Good Magic, Bad Magic

duelsHands 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:

  1. A series of three versions of the game, with each version sporting more problems than the previous ones,
  2. A hard-to-adapt first version of the game that made it difficult to add new cards and rules,
  3. A giant “virtual party” to make up for mass server crashes that — yup — crashed the server when it was held,
  4. A hard cap of 4400 players in the 2.5 version,
  5. 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
  6. 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).

13 thoughts on “Good Magic, Bad Magic

  1. One of the problems with them making MTG:O cards cheaper than their physical counterparts is the ability to trade in complete virtual sets for complete paper sets. If one collects every card in an expansion, he or she has the opportunity to trade those in for actual cards and loses the ability to use them online.

    This makes a less than 1:1 transfer unfeasible, as the secondary market price of the physical cards would drive people to “collect” the cheaper online to make a set to be able to trade/sell the physical cards for a profit.

  2. Yeah, but that’s backwards in how Wizards approached it. They did the “trade in virtual sets for the full paper sets” to give the virtual cards worth, in a sense, because they knew people would object to paying that much for a lot of 1’s and 0’s. They could have just not offered trade ins, done a much cheaper booster pack purchase, and probably drawn in quite a few more players. Hence why I suggest a new Magic Online game that skirts around this muddled mess they’ve made.

  3. Oh, if they were to do away with it and get rid of that system, I’d be all about it. The main thing keeping me from playing MTG:O is the price. I spent enough on that game in high school and college, and I prefer to have a little (read: a lot) more affordable hobbies these days.

  4. Additionally, the virtual cards still don’t hold the worth of the real cards, as you can only get the cards on trade in with the ENTIRE set. I played Magic for years, from middle school on to my early college years (wait, girls and beer! goodbye magic!), and I even dabbled with MTG:O. A large part of deck building is and has been, streamlining the decks to a minimum size, and often times putting multiples to assure that you get the cards you need. Ever played a Serra-bomb deck? It’s devastating.

    MTG:O was too prohibitive in terms of rules, playability, and in an expense to value way to ever adhere to. I just wish I had never dropped as much money into as I did.

  5. Wizards have stated that Magic Online product is priced at MSRP because they do not want the Online version of the game to compete with the paper version of the game. They are concerned with the paper game losing players if they sell virtual cards for less than physical cards, as some players would opt for whatever version of the game is cheapest.

    WotC will try to entice paper players to play MTGO, but they are very very careful about losing paper players to MTGO altogether. That is why online cards are more expensive than paper cards, even though they are cheaper to supply/distribute.

    Also, unlike paper cards where the retailers offer discounts for buying in bulk, since all virtual cards are bought directly from Wizards you have to pay full MSRP no matter if you buy one pack, one box or one case worth of product.

    I don’t buy cards anymore, even though I follow the game very closely and still play my old cards. It’s too expensive for me to bother trying to keep up with the newer cards and releases. Although, if they were to offer temporary subscription-based access to cards (pay $15 a month for access to all cards or something similar) I would be very tempted to play that way.

    But no, Wizards have repeatedly stated MtGO will never ever be any cheaper to play than RL Magic no matter what because they would be shooting themselves in the foot. Even though there are people like me–potential customers who they aren’t getting any money from whatsoever–they believe that it would cause them to lose money in the overall scheme of things.

  6. I’ve played both MtG and MtGO and honestly I prefer MtGO for one simple fact: I don’t have to deal with boxes of cards littering my house.

    The interface is quite quirky though and felt cheap. I also didn’t like the 1:1 cost ratio either. Though, in truth, you can purchase singles at a far better ratio if you look hard enough. The packs might cost the same but the after market is better.

    I agree though, there was/is a huge opportunity here and WotC could do a lot more to tap into that.

  7. If anything, playing it online IS cheaper just for the convenience factor (not paying for gas to go buy cards or gas to go to someone house/store to play), but by playing it online you miss out on that social aspect.

  8. I was HUGE into CCGs when I was a teenager. I played them all. I still love them but the problem is that now I have no one to play against, plus their popularity seems to have wained a lot in the last few years.

    Playing M:TG online actually appeals to me greatly… but I’m trying to resist because of the time and money aspect. I also don’t feel like it’s quite the same as holding the cards in your hand.

  9. Magic Online could become so much more immensely popular with just a few tweaks:

    Ditch the 3d game and put it in the browser; re-create Magic Online as a flash or even javascript/ajax game – would make it way more accessible and for what purpose does a card game need to be a 3d desktop-only game?

    Make a community site around the new web-based game, with social networking aspects, friends, tracking of your wins/losses, etc.

    Reduce the costs a tad, or make it so you can limit what expansions you are willing to play with/against.

    Those three would definitely help out a lot; playing magic in a browser from work and having some fun social elements added to it would rock =)

  10. I’ve never been fond of “digital property”. If I buy a game, I want to be able to put it on my shelf and play it any blasted time I please. I like MTG, but between the high cost of playing online and the notion that my “digital cards” could arbitrarily be consigned to oblivion (and that I can’t even play without an internet connection in the first place), I never did take the plunge into MTGO. The conveniences of deck filters and drafting any time don’t outweigh those significant negatives in my book.

    If I get the urge to play online, I’ll fire up Apprentice and ccgdecks.

  11. MTGO is very suitable for “Pro-Players”. You buy the same 75 single cards you own in RL and practice for the next tournament. (16 hours a day ofc)

    And Drafts, you can draft at any time of the day.

    Here is what I like about MTGO over MTG:
    – No storing of cards (ferrel explained this)
    – No shuffling
    – No opponents that are insulting, smoking or cheating.
    – No “extra turns” thanks to the chess-watch.

    I like the ideas of Nazgum. I can add a view:
    – Trading like in an ” WoW auction house” or “eve” market
    – borrowing cards (could fit the social idea)

    I apologize if my reply is 2 weeks late.

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