With Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir this weekend, I stand at a crossroad. On the one hand, I want to write an article about the (sweet) stinky, hot garbage of a deck I'll be playing in the tournament. But if I've learned anything about playing on the Pro Tour, it's that having an element of secrecy goes a long way. Certain decks work much better as a surprise, but this time I've gone about things a little differently than usual.
For the last few Pro Tours, I've worked with a team, though every team I have worked with has had their flaws. For Pro Tour Born of the Gods, which was Modern, I went into the tournament thinking that I could build the best version of Zoo, because I had so much experience with the archetype in formats past. Unfortunately, I didn't end up doing that well, but mostly because Zoo was not a great choice for the tournament. Who knew that all along, Wild Nacatl was not a card that should have been banned? Testing for the Limited portion of the event with a big team was great, but I ultimately failed in the Constructed portion, which made the Limited portion irrelevant.
For Pro Tour Journey into Nyx, I asked a few of my friends to team up as The Lost Boys, where we put up great finishes with the resources at our disposal. Everyone on the team who played the "team deck," the Naya Midrange deck for Theros Block Constructed, ended up cashing, which is a pretty big deal for having such a small team. But what I liked most about that testing experience was that we found all the big decks, and I was pretty happy with about 73 of 75. The only part of this testing experience that was negative was that we didn't play enough Limited. With only five real members on our team, getting a draft together was actively difficult.
Unfortunately, much of that team went their own way after the tournament, with BBD moving to Face to Face and Brad Nelson moving to Team Revolution. I decided to bunk up with the guys from Day 1 MTG, a la Ben Friedman and company, for Pro Tour M15. Suffice it to say that M15 Standard was a solved equation, with no new decks really coming out of the woodwork, and I figured that Mono-Blue Devotion would be my best possible option. I ended up making it to Day 2 once again, but failed to cash in the last round.
It may seem selfish, but the flaws in each team's testing process were the same and detrimental to my success. These teams put much less emphasis on Limited versus Constructed, and that is one of my major holes as a Magic player. I need to get the games in. I need to physically play a million games of each format, both Limited and Constructed, to get a feel for everything. From combat tricks, removal, to sticky racing situations, I will not be able to see these if I am not put into that situation prior to the tournament.
I don't want to sound ungrateful to the teams I was a part of. In fact, the experiences were pretty great. Playing Magic for hours a day, all in preparation for a big tournament, is an incredible journey. I just have a hard time expressing how I feel to people in a proactive way, which usually ends up with me missing out on the parts of testing that I need the most.
One other major flaw in the team dynamic for Pro Tours is that every team I've ever met has this huge lean towards keeping every ounce of information secret. While that can be important for certain Constructed formats involving a powerful combo deck, or potentially a breakout aggressive deck, I think that keeping your testing team in the dark can be detrimental to the testing process. When you are only playing against the other players on your team, you forget about a lot of small things that you could easily pick up from a few games on Magic Online. Having a wider range of opponents playing a wider ranges of decks and a wider range of cards in those decks, is exactly how I want to test for every tournament. I don't actually care if everyone knows what I'm playing at the Pro Tour unless my deck has a significant vulnerability. My best finish at a Pro Tour came from Mono-Green Dungrove, and I tested that deck openly for weeks, including Top 8'ing a StarCityGames.com Standard Open the week before the Pro Tour.
Every type of testing has its flaws. Giving away too much information or keeping too much secret can be your downfall. You have to find a nice medium, and I think I've done that for this Pro Tour, and I am excited to see if my testing will pay off. Instead of playing Daily Event after Daily Event, or grinding a million games with teammates, I decided to just draft a lot on Magic Online and test a lot of different ideas in 8-man Standard Events. This past weekend was spent almost primarily on Limited, and I feel pretty confident about my chances at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, so long as I am not completely wrong about my Standard deck.
The Magnifying Glass
But using Magic Online as your only testing resource can be a significant problem. The program itself is usable, but I want to put a lot of emphasis on that word. Usable. It is not a great program, no matter how much I want it to be. I don't actively enjoy playing Magic Online as much as I used to, and I use it almost primarily for testing for upcoming events. The Magic Online Championship Series (aka the MOCS) excites me much less than it used to because the experience of playing Magic Online for 30+ hours over the course of a month is much less appealing.
So today, instead of teasing you more about Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, I'm going to take some time to try and figure out some of the things about Magic Online that could potentially be improved. And I want to preface this portion of the article by saying I appreciate everyone who works on Magic Online. Those guys get a lot of flak, and I know they're trying to make it better, but coming at such a sluggish pace will push many users away. Magic Online has been a working product for a long time, and in over a decade, many parts of the Magic Online experience have seemed to decline rather than improve, but that could be much more of a product of standing still rather than pushing forward.
