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Posted by DinoCity (13 posts) -
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"Dovin Baan" card art by Tyler Jacobson

On a recent Bombcast, the crew discussed how Blizzard had built a successful business on taking existing games and improving/perfecting them with their own releases. A specific example given was how Blizzard's Hearthstone was an improved version of the trading card game formula that was created by Wizards of the Coast with their 1993 release of Magic: the Gathering. As someone who has played significant amounts of Magic in recent years, this comment frustrated me. However, I decided not write in because A: I didn't want to come across as being whiny and B: Their comments, while frustrating, were not entirely inaccurate.

Complexity has always been the greatest strength of Magic, but it has also been the game's greatest weaknesses. Myself and the 20+ million other players love how each game of Magic will often feel like you're solving a difficult puzzle, where you're trying to think several turns ahead in a bid to outmaneuver an opponent (or opponents, in some formats), while they are trying to do the same. Unfortunately, this doesn't translate especially well to the digital version of the game.

Magic: the Gathering Online was first released in 2002 and despite regular updates, the online client still feels clunky and dated in 2016. This is partly due to the complexity of the game necessitating a client that can handle lots of strange interactions during a game of Magic, but also partly due to the failure of Wizards of the Coast to properly address user complaints that tend to revolve around bugs and general performance issues. It is in this area where it is easy to see where the comments from the Bomb crew were coming from, as Hearthstone is a very similar game to Magic that works much better in the digital format.

Magic has also struggled cement itself on the fast-growing professional gaming scene, with live coverage of the big tournaments hosted by Wizards of the Coast often leaving a lot to be desired when compared to the most successful competitive games like League of Legends, Starcraft and Street Fighter.

Despite this, Magic is a game that has continued to gain in popularity throughout its 20+ years, even with various competitors coming and going during that time. It is the paper version of the game, played face-to-face with real life opponents where Magic is really in a league of its own. This is also where my own recent experience of the game has reaffirmed my love for it.

I recently attended a Magic: the Gathering Grand Prix event in London, these events are huge tournaments held across the world that also serve as Magic conventions that attract a large number of attendees. The main event of the London edition saw a whopping 2,566 players competing for the coveted Grand Prix champion title. I was one such player, as were my dozen or so friends that I had travelled to the event with.

The format of the tournament was Sealed, which means that rather than players showing up with a deck of cards they had constructed before the event, they would instead open six booster packs of cards at the event and these cards would serve as the "pool" of cards from which they would build a deck from. The day started with players opening the six booster packs of the most recent Magic expansion called Kaladesh in front of another player sat opposite them, who would then do the same. The players will then swap the cards opened with their neighbour and document the cards that their neighbour had opened, to ensure that no foul play could take place with players sneaking cards that they didn't open into their deck.

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Players begin to open their packs in the main event.

I watched as the person sat across from me opened three rare and powerful cards from their booster packs and felt jealous as the pool of cards that I had opened was decidedly mediocre by comparison. I then set about assembling a cohesive strategy out of my pile of 84 cards. My deck ended up revolving putting powerful "vehicle" cards into play as well as creatures to pilot them to victory.

Match pairings for the first round were posted both online and on paper around the venue, leading to a mad rush of thousands of players eager to get to their seats and start playing. It was set to be a gruelling day of 9 rounds, each lasting 50 minutes, where only players with records of 6 wins or better would advance to the second day of the tournament.

I found my seat for my first round and as the beginning of play crept closer, I became increasingly concerned by the fact that the seat opposite me that should have been occupied by my opponent was instead empty. The round started and after 10 minutes and still no sign of my opponent, I alerted the nearest judge (volunteers that help to explain and enforce the often complicated rules of the game). The judge confirmed that my opponent was nowhere to be seen and signed my match slip, confirming that I had won the round by default. An annoying way to start the day, but a win is a win.

My opponent for the second round did show up, he was a friendly guy who had flown in from Latvia the day before to play in the tournament. After three tight games, he emerged victorious with a deck that had a very similar strategy to my own. It was disappointing that my first proper match of the tournament had ended in a loss, but there were many rounds still to play.

