Yawgmoth’s Whimsy: Comments On Magic Online

I grew up in the retail world and one of my diplomas says”Economics” – but you can decide how relevant that is.

First, for those of you who noticed that this is my third rant of the year – and it’s only January – I want to say that I am writing a strategy piece on sideboarding Extended, as well as some other, more useful stuff, plus some more stuff on casual play. But rants happen, and Ingrid is tired of listening to me.* Besides, I may be saying something different from everyone else.

I want to comment on the press release on pricing for Magic Online game. For those of you who haven’t heard, prices for virtual boosters will be $3.29 each. Theme decks and tourney packs will be $9.95 each. In other words, the price of virtual cards will be the same as real cards – except that you won’t get the volume discounts you can get buying boxes online or from dealers. (StarCity sells Odyssey boxes -36 packs – for just $74.99 – less if you buy six boxes at a time – as opposed to $118.44 at the prices for a virtual box.)

My first reaction to this was the same as everyone’s – no one will play this! At the very least… Almost no one.

Then I thought about it a bit more, read Wizard’s explanation and decided that that was probably their intention. It might also be the right move. Let me explain.**

First, I think we owe it to Wizards to think about what they are trying to accomplish. Read their press release here: It is pretty clear that Wizards is concerned that, if we can all draft online, the turnout at stores will drop. Gaming stores barely stay afloat now – and cutting down on revenue from in store drafts will probably put a few more out of business. At the very least, those stores will stop staying open late to host draft nights. It does cost money to keep the store open, the staff around for extra hours, the lights on, etc. Maybe $30-$50 an hour or more for most stores – which can add up to a significant amount of money by the end of the month. If the store isn’t selling twenty to thirty draft sets a night (or maybe less if they sell a bunch of candy and sodas), then the storeowner is taking a loss to support the gamers. Setting online prices so low that a significant percent of the gamers stop drafting in stores will increase the losses and force more store owners to reduce hours or go out of business.

Once stores start dropping a product, then the volumes go down, popularity goes down, fewer websites and large tournaments are held, more people drop – and this vicious cycle can continue until the product is dead. Wizards does have a point that online Magic could end up killing the product. I can’t really comment on whether that will happen – I haven’t seen their market studies, but it is possible. Since the last few sets have been very good, and the game seems to be flourishing, I’ll assume they know what they are doing.

Maybe that level of pricing is necessary to protect real-life Magic. However, if Online is that expensive, then there are some potential problems that Wizards needs to prevent.

First, online play has to be stable and predictable. The server has to be rock-solid, and Wizards has to make sure no one can hack it. I have had some problems with cheaters in real life – I do not want to spend money for games where I get crushed because someone has cheat codes that stack their deck or preselect the booster pack contents. Moreover, before I can play, the system has to understand that modem crashes happen and let me reconnect and resume what I was doing.

Second, Wizards has to construct mechanisms that lets me get into games I can handle, based on the cards and experience I have. When I first start playing Constructed online, with my theme deck plus cards from three boosters, I do not want to go head to head with Psychatog Control or BalancingTings five matches in a row. If I do, then I will get frustrated and quit – and I’m an experienced player already. It will be even worse for newbies.

Some online dungeons had the same problem: Higher-level players that made a specialty of killing any starting players and plundering the corpses. I know those types of Magic players in real life – the kinds who rope newer players into two-on-two drafts just to collect the rares – but I also know how to spot and avoid them. Wizards needs to be able to keep those people in check online, too.

One possible solution is to match people based on rating. That could work – but it has some pitfalls. I worry about a handful of people getting together, buying a box each, then pooling their cards to make one good deck. The first player could take that deck out and smash people. Once that player’s rating got too high, then he could”trade” the deck to player number 2 and that player could smash – and so on. Once everyone in the group had built their ratings up high enough that they could not get matches with new players, then they could just create new accounts,”trade” the good cards, and start again.

Wizards could try to prevent this by only allowing one online personage per software package – but Ingrid and I both play. Would that mean that we would need to have two sets of software installed for both of us to play online? Or if your online account was tied to, say, an identification number burned on the CD, would that mean that you would lose your entire collection of virtual cards if you broke the CD?

Okay, maybe Wizards can prevent this problem by limiting trading – so people cannot trade their entire decks. However, I prefer Constructed to Limited. If I am going to play online, I want to play with good cards. I buy a lot of rares for cash, and do some trading. If Wizards puts limits on trading, it will be very hard to assemble decks.

