VHS, Betamax and DVD: MWS, Apprentice and Magic Online
Steven Menendian offered to answer my questions about Vintage, and so far he has been very helpful. While we have talked about a number of issues so far, the one question that I asked him was: Why does everyone in the Vintage community use Magic Workstation, a product I see as clearly inferior to Apprentice. His answer was that he agreed with me, but that MWS is winning that battle among Vintage players because it is being used by more people. He used what I think is a very telling analogy, comparing MWS and Apprentice to Betamax and VHS. VHS was always the inferior format, but it got momentum and because of that it won. The same thing happens all the time: There can be only one, and the product that wins is not always the one that deserves to win. I think that now would be a good time to see how those two products compare and to also consider Magic Online from the standpoint of a serious Magic player who is seeking to playtest and improve his game.
What do you look for in a program to play Magic with online? That depends on who you are and what you seek to do. If you are looking to draft, you obviously have to choose Magic Online until a viable alternative is found. Netdraft was never an acceptable alternative, it was simply far better than nothing. If you're playing Vintage, play Extended (for now) or want to stay ahead of the release curve, you can't use Magic Online at all.
For now, let's assume that I have an opponent who wants to test with me. What I'm looking for at this point from the program I choose, above all else, is the speed at which I can do the things I need to do. I want to be able to use shortcuts and shorthand. I want to be able to do things quickly, with both mouse and with keyboard. A lot of the things I'm going to talk about may seem trivial, but they are not. They are far more annoying than they sound.
Magic Online fails these tests. To start a game on Magic Online requires a nontrivial amount of setup time, and what is worse is that Magic Online enforces the rules. If I misclick or make a mistake, I can't go back and see "what if" something had happened. I have to find the card I'm naming with Cabal Therapy or Meddling Mage, I have to make sure I tap exactly the right mana and do everything in the correct phase. Every time I discard to a Wild Mongrel, the program says "OK, if you're so clever you tell me what color it should be." Computers that enforce rules aren't good with shortcuts. The program also forces you to choose when and how you're going to sideboard, won't let you edit your deck in between, won't let you mulligan to seven (I don't like doing it, but sometimes it must be done), et cetra. I'm not attacking the program, because it does what it does and it does it well. It has advantages I will get to later, but the non game play time and the "paperwork" time is time inefficiently spent. For the right type of player or the right type of situation, the program is invaluable, but at the highest level you need to be able to break the rules in the name of efficiency. That's the pattern of the world. First you learn the rules, and then you break them.
Now let's contrast MWS and Apprentice. Apprentice loads faster, which counts for a little but not a lot. MWS now pops up a license screen: They want money, which makes the program nagware. Demerits ensue. Apprentice gives part of that back by requiring me to go through a series of four mouse-clicks to correct a bug. I may have a side, but I'm not here to hide the truth. That takes me straight to the deck construction screen in MWS, to a blank one in Apprentice. Apprentice assumes nothing! That's the way I like it, given the way the rest of the interface works. MWS does get a tiny bonus for getting you the option to work on your deck without opening the deck construction window separately, I guess. But that window is not happiness.
First, Apprentice's card filters have far more practical merit than MWS's filters - even though MWS offers those Apprentice has, they're buried in menus to the point where they lose much of their advantage. Apprentice's filters can actually be used to learn about the format you are in, and it's all right there on the screen. There's no need to navigate multiple windows once I'm in the deck window, I just do it. In general, I can just do things with Apprentice. I can't just do them with MWS and that... drives... me... insane. Isaac Asimov noted this phenomenon in a different situation in The Caves of Steel: When little things improve, you appreciate the change, but when they get worse the pain is far, far worse. I've been given these cookies for years, and when someone tries to take them away I notice their absence all the more.
The idea that I need to open a separate window to do card searches from where I'm constructing my deck tells me that the designer doesn't understand how I brainstorm or how I like to build decks. The fact that the program is asking me to select my version of each card, and will fill up the screen with such gibberish, shows he doesn't understand what matters to me. Let's not even talk about the advertisements. Of course, other things might matter to you, but I don't need seven entries for Ankh of Mishra! Yes, it was in multiple basic sets, but I'm online. Why should I care? I ask because I do not know, and that could safely be buried in an obscure menu. They're wasting space on median prices that could be used for searches - Apprentice gets more done faster with a window one quarter the size of MWS. MWS doesn't even let you resize its windows. There are all these columns, forcing me to look at set and color and rarity when I couldn't care less, but I can't even sort on that basis. I finally found what they call the "simple" filter... which is also known as the "Apprentice" filter. It's not simple, it's elegant and compact and does everything you need to do and I shouldn't need to work to get at it. Part of the reason it is so good is it is so easy to fiddle with the parameters. Speed kills. If I need to go out of my way to use it, a large portion of its utility is lost.