The day continued and I started to rack up a series of wins against opponents from all across the world (as well as one or two of my fellow Brits). I finally hit the fabled 6th win in the eighth round, against an opponent who had very courteously alerted a judge when he realised that he was playing with a card that should not have been in his deck, resulted in him being issued with a game loss in the best 2-out-of-3 match that I ended up winning

I ended the day with 6 wins and 3 losses, ensuring that I had qualified for the second day of competition along with 3 of my friends who had also achieved similar records. After 12 hours of play, the day was finally over and we headed off to a restaurant to grab some late dinner and talk about how some of our matches went. It was close to midnight when we finally got back to our accommodation to get some rest before another mentally taxing day of Magic.

The format for the second day was to be Booster Draft, which like the first day, involves players building decks from cards opened in packs of Kaladesh during the event. The difference to sealed is that players will instead sit at a table of eight and simultaneously open a booster pack, select a card to add to their deck and then pass the remaining cards from the pack to the opponent sat to their left. This will continue with players continually adding one card from the packs passed to them until there are no cards left to take. The second pack is then opened, and players will repeat the process, except they will pass the cards to their right this time. The process is repeated for the third and final pack with players passing to the left again.

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Judge notes on how to manage 700+ players drafting cards at the same time.

After building our decks, the three rounds of the first booster draft of the day begun. I finished the draft with a respectable two wins and one loss, putting my record to 8-4. We then had a second draft followed by three more rounds of play. I finished the tournament with 10 wins and 5 losses across 15 rounds, my 3 friends all posted the same record. Sadly, this meant that none of us had come to close to the records of the top 8 players in the tournament, who would qualify for the single elimination rounds to fight it out for the Grand Prix Champion title as well as some considerable cash prizes.

The recurring theme of GP London is that every person I had came across throughout the weekend shared a passion for Magic: the Gathering. Everyone I encountered was friendly and sportsmanlike in their conduct, both in victory and in defeat. It was this that reiterated to me why Magic has been successful for as long as it has. Its regular expansions continue to feed an ever-growing legion of fans, who can play the game in a huge variety of different formats in settings ranging from casual encounters around the kitchen table to highly competitive matches for huge cash prizes. The game also has an ongoing story that is told through the cards, making every game feel like you're playing out part of the overarching plot.

This takes me back to the Bombcast comments I referred to at the beginning of this piece. Magic is a game not without its flaws and it can be frustrating to see other trading card games (particularly Hearthstone) handle certain aspects of the TCG formula better. Despite this, Magic is a game that has endured thanks to a strong community that has kept the game popular for many years already and will continue to do for many years to come.

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#1 Edited by jakob187 (22932 posts) -

THANK YOU for this write-up! I won't say that I was necessarily frustrated or mad at the comment about Hearthstone being an "improved" version of MTG on the Bombcast, but as a regular MTG player, I immediately thought "they just don't understand the differences enough to know that there is little comparison to be had."

With Hearthstone allowing you to choose which creatures you slam into each other, the dynamic it offers is drastically different. Control decks in Hearthstone are NOTHING like a control shell in MTG, especially when you consider that a traditional control shell in MTG will only play about two to four creatures total. I also still feel that choosing what you attack takes away a ton of the strategy that you find in MTG. Basically, MTG is all about the setup and THEN execution, while Hearthstone is all about the execution and finally starting learning a thing or two about setup.

When you compare the way a board state works in Hearthstone to that of MTG, it's apples and oranges.

Then you have my number one issue with Hearthstone: Classic cards are always legal within Standard. THIS is a problem. I understand their purpose: they want a set that people can always buy into. However, an ongoing Standard format should NEVER have that base set of cards to mess around with. Yes, they are young, but when they decided to kick in with a Standard format, they should've made sure they had enough cards to play within the limits. That's the point of Standard formats in card games: to limit the player to specific sets of cards and challenge them to make a solid deck out of them. By allowing access to the Classic cards, they are just causing more harm than good for their game. It continually turns me away from the game over and over.

However, if we're going to compare Hearthstone to MTG when MTG was only a few years old (much like Hearthstone is right now), then I think that is a fairly more apt way to comparing them. I played from Alpha until Ice Age, then stopped playing and came back during Return to Ravnica and M14. Back then, you had Type 1 and Type 2 (which was still emerging). Therefore, using that as a comparison point seems like it works a bit more.

