Three Alternatives to Using Magic Online
No matter if you're indifferent, incensed, or pleased that Magic Online's price increase goes into effect on February 19, 2004, players from around the world have chosen to use alternative software to play games of Magic online. Why would you care? Ever want to play Type 1, sealed deck with Alpha cards, or have unlimited access to all Magic cards from Alpha up through Darksteel? I'd like to take you on a journey in which I explore three ways to play Magic Online: MTGplay, Apprentice, and Magic Workstation. Each has its benefits and disadvantages, but at the end of the article, I hope you agree that some are worth checking out.
I'll be honest with you: I've used Magic Online and am not a big fan (that's putting it nicely). Being a father with a full-time job, my thoughts on using Magic Online are simple: Why waste my time? But I'm not going to waste your time (or mine), trying to convince you to uninstall Magic Online on your computer. If you enjoy drafting, tournaments online, and an A.I. judge that watches over your matches, then Magic Online is the product for you. Yet maybe you've wondered what it would be like to play a Type 1 game online. Better yet, maybe you saw a deck online that you'd like to build, without spending any money and want to play test this deck with a friend at anytime day or night. With the alternatives to Magic Online, you can do this. So consider these dark horse games as another option for you to use in having fun while playing Magic. With that said, let's break down each one and see what they're about.
Apprentice: Version 1.46 (http://www.dragonstudios.com/)
Screenshot: http://www.themanapool.net/mtgplay/apprentice.htm (Disclaimer: there's no official screenshot on the Apprentice site, so I'm pulling one from my site)
According to the legal statement in Apprentice:"This product is officially licensed by Wizards of the Coast. Wizards of the Coast is the exclusive sponsor of Apprentice." Back in 1996, Apprentice hit the Internet and online games of Magic started popping up all over IRC and in chat rooms. Apprentice is the grandfather of all online Magic games. Weighing at a light 1.12 MBs to download, Apprentice is a rather simplistic interface for playing games online. Installing it on your computer takes only a few seconds, and before you know it, you can build decks, load premade decks that come with the software, and play with someone online.
From loading the game on my computer and reviewing the cards that come with it, you have access to all cards from Alpha up through Urza's Destiny. Additional files will need to be downloaded to get a fully up-to-date version that contains all of the Magic Cards in existence. [http://tinyurl.com/2urlk contains the latest database update.- Knut]
What are the benefits of Apprentice? You can play some great games with you friend at any time through a TCP/IP connection. You can also play a solitaire game - basically, you can play goldfish. The software is easy to use, with the interface being simplistic and not at all fancy. Being able to build any deck you want with all cards from Alpha up through Darksteel. Sealed deck games are also supported. Now that's a nice feature to have. Games with over two players are not supported. It is also possible to load different themes for the background, but let's get to the heart of the matter -the graphics.
Okay, I'm going to be honest again: The graphics suck. Was that clear enough? If you've used Magic Online and then try Apprentice, you're going to click the uninstall button faster than an interrupt (oh, I'm showing my age). Legally, Apprentice had to fight to allow Wizards of the Coast to sanction the game. Thousands of players had cried out for online play and Apprentice filled that need. But if you look at the graphics, it's clear to see that Magic art isn't used. The cards in no way, shape, or form resemble the Magic cards we all know and love. The wording on the cards are all correct (when you right mouse click on a card to view it), but the similarities end there.
Why would you want to use Apprentice? Testing, being on the road, or just for kicks. I don't use Apprentice, so maybe I'm biased, but I wouldn't want to sit down and play consistently with this software. Without the artwork of the cards, to me, it's just not Magic.
MTGplay Version 1.2.409 (http://www.mtgplay.com)
Screenshot: http://www.themanapool.net/articles091803.asp#end (Disclaimer: There is no official screenshot on the designers' site so I've built the www.mtgplay.com site and written the instructions for MTGplay-not trying to trick anyone here, so I'll put this out in the open. I've volunteered time to support MTGplay, but I am not a programmer for the game and earn no money/cards for my work).
