In case you missed it, there was an announcement on Thursday regarding the milestone hit by the judging program—they’ve hit 5,000 registered judges, and as such have released a new crop of foil promo cards to be dumped to the full registration list. As one of the major incentives for staffing events, these promos are essentially the compensation the judges get for their hard work and long hours, and they are usually pretty awesome.

This time around, they’re very awesome.

A long time ago, I swore to my friends, “The instant they print a foil Force of Will, I will slap a thousand dollars down on the table to the first person who gets me four.” At the time, this was a lot of money for cards—in a world where Revised Underground Seas are already pushing $250 each, this is a little less impressive. At the time of that assertion, the idea that a non-Tabernacle Legacy card would be $250 was quite absurd, but I was that invested in the aesthetic appearance of my decks that I was willing to bite the bullet and put my money where my mouth was. Of course, this was also prior to the release of the new artwork for Force of Will that came with the promo in Magic Online.

Now that the foil Forces are finally here, I can’t imagine putting that kind of cash up—especially after just offloading my own playset of Forces (perfect timing achievement unlocked!)—and even if I were still interested in owning a set I wouldn’t be as adamant about making them foil. And yet, I have to say I still appreciate the aesthetic of the foil Forces, and it’s going to make a lot of Legacy players extremely happy—not because they can finally get their hands on Force of Wills, which were not cheap but largely attainable prior to this release. They’ll be excited because they’ll be able to bring their deck one step closer to completely foiled out. And sometimes that matters to you. The one thing I wish they had chosen differently—I really want to see a Force of Will illustrated by Therese Nielsen with a color palette that is appropriate for one of Magic’s most iconic blue cards. From the descriptions I’ve read through the mothership and elsewhere, it appears that the Forces will be given to judges level 2 and above, so don’t expect these to go cheaply. They’ll be scarce and highly sought-after.

Aside from the all-important Force printing, there’s also the next in the cycle of the old-card-face Sword of X and X. This time, we’re getting Sword of Feast and Famine. Personally, I love the look of these. As a player who fell in love with Magic when the spells looked like pages from a spellbook, it brings me a modicum of nostalgic joy to see the old face used for these promos. Although I wish they’d expand this beyond just the artifacts (and Bob), the rampant use of this gimmick could render it overused and boring. As it stands, having just a few of them out there makes them special, and if I were inclined to want foil versions of these cards, these are the ones I’d be seeking out.

Finally, there’s Elesh Norn. In a direct homage to the way the Praetor was spoiled to us during the weeks leading up to the release of Scars of Mirrodin, Norn is finally being printed with text in a script in the fictional Phyrexian language. While this is not the first time we’ve seen promo cards being released in unique languages (see Raging Kavu, Questing Phelddagrif, Fungal Shambler, Stone-Tongue Basilisk, Laquatus’s Champion, Glory) this is the first time a card is printed in a language that is entirely fictional. It’s also the coolest looking language printing I’ve ever seen, and I’m quite excited to see these in person.

Beta Blockers

An interesting confluence of events has given me fresh insight into what I consider to be the most pressing issue in Magic today.

I recently finished reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” While the book has very little (actually, zero) to do with Magic—it was written 20 years before the game’s inception—in the wake of reading it, I’ve noticed a subtle change in the way I perceive the world around me. Without getting too far into detail about the book, I’ll simply say that I’m noticing I’ve become more conscious of the quality of things, and the way the surface characteristics and artistry of an object relates to its underlying mechanics and structure.

Once I finished “Zen and the Art,” I started reading “So Do You Wear a Cape?” the unofficial history of Magic: the Gathering. In reliving the early days of Magic through the lens of the writer, I’ve rediscovered an appreciation for the bare-bones version of Magic that I grew up with. One of the most interesting portions of the novel to me was the discussion of the early days of the internet (in the 1994-1995 time frame), and the integral part Magic had to play on the development of the internet (and visa-versa, of course). Beyond the idea that Magic had such a profound influence on our global culture, I was struck with just how odd it is that in 2014—a full two decades after the period where Magic and the internet became entwined—we’d still be in the veritable stone age in terms of an online platform.