With that said, I'm also glad to hear your comments on Kaladesh Grand Prix in London. It sounds like the event went really well, and there was a sick Liliana cosplay that MTG featured on their Facebook page. Seriously, the woman WAS Liliana as far as I'm concerned!

I'm also curious if you are playing Standard format for Kaladesh rotation, @dinocity. I'm trying to get U/W Control to work, and at my local meta, it's alright. However, Loot Copter is just so damn strong that it's hard to find someone who isn't playing hard aggro (or that crazy "Storm" deck with Aetherflux Reservoir).

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#2 Posted by DinoCity (13 posts) -

@jakob187: Thank you for reading, I'm glad you liked the blog. MTG and Hearthstone are quite different games on a mechanical level, which is why I don't like how frequently they're compared to each other.

The GP was really well-run, I sat a few spaces down from the "Liliana" for the first round and it was an excellent costume. She dressed as Nissa for the Sunday and that cosplay was also fantastic.

I'm brewing Jeskai control for the current standard, red gives you access to Harnessed Lightning as a cheap removal spell, as well as Radiant Flames and Nahiri (who can exile those pesky copters).

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#3 Posted by saispag (93 posts) -

"the online client still feels clunky and dated in 2016"

Understatement of the century. The MODO client is pure garbage when compared to literally any other online gaming experience. Considering it is paid entry to tournaments and is a viable way to gain access to Pro Tour and GP events with real prize money, the amount of bugs and just general slowness is astounding. WOTC seem unwilling to pay developers the going rate though and anyone with any talent seems to join elsewhere or move on pretty quickly.

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#4 Edited by jakob187 (22932 posts) -

@dinocity: I'd considered going Jeskai control, just because the burn would add an additional win-con. Selfless Spirit is just getting played in too many decks for me to warrant it. However, the "Lightning Axe > Selfless Spirit sacrifice > Fiery Temper" stack trick works pretty decently. Descend upon the Sinful is going to start seeing play (even as a 1x) just because of the exile, and if you have delirium, then hey...free 4/4 flyer.

If you have a decklist, I wouldn't mind checking it out. I usually post all my stuff up on TappedOut (username: BigBearinIt) if you want to see what I'm using at any point in time.

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#5 Posted by Darth_Navster (763 posts) -

I'm a longtime on-and-off Magic player and your post has got me itching to play again. I've never been to a Grand Prix, preferring to stick with casual games with friends and the occasional Friday Night Magic, but it's good to hear that you had a positive experience with the players at the tournament. I must've had the worst luck, but a lot of the people I ran into during FNMs were absolute dirtbags with poor hygiene and poorer manners. That was years ago, however.

Have you tried Magic Duels by any chance? The interface is much improved over Magic Online by taking cues from Hearthstone's presentation. It certainly doesn't hold a candle to the physical game, but it remains a good substitute in cases where you don't have anyone to play with in meat space.

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#6 Posted by LawGamer (1302 posts) -

So is there, like, a good way to get into Magic? I've always been kind of curious about it and it seems like something I would like, but I (a) don't really know anyone who plays it and (b) the community always seems super hard-core. I don't really want to invest time and money into something if the barrier to entry is super high.

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#7 Posted by Hassun (7883 posts) -

An interesting look into a world that's alien to me.

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#8 Edited by DinoCity (13 posts) -

@jakob187: Here's the list I've been working on.

Slightly different build to the one that made it to the finals of the Pro Tour as I'm not running Void Shatter and have two copies of Nahiri.

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#9 Posted by DinoCity (13 posts) -

@darth_navster: Magic Duels does have better interface, but it also has a much smaller card pool that's geared towards newer players, rather than the "full" experience offered by Magic Online.

I do have to agree with your comments on some of the people that play Magic, I imagine you'll find people with poor hygiene in any gaming community but it can be off-putting when they're physically sat across from you.

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#10 Posted by DinoCity (13 posts) -

@lawgamer: Magic Duels is your best bet, it's a free to play version of Magic that has tutorials on all the basics of the game and will let you build decks to play with.

For playing the physical game. Wizards of the Coast have a store locator that you can use to find a gaming store near you and find out when they have events. There is a pay barrier to some formats of Magic, so I'd recommend starting out with something cheap like Standard or Booster Draft to start off with.