It also won't let you rearrange the order of the cards in your deck. The order you add them is the order they stay in. That's awful! Even worse, it forces an arbitrary sort into lands, creatures and spells that should piss Vintage players off more than anyone. I can't put Mox Emerald with Tropical Island, I can't put Beacon of Creation with Troll Ascetic. That's even if I'm willing to reinput the entire deck for that express purpose. What makes these people think they know how to look at your deck? The statistics they offer are not what I want to know. From my point of view, if I don't know them by instinct then it behooves me to break it down and understand them. The one thing I do find those filters valuable for is when I'm constructing a Limited deck and need to quickly add mana symbols, and I therefore am happy that they are available for Magic Online. I wonder if there could be good ways to improve them, perhaps even making them worthwhile for Constructed.
So to summarize, the deck construction process annoys the hell out of me, and even if it does so more than it probably should it is still far inferior for my purposes. More is not automatically better, especially when every time I try to click on one of your options you tell me it's not available in this mode.
Now let's say that by some miracle you get past all that and into a game.
Let's look at the screen. At the top is an advertisement, which hopefully goes away when you bribe them (I mean pay for software). The screen is divided in two in a wasteful way, since who cares what is on which side and more to the point wouldn't you know what was where? The cards have miniature text and other garbage on them that is impossible to read due to resolution issues but still makes it harder to see the name, and the name is the only thing that matters. When I want to attack on Apprentice, I right click and say attack.. and it says attacking. Simple, direct. None of this colored-border $#@* that MWS uses. Your cards are at the bottom of the screen instead of the left of the screen, which seems like a good idea but is not because when you put your cards on the left then you can keep everything condensed in one area and limit what you need to move around and therefore save time as well as putting everything where it is easier to see. Your eye can see wide easier than tall, and on the left your hand can be seen along with the cards in play. At the bottom you need to alternate, or at least I do. Of course, what choice do you have... you need the perty little pictures. Those little pictures... must have pictures... eat brains... have pictures.
Pictures only get in the way if you know the names.
The biggest thing wrong with this window's arrangements is the chat window. It is miniscule! Yes, Apprentice's starts small as well, because people don't realize that this is a very bad idea, but this can be fixed because Apprentice is smart. You can resize the window. Apprentice knows that you know better than it does.
Now let's get to some things that I see as big annoyances that won't annoy other people as much as they annoy me. They'll slow you down, but you probably won't realize what is happening the same way I do. If they do, you have my respect. The moment that I knew that I would never use MWS again, because I valued my sanity far too much, was right after I started my first game. I took a turn, which meant I began by untapping. There are two ways to do that: I can double click on the button, or I can use the "keyboard shortcut" that they tell you everyone's so crazy about. In fact, when I complained about a lot of this stuff, I was told that I must be using Linux and all those geeky programs that let you never take your hands off of the keyboard. I probably should give that stuff at try, but the problem here is that you can't actually do what you need to do properly: Untap, then draw a card. Sounds simple, but let's look at exactly what happens.
First, you need to untap (well you could draw your card first most of the time, but it doesn't change anything). That means that you need to hit Ctrl-U and then Ctrl-D. Now, Ctrl-D isn't that annoying, but Ctrl-U is a two-handed operation. You can do it with one if you want to, but fingers need to be stretched and I wouldn't want to do that every turn for an entire playtest session. That means you need to either use both hands or use the mouse. The problem with using the mouse is that it is easy to see that this motion in MWS is far more convoluted than in Apprentice, and for no particular reason. The locations are poor, especially compared to the locations of other things like your hand, and require double clicks. If you use the keyboard shortcuts, you need to move away from the mouse and then back to the mouse. That's another time waster right there.
