backwards. (Note: use bad commons, not basic lands. Wizards prints bad commons for just this reason. Unlike the bad commons, the basic lands always have a use. Just ask any drafter — or any judge who has to sort a new box of basic lands.)

On MTGO, if you don’t have a particular card and have to substitute another, that substitute doesn’t play like the card you wanted. On MTGO, the Distress is a Distress.

This is why no one is playtesting post M10 Standard on MTGO at the moment. The cards just are not there, and you cannot proxy them. For that matter, you also cannot try a card in some casual games before you decide to spend the bucks to get a real one — that’s not how online works.

#8. Flicking Cards

Magic cards have a feel to them. Magic was designed to be a card game, after all — and cards are designed to be held. They are designed to be flicked through, shuffled, handled. Magic cards are designed to be in your hand — not displayed on a monitor.

The start of a Magic game is almost a ritual. You shuffle your cards. Personally, I do a few riffle shuffles, a pile shuffle or two, then a few more riffles. I present my deck to my opponent, and he shuffles it. Then I cut my deck, square up my cards and set them in the upper left corner of my playmat. I wish my opponent good luck one more time. Then we play Magic.

That’s how Magic games begin. That’s how they are supposed to begin. That’s the start of the game.

Magic games that start with mouse clicks are just not, well, Magical.

#7. Tips and Tells

Last week, I played a card and could see my opponent’s eyes narrow, just a touch. I could tell he had an answer, but was unsure whether to use it then or hold it. In another match, my opponent’s shoulders dropped a quarter inch in response to my play. He didn’t have an out — and probably didn’t have anything in his deck that would be. I knew it.

I knew it because I could see him. I could watch his body language, and I knew what he was holding. Or, at least, I thought I could.

The small indications of what an opponent is holding, or how they are reacting, are called “tells” by poker players. Sometimes they tell you what the opponent is thinking. Other times they tell you what the opponent wants you to think they are thinking. In any case, reading tells is the case of watching expressions, body language, tension, eye dilation, posture — a hundred things.

A hundred things that are not visible when the opponent is in front of a computer monitor, in a different room, somewhere else on the planet. MTGO hides nearly all the tells. Nearly all. Response time can be a tell. Or not.

Him: “Okay — go ahead and counter it. I know you have it.”
Me: “?”
Him; “the long pause when I dropped the Mongoose, two turns ago.”
Me: “Actually, I went to get a soda.”

#6. Bear Cubs and German Treetop Villages

I haven’t weighed in on the change from Grizzly Bears to Runeclaw Bears, and I’m not, now. I will say that Bear Cub is cuter. Reprinting Bear Cubs would definitely have helped with acquisition of the Bella Sara crowd.

Bear Cub, though, is a card that is probably never coming to online, unless they do a From the Vaults: Cute and Cuddly set. Neither are a ton of interesting and flavorful cards from the early sets before Mirage. Those sets are appearing online only via the selective Masters Edition sets, or in From the Vaults limited editions.

(Hey — bored, got a lot of time on your hands? List your favorite cards for the From the Vaults: Cute and Cuddly set.)

Wizards has also announced that the Power Nine will not appear online, period. If you only play online, you cannot play them.

I won’t actually include Unglued and Unhinged as reasons for Paper being better than MTGO. Mark Rosewater thinks highly of denimwalk and singing for your clams, but I don’t. I will say that Unglued was better than Unhinged, for everything but draft. And cards like Urza’s Handcuffs are never going to be online.

I will, however, add one additional type of card that I cannot play online — foreign cards. I may be able to reset my MTGO client to appear in a foreign language (well, I think I can, I have never tried it), but I cannot collect foreign copies of the cards and play them online. For example, in a paper deck I was working on last night, I included an Asian Mutavault and some German cards I picked up at PT: Berlin. I cannot do that online, no matter how much money I spend.

#5. All the Decks Work

Over the years, I have built a number of funky combo decks. They are not always great, but most are tricky and unexpected. I love being able to get the things to fire, then to explain to my opponents what I am doing. And why they just lost.

At various times, I have played decks that have created infinite dudes, infinite life, infinite pings, infinite untaps, etc. (Okay, some of these were technically not infinite, since they occurred after the rules change that decided that “infinite” loops actually only repeated an arbitrary number of times, but I still like calling it infinite. So sue me.)

MTGO does not allow that sort of thing. If I have Horseshoe Crab, an Island enchanted with two copies of Fertile Ground and Earthcraft in play, I cannot simply say “make 2 million Red mana.” I would have to click to tap the Island for mana, click to make the first extra mana Red, click to make the second mana Red, then click on Earthcraft to use the ability, click on the Island to designate the target, click on the Crab as the creature to tap, let that ability resolve, then click on the Horseshoe Crab to activate its untap ability. Then all I have to do is repeat that entire sequence of clicks one million times, and I have my one million mana. Of course, my MTGO chess clock will have timed out long before I finish.

MTGO needs a macro system to allow shortcuts to make such decks playable. Until It gets one, decks like Project X and Life are simply unplayable.