In that book, Titus Chalk (the author) puts forth a statistic that Magic Online is worth about $100 million per year in terms of profit for Wizards and Hasbro. While I have no idea where that stat comes from, nor do I have any sources that reinforce the number, I can’t imagine how we can be where we are today given that kind of underwriting profit margin. And that’s where the third piece of the puzzle comes in:

As of July, Wizards of the Coast is shutting down MTGO Version 3.0.

And no one seems to be talking about it. Almost no one, anyway.

BrianGoTweet

Last year around this time, Wizards made a similar projection, which inspired me to dive headlong into the Beta to determine if we were headed into a disaster or if the vocal minority online was simply adverse to change in general, and shouting because they had a soapbox. What I found, much to my chagrin, was that there was a foundation for the concerns being expressed by the community, and the Beta had very real problems. While V3 is by no means a shining example of slick design and masterful programming, it is leaps and bounds ahead of the Beta in terms of simplicity and ease of use. It is also much more transparent in its resource usage, which means from a sheer patience perspective it’s much easier to play Magic on V3.

In an effort to avoid my biases from overtaking the discussion, I’ll say that there’s a possibility that I’m not necessarily the target audience for the MTGO platform. I’m not sure why, as a player whose real-life responsibilities make travel and frequent in-person play difficult, I would not be exactly the person Wizards wants on MTGO. The truth is, I’m already hooked, and regardless of how terrible the interface is I’m going to continue to play Magic Online because the game is so damn good I can’t help myself. Still, as one of the goals of MTGO has been established as a transition point for players whose interest is piqued through things like the Xbox game Duels of the Planeswalkers, perhaps they are catering to new players. You can see why Bryan’s tweet caught my attention.

I asked Bryan for some more info about his friend and his experience with the Beta. His friend Vin, who is a successful businessman in his own right, had this to say about the experience:

“For years I watched new blood enter the poker room full of excitement, hope and promise of a more lavish existence. Whether online or live, the lesson learned is typically the same. [It is] expensive, frustrating, and much tougher than people realize to make an honest living playing. For me, I always had a desire to learn to play Magic. One of my good friends, whose opinion I’ve come to respect, exuded a passion for the game that I was jealous to obtain. In fear of being just another fool walking into the poker room, I was hesitant to play Magic live at first. I was pleased to see I could hide behind a keyboard when introduced to MTGO.

Not knowing any better, I was defaulted into downloading the Beta version. Within weeks of learning my way around the platform the lag time, the bugs, and overall unpleasantness of the platform boggled my mind. The game of Magic was hard enough to walk into for an amateur, but the additional barriers I had to overcome due to the Beta version are absurd.

For starters, I had to request reimbursement on at least 25% of my draft and Constructed tournaments in the first month of play. [The] most common issue for me seemed to be a continued freezing or crashing during deckbuilding that led to me have every card in my drafts maindecked. The lag time on my fairly new computer tested my patience and often caused stress in tight matches that came down to the wire. Most times, when the platform crashed and I had to restart, I was slapped in the face with an elimination from the tournament. On those occasions where I was able to get one or two tournaments in, the RAM being used by Beta exponentially grew with each move I made. It was not uncommon to have to restart the program 2-3 times in any given session. After relaying my concerns to my friend Bryan (the person who turned me onto Magic), he persuaded me to try the V3 platform (which I had no idea existed).

At first glance, I will admit to having some difficulty navigating through V3, but once game play began I was thankful for an alternative to what had become the norm for me. Sometimes less is more. The simplicity of V3, with an upgraded graphic design, would have been more than adequate in my opinion. No longer do I have to deal with the headaches of a crashing or lagging platform. I can easily play more than one match a time; I never have to restart, and am extremely thankful I was given the option to play on V3. What I can’t seem to wrap my head around is why the Beta (with so many bugs) would be the default option for a new-comer to Magic Online. I can’t imagine I am the only one who grew frustrated, toward the verge of quitting. When I later learned how long Beta has been out, how slow they have been to fix major issues and how Hasbro now has a stake (owns) the brand, I was dumbfounded to see the Beta in its current state of progress. Other than the graphics, I don’t see one positive of the Beta [compared to V3].”

