It’s no secret that I prefer playing Magic in person, so why do I play fifteen hours a week on Magic Online? It helps that it is easier to stream playing on the computer, but Magic Online has many other merits as well. Players range from using a mix of both platforms to exclusively one or the other. Here I will discuss the pros and cons of playing on each platform.
Different Ways to Play
There are a lot of differences between Magic Online and playing in person. I talked about some of these in the past when I wrote about TheFourMetagames. You can go back and look at that article if you are curious about what decks you might face in different tournament structures.
One of the biggest differences between Magic Online and playing in person is the timer. There is no avoiding the timer online. Generally it is long enough to play your matches, so it is a good failsafe for people playing very slowly or losing connection and not making you wait forever on them.
With Magic Online, the 50-minute timer is split in half, giving each opponent 25 minutes for their turns. Unlike in paper, you are given extra minutes for sideboarding. With three extra minutes to make your decision after Games 1 and 2, the Magic Online timer could be as long as 56 minutes.
Some decks take longer to play than others. For example, Eggs was banned in Modern because it was too slow and a single turn could take 30 minutes. Current decks, like Lantern Control, take a larger portion of the clock than most of their opponents.
In paper tournaments, it’s still viable to play these longer strategies because you and your opponent share a clock. With Magic Online, you can’t really play slow decks because you will lose to your own timer if you are not fast enough.
Different things take time on Magic Online as opposed to in person. It takes care of shuffling your deck, which can become quite tedious if you play several shuffle effects like fetchlands. You also don’t need to worry about finding your seat or opponent, because you can sit in your same chair and Magic Online brings them straight to you!
On Magic Online there is no awkward time where you are searching the bottom of your bag for that die you definitely brought along, because the roll is automatically performed for you and it will ask the winner of the die roll if they would prefer to play or draw.
Magic Online has no shortcuts like you can do in paper. You can always yield a certain way to a trigger that repeats often, but there is no such thing as “going infinite” online. Decks like Abzan Company are found much less frequently online because the infinite lifegain that normally wins them the game takes several clicks for every two life. This takes time and wears down the clock. Unfortunately, or fortunately, they cannot choose an arbitrary number of times to complete a loop and gain 10,000 life in a matter of seconds.
Managing a collection is much easier in Magic Online because it will automatically sort and search your cards for you. For paper cards you can spend hours getting and keeping everything in its right place.
The complaint I hear most often about Magic Online is that you have to own two different collections. This is true because there is no way for Magic Online to verify you own certain cards in paper. The way I have mitigated this is to only own the decks I am currently playing on either platform and trade away any extra cards I end up with. This doesn’t work for some people because they enjoy Limited formats or part of the joy of playing Magic is collecting for them. The only way to connect your two collections is to complete a full set online and then “turn them in” to receive a complete set in the mail.
There are many great things about Magic Online. You can play anytime and anywhere you can connect to the servers. You can lounge in your own home, and clothing is even optional! You can play pretty much any format you are looking for at all levels, from kitchen table to tournament play.
If you are willing to wait a few minutes, there is always an opponent for you to play against. I have played against people in different countries on multiple occasions, which I would never have had the opportunity to do locally.
Once you know how to navigate the program, you can do most things you would in paper. Magic Online has a built-in rules engine, so it is not possible to cheat or convince your opponent a card works a certain way if it doesn’t. Magic Online even takes care of little actions to speed up gameplay, such as targeting the only legal target for you or drawing your cards automatically.
Another bonus of Magic Online is that you can play random formats like MomirBasic or Jhoira Basic. In these formats, you play only basic lands in your deck and then you get to play random spells or creatures from Magic’s history. I know that some people have tried to simulate these with a paper Cube, but there are so many cards in Magic’s history that it can only be an estimation.
Some people are very vocal about bugs on Magic Online, but I don’t see them often. The only bug that affected me consistently lasted for about two weeks when Kira, Great Glass-Spinner’s ability did not work.
This made me change my deck, which is not ideal, but it was fixed relatively quickly. The places I see bugs the most is in Momir Basic, but that is more understandable. It uses old cards and weird interactions that may have never been tested for by the development team.
If you have ever played other online TCGs, you will notice that Magic Online is not the most aesthetically pleasing. Magic Duels is another product by Wizards of the Coast that has a beautiful interface but cannot support all of the card interactions. Some of the feedback that I have seen most often is that people would like Magic Online to look more like a video game.
