Hands up out there in the blog reading community if you ever played Magic: The Gathering. Ah… ah… yes. Lots of you. It’s to be expected — we’re all geeks here, and Magic is/was a solid staple of geekery. Now, keep your hands up if you played to any extent Wizard of the Coast’s Magic Online. Hm… far less hands up this time around. Magic Online’s history as an online version of the wildly popular collectable card game is as rocky as the mountain range that bears its name. Since launching in 2002, it struggled to live up to its paper version even through the following gaffes:
- A series of three versions of the game, with each version sporting more problems than the previous ones,
- A hard-to-adapt first version of the game that made it difficult to add new cards and rules,
- A giant “virtual party” to make up for mass server crashes that — yup — crashed the server when it was held,
- A hard cap of 4400 players in the 2.5 version,
- A third version of the game that was supposed to come out in 2006 and ended up slipping well into 2008 before releasing in two separate parts, and
- A horribly lame system for trading and selling of cards (which quickly became dominated by “bot” programs).
Even so, the allure of playing Magic in the privacy of one’s home did create a distinct playerbase that accounted for 40-50% of Magic’s sales (according to Wizards). The shame of it all is that this is, in my opinion, a greatly wasted opportunity for Wizards to have grown Magic Online far bigger and for more players to leap on board.
I don’t blame folks that like Magic but have rejected Magic Online. Aside from the screwy 3.0 interface, lots of folks have a hard time swallowing the 1:1 cost ratio between Magic’s paper products and the virtual in-game products. Magic Online is an expensive game, to put it lightly. We might complain and moan about $15/month subscription fees, while dedicated Magic Online players are dropping $50, $70, $100 or more a month on drafts, tickets and the constantly releasing new expansion packs that demand purchase just to stay competitive. The cost is so wildly out of control for the few that can afford it that there’s an underground Magic Online collective that play only “pauper” versions of the game (commons only, the cheapest cards to attain).
Plus, it’s obvious to anyone that’s followed Magic Online for a chunk of time that Wizards of the Coast got way in over their head by doing all of this, and now find it to be a chore to maintain, despite the money it pulls in. MO players get lipservice for their $75/month whereas most MMORPG titles have a constant stream of updates and developer/player communication.
Nowhere is the tragedy of Magic Online’s mediocrity more apparent than the recent success of Magic’s Duels of the Planeswalkers on XBox Live Arcade. Whereas Magic Online asks players to spend gobs of money on new packs and cards and expansions, Duels is a one-time purchase that contains a streamlined version of the game that includes 480 cards and the ability to play your friends without all the hassle of microtransactions and being schooled by someone who has spent hundreds of dollars on rares to fight against your Relentless Rats deck. If Magic Online is an advance college course in the game, then Duels is, well, probably junior high. It’s basic, it’s non-collectable, and there isn’t even a deckbuilder. But the odd thing is — this is exactly what a lot of Magic players (and curious Magicos) were looking for.
Perhaps if Magic Online had such a slick interface and an XBox Live version, then it would see an uptick in popularity as well. I think there’s an opportunity here for a middle ground — a high school version of the game where players can buy, collect and trade cards, but for far, far less than Wizards is charging current MO players, perhaps only dedicated to the core sets instead of the expansions (Wizards is attempting to make even more money these days by releasing a new core version of the game every year now instead of their previous every-two-years).