Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Is the Magic back?

A reader sent me a mail with some good news, Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers will be released via Steam to the PC. While DOTP is in a way a "Magic light" game, I am nevertheless highly interested in this. The other option to play Magic on the PC, Magic the Gathering Online, did about everything wrong you can imagine, switched developer in mid-game, had huge delays and bugs on version 3.0, and is currently quite hopeful to reintroduce in 2011 features like leagues which were already up and running in version 1.0 in 2002.

I don't mention it very often, but I spent the decade preceding this blog playing Magic the Gathering, first with physical cards, then online. I spent a huge fortune on cards and never recovered the money. And I even got a sort of diploma which certified me as "judge", an expert in the incredibly complex rule system of Magic, and allowed me to participate as judge in a World Championship.

It is this extensive background in Magic the Gathering that led to some of my beliefs about games in general, and are applicable to MMORPGs, contrary to conventional wisdom. While MMORPG players are still discussing RMT and item shops, I already know that if a game is good enough, millions of players are willing to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on game items that are worth absolutely nothing outside the game. And while some elitist jerks loudly proclaim that mass market games have to cater to the lowest common denominator and be dumb, I know that an extremely complicated game like Magic the Gathering can have millions of players. A Usenet discussion group like regularly had discussions that were so arcane that it would make a MMO theorycrafters head explode. Magic also taught me that randomness is a powerful tool when creating strategy games, because only randomness can make a game unpredictable enough so that people have to think while playing, instead of following a predetermined strategy.

Duels of the Planeswalkers is a simpler, but much cheaper version of Magic the Gathering, which was previously only available on XBOX Live. I'm looking forward to trying this out on Steamworks on the PC.
I remember playing the original Microprose MtG game. The AI was deplorable but I got SO much play out of it. Still remember it fondly. Never played Duels of the Plainswalkers. Is it similar?
Sadly Duels of the Planeswalkers is not really like the Microprose "Shandalar" game. I also spent much of my youth playing Magic and Magic: Online, and theirs alot to be learned from it as well in terms of balance, flavor, and distributing different kits or abilities to different classes - like they do the five colors of magic.
I had some contact with Startrek card games as a pupil. At some point my friends started to tell me to spend more and more money, so that I would stand a chance. We argued a lot and eventually decided to just draw cards on our own. Since then I criticize every game that tries to steal my money with cheap psyco tricks.

because only randomness can make a game unpredictable enough so that people have to think while playing, instead of following a predetermined strategy.

Mmh.. chess ?

Otherwise: Have fun playing MTG online.
Nils, high level chess is all about predetermined strategies and moves and counterplays.... sure you can improvise, but it I think competitive chess players would say that it is not unpredictable...
As someone who used to waste way too much time and money playing M:TG in sanctioned tournaments, I have a feeling I will be checking this out when this gets released on Steam.

MTGO isn't the only other way to play Magic online (I wonder if my MTGO cards are still there?) BTW. There were non-official apps like Apprentice and Netdraft back when I still had the hunger. Don't know if they're still around though.

Speaking of which, I'm surprised you've never checked out and reviewed Wizard 101. I know the target audience is primarily tweenish, but there's a solid MMO and CCG mechanic under the Harry Potter makeup.

What you describe - doesn't it apply to high level MTG, too?
I'm surprised you've never checked out and reviewed Wizard 101.

That is only half right. I did check it out, but never got around to write a review. I just mentioned it in passing in some posts.
"because only randomness can make a game unpredictable enough so that people have to think while playing, instead of following a predetermined strategy."

Chess, go, and shogi players beg to differ, if playing against human being.

Randomness is implemented in computer chess software in the sense the computer randomly selects moves from its opening book to ensure games diverge "quickly" from previous games. As each individual position offers its own challenges, this is sufficient to keep the games interested.

Speaking for myself, I still play a few games against Rybka every week despite never have won a game in over two years. Seeing improvements in my game and the oh so rare drawn game is good enough for me.