You will come across serious players but they'll be plenty of people at a store that will be able to help you get started with the game - we were all new once! Each store should have a judge as well, who will be able to help you along with any rules queries you may have.

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#11 Posted by BladedEdge (729 posts) -

@saispag: I would like very much to pick the brain of the people who are responsible for this. Like the pessimistic viewpoint of mines concludes its the same problem GamesWorkshop has with just releasing a bloody digital version of War Hammer/40k..competition.

Like is it so far fetched to believe, given we've got a good half-dozen 'done it better, with less money, people and time' examples of what Modo could be, that WotC is intentionally not investing the money into MODO they could, cause of some (idiotic) fear that doing so would hurt physical sales?

I could go on at length about this but that's the jist of it. I'd enjoy pulling back the curtain and seeing just why MODO seems to at once be both a massive cash-grab/driven by intense greed..and yet also an utter lack of focus on the part of a company which I'd dare say makes massive bank on it. Like GW they could stand to make so much more..if they just moved into the 21th century.

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#12 Posted by DinoCity (13 posts) -

@bladededge: I find it bizarre that WotC have neglected what could and probably should be a massive cash cow for them. Instead, they have a woefully out of date client that's completely inaccessible to those not already familiar with the game.

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#13 Edited by LtTibbles (137 posts) -

@dinocity: @bladededge:

It's probably Hasbro not understanding the value of digital ventures more than anything, but who knows.

As for the Warhammer comparison if GW went forward with a digital version of the tabletop game it would than likely be just as clunky like Mordheim was.

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#14 Edited by BladedEdge (729 posts) -

@lttibbles: Its off topic but GW wise..the rules for there games are fairly simple, compared to other computer strategy games. Certainly not so complex they can't be put into digital form. Especially not when there are already lots and lots of people who have worked on the models, the backgrounds the general voice acting and on and on. We have a wealth of 40k games that prove the general details of how the proper virtual Table top game are totally doable, and within the kind of budget GW or other companies are willing to put into it.

And whats worse, they would make so much bank. Imagine if you will the nightmare scenario, F2P. Sell every sort of cosmetic under the sun. Sell units at retail prices and so on. Imagine if the only way to get exclusive online units was to buy the r/l model. You get both for the same price sure but, they could feed people back into the real life system. No way to import your existing models, gotta buy em all over again.

Now imagine how many people would still do it. You've got the entire group of us who would gladly buy into the system but don't because we can't paint, we don't have time to go play in person, we don't have schedules and room to setup battles, yada yada. Imagine the 30-50 somethings who would kill to have their entire now lost, faded or stored away collection recreated online. Preserved forever.

Imagine even the barest amount of a meta-campaign tied too it. Queue up for a battle to retake territory among factions. Be part of the group that explores a spacehulk. Take part in exclusive Horus Heresy battle. Hell, they could give give Horus and the Empire stats (if they havn't already), balance it out and have people replay the final battle on earth. Yada yada yada.

It wouldn't eat into the off-line version one bit. If you want to play warhammer in person, you already do so. The amount of money GW leaves sitting on the table, the legions of us who would play online, and pay for the privilege if we ever could, is way bigger then anyone at that company realizes.

the existance of MODO and the lack of the collaspe of MTG more or less confirms this. I don't play on MODO cause i find it superior to offline. I do it cause it offers me options I don't have access too in r/l. My collection never gets lost, I can always find a game, the rules work without my or my opponent having to bicker over them, yada yada yada. I don't play in paper, period. I wouldn't play magic period if MODO didn't exist. To bring it back on topic. WotC and GW to me suffer from the same "The people making the decisions are ignorant/idiots" syndrome.

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#15 Edited by Pr0FPSer (2 posts) -

I was around when MTG was released (I was 12). It was the most amazing game for my brothers and I who played constantly. Every new set after that seemed equally exciting - until it wasn't anymore. It's hard to imagine but the complexity did get to me at some point.

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#16 Posted by imsh_pl (4207 posts) -

Great write-up. I agree that you can't call HS an improvement on MtG; they're just different games. I think recently a lot of inherent problems that Hearthstone inherently has have been really surfacing (I really have to get to finally write a blog post on this).

