Friday, June 21, 2013

History of Magic Online: Once Upon a Time…

We host the first of a series of articles from our friends blog , a top blog dealing with mtg and mtgo economic aspects.
You can read the original article here:

The current version of Magic Online you can download from the official website is quite different of the first one that appeared back in 2002. Some features of the original version were removed and new ones were included in order to slowly debug the game. What is certainly true is that you must know the changes that have taken over the history of Magic Online to be the reference on the digital card market. In this article I introduce you a brief resume to give you an idea of the evolution of the game.

The beginning of Magic Online History

Before Magic Online firstly appeared, Wizards experimented with various proposals to transfer the Magic game experience to the digital world. Several games were developed, some with an adventurous format like Magic: The Gathering created by Microprose, and others as strategy games like MTG Battlemage that had little to do with the mechanics of the card game.

Later in the year 1999, a game called Magic Interactive Encyclopedia was released. It basically consisted of a software in which you classify your collection and build your decks to avoid using physical cards. The program was updated online with each new expansion for free, so you had all the latest images of the cards available. This idea had good critics, and in fact it was the seed for the creation of Magic Online in 2002.

The first major difference between Magic Online and the Encyclopedia was that on Magic Online a player possessed digital cards instead of marking the ones that he belonged on the physical world. Therefore, it required a central server to control the collections of the players. Secondly, the rules of the matches were controlled by the software itself so players only have to focus on playing the game. These two features were essential in order to get Magic Online experience closer to the physical card game. The expansions that firstly came out in the history of Magic Online started with the Invasion cycle and Judgment to Scourge afterwards.

Magic Online 2.0

Version 2.0 of the game came shortly after to the public, and its main goal was to adapt the deep changes introduced by Eighth Edition rules. It is also important to consider that the original development team was changed from an independent company (Leaping Lizards) to another group inside Wizards. On the other hand, at that time the programming of mechanics of the cards was not yet dominated, so the newest sets were released much later than the physical cards.

Since the beginning, on Magic Online you could play both constructed and sealed. The traditional formats were Standard/Extended/Legacy for constructed, of course only with existing cards in their digital version (from Invasion onwards). Regards the sealed format, you were able to play Limited (tournament deck and 2-3 boosters) and Draft (3 boosters).

Additionally, some time after version 2.0 was launched, the new format denoted as Leagues was born, which consisted of a 256-man Sealed, although it had several differences:

  • Each week you could play 5 matches. Each match won gave you 4 points, 2 points for a draw and 1 point if you lose. 
  • You could play more matches on that same week but they counted as tiebreaker points. For each match won this way you took 3 tiebreaker points, 1 for a draw and 0 for a loose. 
  • After the first week and before you started the following 5 matches you could open an additional booster to add those cards to your pool and improve your deck.
As you can see, you could play a whole month with the same sealed cards and improve the deck week after week. A great deal for the players and at the same time losses for Wizards (compared with draft queues). Besides, the infrastructure required to manage the huge amount of users playing this format led the League format to disappear from version 3.0. Today people are still speculating on whether Leagues will appear shortly. Wizards keeps saying so, but there are no news that points out we will play this format someday.

The need for a Magic Online 3.0

The main problem with Magic Online at that time resided on its scalability: the game could only support a maximum number of users connected at once. The crashes happened almost daily, so Wizards had to develop a version 3.0 from scratch. When the old version finally turned off, leaving 3.0 as the only valid version, problems like the transition to 2.0 appeared again: errors during the matches, crashes and even the report of cards disappearing from collections.

Although it took quite, in the end the programming team finally fixed most of the bugs and let the Magic Online as a good game from the functional point of view. However, many players disliked the interface design because it looked much less intuitive than version 2.0. I think the biggest problem is that people is usually reluctant to changes, especially if they have learnt and used the same tool for several years.

At that time, Wizards decided to publish old sets at Magic Online. On one hand, they launched the expansions from Mirage up to Mercadian Masques cycle as is, because they were designed for drafting purposes. On the other hand, the oldest collections did not follow this philosophy so they created Masters Edition, a series of sets which compiled Pre-Mirage cards so they could be drafted. In this way, nowadays almost all physical cards are already edited on their digital version. Some of them will never be published on Magic Online (i.e. the ante cards) and others such as Power Nine has been confirmed to appear but we do not know how yet.

And now, do you really need a Magic Online 4?

Once again history repeats with the new version of Magic Online, the v4. The same problems with bugs, the interface is chaotic (or at least completely different from the v3)… Eventually they will probably solve but it will surely require time and money. Furthermore, the transition from version 2 to 3 was justified from the number of simultaneous users point of view. But what justification has this new version? It does not even adapt to new trends on interfaces and consumes more resources than before, despite the game is simply an interface with images that manages a remote database with built-in chat (from a technical and low-level point of view). As an example, you can compare the current collection section with the new one with the following figures.

I would understand a redesign of the interface because they were to release a new version of the game for consoles/tablets/phones or even Mac. Do not get me wrong, I like the improvements on a software but in this case I also think that the update of the client could have been more progressive by maintaining the current version.

Moreover, the last version of the client also may affect, at least initially, to the digital card market and its economy as it already happened before with version 3 of Magic Online. I will tell you more details about this market on the next chapter of this series.

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