The problem with strictly scripted encounters in MMOs make it possible for a warrior and a holy paladin to 2-man 25-man Loatheb for example.

I believe it is both a short-term benefit (players can learn to defeat an encounter) and a long-term curse (there is little interest in executing a strategy a player has already mastered).

I for one would like an element of randomness be introduced into encounters, especially if these elements would force players into adopting both pro-active and reactive strategies on the fly.

Your comparison would only apply to MtG if every match of the game consisted of two copies of the exact same deck and always shuffled into the same pre-determined order (white and black in chess always have the same number of pieces and the same physical game space within which to maneuver them).

While there are tried and true decks and "meta"-strategies with such decks in MtG, you still have the factor of only drawing a random assortment of your deck at any given time.
I hope they have fixed the bugs in the game engine. I never successfully finished a game in planeswalkers on the xbox due to random (and many not so random, totally reproducible) lockups.

Simply one of the worst pieces of software I've ever paid for.
Let's put it like that:

1) Completely predictable games are
2) Completely unpredictable games are boring.

The challenge for a game designer is to make a game that is somewhere in between. Not totally predictable, but with some surprise every now and then.

Since good games are easy to learn and hard to master, good players should eventually be able to predict (read) the game to some degee. But they should never be able to completely predict the game.

Dice like randomness can be a powerful tool to create unpredictability, but always faces the accusation of arbitrariness.
That's the fun-reducing moment when you realize that you had bad/good luck.
It does even out in the long run, but in the long run we are all dead ;)

Since I haven't played high-level MTG myself, I do not know whether it is more or less predictable than high-level chess. But I do know that chess is not totally predictable - not matter the level of the players.
Just yesterday I started playing MtG again after almost two years. I was drafting the new format and it was great fun. So I wanted to give Magic Online another try (I played the old version some time ago).
I have to agree that they really screwed it up. However there seems almost noone in the magic community complaining about it.
If Blizzard would pull some of the stunts WotC is insulting their customers with, the official forums would be BURNING.
To give an example:
- Boosters of older blocks (i.e. a few months old) you bought for your magic online account with real money can not be used anymore to draft with and are basically worthless.
- the "marketplace" where you are supposed to trade your cards with other players is basically a long scrolling wall of text where everybody can announce what he wants to buy or sell. No way to sort or anything. Therefore it's completely dominated by bots - trade between players hardly happens. The WoW auction house looks like utopia compared to this.

I sincerely want to know: why is nobody complaining?
"I don't mention it very often, but I spent the decade preceding this blog playing Magic the Gathering, first with physical cards, then online"

Do you feel that was time well spent?
Do people that play MTG:O still forfeit games when you lead play with a rare card? It just wasn't even fun because people would give up before I could even play my hand...

Isn't Duels of the Planeswalkers the game where you wander around in a forest/swamp/caves etc and play against npc's that have 6-10 life? IIRC the best way to win that game was to have a ~12 card deck, and black lotus/lightning bolt them into the ground before they can react. It's certainly not the way it was meant to be played, but winning quickly is fun for an hour or two.
I played the card version, the Microprose game and the online version. I also was an avid MtGO forum reader where iirc Tobold was prominently present in discussions on MtGO card strategies and such:) I thought the MtGO format was pretty good (if you didnt mind the sharks).

I also liked the Microprose version very much even if it was flawed, AI wise (and as a software developper also interested in games i can't think of anything more interesting to work on: the AI for a new MtG game).
No no no you're thinking of Shandalar.

Duels of the Planeswalker only has like 100 cards or something among all the colors, deckbuilding is extremely limited, the battles occur in real time, it's like an action game and doesnt have a whole lot to do with the card game.
I quite enjoyed the Xbox version. Yes, it's very limited, but you're playing pre-made decks with the option to put a few extra cards in. It was a lot like my first days playing MtG against friends when you made due with the cards you owned.
Do you feel that was time well spent?