I know, you think I'm kidding, but I'm not. This stuff matters, and it all adds up. Magic Workstation players actually use the turn phases, and when you end the turn in a solo game, the cards all switch sides! That is so disorienting as to be sickening. The list of games you're searching for, if you choose to search, can't be ordered or searched through in any way. MWS gives you all these options in its menus, but they're for things you don't need and don't work right anyway. To me, it all adds up to this:
Apprentice assumes you're a genius. You are given exactly the tools you need, in a system designed to access them quickly and use them efficiently... and nothing else. By creating cards and using counters and text, you can fill in for anything that needs to be improvised without contaminating the system with them. No unnecessary tools or information are given, and if you don't know what a card does you can ask to read it rather than gumming up the screen all the time. I hate to admit it, but it's not just that it is set up to respect your intelligence and therefore makes my life better. By respecting me and what I do, it gives me a vibe that I love. Words cannot express how clean the program feels. Apprentice knows that if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself. It gives you the tools to do that.
Magic Workstation assumes you're a moron. It tries to do everything for you. There are places on screen reserved for mana in your mana pool and proponents praise this as a feature. The screen is divided in two so that we all know where our cards should go rather than deciding for ourselves. We're supposed to go through the phases. We declare blockers with colors around the edges and put damage explicitly on creatures. The things you want to do most are harder to do. If anyone thinks they're a faster player than I am, I have yet to see it, at least during my peak, so I know speed when I see it. MWS does not respect me, and thinks that I need my hand held. Every little thing I have to do to keep MWS happy is another little thing that picks away at me, and I hate that vibe. MWS thinks that if you want it done right, you should do it the right way. That is not how it works.
One says you're a moron, one says you're a genius. Which one do you want to prove right?
You're not a moron. If you were a moron, you wouldn't be here. Why do you want to use a product designed for one? As usual, I will attempt to come up with Five Good Reasons:
1) The Shuffler!
I don't want to hear another word about the shuffler. Seriously. Remember all the people in Magic Online who complain about that shuffler? They need to pipe down too. And anyone who claims that the MWS one is flawed, as I'm sure some people must, I safely say: Hush you. This is all in your heads. I understand how it happened, and it happens for the same reason that people think poker sites fix hands and pump pots even when it makes no sense. Humans were never designed to handle true randomness, which carries with it large periods of time where things are seriously out of whack. One day you'll mulligan twice a round, the next day your opponents will all but accuse you of cheating. Often the difference is nothing but pure luck, and that is hard to accept. There's a reason that the same hand is called a PartyPoker Special on PartyPoker, a JetSetPoker special on JetSetPoker and causes a reference to RiverStars on PokerStars. I'm confident there is no site or program that doesn't get this reference on a regular basis. Give it a rest, boys.
2) Apprentice won't let you play with two decks in the same screen.
This is true, and that would be a problem if that was a valuable thing to have available but you can get most of the utility of that split screen with two separate ones if you are so inclined. I don't like playing solitaire Magic like that, for a number of reasons: Without an opponent to present unknowns, especially unknown unknowns, you're not giving yourself the kind of test you want and I find it impossible to play both sides as if they didn't know the other person's hand without making my head hurt when things get complex. I know there are those who can pull this off, and more power to them, but it's not for me. It's a valid criticism, and an Apprentice 2.0 would be wise to allow you to load two decks at once.
3) All the players use MWS now.
All that is needed for the triumph of Windows is for good men to not use Linux. Keep in mind that on this one I'm a complete hypocrite, because there are certain products a mage needs that tie me to the OS of an evil, evil corporation, but the point is clear. Don't give in to VHS, the inferior format with the giant, unwieldy user interface and worse quality because it's sitting there in the store. It is your moral duty! More than that, it's in your interest to help get those you work with to come back from the dark side. This is of course a valid problem with Apprentice for some people, but please do what you can.
4) Apprentice has *crash* *falls down stairs*
OK, let's try that again: Apprentice has bugs, and they're a serious problem.
There's no denying that. This is the one real knock on Apprentice. Apprentice could be refined to be a slightly better design, but for the most part it does exactly what it should do, no more and no less. A few extra menu options, a solo two-deck mode and the ability to resize the deck builder later we'd be done. The rest of the problems with Apprentice are problems with its implementation. The first thing you need to teach new Apprentice players is that when either player requests a new game, anything the other does will crash the program. That seems like a big oversight, and there's no getting around how annoying that can be. Trying to put cards on top of your library carries the risk your opponent will accidentally see them, forcing you to put them into play face down first. When I load the game, I need to give it an incantation to prevent it from beeping at me whenever I move a card. All of these things need fixing, but to me they add up to a much smaller set of drawbacks than the competition.