I love MTGplay. I've used it for years and am most familiar with this software. I've enjoyed the games I've had with MTGplay so much that I've written other articles for other Websites in support of it, and have written up the instructions. So I am obviously biased here. But let me take my hat off and be a bit objective.
First, here's some history. Back in the Stone Age, Wizards of the Coast released the Magic: The Gathering Interactive Encyclopedia and life was good. Players could log into Wizards' chat room and play one on one games of Magic online. When Wizards decided to shut down their support of the Interactive Encyclopedia, a bunch of rather creative individuals put together MTGplay. Basically, the initial version of MTGplay used the database from the Interactive Encyclopedia so that when playing a game, you had the full, glorious artwork of all Magic cards. Not too shabby! Well, Wizards stopped development of patch support for the Interactive Encyclopedia with the Judgment set.
What was a MTGplayer to do? Build their own patches of course. For years, users sat in obscurity, visiting a chat room, and then playing online without much fuss. Yet several months ago, unofficial patches were released that allowed anyone to play with all the cards from Alpha up through Mirrodin (I mean almost any card: APAC lands, Three Kingdoms, 1996 World Championship card, etc.). Before someone using MTGplay had to own the Interactive Encyclopedia, but now, through downloading all the patches, full graphic support was available for the masses.
So what's the catch? Well, Wizards of the Coast does not officially sanction MTGplay. The new patches are unofficial and have been made by fans. I'm not sure if they were done through screenshots or what, but the cards look great. But before I continue, let me give a breakdown of the software: Weighing in at 4.7 MB, MTGplay is a larger program that allows you to play sealed deck and games of Magic with up to four players (I've read rumors that six player games have taken place but you'd have to have your computer's resolution up so high, that I can't imagine it looking good), with a solid deck builder and card search feature. The downside: To install all the cards, you'll have to download over 200 MBs of data. And worse yet, each card set is a separate patch. So it's not possible to download one massive file that contains all the patches. Rather, you'll have to devote some time to download the files.
The game itself is very similar to the look and feel of Apprentice, but you're using cards that really look like Magic cards. I always tell new players this: MTGplay is exactly like a real game of Magic. There is no judge looking over your shoulder, and you can drag and move the cards all over the screen. No computer A.I. is going to stop you from doing anything. But if you know how to play Magic, then you'll know how to use MTGplay.
The graphics are what attracted me to the game. How could I resist playing Type 1 games with the power nine, for free? Here's the real selling point for me: I own a good amount of Type 1 decks and I'm able to use MTGplay to build those decks online and play with people across the world with those decks. Again, for free. Even if I wanted to do this with Magic Online, I can't. I'm bitter because I enjoy not only Type 2 games and Extended, but also Type 1. I've decided not to toss this enjoyment of mine out the window simply because Wizards has chosen not to support Type 1 cards in Magic Online. Raising a kid, working like nuts, getting home late - I don't have time to run out to a local gaming shop and see if anyone is around to play Type 1. Now all I need to do is visit the MTGplay chat room (http://www.geocities.com/mtgieclub/chatroom.html) and play.
Are there drawbacks with MTGplay? Yes, there are. My most common complaint is that there aren't enough players. Many times, I'll visit the chat room and have to wait around for about ten minutes before someone pops up. Other times there will be ten people in the chat room. Magic Online players will laugh at these numbers and with good reason. Finding someone to play MTGplay with is more difficult, but the community is growing.
If you're lucky, you and your close circle of friends can get together and play online. You won't need a chat room. Just simply serve, give others your IP address, and have them connect to you. MTGplay is a great way to get one-time Magic players back into the game. Maybe your friends have moved to another state and you miss those old days of staying up late, playing a four way free for all game with Type 1 cards. Now you can relive those moments. Not into that? Well, play a competitive Type 2 game with someone in the chat room.
Other drawbacks: There are some bugs in the game. Sometimes a game will lock up, or players of a multiplayer game have problems. But with all honesty, I can say that I've played hundreds of games online for the last few years and have had lots of fun with MTGplay. It's not Magic Online, so there aren't thousands of players online at once, but being able to build any deck you can think of without having to spend a dime is well worth the investment of time. Magic Online might be your favorite way of playing, but MTGplay is great for casual games, multiplayer matches, and play testing.
