aquiline ascension

published: 2010-11-19
author: Hans Nowak

Magic Online: first impressions

Earlier this week I signed up for Magic Online. For those unfamiliar with it, Magic the Gathering Online (referred to as MTGO from now on) is software to play the Magic the Gathering card game online. It's developed by Wizards of the Coast, so it's the "official" way to play online. (There are other, third-party programs to do this, which are sometimes tolerated by Wizards, sometimes not.)

The premise is rather controversial. In order to play online, you obviously need cards (in the online game, that is; your existing cardboard cards are an entirely different world). Wizards sells these cards... at the same price as regular, tangible cards. For example, you can buy a booster in the game for $3.99, the same as what you would pay for real cards.

I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it's not that the cardboard cards have an intrinsic value, they're just pieces of paper; but they have value to players and collectors. The same is true for virtual cards. So in that respect, it's not that different.

On the other hand, if Wizards ever decides to pull the plug on MTGO, then I will lose all my cards; even if I could keep them in some sort of file or another, I would have no way to play with them. This is not true for the cardboard ones. These will always be playable, even fifty years from now, if anybody wanted to.

(I think there's a difference in trading value as well; rare cards from older sets are only getting harder to come by, and will therefore have more value to traders. In MTGO, the most expensive cards are from whatever set is the soup of the day.)

Anyway, with this in mind, I decided to sign up for an account anyway, with the intention not to spend a fortune on boosters or whatever which will be worthless two years from now. The fee for signing up is $9.99; you get a bunch of cards and some other goodies. They accept PayPal, so signing up was clean and easy.

I downloaded the client (Windows-only, by the way) and started exploring. The first hurdle I encountered was when I tried to build a deck. You see, when you sign up, you get two kinds of cards: "regular" online cards, for the current core set (Magic 2011), and a "Planeswalker deck". The latter is meant to give beginners some decent cards to start with. They are gold-bordered and cannot be traded. Unfortunately, they also have the restriction that they cannot be used in a deck together with regular cards! This is not immediately obvious at all, and I found this out the hard way when I spent considerable time building a deck, just to find out that the program would not let me save it, because I mixed M11 and DPA (MTGO's code for Planeswalker deck) cards.

Needless to say, that was pretty annoying. You essentially have two different pools of cards that cannot be used together. Great.

(The only way out of this, of course, is to buy more standard-legal cards. If you're not picky, you can go to the trading page, find bots that give away free cards (mostly commons), and get some of those, so you have at least some cards to build a deck from. Or, if you happened to get a mythic rare in the booster that you got when you signed up, you could trade that for a bunch of less popular cards. That's what I did anyway. :-)

Assuming you managed to build a legal deck (in the format of your choice), finding an opponent is easy. Playing is pretty smooth too, and the rules are enforced well, and often in a clear manner. There are some things that are less obvious at first, like setting "stops" at certain phases of a turn, or how to concede, etc. Make sure you look at a tutorial or two, perhaps at MTGO Academy.)

The collection manager and deck builder are not so good. There are quite a few problems here. Your cards are presented to you like they were in a tabbed binder, one tab for each set. This works fine at first, but becomes a pain when you have dozens of tabs. The filter mechanism in general seems to have bugs, e.g. it showed DPA cards even when I selected a filter to only show Standard cards, etc. Lots of improvements could be made here.

I haven't played many games yet. Personally, I am not really all that interested in Standard (i.e. Magic 2011, Scars of Mirrodin, and Zendikar block). I like older sets. Fortunately, it's possible to get some of the older cards for cheap. I looked up the Simic Mutology (from Dissension) and The Slivers (from Tempest) decks online, and was able to buy almost all cards at very cheap prices. (Again, at MTGO Academy's store; no, I am not affiliated with them. :-) I paid around $8.50 total for all these cards, plus some extras (I have a weakness for cards depicting falcons and other birds of prey...). 1  A good deal, considering what you pay for the real decks on eBay.

Anyway, so these were my first impressions. If you feel like playing a game once in a while or so, my username on MTGO is mesafalcon. 2 


1  Except Counterspell, which wasn't available anywhere, and I could only get one Diabolic Edict. I substituted them with Arcane Denial and Doom Blade, for now.

2  Because "zephyrfalcon" was already taken, grrr! Impostors! :-)

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