Bad habits stick. So do good ones, and neutral in the bargain.
In paper Magic, I have a roughly pack-a-day habit. It ramps up when there's a set as good as Khans of Tarkir (and a Sealed PTQ to prep for) and it winds down when things are less interesting. I could spend the money on other things, of course; my father, for instance, had a pack-a-day cigarette habit.
Mine's cheaper and it hasn't killed me yet.
Don't do this. Please. If you do, please quit. Preaching over.
Moving to Roanoke to work for Star City Games dramatically altered my Magic habits. When there's a Pro Tour Top 8er two cubicles over, the number of workplace Magic conversations rises dramatically. (Granted, there are other conversations I can't have, such as the merits of various denominations of Mormon gold coinage, but that's a tradeoff I'll accept.)
Similarly, being able to attend FNM without leaving the building at the end of the workday is a bonus, albeit one that leads to me spending money on FNM. With Pro Tour Qualifiers happening less than a mile from my domicile, the PTQ and I are back together again after our breakup, though I'll only have a few more chances at PTQs as I've known them in the decade-plus I've been playing.
So as a hardcore Magic fan, when there isn't a live tournament in my neck of the woods, I curl up with my laptop at home and play a nice game of...Hearthstone.
What can I say? Putting time rather than dimes into it, I gold-bought my way through the whole expansion and have put together several inexpensive decks capable of taking on the world.
On the other hand, I also have a Magic Online account that I've done basically nothing with, ever. My sign-up pack is M13, if that says anything. I opened it, saw a Thundermaw Hellkite, and went "oh, that's nice" and closed the program and forgot about it.
Still worth actual tickets. Lucky me.
As far as Magic goes, I'm not a new player. Magic Online, though? Because Texas is one of the states where the Terms of Service prohibit joining so much as an 8-4 draft (and irony of ironies, Washington is on the list) and I'm a goody-two-shoes most of the time, I respected the rules. Virginia, however, is safe, and with my colleague Andrew Shrout winning a recent Magic Online PTQ, I got to thinking...why not see what I can do with Magic Online?
While I'm at it, why not record my experiences and provide actual qualitative data of what it's like to be new to Magic Online in 2014?
So here's my tale of trying to form a Magic Online habit.
Making the Habit
Hmm, so I want to trade this lonely Thundermaw Hellkite for some tickets. Let's see, how do I...
This is just ghastly. Magic Online was released in 2002 and still looks the part twelve years on. It's not good "we have limited resources in 2002 so we're going for simple elegance" 2002 either. Compared to other games I play, which are (like it or not) competition for my entertainment dollar, there's already a strike against Magic Online.
Let's see, I think I figured out this filter thing...all right, now show me the prices...
...what do you mean, I can't sort by price? Who designed this marketplace?
Okay, I found the best price by about four-tenths of a ticket. Time to trade! Oh, hello, noble bot. You're kind of clever. So I drag these event tickets over here and type in the number...
...I can't type in the number.
I have to double-click for each ticket.
In the immortal words of Bob from The Amazing Race Canada 2, "Who designs these torture tests? Satan?"
Okay, that's kind of overstating it, but I had to go through almost two dozen clicks just to get the tickets ready for my Thundermaw Hellkite. Now how do I do the fraction of a ticket?
Okay, I was ready to just delete this program, and that's before I've even played a game! Not to mention the program, once I got into playing games, was taking up almost as much memory as Civilization: Beyond Earth, which was tempting me hard.
That'd be cheap, though, so I went ahead and joined a "New to Magic Online" Draft queue.
Now, drafting itself turned out to be...kind of smooth, actually. It's like a casino that hasn't renovated since the 1970s: a little cheesy in places, totally dated, but the poker game still plays. I don't really have an opinion on the "V3 vs. V4" debate, as V4 is all I've ever known.
At least, it was smooth until I disconnected from Magic Online. Now, before Reddit gets the pitchforks going, it was my wireless router. (Sometimes it really is your ISP or something closer to home!) I missed a few picks but I survived.
Building was also a dream, especially since I was coming off the rigmarole of PTQ Sealed deck registration. My solid Mardu curve, including Jeering Instigator and End Hostilities for fun blowouts, didn't hurt.
Then I got into my first match (Swiss, so I was guaranteed two matches), and there was a lot of clicking.
Lots. Of. Clicking.
In that first game I finally figured out what that cute little arrow beside the "OK" button is, after which things went swimmingly. During the three-minute sideboarding break I took a peek at the list of "stops" for the game and keyboard shortcuts, soon discovering to my chagrin that my laptop requires pushing the "Function" button before the F-keys activate. Still, they saved me some time.
(Aside: anyone who's in the "real life chess clocks for Magic" crowd still can go fly a kite. Magic chess clocks would be like playing Magic Online with all the stops activated. I'm a former blitz chess player myself and...eww. Just no.)