#4. Balanced Playgroups

In paper Magic, playgroups form. They often find a happy medium on the power versus theme deck and casual versus competitive scales. Players learn what their friends tend to bring to the table, what cards they have available, and what might see play. Casual groups, over time, develop guidelines on what is, and isn’t, acceptable. Some playgroups allow full playsets of Power. Some allow Unglued and Unhinged. Some do not allow rares. Some do not allow infinite combos, or land destruction, or Wrath of God, or burn. Groups vary, but they tend to end up compromising on decks that everyone can at least tolerate.

Even in casual play at local stores, you can get a good feel for what a given player is likely to bring to the table. If you sit down for a game, and your opponent looks about 12, you probably won’t be too far wrong to guess that he’ll have Craw Wurm.dec. Or if the guy looks about 30, has a box with a dozen or more decks, and isn’t someone you have seen at PTQs, odds are pretty good that you can expect variation on classic decks, featuring cards like Recurring Nightmare, Unnatural Selection and so forth.

The point is that, in real life Magic, you can get a pretty good idea about the power level of games you are about to enter — and if everything else fails, you can ask. In real life Magic, that sort of question usually produces a pretty straight-forward answer. Even if you get a screwy answer, you will remember that person, and know what they like to play.

Online, though, there is no way of making such determinations. When you get a game with fezzzzdrnkr, you have no idea if the opponent is 10 years old, or brand new to Magic, or LSV on a new account. You also have no idea what the opponent may be playing. You get a small hint from the room the games are taking place in, but not much. I have seen tons of people playing complete Tier 1 netdecks in the casual players room, and even in the new players room. The rights or wrongs of that is another discussion, but the point is that you simply don’t know, when you request a game, whether you will be facing Faeries or Craw Wurms or a Zombies theme deck.

Think of play as an auto race. Online, all you get is a request to, in effect, joint “the race.” You don’t know if it is Formula One, NASCAR, a drag race, a Monster Truck competition, a classic car road rally, or a demolition derby. Players may show up expecting any of those, and all of them may be disappointed in the actual race.

#3. Talking to the Opponent

“hi, gl, hf”

Sorry, that is not discussion. That is not talking to your opponent. It is nothing like shooting the breeze before the round starts, or discussing a bad beats story at length, or anything like the discussions that take place in the real world before, during and after a paper match. It is hard to crack jokes, or snort derisively, or grin sympathetically, via a keyboard. People simply cannot type as quickly and spontaneously as they can talk.

The after match discussions online are even worse. “GG” is hardly the same as a discussion of how close game 2 was, or deciding whether to call for pizza next round. It is tough in an online tournament, where, if the final round of the game is finished, you can exit the game window with an [enter], and typing requires carefully clicking around that key. It is even worse in a casual game, where the program closes the window automatically a minute after the match ends, even if you are still chatting.

In paper Magic, judges often have to go out and hunt for match results slips. Very, very often, players are sitting at the table, talking, long after the match has ended. That’s not bad — a big part of playing is the social aspect of talking with your opponent. You just need to turn in the match results slip first.

#2. The Experience and the Pageantry

A paper Magic tournament has a special feel. Players are gathering, joining together. They are all waiting for the event to start. Even at small events, you can see the players sitting around. Many will be playing or playtesting. Others will be trading or just talking. In Constructed events, lots of players will be filling out decklists and sleeving cards. You can wander around and scout out the room, looking for new and interesting decks. You can see playtest sessions happening.

At larger events, the spectacle is better. The room is bigger. The variety of players is vaster. The crowd includes players, friends, judges, organizers and more. Along one wall, card vendors will have set up their wares, and players will be congregating there. The scorekeeper, registration folks and some judges may be on a stage at the side of the room. Everyone will be waiting and watching for pairings to go up. Once play starts, the massive disorder will resolve, slowly, as everyone finds their seats.

At the very upper end of the spectrum, at the Pro Tours, Worlds, and events like this weekend’s U.S. Nationals, the spectacle is even grander. In addition to the above, Wizards will have the more elaborate stage decorations out. A 20′ tall Serra Angel may be overseeing the event. The feature match area will be notable and obvious. The main event will have its own play area, and the public events will have a dozen events running simultaneously. Other areas will have artists signing cards, a WotC info booth, WotC’s retail booth, the gunslinging area — even an area where Wizards will be showing players how MTGO works, and letting them play. And all around this, scattered everywhere, will be hundreds and hundreds — maybe thousands — of players.

It is a bit different than sitting in front of your computer, watching a screen listing outstanding matches, waiting for some numbers to change.

#1. Friends

The biggest difference between Magic at home, in front of a computer, and Magic in real life, with other people, is that you play paper Magic with friends. You may be playing with friends around a kitchen table, or you may be playing at a PTQ, where your friends are scattered around the room. The difference is that they are there.

Playing around the kitchen table may be highly competitive, completely cutthroat games, or completely for fun, but either way, you are still hanging out with friends. PTQs may not have you playing friends (hopefully not, at least not until the Top 8), but you still get to meet up between rounds and discuss your victories, or tell bad beat stories.

Typing in a chat window is just not the same.

And that is the biggest reason paper Magic is better than MTGO.


“one million words” on MTGO