I would like to see Wizards put up some guidelines – guidelines, not restrictions – for trading. Years ago, the Duelist included a price guide for cards. It wasn’t perfect, but it did give everyone some idea of the value of cards. It also helps limit rip-off trades. My worst fear is that Magic Online will be a home for card sharks and rip-off traders. I cannot imagine a less appealing play environment.

Wizards also says you can redeem a complete set of virtual cards for their cardboard equivalents. Sure – assuming you can get or trade for the needed odd rares, that will still leave a lot of extra commons. Odyssey has 110 rares and 110 commons. Since there are eleven commons in every virtual pack, on average you will have eleven of each common left over for every set you can redeem.

What makes it worse is that you can open a lot of packs without getting a full set. Ingrid judges large events, and large events pay judges at a rate of one box per day. As a result, we have opened probably ten to twelve boxes of cards, not counting cards won in drafts, and have yet to open a Mystic Enforcer. We have two Balancing Acts (I know; I wanted to try Balancing Tings), but ten or so Obstinate Familiars. That is exactly what you would expect with random distributions, but it does imply that converting from virtual cards to real cards will not happen often.

That is also not a bad thing. Magic Online will hurt stores if it pulls local drafters away from the stores. Magic Online will also hurt stores if it becomes a method for people to get actual cardboard. This redemption policy will probably mean that individual players will not redeem very often. Some online dealers, like Star City or even individual traders, might set up trade pools to collect sets, but that will be rare – but it might be profitable for traders and stores. That’s good.

One additional option I would like – I want to trade in a lot of commons for a new booster pack – something like 200 or 400 commons for a pack, and some suitably large number of uncommons for a pack. In real life, I have a ton of spare commons and uncommons. I have friends who sell complete common sets on eBay – where you can get about the price of a booster pack for four complete sets of commons, but I still have lots of commons that get used for proxies, bookmarks and so forth. Virtual cards cannot even be folded up and wedged under a leg to keep a table from rocking, so I would like to see a way to redeem them.

Maybe Wizards can combine the concept of a price guide and redemption, and create a site where you can trade large numbers of commons for rares. True, Immobilizing Ink may only have a value of $0.01, but I would love to be able to trade 1,400 bad commons for a Call of the Herd.

One final change I would love to see is the ability to playtest with proxies in some area. For every constructed season, I build a bunch of test decks. Many of the cards are bad commons stuck in the sleeves backwards with”Finkel” or”Call” written on the back. If the deck works, and I want to play it, I buy the card. But for the other decks, I can get experience playtesting them without investing in all the cards needed to make all the tier one decks.

Hopefully, the prize support for Magic Online will be good, with some packs for wining a draft, and probably some packs for playing – say, one pack for every twenty matches you pay for. Rewarding players for their investment, even if they don’t win, is important. Maybe Wizards could use prize support to discourage playing proxies – for example, you can get packs playing real constructed decks, but not in the proxies-allowed playtest areas.

I would also like to see Wizards increase the playable sets to include older cards. Obviously, some won’t work online (think Chaos Orb and some Unglued cards), but it would be fun to play Extended online. However, cost would be a huge problem here. I don’t know how many people would be willing to replicate their investments in Extended cards. I also don’t know how Wizards would handle the redemption issue. If I collect a complete collection of Ice Ages, for example, could I trade it for cardboard? Those cards really are out of print, and Wizards said they would not reprint them. The same issues would apply to Type One – could I really open Beta boosters to build my collection? What would a Beta booster cost, and could I redeem a set of Beta for mint Beta cards? (Since he’s written this, Wizards has gone on record as saying that they won’t go further back than Invasion… But what the hell, he’s talking about what he wants – The Ferrett)

Given those problems, I don’t expect Magic Online to ever allow redemption for any but the most recent sets, and even then the redemption policy raises some questions about how Wizards will print the cards. I’m guessing that Wizards may have special print runs to print collections for redemption. If so, that might become collectible in its own right – especially if they are identified with a special symbol or packaged differently. I would also expect that Wizards might stop redeeming older sets sometime after they rotate out of production and are no longer part of official type 2.

That’s enough for now.


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* – So now she can proofread the rant, instead.

** – One caveat – I do not play Apprentice or Magic Online. I live in a rural area and my telephone line makes modem connections shaky at best. DSL and cable modems are not available where I live – our only real option is satellite, but it is still too unstable and expensive right now. (I have a reliable, high-speed connection at work, but – for obvious reasons – I have not installed Apprentice there.) On the other hand, I can also claim some knowledge of the issue. I grew up in the retail world and one of my diplomas says”Economics” – you can decide how relevant that is, but I will remind you that that piece of paper was harder to get, and cost slightly, more than a mint Beta Black Lotus.