I do, however, think that Hearthstone has surpassed Magic as an electronic TCG. As you mentioned, Magic's complexitiy comes at a price of it being difficult to translate into a computer game. HS on the other hand has been designed with those limitations in mind.

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#17 Posted by rickyyo (279 posts) -

That bombcast segment in the way I interpreted it had the underlying context that Blizzard idea gathers and also simplifies those ideas for mass market. I don't get frustrated or annoyed by reductionism. It is a popular and very human way to interpret things. If you want to see that taken in the completely opposite direction look no further than hipster music reviews where everything is its own genre cause there are no boxes maaaan. I find that giant bomb staff define improvement in some cases as popularity/accessibility mostly when there are a lot of unknowns to them. That, well they have a lot of people playing it so it must be better type logic.

I think that hearthstone and magic are very comparable. But, I tend to take the oversimplification route than the mired in complexity route. This is a better way to go if you don't want to scare people away from your game. I recently looked at the magic rule book and flipped into the abilities section. While that list is quite frankly insane, hearthstone has adopted some of those mechanics with their own spin. Also, I don't see how setup and anticipation in magic is any different than hearthstone. It literally boils down to I think this person has X so I might need to have Plans Y and Z. Or what X do I have as a solution in my deck. Or If I cast X what Y does the opponent have to counter my X. The perceived complexity just comes from the fact that these interactions can "stack" in magic which is the one big league difference to me. But, even hearthstone implements its own version of combat tricks with secrets. Anyone who is playing at a high level can see the setup/execution or anticipate it for both games. Also, just like in magic you can force outcomes and just like in magic there is some RNG. Not to the extent that Hearthstone implements but there is some, specifically talking about the RNG. I will say that sideboarding is a necessary mechanic in Magic and it might be a necessary one in hearthstone. I don't really like the way they have implemented sideboarding in competitive hearthstone because it is basically a class counter. Having additional card options seems really important to me. The way hearthstone tries to address it in game is with RNG and Discovery options. It works when it works and it fails when it fails. Magic at least has some determinism much like in a fighting game tournament a player can select another character if they lose.

Anyways, there is my generic interpretation of similarity as well as working through some of the differences to possibly find similarity. So, maybe it is apples to oranges, but I don't think by much. Feel free to critique or add on to it. Some of this comes from experiences going to a physical card shop and discussing this out loud with people really into magic as well as my own assessment of things.

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#18 Posted by Mars_Cleric (1649 posts) -

I always thought of Hearthstone as watered down Magic.

I like both but for different reasons but the randomness of Hearthstone rubs me the wrong way a lot of the time.

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#19 Edited by boreal_games (1 posts) -

Great summation of the current MtG state of affairs. It continues to amaze me how dedicated the community is--particularly pros and judges who are so invested and yet compensated meagerly compared to other established games.

This post also reminded me of the old marketing axiom, that to succeed you must be first, better, or different: Magic will always be first (and bear the double-edged sword of functional yet ever-increasing complexity) and Hearthstone is in many ways "better" (it is inherently better suited to digital platforms, it's a simpler game, it lends itself to spectating, etc.). My indie dev team is banking on the "different" category, but it remains to be seen if different is what players really want.

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#20 Posted by fnrslvr (409 posts) -

I used to play Magic, in that I played mostly Standard and Theros/Khans limited formats for a little over a year and spent ~$2k on the game in that time (though gained over half that money back through speculation on the secondary market and selling most of my valuable cards before they rotated). I was mostly interested in brewing decks that stood some chance of upsetting the meta, which I had a little bit of success at locally.