It's a new age.
I want, more than anyone else I know, for Magic Online to be a superior product to its competitors. There is no Hearthstone Pro Tour, but you can bet it isn't far away. The last thing I would ever want is for Magic Online to disappear, and I will do everything in my power to help it get better. Some of my comments here come from a place of disappointment. Some come from a sense of entitlement because I am a customer. But mostly, these words come from a sense of love, because Magic is a part of me, and I want it to flourish.
Imitation is the Greatest Form of Flattery
Let me begin with a principle I hold dear to my heart. Magic, at its core, is a phenomenal game. Every aspect about live Magic, from tournaments to trading and everything in between, is fun. I travel nearly every weekend for tournaments because the game is so pure, and I love every minute of it. The people in the community are awesome and one of the reasons we all keep coming back. I have met most of my closest friends, and my wife, because of Magic. So what makes Magic Online different?
It is my opinion that Magic Online should do everything in its power to try and give its players the same experience you would have at a live tournament. Opening up the list of Premier Events should feel exactly like going to a Grand Prix. Playing in a Daily Event should feel like playing at FNM. Every part of Magic Online should mimic the things that live Magic is doing correctly.
But for as long as I've played Magic Online, it doesn't exactly feel like I'm a part of a community. It doesn't feel like real Magic, but that's mostly because it isn't. Capturing that essence might be impossible, but striving for it should be the goal. That is why I find it troublesome in the cases where Magic Online specifically branches away from live play. For example, Magic Online does not allow players to intentionally draw during tournaments. The fact that Magic Online does not allow for intentional draws means that your experience in a PTQ, a MOCS, or other big event will be significantly different than a live event. Intentional draws are a big of a part of tournaments, as it rewards players for reaching the top of the bracket based on tiebreakers and the like. Just because your program can solve draws with a chess clock does not mean that it should.
Intentional draws were a part of Magic Online for more than half of my experience with the program, and it seemed odd to many that they would take that part out of Magic Online, including myself. When I play Magic Online, I don't want a different experience than real life. I want all of the same stuff I get out of live Magic, or as close to it as possible.
The Compensation Policy
The compensation policy for Magic Online is incredibly disrespectful, because it does nothing to imply that your time and your patronage have any value. Imagine going to a restaurant, ordering dinner, but it takes an hour to get your food and comes out cold. Now imagine that the manager comes to your table to "make things right." What normally happens in this situation in a restaurant setting is that your food is remade fresh, and is generally discounted or complementary. After all, you've been waiting for so long, and it's "the least they can do."
But what happens when you get an error while in an event on Magic Online?
Imagine you are at this same restaurant, the same situation happens, but the manager comes by with a completely different outlook on the event. Sure, you might get your food for free, because it is cold and took so long to come out, but the manager hits you with a curve ball. "I'm sorry, since you've already gotten your (cold) food, we can't remake it for you. That's our policy."
The current compensation policy will provide you a refund up to your entry fee back, minus all prizes won in the event. So, even if a bug causes you to lose your last round of a tournament, but you win some amount of prize, you get nothing for your trouble. Just an apology, and a robotic copy/paste of the compensation policy. At no point does that policy acknowledge that your time invested in their product is valuable to them.
And what about bigger tournaments like the MOCS or Magic Online PTQ? What if you lose in the Top 8 or (heaven forbid) the finals because of a bug in their program? At what point will compensation make up for losing a shot at the Pro Tour? For many of us who use the program, there is no real amount that would make sense for either party. How do you put a price on 10+ hours of your life and losing a chance to play on the big stage? For most of us, the Pro Tour is more important than a few boxes of booster packs. But what about three boxes, or four? What about $500? $1,000? Clearly there is a number that would make us happy if something like that happened, but the biggest travesty is that this does happen on a semi-regular basis.
Magic is not a service industry, but Magic Online most certainly is. While Wizards of the Coast is in charge of producing Magic cards, they don't physically sell those packs to us. In that regard, all customer service issues are resolved on a basis with your local LGS. Your local LGS is part of a service industry. But Magic Online is a bit different because they are controlled by Wizards of the Coast, and they do sell directly to the consumer.
If you buy cards from an online store for a certain price, and those cards are supposed to be in mint condition, but they show up at your house ripped to shreds, you generally get your money back (or they send you the right item in the correct condition). I know that StarCityGames.com has a great customer service department, and I regularly hear stories on social media about fantastic experiences with them. These are the types of things you want people posting about! You want positive feedback when it comes to customer service, because customers are the life-blood of your organization! Honestly, I don't really know anyone who could say the same thing about Magic Online and their customer service, which is a shame.