Yes, most certainly. Magic is an awesome game at its core.
I have the Xbox version but have not had a chance to play as much as I would like. I'm definitely thinking, so far, of getting the PC version. This version does come with the first expansion pack that came out on the xbox version too..

The original released information about DotP stated they would have a PC version just not when.
I'd prefer they resurrect the Microprose game. Then again, I'd also prefer to get that one from the Good Old Games guys.

Still, it's good to see this coming to Steam. New audiences for solid games make me happy.
I got Planeswalkers on the Xbox a few months ago. It's pretty good. I've never played Magic, but from what I understand Planeswalkers is basically Magic without the deck building half of the game. Which takes some of the fun out of it, but makes it simpler to implement and way more casual friendly. It mostly played like a puzzle game to me. I liked it for a few hours.
I played the paper game very casually in high school with some local friends and only dabbled with MtGO, never actually starting a real account.

More recently in the last couple of years I gave MtGO another shot, investing in some cards and playing in the daily tournaments. My interest waned as it became apparent that a modestly competitive deck would cost over a hundred dollars.

As someone studying for a career in the games industry, I have tremendous respect for the mechanics of MtG and the work that Richard Garfield put into its early playtesting. The business model, though, has always struck me as exploitive. The barrier to entry is prohibitive for any kind of serious play, and the pace of the expansion releases, with the resulting shifts in the meta-game, require continued investment. The player with more money isn't stronger in the absolute sense of buying more hitpoints, but he can buy more options and more easily adapt to the shifting landscape.

That's why I'm looking forward to this release. I'd rather play a game, like Dominion, where the card base was fixed for all and part of the game consisted in divining the optimal strategies among those shared cards. If MtGO had a subscription option that gave players access to the entire card base, I'd still be playing.

On a related note, I agree that MtGO is a travesty with a UI that makes EVE's look inspired in comparison. The client needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Maybe the ex-Blizzard developers now handling WoW's TCG are looking for some extra work?
Quote by Nils:
"The challenge for a game designer is to make a game that is somewhere in between. Not totally predictable, but with some surprise every now and then."

That's the beauty of Magic's "metagame" of deck building. A large part of it is building a deck such that you mitigate the random factor as much as possible. The best decks are ones that you know exactly how they'll play 80% of the time (or more) in the first few turns. In Magic, that exercise is left to the deck builder instead of the game designer (to an extent).
Interesting take on MTG as it applies to MMOs. Certainly there are similarities. Each new release/expansion served as a "patch" of sorts and the Tournament rules were always nerfing (or banning) cards.

Interestingly, the original MtG was actually intended as a negative sum PvP game with an "Ante" system which required players to lose cards out of their deck as they lost.

I presume based on your feelings about negative sum PvP in MMOs that you were never a fan of the "Ante" system in MtG.

I'd also say that many of the problems that MtG had in terms of "fairness" exist in MMOs as well. The longer you played, the more cards you collected, and the more power you had relative to others.

In many ways, MtG was a bit like modern day baseball. An owner can outspend another team and while that's an advantage, doesn't always guarantee success if the other player put together a better team.

Although, one area where the RMT to MtG comparison falls short is that I'm fairly certain that my First Strike deck that I had built 10-12 years ago could still compete against modern decks. New content didn't invalidate old content but instead complemented it.

That's something we rarely see outside of "sandbox" MMOs.
And here I am reading the title of this post and thinking "whoa Tobold watches and is blogging about the NBA?".../selffacepalm
Hey that's great news! I've been envious of my Xbox owning friends who have access to Duels (and have no interest in playing). I like to keep tabs on MtG and occasionally dip back into the scene using Magic Workstation. I really enjoy the deck building aspect and finding rogue strategies. I'd love to get back into playing tournaments but the necessity to spend an ungodly amount of money to build a competitive deck is a real barrier. Being able to get my Magic fix on Steam seems like an awesome idea to me.
The thing about MTGO is that you can play for free. Just download the software, and there is a little link once you start up the game just below the log-in fields that allow you to play for free.

