Tobold's Blog
Monday, January 26, 2015
Dog eat dog games

Stabs is playing Magic the Gathering Online, and says: "Of course the thing about pecking order games is that those at the top become very invested while those at the bottom tend to leave so it's always a pool of players that are refining themselves by success. But dog eat dog is kinda fun, nothing like seeing people rage when they lose :)". His statement of "Magic is an extreme of competitive gaming, the game is built around redistributing assets from unsuccessful players to successful ones." is a good description of why I left. Not that I was completely unsuccessful, but the whole atmosphere of the game was too much like swimming in a tank full of sharks to be enjoyable.

Of course there are still ways to have fun in such games, especially by subverting them. For example MtGO has a format called "draft", in which players each open a booster, pick the best card for their deck, and pass the rest to the next player, in a circle. The player who picks the best deck that way will then probably win the draft tournament and get more boosters as reward than he needs to continue playing. If you are good enough, you can endlessly play for free, while the unsuccessful players pay for boosters and entrance fee and go home empty, except for the cards they picked. The way to subvert a draft is to rare pick, that is not taking the cards that win the tournament, but taking the cards that are worth most to other players. As rare cards rarely are the best to build a winning deck, a good player passing you his leftover cards means he probably didn't pick the rare of his pack. Of course rare drafting messes with the draft tournament, as the rare drafter nearly automatically loses, giving a free win to his lucky opponent. But it is a great way to redistribute assets from successful players to unsuccessful ones, in reverse of the normal situation.

By definition half of the players in any game are worse than average (median, to be precise). More modern and more successful online games have managed to keep those less successful players playing, by having a reward structure where there are only winners. You don't actually "lose" a game of World of Tanks, you just "win less". Note that the reward structure is external to the rules of the game, Magic the Gathering Online could just as well have used such a reward structure which doesn't overly punish the losers. As a result the most successful physical card trading game in history managed only a disappointing online success, with just a fraction of the number of players that for example Hearthstone has.

"Seeing people rage when they lose" might be fun for Stabs. But I believe that as a business model it is inherently self-destructive. Successful competitive games make life easy for the losers, because you just can't run a game without them.

You often make the point that "By definition half of the players in any game are worse than average" but how significant is that? Is it possible for the majority of players to be so close to the average that there is little material affect on their personal outcome? Do all games result in a win/lose binary? Don't many games end in stalemate or a draw?

If being somewhat above or somewhat below average is insufficient to guarantee loss or victory, or even to make loss or victory appreciably more likely, is there any pragmatic difference between that and the paradoxical impossibility of everyone being above (or below) average?
I think a significant thing you overlook here is the matchmaking systems of online games.

Essentially all the matchmaking systems that I have encountered (WoT included) tend to attempt to make matches of people of equal skill (ELO or whatever is used internally to represent skill).

The ultimate goal of these systems is to set it up so that everyone in the system has a 50% win rate - to try and mitigate exactly what you are talking about.

That being said I have no idea if MTGO uses a system like that as I only ever played tabletop.
If you follow the link to Stab's blog and the previous article there, it is about CIRCUMVENTING exactly that matchmaking system. Experienced players log on with a new account, playing as "new players" against real newbies and thrashing them.
Speaking of card games, the Humble Bundle has an offer this week at

If you pay $12 or more you get a good selection of expansions, starter packs, boosters etc. which they claim would cost $161 normally. It's a good offer for those who would rarely buy such things but don't mind when it's a good bargain. (You also get things like the treasure hunts in Card Hunter which are the sort of permanent content most of us FTP-haters are happy to buy.) You can also pay a small price and get some stuff.

Just thought I'd give a heads up as some of Tobold's readers would likely be interested.
That being said I have no idea if MTGO uses a system like that as I only ever played tabletop.

I actually laughed at this. Not only does MTGO have exploitable matchmaking (as in the article), the traditional Booster drafts tournaments are literally just whoever shows up. This usually means a small group of pro players end up dominating the "tables" all night as the bottom 4 players cycle out, and the top few stay. And it's not even like you can recognize the names and stay away, as the pro players cycle their accounts all the time.

MTGO was literally THE game that finally broke me down to where I realized subscription games couldn't be worse than dropping $12 at a time for 30 min of gameplay. That was 7-8 years ago. As far as I know, things have not improved.
Hearthstone gets more players than Magic Online not because of the quality of the card games, or because of tournament formats or anything like that. It gets more players because it runs a stable platform that allows that many people to log on and play. Magic Online is developed and maintained by people who have little to no idea how to write stable or scalable client/server software.

They simply can't have many more people log on than they get now or the servers would crash constantly.

Now it may well be that game quality and community and tournament formats and the like would also be helping Hearthstone win if they were both on a level playing field technologywise. But they aren't. Magic Online is crippled and couldn't possibly beat Hearthstone even if it was superior in every gameplay way.
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