I understand that Magic Online does not print money. I know there is a cost to every single booster pack generated in that people have the option to redeem sets for physical cards. Every extra booster pack given out because of a poor user experience will result in part of a set being redeemed (to a degree), but is it not more important that your user base remains happy? Shouldn't you do everything in your power to keep them coming back to buy your product? Building a level of trust between your company and your consumer base is incredibly important to any overall business model, and that is a place I think they have failed with Magic Online.
The older versions of Magic Online used to have a "trade binder." This was a virtual binder filled with your entire collection. You could easily search for cards based on a variety of different metrics and make any number of cards tradable or untradable. Each page of the binder could jump between sets, letting you find most cards pretty easily. This made trading with other users pretty easy, for the most part, because it was intuitive.
At this point of the process, all you had to do was find the message board and search for someone who wanted to buy your cards. Unfortunately, the trading industry on Magic Online does not exist in the same way as real life and is run almost entirely by bots. These bots are automated, with prices for buying and selling set in stone. You can't negotiate, but you can look for another bot with a cheaper price. Personally, I prefer using bots for all of my needs, because it is generally faster and easier than dealing with people, but some players enjoy trading, and I would like a gentle medium to cater to both parties.
But trading on Magic Online has become a little more tedious.
Trading isn't exactly difficult on Magic Online. In fact, I've done it so often and for so long that it comes naturally to me, but that's exactly the problem. I know what I'm doing, and having a product that isn't intuitive is not going to hold water with a new and growing consumer base. I do appreciate the fact that Wizards of the Coast produced multiple articles giving pointers for Magic Online, but making those articles easier to find would be a great starting point to making things better.
What's Bugging Me
Bugs are a part of any computer program. And I will usually even give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to most bugs on Magic Online simply because of how complicated Magic can be. Certain cards interact with other cards in unique ways, and the occasional crash of a game due to placing 2,000 triggers on the stack is completely acceptable.
But what really bugs me is how long it takes for some issues to get fixed. For example, Pillar of Flame was bugged for a few weeks while it was in Standard, failing to exile the creature it killed. They also went ahead with their scheduled Standard MOCS tournament before the bug was fixed. As a result, Geralf's Messenger and his horde of zombie friends made up 6/8 slots in the Top 8. When certain cards don't work as they're intended, I'm fine with that...to an extent. But for the love of Heliod, if a card isn't working properly, postponing any major tournament that it might affect is completely reasonable. We'll understand! The integrity of the tournament is much more important than when you hold the tournament.
One bug that has bitten me over the last few months was an error during sideboarding. Occasionally, moving a card between your maindeck and sideboard would cause certain cards to become replicated, or even vanish. This made it impossible to submit your deck. I submitted a few bug reports and posted about it on Twitter, and I assume they were aware of this issue months ago. This past weekend, I participated in the Magic Online PTQ featuring Khans of Tarkir Sealed, and three people in the Top 8 were unable to submit their decks during deckbuilding as a result.
But Worth Wolpert and company are trying to make things right, and I applaud them for it. They are taking steps to recreate the Top 8 of that tournament in order to give all of the affected players a real chance at making it to the Pro Tour, which feels like a much better solution than "give the three affected players some booster packs." I have been there, and I made an ass of myself because of it, but mostly I just wanted a better solution.
While I was not one of the directly affected players, I was in that Top 8. And yes, I do get a freeroll at winning an 8-man PTQ, even though the bug in question did not affect me. But the major point here, and the reason behind the do-over, is that the tournament should have been stopped immediately during the Top 8. The integrity of the tournament was compromised, and I'm happy they're doing their best to make it right. Do I benefit from this? Sure. Does it help make up for the last time I was bugged out of a PTQ Top 8 without a second try? Very much so.
Creating Positive Incentives
While Magic Online, at its core, is a flawed system, I do think that many new games have shown us that much about the play experience can be improved. Imagine you enter an 8-4 Khans of Tarkir Draft on Magic Online. You get a pretty awesome deck, but ultimately lose in the first round. You're pretty sad about the experience because you thought you had a great chance to win, but you get no prizes and even your rating goes down!
Now imagine that even when you lose a match, you still get something out of it. You get a piece of silver, or gold, or whatever, just for joining the tournament. After a while, even if you lose a bunch of matches in a row, you end up with something for your time. But winning can increase the amount of your winnings significantly! This type of "currency" can be used for a multitude of things. Using it to enter tournaments, redeem for promotional cards, but mostly you're just rewarding your players for playing.
As it stands, the current MOCS Qualifier Point System could use some work. As of now, you can only achieve Qualifier Points by going 3-1 or better in a Daily Event or making the finals of an 8-man event. There are other tournaments that give out these points too, but what I want the most out of this system is for people to be rewarded for investing their time and money into the program. Right now, the Qualifier Points reset every month. If you didn't get your 35 Points, you can't play in the Magic Online Championship Series Qualifier tournament. But they do offer preliminary tournaments which only cost 15 points, allowing you to go 4-1 or better and earn your slot to the end-of-the-month tournament.
