Welcome back to the world of Magic. When trying to decide if there was enough time between articles here at the CPA for virtually no one to come back expecting to see a new front page posting, I also considered what a good pattern of submission would be. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that writing every week for a year, followed by a one-year sabbatical seemed like a reasonable and awkward enough pace for someone like myself, who writes more and better out of habit, than attempting a constant every-other-week pace for the rest of my life. It's the same amount of articles, right? So why not submit at times when people are least expecting it?
For me, both writing and reading internet columns is more about habit than anything else. If I continue to submit on a weekly basis, I'm much more likely to submit again the following week and so on and so forth forever. The long delay between my last submitted article and this one was caused and aided by a number of factors, among them the process of moving to and maintaining a new house; buying and caring for a new dog; trying to take on intensive and time-consuming articles that individually detailed about 60% of the cards in a 630-card block; and finally, getting out of the habit after a long hiatus due to a spam-related front page dilemma. And as you may or may not be able to tell by my somewhat-cryptic, poorly construed and terribly uninformative run-on sentences, I am long since out of the writing habit, particularly in a manner where I take pride in the eloquent and concise nature of my topics. However, I am getting a slight hankering to get back onto the proverbial wagon, so in case my article title did not completely reveal my intentions, I would, indeed enjoy submitting here again on a regular basis.
Where better to start than at the very beginning? My introductory article into the online world of Magic served a twofold purpose. It was the first time I dipped my toe into posting a legitimate article on a legitimate, albeit somewhat forgotten, gaming website. It was also an invitation to the readers of this site to try their hand at the online game of Magic, which served as my primary refuge for playing at the time.
Now it's two years later, and Wizards of the Coast is on the brink of a new frontier. Magic: the Gathering Online Version III has entered its beta-testing phase and the newest version of the software will be fully online and ready to go in no time, I'm sure. After hyping the release of this new program for what seems like the past six years, it's nice to finally see it come to fruition. You can rest assured that I was one of the first people to race home to download the version and I was extremely excited about the new policy for open testing of the game, since I have been oft-rejected for the beta-testing portions of numerous new sets, online demos and experimental drugs. Plus, there isn't much in the world more enticing to me than having the opportunity to participate in endless online Magic drafts at no cost, even if I don't get to keep the 23 rares that I attempt to pull. So without further ado, I'd like to present to you my personal review of the new MTGO version, based on hours of extensive testing, many of which were done while sober.
The basic interface seems like the biggest change from version two to version three. In the current version, when logging in, you are required to navigate through a series of screens until you reach the room you desire. For example, the welcome screen has options for Leagues, Sanctioned Tournaments and Casual Play. None of these choices lead to actual games rooms, but instead lead to more choices that lead to the actual game rooms. MTGO III forgoes all this and replaces the navigation with drop-down menus that allow direct access to the desired rooms. Well, actually, these are sort of the opposite of drop-down menus, since they're at the bottom of the screen and therefore go up, not down. (What's the opposite of drop-down? Throw-up, I guess.) At any rate, this is one area where the new version is definitely better. Depending on how the servers are acting on any given day, MTGO can be very laggy while attempting to navigate through the welcome menu to get to the right game room. I do have to take points off, though, because using these menus the first time was extremely non-intuitive. With the old version, you couldn't help but go to the right place, since they were right in front of your face. This time, you have to observe the tiny tab on the bottom of the screen labeled, "Menu" before you can do anything.
Grade: B+, Clear improvement once you know where it is.
In the current version of Magic Online, there is a chat bar on the bottom of the screen in every room, as well as in games and events, such as drafts. In MTGO III, the chat bar is on the side, by default, and I find that in this position, it takes up entirely too much room when in a duel. In the other areas, it's not as noticeable, but in games, it probably shrinks the available play area by about 25%. The chat screens also overlap with some general information screens, which show cards, clans, buddies, games and your shopping cart. Any of these windows can be undocked, but usually that means they'll be in your way. They can only be resized in a very limited fashion, meaning they'll probably take up more room than if you just leave things alone. Thankfully, one of the great options available is to minimize the entire right side of the screen. No chat window, no card screen or buddy screen or anything else. This really opens up the main window by eliminating an unnecessary portion of the screen.
Grade: C, Something barely noticeable becomes a burden. The only saving grace is the ability to eliminate it altogether.