Things that drove me out:

  • Magic is one of the main reasons why I think video game pricing is incredibly good and as console/computer gamers we have it great. One competitive Standard deck costs $200-$400, depending on the sets in rotation, the archetype, etc. Being a Johnny-Spike costs $1000+ per year, even if you have a collection and are savvy about trading into what you want, and especially if you want to field-test your creations at FNM against a varied meta and players who know how to pilot their decks. And whilst it is the secondary market that sets the prices, the prices are a function of developmental balancing and rarity statistics that are well-understood. Wizards indirectly receives most of that price overhead in the end, it just wouldn't be a good look for them to have their own storefront and charge $20 for a fetchland up front. Honestly, if Wizards offered a Johnny-Spike pass for, I don't know, $500 per year, say, that allowed me to run proxies at FNMs (not even GPs or PTQs, just FNMs), I'd probably go for it. It's not worth it for a game that is less sophisticated or production-intensive than a typical AAA video game, but I'd pay it.
  • The meta is basically predetermined. Development openly discusses how close they came to predicting the top-tier decks in each Standard season as rotations approach, a few surprises get through but by and large the format is pretty well charted behind closed doors before printing commences. That entails a lot of rigidity in the format, a lot of king-making of good cards, lest they miss or underestimate too many strong cards or interactions and the format gets out of hand -- and I get that their ability to intervene if something is broken is slow and limited, but the net effect is that it's hard to find viable decks outside the meta as it's known shortly after the first Pro Tour of the format, because the deckbuilding space is specifically contoured to not have surprises. I don't know if this is a problem in Hearthstone because I've never played that game, but it sucks the point of deckbuilding out of Magic and from my perspective just makes the game uninteresting.
  • Siege Rhino. I know this was years ago now, but it seemed like Wizards was really putting an emphasis on blunt midrange value cards. The decks that emerged after Esper control rotated out in particular just seemed to want to get greedier and greedier, until maybe a Sligh deck could drop by one day and prey on the green devotion decks running too many 7-8 drops. I'm not saying I want creatures to be weak, but it seemed like Wizards wanted people to look at their collections of Spike cards and Timmy out over them, and that was meant to be what made the product valuable to you. Not clever design -- just simple numbers and gravy chosen for blunt power. Even in Modern, there was this beautiful toolbox deck in Melira Pod that had a ton of play and smart tuning/boarding to it, and when Siege Rhino pushed it over the top they banned Siege RhinoBirthing Pod. Anyway, I don't know what the Standard meta looks like now, and I understand that development aims to emphasize different archetypes cyclically so that they can pretend to print more impressive cards without power-creeping the eternal formats, but the format just felt degenerately midrange, and that together with the cost of the Khans mana bases (I still can barely believe that they let something as mundane as lands become so expensive) were too much for me to go on.

I didn't even bother with the online client. It just seemed so hamstrung by the existence of the paper market that I didn't want to touch it. The software should be better and there shouldn't be two very separate systems at all, but if they unified it then they'd have to either make online play affordable (and hence hurt the paper market), or expose beginners to the harsh reality of the secondary market.

I don't know. I still follow the lore and catch glimpses of the new set spoilers, and if I'm to be honest, I'd probably start playing again if I were on a 6-figure salary. But I don't think what artificial rarity and a secondary market a la Magic does to a competitive game is healthy for competitive play, I've been far happier playing and analyzing KI for the last few years.

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#21 Posted by D4RKSH33P (154 posts) -

Great post! I love Magic talk here in giant bomb.

I play Magic (almost) exclusively online. Once every few years I go to a prerelease of an interesting new set. I have no interest in playing constructed formats (price of entry, not smart enough to analyze a metagame, etc) and only play limited. I'll throw $50-$100 in every new set and draft or play sealed until that money is gone. Sell back any cards I open. Apart from mobile games, this is the only money I spend on "video games" anymore. Being married and with a kid, this is the perfect way to experience the competition of Magic with prizes and real stakes on the line. I don't have the cards lying around the house, and I can always find a match. (New league drafts are heavenly for this too.) I have become familiar with the interface that if they were to change it, I would be completely out of my comfort zone. Which I imagine most players of MODO would agree with.

I play Hearthstone when I'm out of money on MODO. My play pattern there is get my daily quest, play the Tavern Brawl, play an arena if I've accumulated enough gold. I will never be drawn into Hearthstone the same way, not due to the complexity of the game, but due to the lack of stakes of playing. Gold/dust and the whole economy of Hearthstone are meaningless to me. My money and ability to compete again is not on the line.

This is the fundamental reason Magic has survived. Organized play that success is literally achievable by anyone with the cash to buy in. Sitting down in front of an opponent with something on the line. Almost any in store event has prize support. Climbing a ladder to have a useless Legend Ranking will never give the same high.