But why do they reset every month? Why not try and reward the player who was only able to play a few events a week? Maybe they didn't win very much, but they kept at it. After six months of loyalty to your program, shouldn't that person also be able to play in one of these tournaments? Having something like a "Planeswalker Points" type system would be great for Magic Online, where you can accrue points throughout a year and use those points to join any MOCS Qualifier you want. After all, I would love to be able to skip a Sealed MOCS in favor of a Constructed one.
Up the Ladder
This next idea could be incredibly hard to implement, as it implies changing the fundamental way Magic Online works. It would take a lot of effort, and I'm not sure if the risk is worth the reward, but this form of Magic would be ideal for basically anyone who uses the program.
I don't want to harp on Hearthstone too much, but it is apparent that people love being able to choose their own schedule when it comes to playing tournaments. The "ladder system" has been implemented in multiple online card games already and to great success. To those of you who don't know what the ladder system is, it's pretty simple. You join a tournament, and then play your match. Whether your win or lose is mostly irrelevant, but you get to play your next match whenever you're ready against someone with the same record as you (or as close as you can get), so long as there is someone out there to play against who is also on the ladder. Rinse, repeat, until you've won or lost a specific number of matches. Once your run at the ladder is done, you get your prize, and then you can join again!
Waiting 30+ minutes between rounds of a Daily Event or 8-Man isn't fun for anyone! But the fact of the matter is that people's time is valuable, and having a convenient way to earn significant prizes through a type of ladder system would be much more enjoyable than what we are currently working with. It would also increase the amount of matches people get to play in the time they spend on Magic Online, which can only be good for business. And with this ladder system, we could ultimately replace every single 2-man, 8-man, and Daily Event in the entire system.
The only problem with this system would be booster drafts, because a lot goes into drafting in Magic. You get to see what cards you pass, guess what cards will come back around the table, and try to figure out what the people around you are drafting. But aside from drafting, a ladder system would be a significant improvement for Magic Online's current basic tournament structure, if only to create a way to continuously play Magic. You wouldn't need to double queue because you could play your next match immediately!
I will continue to stress that this type of system will probably not see implementation anytime soon, as it would require a complete change in the current infrastructure.
Don't Fix What Ain't Broke
Magic Online switched to Version 4 just a few months ago, and with it was supposed to come a lot of positive change! There had been a long beta testing process before the release, but it was clear to virtually anyone who played regularly that Version 4 was not ready to be put on the market. There were many unresolved issues, but I can respect a company sticking to a deadline. Hopefully change would mean progress. And it still can.
My biggest complaint with Version 3 of Magic Online was simply the server issues. During larger tournaments, certain games would freeze or crash because of various bugs, resulting in complete failure of the entire tournament. I will say that Version 4 has done a great job at preventing these kind of issues, but there is still much work to be done.
To me, it feels like most changes with Version 4 are a step to the side as opposed to a step forward. Many aspects about trading, gameplay, and interfacing with other players are simply different, and not necessarily an improvement. This made it difficult for already-hesitant users to adapt. The heart of the matter is that we wanted the stability improvements with Version 4, but the interface left much to be desired.
It may be a bit unfair to the people working behind the scenes, but why invest resources in significant interface change when so many other issues should take precedence? Many bemoaned the switch to Version 4, and there was a lot of push-back from the community, which is understandable. Most people dislike change, but it is possible they were not transparent enough with their reasoning behind the switch. I will assume that the biggest reason for change was to pool their resources. After all, you don't want half of your team working on something when everyone could be working on it. But just tell us what you're doing, and why you're doing it! We understand that positive change isn't going to come easy, and we're willing to work with you so long as you keep us in the loop!
I am not a programmer. I don't know how difficult it is to change the parts of Magic Online that are broken. But what I do know is that Wizards of the Coast does not pay a competitive wage for programmers, and that is like building your house on sand. And building a program as expansive and complicated as Magic Online without a good foundation is dangerous. Just don't be surprised when everything comes toppling down.
I use Magic Online a lot. I complain about bugs or issues every now and then, but constantly yelling at the people in charge isn't going to change anything. Do you honestly think they're not aware of this bug you've posted about a thousand times? Chances are, they heard you the first time. And regardless, you'll catch more flies with honey so just try to be nice, and try to be patient. We're all in this together, after all. I understand where many of you are coming from, because I'm right there with you, but working together with their staff as opposed to starting a riot about how you lost out on three booster packs isn't helping anything.
If we all work together on these issues, we may eventually get a product we are all proud of.