While my own experiences are largely focused on V3, and the Beta represents a right turn toward a new experience playing Magic, Vin has the somewhat unique experience of seeing the scenario from the opposing direction. As a player who knows nothing of Magic but what he sees in the Beta, he admits he was on the verge of giving up entirely, based on the bad interface and poor quality experience. When introduced to the alternative prior version of the software , it was as if someone pulled back the clouds and let the sun come through. Suddenly he’s hooked, and all it took was a positive user experience with a software package that didn’t strain his system or his nerves.

Vin’s impressions of the Beta are not unique as a new user, but rather they echo many of the complaints I’ve heard and even experienced in my own foray into the use of the new software. In particular, the lag issue is a severe problem for the package, and seems to be the fundamental flaw in an otherwise forgivable offense. Before diving into the Beta myself, I had recently purchased a new computer. While not top-of-the-line, my PC is a mid-level model with more than enough power to enable me to double-queue, run Spotify, stream my PC screen, and browse the internet all at the same time. When I was feeling spicy, I would add a Super Nintendo emulator into the mix, and still saw no performance issues. When I switched over to the Beta, I found that even when focusing 100% of my system resources to the client—that is, no other programs running, single queue, seated at my keyboard for the entirety of play—I was at risk of timing out in a match about a third of the time due to system lag. This is simply unacceptable.

There are positives to the Beta, for certain. Some of the parts of the game are indeed upgrades to the way things work in V3. There are leaps and bounds being made in terms of the functionality of the interface—mostly derived from the window-focused layout of the Beta, compared to the all-in-one, AOL-style layout of V3. Unfortunately, that increased functionality does not extend to the gameplay area, nor to the collections area, or to the trading area, or the deck construction area. And while some of the portions of the Beta interface are sleek and cool and interesting visually, the overall design falls flat because it does not serve the function of the program. No matter how cool you make the design look, if the interface doesn’t make sense for the way people play the game, you’re doing little more than slapping lipstick on a pig.

I recognize the challenges facing the team at Wizards when it comes to Magic Online. Making even small changes to the functionality of the system is an enormous undertaking, and with tens of thousands of moving parts that all need to work in perfect harmony with each other (even under some pretty awkward circumstances and corner cases) it’s a massive juggling act that takes time and energy and money to keep on track. And yet, compared to the enormous revenue generated by the program, the performance and appearance of the “new and improved” MTGO is a slap to the face of the millions of players who have spent their time and hard-earned money on the game, and expect that investment to be returned to them by a company that in many ways has been open and forthcoming to its clientele.

And really, that’s the part that stings the most about the Magic Online ordeal. Wizards is a different kind of company. One that is honest with and dedicated to its customers, and one that we all feel close to (in proximity to decisions, not emotionally). There are high-ranking staff who have grown up through the game and interact with the community on a daily basis, and that means a lot to us when we have so much invested (financially and this time emotionally) into the game that is their primary revenue stream and our favorite hobby. For that company to be so wrong for so long in the handling of what should be their greatest triumph reeks of a monolithic monopoly using the bottom-of-the-barrel effort to scrape along and get while the getting is good. It stands in stark contrast to the business model of the rest of the company. And unlike when complaints regarding Organized Play or Development are made in the paper Magic world, umbrage taken with the Online client largely appears to fall on deaf ears. Up to now, we’ve had the fortune to be able to largely overlook these issues because we had a playable alternative to the Beta client in V3. Soon, that alternative will disappear, and my distinct impression (and many others’ seems to be aligned) is that neither we or Wizards are really prepared for that change.

What are your experiences with the Beta client? I’m especially interested in hearing more from players who were introduced to Magic Online through the Beta. Feel free to share your own stories in the comments!

Adam
@AdamNightmare