Magic Workstation should be no threat to Apprentice, and if someone were to create an Apprentice 2 that fixed the bugs in Apprentice, then I think it would let Apprentice win the war. At the very least, it would end the question of whether it deserved it. Magic Online is a completely different story.
Magic Online vs. Apprentice
Magic Online is the DVD version. It is more advanced technology, and it has some big advantages. The picture quality is fabulous, and it obeys all the rules and has special features. You can jump to anywhere you want quickly among a vast community. You don't need to know anything about IP addresses or firewalls. There are tournaments and there are packs and tickets to be won and traded for. This is all good stuff, and I applaud. The problem is that you have to deal with price and the DMCA. Apprentice is free and MWS is effectively free when compared to maintaining a full Magic Online collection. A few bucks once is a trivial cost, more an annoyance than a problem for the serious player. Often the cards for one PTQ will cost more, but Magic Online won't allow you to proxy cards you don't have or cards that aren't in its system. Assuming that all the cards in the format are on Magic Online, you still need to invest time and money.
When is this worth the investment, and when are you simply spending too much time in pursuit of things that are unnecessary? Magic Online is the place to draft and play sealed or league formats, hands down. There is no competition there. For old formats, Magic Online isn't available yet. The question is Standard and Block. Which way is better? That depends on your situation, because who your opponent is and how big a problem card access poses to you will be huge factors. Right now, the group of players who can be found by asking for Apprentice opponents leaves much to be desired, especially if you're not testing the format that is currently in vogue, whereas Magic Online has a lot of quality opposition. It's not PT-level, but it is solid PTQ-level opposition and that's pretty good. If you want to do better than that, you'll need to be on one of the elite teams. I think that in general, those without a good team who are willing and able to invest in the cards should use Magic Online for these formats. Those who have a top team should attempt to maximize their time by using Apprentice, or by combining both.
I could say a lot more, but I'm going over on space so I'll stop here.
The Third Candidate: Alan Comer
Jon Finkel deserves to get everyone's vote, and there is a good chance that he will. Darwin Kastle won't, but I always liked his chances and I still do. Alan Comer was a pleasant surprise when I started getting the opinions of the other voters. I'm more than happy to jump on the bandwagon. His resume in terms of money won might not be quite that of some other candidates, but it could have been if he had wanted it to be. Instead, he decided to display more integrity and sportsmanship than anyone else I've ever met, myself included. No matter how I may look down on some other people, Alan puts me to shame. He'll call a judge on himself for a harmless mistake, ready and willing to take the game loss he knows is coming... over his opponents' objections. I hate to admit it, but I just don't have that in me. He has said outright that he is willing to take game losses and other penalties to make sure that the integrity of the tour is maintained, and I wish more people would take that position.
He was a great teammate, and taught me new ways of looking at the game. I don't know how many other players could have thought of Miracle Grow, and that was just one of a number of amazingly innovative designs he made. Early on, I had a bias towards putting far too much land into my decks. Alan always looked to push the envelope in the other direction, knowing that in order to win you must be willing to lose and looking for new ways to find the land you needed without having to give up space. He is responsible for a lot of innovative deck designs and even more than that he comes up with decks that otherwise might never have existed at all. In more recent times, Alan has done a great service to the game through his work on Magic Online.
He is exactly the type of player we should be holding up as our ideal, and is a wonderful choice for the first class to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. I am proud to cast my third vote for Alan Comer.
I don't know the other two votes. There are more worthy choices than there is space on the ballot, and people who deserve my vote is going to have to be left out. The harder I think about the problem, the harder it gets. You'd think it would get easier, but you'd be wrong. The fact that I had preliminary choices in mind did not mean that I said (or at least, that I meant to say) that this was going to be easy. This vote seems to be dividing everyone into two camps in what is almost a parallel of America's culture war. One side says that we need to remember our history, whether it is good or bad, and not think about whether we are rewarding bad behavior. It argues that almost everyone on the list has done something that was ethically dubious or worse at some point in their careers and that if you only voted for the clean ones you'd have trouble filling out a ballot. Instead it's important what these people did for the game and the excitement they generated.
The other side says no. It says that people who won because they weren't playing by the rules shouldn't get a lifetime pass back onto the tour and their names should not be honored. Is this about fame, or is it about merit? Is it about integrity, or is it about the charisma of those who lack it? Is it about your performance early on tour or your entire resume?
I know which side I'm on, and if I have any struggles on integrity it isn't about the people I've excluded. It is about the people I haven't excluded.