I recently started playing it again, and after a few years, it still had all my cards and even my net deck saved.

@Tilman: In the marketplace you can search (for Jace for example) to get only the ones that have a listing of what you are looking for. If I want to trade with a person, I search for HUMAN.
Holy Moley, that's quite exciting!

I remember your pre-con reviews on the MtGO forums Tobold, and the 'unpleasantness' when you were asked to stop. And how you got your avatar even :)

It was your eventual leaving of the forums that brought me to read your blog all those years ago!

WoW pretty much ended my MtGO playing, but something like 'Magic Lite' is about the only thing outside of the return of leagues to the MtGO client that could get me back playing online rather than with the old paper cards.

(Oh, and first post, Yo! ;)
How can someone who hates PvP love a game like Magic?
I love symmetrical PvP. I hate the asymmetrical, unfair, ganking PvP that MMORPGs often offer. Magic is far more symmetric, unless you look at extreme cases where one guy with a deck for several hundred dollars beats up another guy with a starter deck.
Warning: I have it for 360. There is no deck customization beyond the ability to choose what earned cards you want in your deck. No rolling your own deck.

That being said, they game is fun, and has a nice little progression single player mode for unlocking decks, and a multiplayer component.
i used to <3 the microprose version. It had a great balance of game elements.
"I love symmetrical PvP. I hate the asymmetrical, unfair, ganking PvP that MMORPGs often offer. Magic is far more symmetric, unless you look at extreme cases where one guy with a deck for several hundred dollars beats up another guy with a starter deck."

Outside of very high level play, that's almost always the case in MtG. Someone always has a few more rares, or a few more pricey combos, and if you are playing random opponents online or at a meeting, that's going to be the case. Only at the very lowest level of play does this not factor in, which is more or less what happens in MMO PvP. At the highest level everyone is 'maxed out', at the lowest the character difference is trivial, and in the middle is where the 'problem' happens. But just like most MMO PvPers, MtG players won't complain about being 'greifed' by someone with a better deck, as it's just how the game goes.

Perhaps it's not that MtG was/is more fair, but rather that you never had a problem with it's biggest hurdles, money and strategic thinking, as opposed to time (and depending on the game, twitch skill) being the hurdle in an MMO?
The big thing about MTG has always been that you could usually make a very cheap deck that would still be competitive against decks that cost hundreds of dollars to make. A cheap, yet well designed and played deck could win tournaments in a field filled with very expensive decks.
I stopped playing MtG in March '08 after getting a gaming-worthy PC and trying out WoW, and I haven't been back to MtG since. In fairness, I played the game from Legends ('93/'94) until that point, so I had just about seen everything it could offer. It seemed like WotC was running out of ideas, the cards I saw coming out at the time I left weren't very originally designed. I had just had enough. I did however make a good deal of money from the game during my time in it. A rough estimate of my profit from trading/buying/selling cards would be around 120-140k. That's after all the costs of travel to and from Pro Tours and other such events. Towards the end I was getting more enjoyment out of the "AH" side of the game, making "gold", but even that grew tired. I'd always been waiting for you to explain your Meddling Mage avatar though, Tobold :-p
Hmm I am surpised you are MTG player. As its PvP in pretty much one of the purest forms

WoW arena is relatively similiar to MTG -its all about metagame and counters. Of course since its 3d MMO there are fps elements such as positioning and such
I'd always been waiting for you to explain your Meddling Mage avatar though, Tobold :-p

I used a black & white hobbit face as my avatar on the MtGO forums. The avatar you see here is the Meddling Mage card photoshopped with the face of that hobbit, a gift from somebody on the MtGO forums.
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