For the most part, the actual game play remains unchanged. To be completely honest, I thought it was pretty good to begin with. The only real change involves the relocation of the phase bar from vertically aligned on the left to horizontally aligned on the bottom. If you don't know what I'm referring to with the phase bar, it tracked the phases of the game and allowed you to set stops at various points in the game (e.g. opponent's upkeep or discard phase). In the vertical alignment, I barely noticed it, except when I needed something. In the new alignment, it seems very obvious and unwieldy. There's also a chance that I just need some time to adapt, but I found the new symbols on the bar to be extremely uninformative. They're all a washed-out grey color and roughly look the same at first glance. I can't yet take a peek and know instantly what phase I'm in. On the positive side, a bug has been fixed to allow you to set stops during the non-active player's turn. Previously, in an actual game, you could only change your stops for phases of the current player's turn. Now, you can set the stops for phases in either player's turn by clicking the right mouse button over any particular phase and selecting to stop during either player's turn.
Grade: B, Not much change, and that's a good thing.
Here's one place where I was really expecting to see some things happen. In the current version of Magic Online, there are three windows in the Deck Editor screen: your card pool, your main deck and your sideboard. You can minimize any of these windows (I never use a sideboard, myself) but you can't undock or resize them. Well, Magic Online III came about and I'm disappointed to say that not much has changed. The deck editor format is different, in general. Instead of three windows, it's now set up in one window with breaks between the three sections. You can resize the amount of space taken up by each section, but you can't undock them or even completely minimize them. Oddly enough, you can resize the big window that contains the three sections, but there's nothing really to do with the empty space you gain from resizing.
Grade: F, So much room for an upgrade, but it got worse instead.
The only thing that ever really bugged me about the collection screen of MTGO was that it never indicated multiple copies of the same card from different sets. So if you're in the middle of a trade you might not realize whether or not you need a card to complete a playset or if you have more than four of a card that appears in multiple sets. That hasn't changed, except now there is an option to sort your collection in text mode and sort the cards by name instead of set. Identical cards still won't be grouped together, but at least they're right next to each other. I haven't gotten a chance to see if this option is available in trades, but those usually follow the same path as the collection, so I'm slightly optimistic.
Grade: B, There wasn't much wrong to begin with.
The greatest thing (and possibly only good thing) about beta testing MTGO III is the opportunity to participate in booster drafts absolutely free. Sure, you might not get to keep the cards, but it's still good practice. Apparently, I'm not the only one who feels this way, since most of the time 95% of users are gathered in the draft room. Bugs aside, the drafting process has definitely improved. The first thing you notice is that the queues fire right away, as soon as eight people are lined up. In version II, before the draft begins, nothing happens for about two or three minutes after the 8th person arrives. That extra time really drags on when you're just sitting there waiting. Another improvement is the draft clock, which shows exactly how much time is left to make any given pick. Previously, you had to wait until the border started blinking red to know you were running out of time. Now, you can watch the clock and know exactly where you stand. Right now, the times are pretty good for each pick, but some of the later picks might need a few seconds added, about when there are 3-5 cards remaining. These seemed to fly by and I often didn't have enough time to even glance at the cards, much less actually read them.
Grade: A, Big improvements.
In MTGO, in order to buy cards, you were redirected to a separate website in order to complete the purchasing process and get your products. Now, everything is done right in the game itself. You can shop and monitor your cart while you're still playing all in the same program. I didn't have much problem with the way it was done before, but I think the consolidation could be a good thing. With the beta test, the store almost never worked properly, so hopefully they'll be able to iron out the kinks before it goes live.
Magic: the Gathering Online is not an easy program to run. In addition to the ginormous initial download, it usually takes another couple hours to finish downloading all the extra files required to get the game up to date. Running it isn't that bad though, as it only takes up about 70MB of RAM. Well, like every new piece of software that's getting released nowadays, the developers apparently think nothing of using every available resource on the average new computer. In addition to hogging over 1GB of your hard drive space (about a 30% increase), the application will easily eat up 250 MB of RAM when it's running. Where all these extra resources are actually going, I have no idea. The only significant change to the program was the addition of the card store. If that requires 300MB of my hard drive and 180MB of my RAM, then quite frankly, they can keep it on a separate website. This guzzling of system resources can only lead to a lack of access for people with older, slower machines, meaning a general decline in total players.
Grade: F, I haven't seen more system resources devoted to so little improvement since I upgraded to Norton Antivirus 2005.
While I reread my assessments of the individual aspects of Magic: the Gathering Online III, the one thought that keeps creeping into my head is the general lack of overall change in the game. On the one hand, I'm happy about this because the game works pretty well the way it is now. Almost every change was relatively minor, even if I didnít really like it. So it seems to me that most of the good changes that were made could have been instituted within the current game and everything else was frivolous. And most of the current problems (lag, crashes, etc) could be remedied by simply upgrading to more robust and reliable servers. (Note: I didn't actually grade these issues because they definitely seemed unresolved in the beta version.)
So in the end, the real question becomes: Why even bother with a version 3?