I won that first match and went on to my second, which was pretty exciting. Game one ended...weirdly. My opponent was threatening a lethal attack with two creatures, but one of them was a Salt Road Patrol with just a +1/+1 counter on it and I had a Jeering Instigator hiding under a draconic-magic morph shell, so I wasn't scared.
My foe served with both, I unmorphed, took control of the Salt Road Patrol, and then...
It didn't work.
I'm not sure if it was my fault (I might have clicked something wrong by accident) or if there was some kind of bug, but the Salt Road Patrol went on serving and knocked me out of the game. Fortunately, I won the next two, but I definitely came away thinking " I have seen the bug, and it is us."
At least I won the next two games to score my five whole packs of five-card Khans specialty boosters. It was also my introduction to the Magic refund policy, which suggested very strongly that I should not take the time to fill out a bug report, so I didn't. This changed on Monday, but what can I say? I'm lazy.
Hmm, nothing too good in the specialty boosters, but I still had thirteen event tickets and 35 Phantom points! Phantom Sealed for ten points? Don't mind if I do!
Again, building is a dream. The brief match rundown:
Round 1: Sagu Mauler lives up to its name. 2-0
Round 2: I had my first "F6 through my attack" but still pulled out the first game. Then, in the second game, disaster struck. I lost a few minutes of time getting Magic Online closed and reopened (I tried to close out the game first, only to be invited to drop, and I no-thanksed that) and promptly lost my second game, but the third game went my way in part to Sagu Mauler living up to its name.
Ah well, I can't win them all!
So for my Phantom Sealed 2-1 record, I received...eight of my ten Phantom points back.
So thirteen event tickets I had, and it cost fourteen to get into an 8-4 draft, and I didn't see a way to get that last ticket from Phantom events or selling my meager card pickings to bots, so I put a ceremonial dollar on my Visa to get that last Ticket #14.
Round 2: The first game, my Jeskai foe and I both mulliganed, but he's on the Ghostfire Blade and morphs plan and got there before I did, finishing me with a Jeskai Charm to the face. The second verse...er, game was same as the first.
That's if I ever return to Magic Online, of course.
Once November rolls around and I've had a chance to get enough Qualification Points (QPs) in a month to do some damage, I might go back to playing Phantom Sealed. On the other hand, I might not.
I already have a paper Magic habit, as I have said. Paying for two Magic habits seems awkward at best. I see how Magic Online rakes in the cash, even as I don't see myself spending further money on it. When I think of Magic Online, I think of it as the equivalent of a brick-and-mortar store most people wouldn't spend money in...except when there's a PTQ, and it's the best of a series of bad options for getting to Honolulu (or Washington, D.C., or Brussels, or...).
There's also Hearthstone.
Hearthstone, which Wizards of the Coast apparently wasn't concerned about.
Hearthstone, which had a whole page of questions devoted to it in the latest Magic Online survey.
Hearthstone, which was designed from the ground up to be the killer app for casual specialty card-style gaming online and backed by a company closer to making the Fortune 500 than Hasbro is (rank 539 vs. 597 in 2014) after it was spun off.
Hearthstone, which had a nice, friendly tutorial to show me all the ropes.
Hearthstone, which had a day-old Arena run waiting for me to finish it after this article's done.
Hearthstone, which never demanded any money of mine upfront and has offered me the genuine choice of never paying them a dime.
Hearthstone, which may not be Magic but doesn't have to be to be a competitor for customers' time and potential dollars.
Hearthstone, which may currently be the gameplay "kid sibling" of Magic (and anyone who's ever Faceless Manipulator'ed a Ragnaros the Firelord and flipped a coin for the winner knows what I mean) but has look-and-feel light-years ahead of Magic Online.
Were I a serious Hasbro shareholder (I am a shareholder, but in the sense of "I own one share"), I'd be asking where Magic's Hearthstone is, because Magic Online sure isn't it.
It used to be that Magic players might start with Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh! and migrate to Magic for the better gameplay. The thing is, in the digital space, "gameplay" isn't just card mechanics. It's how much memory a program takes up, how it looks, how the controls are, how inviting the tutorial is. Saying Hearthstone and paper Magic aren't direct competitors is both correct and totally meaningless. Hearthstone and Magic Online, however, are going head-to-head for time and dollars, and in virtually every dimension Hearthstone is the better game.
If Hearthstone is a clean, friendly game store with a swear jar and a couple of other tiny annoyances, Magic Online is the grungy hole-in-the-wall with avocado-green carpet, a couple of folding tables that were old when you were young, a PTQ, and a massive tree limb hanging over the place.
"Play at your own risk", the skeevy proprietor says as he winks and points at the branch.
It could crash at any moment.
That's why, even though I love paper Magic so much, Magic Online was an easy habit to break.