Friday, March 30, 2007

MtGO - Return of the Living Dead

I played Magic the Gathering for 10 years, and spent a fortune on it, about $1,000 per year. First on cards, then after selling the cards for a fraction of what I paid for them, I reinvested the money into virtual cards in Magic the Gathering Online. MtGO started out as a good game with version 1.0, then the programming team changed and produced a horrible version 2.0. When I left the game in 2004, they said that MtGO 3.0 would come out in 18 months. Every once in a while I checked, but the release date was always 18 months away. So imagine my surprise when I now got an invite to the MtGO 3.0 beta via Fileplanet. Sure something I'll have a look at.

In 2004 I wrote a review about MtGO on As that site is now largely defunct, I'm going to put a copy of the review here. But please, remember that this was written in 2004 and doesn't represent the latest news:

Magic the Gathering Online (MtGO) from Wizards of the Coast is not an MMORPG, but it is a massively multiplayer online game with a fantasy theme. And some of the issues relevant to MMORPGs, like virtual property, are even more relevant to MtGO. I have played MtGO since its beginning in 2002, and followed its bumpy journey over the last two years. I even ran a now defunct "MtGO FAQ and Guide" website for some time. This is a review, trying at the same time to tell the history of this game.

Magic the Gathering came out in 1993 as the world’s first collectible card game. Unlike other card games, the two opponents each bring their own deck. Buy more cards, and you can build a better deck, increasing your chances to win. This simple principle catapulted a small gaming company named Wizards of the Coast (WotC) from obscurity into a position where they were able to buy TSR, the makers of Dungeon & Dragons. The same simple principle was then applied to the even more successful Pokemon collectible card game, at which point one of the world’s biggest toy companies, Hasbro, bought WotC.

Magic the Gathering is a very good game. Each player represents a wizard, with the cards representing his magical energy drawn from "lands", and his spells. Spells take the form of monsters that can be summoned, artifacts that give the player special powers, enchantments that can enhance monsters or even change the rules of the game, and spells like fireballs to directly battle your opponent or his monster army. Getting the mix right in building a deck is an art. Then you need luck in drawing the right card at the right moment. But you also need a lot of skill, as you often have several options what to do, and you have to find the best one.

The principle of spending more money to win a game made WotC rich, but of course it has always been a bone of contention. Obviously once you own every card, the game is determined by luck and skill, like most other games. But with thousands of new cards coming out every year, few people get to that point, and gamers resent being beaten by a less skilled player with more money.

To fuel their sales further, WotC invented a Magic tournament organization, the DCI, and organized big tournaments, in which the winners were rewarded with lots of money. For example the 2003 World Championship awarded a total of $208,130 in prize money awarded to the top 64 finishers. That is not PGA Tour Golf kind of money, but is serious enough to support some professional Magic players. And millions of teenagers dreaming of become rich by playing their favorite card game, and buying lots of cards along the way.

Magic the Gathering is still played as a card game all over the world, but the first shine has worn off a bit. With decreasing numbers of players, one big problem became apparent: MtG can only be played between two (or more) people that both own cards. If there are fewer and fewer players to be found in your local card shop, finding an opponent becomes the biggest problem in the game. Thus was born the idea of creating an online version, MtGO, which would supply you with an opponent at any time, without your even having to leave your house.

WotC wisely outsourced programming of MtGO to another company, Leaping Lizards. This cooperation launched version 1.0 of MtGO in the summer of 2002 with great success, but little publicity. The program ran stably, with a minimum of bugs, in spite of complicated interactions between thousands of cards.

The business model had not changed. The client was, and still is, free. But to actually play, you need cards, and those cost money. Like in the paper version, cards are sold mostly in so-called booster packs, containing 15 cards, where one booster costs $3.69. A theme deck, a preconstructed, playable 60-card deck, costs $11.99. Before you have a collection with which you can build competitive decks, you have to spend hundreds, or even thousands of dollars. And yes, the game is so addictive that many people do that. Me included.

Each booster contains one "rare" card, three "uncommon" cards, and eleven "common" cards. And what cards you get is random. If you buy several boosters, you will soon have your commons in multiples, while missing some uncommons, and a lot of rares. Every card can be used in up to 4 copies in a deck. It is generally advisable to put cards in multiples in your deck, because if you have only 15 different cards with four copies each, your deck is a lot more predictable than a deck with 60 different cards. So people hunt for the best rares, which can be sold for $10 and more.

With 3,000 simultaneous players, MtGO was a lot smaller than a game like Everquest. But the profits per player were a lot higher. MtGO is a faithful representation of a card game. It does not have a fancy 3D engine, in fact it doesn't need one, so bandwidth cost per player are low, as there is no need to transfer data about the 3D position of players, monsters, and objects. But the average player spends a lot more than the $15 per month that a MMORPG brings. In view of these profits, WotC thought of expanding the game. The plan was to bring out MtGO v2.0, with more features, for the 10th anniversary of paper Magic in 2003, and then use the publicity of the anniversary to hand out CDs with the MtGO client to everybody.

