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The Real Problem with Magic Online


Boy, look who it is?

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I've playing a whole lot of Hearthstone as of late. For the record, I know nothing about World of Warcraft. I've been playing Magic since 1996 or so. So why has this unquestionably simpler game been dominating my time? Today I want to talk about the problem with Magic and Magic Online that's been swept under the rug: time.

Time commitment to is the biggest barrier to the game of Magic, and Hearthstone has shown us a better way.

The Tortured Tournament

Let's start with paper Magic. FNM takes about 4-hours in a single sitting. Due to its length and the fact that store owners want to close at a reasonable time, it gets scheduled around 6:00pm which means you  need to race home from work and through traffic to make it to FNM. If FNM takes too long, I'm not sure what to say about a GP or a PTQ. Would you like to sit in a convention hall for 9-10 hours with poor ventilation? Would you like to attempt to stuff chunks of Subway in your mouth between your matches because there are no breaks? Sure, the first couple of hours of a GP are super exciting and fun, but when we're on hour seven of the tournament, it gets old quick. I go to Grand Prixs to play high level competition I can't find anywhere else, but damn, is it ever a chore. It's like a game of Survivor where you play with Magic cards. Who can make the least number of mistakes while playing exhausted and dehydrated? I would not play in a Grand Prix every week even if you gave me free flight and entry. 

Magic Online - Our Savior?

OK, but that's paper magic. The logistics of running a large tournament mean we have to put up with that stuff. But what about Magic Online? Surely the internet has solved these problems. Nope. If you want any semblance of competition and sane cost structure, Daily Events take 4-hour chunks. What's worse, they're on a schedule so you can't even play when you have free time. Why did we take the worst of paper Magic and bring it online? The problem with Daily Events is not only the 4-hour commitment, but the tremendous downtime between matches. If I play aggro, my match may be over in 20-minutes. But I need to wait another 40-minutes for some control players to duke it out. Why can't I just play my next match? Why do I need to allocate a 4-hour chunk to play Magic, and then only use 25% of it? This, by the way, is the reason why Magic Online is such a terrible game to stream on twitch.tv: You need to find something to do to entertain your viewers in all the downtime. You should be able to play four matches in a row and just get awarded packs based on your record (hint hint: kind of like Hearthstone Arena).

The Other Time Commitment

The other not-so-obvious time commitment is the amount of time it takes to find an opponent of equal skill. Due to the lack of match-making on Magic Online, you need to randomly stumble across someone of equal skill level. It's no fun stomping on new players or being stomped by Pro Tour caliber players. If you're an above average player, you need to wait until Round 3 and Round 4 of a Daily Event to consistently find opponents of equal skill. Thus, you need to "waste" 2-hours or 2-rounds just to get to the right level. Same thing happens in real life by the way; competition doesn't heat up until the later rounds of Day 1 / Start of Day 2. Magic Online is built on the premise of "game lobbies," a concept that died in the 90s. We now have ELO-like ratings and match-making systems in every major video game — except Magic Online.

Why Hearthstone Wins

So now we've figured out why I like Hearthstone. I can start an Arena run and play a match in 10-minutes. After 10-minutes, I can carry-on with my life. If I want, I can sit there and play continuously for 1-hour, 2-hours, or even 10-hours if I felt like it. Whenever I feel like it, I can play Ranked matches to play opponents of roughly the same skill. No need to slug through the "early levels" just to get to the competition. With Hearthstone, there's even progression! You can level up to show your progress and eventually reach Legendary status. Even though the game is much simpler, and without a doubt, inferior (in terms of gameplay) to Magic, it provides me the entertainment I want on the time schedule I dictate.

The Competitor

Wizards has stated that Hearthstone is not a competitor to Magic Online. Oh how wrong they are. Yes, Wizards is going in a different direction with Magic. However, what they fail to realize is that Magic skills transfer to Hearthstone — if you're good at Magic, you will be good at Hearthstone — and Magic players will jump ship to this more enjoyable experience. Ask Mr. Kibler what he prefers to stream? My twitter is feed is all Magic pros/personalities, yet a good 20% of the content on there is Hearthstone-related. What does that say about the two games? 

Conclusion

So Magic Online has a lot of problems. We all know that. Wizards is working on fixing the bugs. They could update the game to have modern graphics. But what they actually need to do is change how we spend our time playing Magic. No more downtime between matches, no more waiting, not more slogging through opponents of inappropriate skill levels. I hope the Magic team really focuses on the success of Hearthstone and translates it back into the game we all love.


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