Magic Workstation Version: 0.94C2 (http://www.magicworkstation.com/)
I'll say this up front: Magic Workstation has a fee ($19.95 I believe) if you wish to have the ads removed from the top while playing a game. With that said, I won't go into all the details of the game, but I will list a link to a product information page: http://www.magicworkstation.com/mws.html
Magic Workstation tries really hard to be Magic Online. Does it succeed? A good many players out there swear by it, but I'm not one of them. It's a good alternative to MTGplay, but the hefty 9.58 Mb piece of software doesn't cut it for me. I'm a bit turned off by the advertising, and having to buy the product to have the ads removed. Yeah, everyone is trying to earn a buck in life, but leeching Wizards' artwork for all the cards and then charging money for a product leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But that's me. Maybe others out there aren't bothered by that. I've always thought MTGplay was great, because I paid money for the official Interactive Encyclopedia and then Wizards chose to stop supporting it. Fans went beyond the call of duty and continued to build patches for the game. What's the difference? No one is charging a fee to use MTGplay.
In Magic Workstation, you have access to a ton of cards, but although they have the artwork of Magic cards, the mana, card outline, and set symbols aren't true to the card. The borders are artificially drawn in and the mana symbols are not true to the cards. I don't know if this was done on purpose to try and avoid legal troubles, but the cards look odd in Magic Workstation. Yet you have to give the designers props for trying really hard to make the game like Magic Online. It's easy to build decks, search for cards, and the connect to players feature is built into the game. With Magic Workstation you can load up two decks and play in a solitaire mode which is great for play testing.
[As a user of MWS, I can state that I like the program enough to buy a subscription, and there is an FAQ about getting Magic art available here: http://www.o-gaming.com/info/?page=faq for those who are interested. - Knut]
Again, the game environment looks a lot like Magic Online without the annoying A.I. Out of the three products I've discussed, this one has the most"official" look to it, but I'm not a big fan of the product for reasons I stated above. I also couldn't find a way to play sealed or draft. I've scoured the official Website and found no way of doing either. What would Magic Workstation be good for? That's a good question. With the look and feel of Magic Online, you'd have to ask yourself:"If I could use all the cards I wanted for free, why wouldn't I?"
I guess it all comes down to morality and that lovely color of gray. If you want to play games of Magic for free online, you can use any of these three products. I'm biased, so I opt for MTGplay because I've used it for years. Being able to play with all the cards to build any deck is a great plus. Am I saying you should toss you Magic Online accounts out the window? That's for you to decide, not me. My circumstances are rather clear: Limited funds that I spend on real life cards and limited time to trade/buy cards in Magic Online so I opt for buying real life cards and then building my virtual decks online with MTGplay. Wizards still gets my money because I buy real cards and no one is making a profit off of MTGplay, so I can rest easy at night. I especially rest easy in playing Type 1 with MTGplay, because that's not possible with Magic Online.
With the price of Magic cards going up in Magic Online and for real life packs, I thought it worth discussing three alternative ways of playing games of Magic online. Are these alternatives worth pursuing for all of you? No. Some players enjoy drafting on Magic Online. None of the three alternatives have this option (Apprentice is linked to another bit of software called"Netdraft" so it's possible to draft online with that though). Yet people play games of Magic for different reasons.
I envision a Pro Tour player using MTGplay or Magic Workstation with his friends to easily build and test all the decks he expects to play against in a tournament. Having the ability to do such play testing with anyone at any time, for free, is well worth the effort put into learning one of the alternatives. For new players, beware: If you don't know how to play the game, learn in real life or on Magic Online. Unless you have a patient player to teach you the ropes, the alternatives are going to leave you high and dry. So if you're looking for an alternative to playing with Magic Online, there are ways out there, but know that some are better than others.
Do yourself a favor and check them all out. You might find that having another way of playing online when Magic Online crashes will save you frustration and worry.