Because Magic Online is an older program written for Windows, it has not been made available on all operating systems. If you use a Mac or other operating system, Magic Online is not an option available to you.
These flaws make it very challenging to learn how to play Magic with Magic Online. There is no tutorial section to teach you the game. If you are interested in learning to play, stop by a local game store, ask a friend who plays to teach you, or try Magic Duels.
When you play Magic in person, you get other benefits that Magic Online cannot provide. You get to meet new people and actually see the person you are playing with. There is a connection between people that is not the same through chatting on the computer. You have the opportunity to socialize and make new friends between rounds of a tournament. One of my favorite parts of playing Magic is the community and all of the new friends I have made while playing.
Some people greatly prefer the tactile part of the game, where you are playing with physical cards. Shuffling, drawing your cards, and tapping your mana…all of these things are just clicks on Magic Online. I enjoy manipulating the cards and having control over the pieces of the game.
One other benefit of playing in person is the bluffing and related mind games. You can manipulate your body language or say “I guess I’ll keep this hand” (while you actually drew the perfect cards) to throw your opponent off. Even when you are in a bad situation, if you can exude confidence, it can make your opponent think you have a trick or an answer to the game state. You can do much with the hidden information and the bluffing elements, like there are in poker, to gain an edge in Magic.
The biggest downside to playing paper Magic is that you must have someone to play with. You are not able to play against yourself because of the hidden information. People are not always available to play whenever you want them to, so you can’t play all the time.
Cards can be harder to come by in person as well. Only so many copies have been printed or opened, so some of the rarer cards will be more expensive or harder to find. Magic cards are just not as readily available in paper.
When you go to tournaments in person, there is time between rounds. Especially if you prefer to play faster decks, you will find yourself waiting between matches. I like to use this time to socialize and explore, but it can become tedious if you have too much downtime. If there are enough players in the tournament, one match will always go to time, so you cannot speed through an eight-round tournament in five hours. It also takes some time for match results to be input into the system, leading to greater time between rounds.
Different Situations and Uses
There are many reasons that people play Magic, so I’d like to note a few of them and how Magic Online or in person can help each situation.
Some people just want to play games for fun or to pass the time. If you are looking to just jam some games, Magic Online is great! You can play at any level at pretty much any time. It is a bit more challenging to just play whenever you’d like in person because you need an opponent. Depending on your location, there are local game stores where you may be able to find someone to play with whenever they are open.
If you are interested in playtesting for an upcoming event, both systems have their merits. With Magic Online, you will face a wide variety of decks and can choose different levels of metagame based on what events you enter. Magic Online will make sure that every play is done properly by the rules and that the stack is ordered correctly. If there is an interaction you are not quite sure you understand, you can learn it on Magic Online.
When playtesting in paper, you can work with your opponent to get what you are looking for out of the testing. You can do “takes-backsies” and work to find the best line of play. This helps to learn the optimal lines of play that you can expect from your tournament opponents. The other big benefit of playtesting in person is the ability to use playtest cards. While they are not legal for tournament play, you can try out different variations of your deck before purchasing the cards you settle on.
For competing, Magic Online offers various options. You can play in casual rooms, two-player queues, or Leagues. By playing in Leagues and doing well, you earn Qualifier Points that you can use to enter the Magic Online Championship Series (MOCS). These tournaments are at a high level of competition and happen every few weeks.
When you want to play in a large tournament in person, you get the benefit of traveling and exploring new places. You get to meet new friends and hang out with people from all over the country. There are also local-level tournaments most nights of the week. If you can find your local gaming store, you can see what events they run.
Drafting in person can be a challenge if your local store doesn’t host them regularly. I often have trouble getting eight people together to draft. If you are not at a store, you also need to purchase the sealed product ahead of time. There is the option to Cube draft, which is free, but gathering eight people can still be a challenge.
Magic Online recently changed their draft structure. You draft in a pod, but play games like you would in any other League. This is great because you can play whenever you want, and if you only have time for one or two rounds, you can still draft. There is no value in hate-drafting because you are not necessarily going to be playing against the cards you passed. This does change the draft format slightly, though, so drafting on Magic Online is not practice for drafting in person anymore.
Magic Online has helped me grow in many ways and I could not be where I am today without it.
While it may not be a flawless program, few things ever are. I enjoy playing with people in person more than playing online, but I still love having the opportunity to play Magic Online. What do you love most about the different platforms to play Magic? Let me know in the comments, and as always, happy gaming!