That plan could have worked, if there hadn't been a small detail: Version 2.0 was to be programmed by WotC themselves. They ended their successful collaboration with Leaping Lizards, and told a bunch of new in-house programmers who hadn't done v1.0 to take that code, add a lot of features, and turn it into v2.0.

Unsurprisingly MtGO v2.0 was a catastrophe. Not only did the new features not work, the whole game had become unstable. Every big event and large online tournament crashed the servers. Cards disappeared from peoples’ collections, or they received the wrong cards from opening boosters. Servers were often out for hours, constantly being patched. Bugs were as common as they had been rare in v1.0. Every new release of a new card set brought new problems. The big publicity action was scrapped, as the servers couldn't have handled new players anyway.

Right now MtGO is still running v2.0, in a patched up form. As v2.0 came with new cards, and people had spent money on those cards, it was impossible to roll back to v1.0. Many features have been abandoned, but the servers are now more or less stable. The code is undergoing a complete rewrite, and a stable version v3.0 with all the features is supposed to come out by the end of 2005. The game still has about 3,000 players during prime time. The big break-through just didn't happen.

Why are there still so many people playing in spite of all the problems? The answer is simply greed. What worked for paper Magic is working for online Magic as well. A large number of people play a special form of MtG called a "draft", which is a well-disguised form of online gambling. Players pay $13 to participate, in the form of three boosters at $3.69 and two "tickets" at $1. There are eight players in a draft, sitting in a circle. Each player opens one of his three boosters, picks one of the 15 cards, and passes the remaining 14 to his neighbor, while receiving another 14 cards from his other neighbor. He picks another card from those, passes the remaining 13, and so on, until all three boosters have been distributed and every player has 45 cards. The players then add land cards, build 40-card decks, and play a single-elimination tournament. The winner gets up to nine boosters, worth $33, nearly tripling his "bet", in a tournament that lasts barely 3 hours.

It is not pure luck-based gambling, as skill plays a prominent part in a draft, it is more akin to poker. But if you win often enough, you are able to at least "play for free", using the won boosters for your next draft, and selling the 45 cards you drafted to other players in exchange for tickets.

The people that don't try to make money by winning drafts try to finance their MtGO addiction by trading cards. In early paper Magic, people often still traded cards for cards, and only game shops sold cards for money. This made sense, because if you buy your cards in random boosters, you often have cards you do not want, and can trade them for cards you do want. In MtGO people soon discovered that the $1 tickets needed for entering tournaments can be used as a currency. So in MtGO everybody is a shop, and it is nearly impossible to find somebody still wanting to trade cards for cards. Everybody wants to buy your excess cards cheaply, and then sell you the cards you need at a considerable mark-up.

Even more than the paper version, Magic the Gathering Online is all about money. There are no levels to achieve. You do have a rating, representing how often you have won, and a high rating allows you to gamble for higher stakes. But lots of people found that it is to their advantage to play with the less skilled players for lower stakes. You win less prize money per draft, but you win more drafts than if you had battled against the other highly skilled players.

Players of MMORPGs often behave badly to their fellow players. But it is surprising to see how much worse player behavior gets when the game is about real dollars, and not just xp, virtual items, and gold pieces. Most of the bad behavior in MtGO is in the form of insults from an opponent who lost to you. But some players actually try to cheat, often in the form of collusion in leagues and drafts. Some have even tried to make an opponent lose by having their friends spam him with messages and trade requests, so he would lose due to time-out. Money is one of the most important pillars of civilization, but it is sure able to bring out the worst in each of us. This does not bode well for virtual property in MMORPGs. If the sword of uberness can be sold for $50 on eBay, players are going to behave a lot nastier to each other when fighting over it in game than they already are about items that can't be sold.

But while MtGO sure has a lot of problems, the basic game behind it remains brilliant. Even if you don't play for money, the game is very exciting, and deeply strategic. There is a good mix of luck and skill elements. And the online version does succeed in making opponents available to you at any time. Of course, it is "just" a card game and the 2D artwork scanned from the paper cards looks relatively bland compared to modern 3D games. Most people prefer it that way, as the game is rather complicated, and seeing the cards clearly is more important than them having beautiful animations.

You can get the client for free, and even play a very limited number of pre-constructed decks for free. It costs $10 to set up an account, but you get a $10 coupon for cards, so the account itself is basically free. You can try to play MtGO on a limited budget, for example $30 per month for the participation in leagues. Leagues are big tournaments lasting four weeks, where everybody has the same number and quality of cards. It is relatively easy to win at least a small prize in those, and you get to keep the cards, slowly building up a collection. But Magic is highly addictive, and there is a strong danger of ending up spending more than you intended. I certainly did.

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