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[Editor's note: The opinions expressed on this page are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of CompanyLongName or its agents.  The author takes full responsibility for his own words, and we encourage you to contact him if you have any comments about this posting.]

By George Macoukji (macoukji@gamesnet.org), DCI Certified Judge, Level 3
Web posted November 16, 2001, 9:01am EST.

Itís a game we all know and love so well, a game that has inspired us to create new deck ideas, attempt outlandish combos, and occasionally travel half-way across the world to attend a major tournament.  Magic: the Gathering has been our life and obsession since its release in the last decade.  By its very nature, Magic is a game that supports player groups and demands new ways to interact.  However, until now, there hasnít been an official, widespread way to play Magic over the Internet against human opponents who may be across the world.  Magic: the Gathering Online (MTGO) changes all that.

Warning!

This is a test of the Emergency Preview System.  This is only a preview.  Had this been a real review, you would not be reading it until the game was actually released.

Seriously, folks, this game is still very much under development.  This report is based on the way the game looks, feels, and works as of November 16, 2001.  Much could change by the time you get your hands on it.  Consider this to be a heads-up of what to expect when the game is finally released.  Wizards promises a release date of Spring 2002.  As a personal and unfounded guess, Iíll go out on a limb and say not to expect the game until after Torment has been released.

In addition, the game is HUGE.  Thereís no way I can cover all the aspects in this one article.  Instead, Iím going to try to give you an overview of the game as it currently stands and a feel for what itís like.  Over the next few weeks, Iíll be publishing more articles focusing in detail on how the game works.

Why Discuss This Now?

You might be wondering why we didnít discuss this before, or why we chose to publish an article specifically at this time.  The reason is that weíve been released from our NDAís (see below) as of Friday, November 16, 2001, at 9:00am EST.  This article is being posted at 9:01am.

History of Computerized Magic

Youíd think that such a spectacular interpersonal activity (as PR people might term the game) would lend itself immediately to a computerized version.  Indeed, unofficial versions of the game have been around for several years.  You may have heard of programs such as Apprentice and NetDraft, unofficial freeware tools that let you play and draft Magic with people all over the world. 

Wizards of the Coast, makers of Magic, have produced or licensed several computer products about Magic.  The first two (BattleMage and Shandalar) were games based on the world of Magic.  The third, the Interactive Encyclopedia, had significant limitations.

BattleMage, released by Acclaim Entertainment, was an action/strategy game only loosely based on Magic, using familiar creatures and graphics to create a game largely unrelated to the card game.  The second game was released by Microprose under the name Magic: the Gathering.  To avoid confusion, players soon started calling it by the name of the world in the game, Shandalar.  It attempted to create a computer opponent that could challenge you to a game of Magic.  However, the sorry state of the rules used by Magic at the time (Shandalar used Fourth Edition rules, with all its mess of specialized effects, timings, and rules) essentially prevented the game from being accessible to the average computer gamer.  Knowledgeable Magic players were frustrated either by the lack of cards in the computer game (despite several expansions that added new sets) or by the feeble AI of the original game.  Multiplayer support was added in an expansion, but it was slow, buggy, and ultimately unsatisfying.  The shell game of Shandalar (you exploring and slowly conquering a world by playing games of Magic against the wandering monsters and installed warlords) developed a small cult following, but it wasnít enough to save the game in the eyes of the Magic community.

Much later, Wizards released a new product, the Magic: the Gathering Interactive Encyclopedia.  This product made no attempt whatsoever to allow you to play against the computer.  Instead, it was billed as a way to keep track of your cards and their value; stay up-to-date with the latest wording changes; and find human opponents to play against electronically.  It provided a simple interface that allowed you to play games much as you would in real life.  The cards had full graphics and text (unlike the unofficial competitor Apprentice), youíd play them just like you would in real life, and you could see what was happening on the board just like a real life game.  Unfortunately, M:tG IE was crippled by its high purchase price, slow performance, and poor adoption by players used to Apprentice.

Enter Magic Online

In August 2001, I received an interesting invitation from Nathan Sherman, Associate Brand Manager for a new game called Magic: The Gathering Online, to take part in an alpha test of this new product. 

I took up Mr. Sherman on his offer, signed the necessary Non-Disclosure Agreement (which basically said I could admit that MTGO existed, and that I was helping to test it, but forbade me from discussing it further), and downloaded a whopping 57MB installation file.  The installation was fairly smooth (for an alpha product), and I was soon immersed in the world of Magic Online.

My Magic experience changed forever.

Whatís an Alpha Test?

For those of you not familiar with computer lingo, an alpha version of a computer program is one that is still under heavy development.  The core functionality is present, but many of the extra features are not yet implemented, and much of the game is still unstable and prone to crashing.  The alpha-test phase is designed to weed out bugs in the core of the game, while getting a first impression of how the game will work with the new features being implemented.  To put it simply, the game was changing daily as new features were added, bugs were fixed, and unnecessary components were removed.

In contrast, the beta version of the software is one thatís almost complete.  Most of the features are included, though more could be added.  The role of a beta tester is to stress-test the system and try outlandish ways of making it crash.  Each bug found during alpha and beta testing is one less thatís discovered after the game goes live.

What is Magic Online?

Magic Online is basically the full experience of real-life Magic, transported online.  Your online collection is completely separate from your real-life collection.  You can purchase boosters, starters, and theme decks; open the packs for cards; draft or play sealed deck; challenge people to constructed games with decks youíve designed; trade your cards with others; or do almost anything else you can do in real life.  Letís look at each of these aspects separately.

The way to acquire cards in the game is due to change in the next few days, so Iíll skim over the existing system here.  Basically, you are allocated a certain number of points with which to buy products.  These points are automatically refreshed every few days, and you can sometimes chat with the developers to ask them for extra points.  Each point buys you one booster pack; starters and preconstructed decks cost three points; and ďEvent ticketsĒ are three per point.  This is due to change soon as MTGO shifts to a cash-based system.

Once youíve blown your wad on loads of boosters, starters, and whatnot, the fun really begins.  Just like in real life, you can open your boosters to get cards for constructed decks, or you can save them for drafts.  The boosters are identical to real boosters, with one rare, three uncommons, and 11 commons (or 10 and a land for Seventh Edition packs).  Foils are randomly scattered throughout the virtual packs in the same ratios as real packs. 

In MTGO, each card has to be programmed individually.  If a card isnít working yet, then you (usually) wonít get it in a booster.  (In the early days of the alpha test, you could open some non-working cards.)  All the cards from Seventh Edition and Planeshift are working, with only a few cards missing from Invasion and Apocalypse.  However, about 40% of the rares from Odyssey have yet to be implemented.  Thankfully, all the commons and uncommons work just fine.

How do I play?

The game interface should be immediately familiar to anyone who has seen or played with Shandalar or the Interactive Encyclopedia.

The screen is divided into several main sections.  The top-left corner holds a massive card view.  You can mouse over any card or effect in the other sections to get a full-sized view here.  At the center left, thereís a little box that contains the prompt (as in, ďMain phase (precombat).  Play spells, abilities, and lands.Ē or ďDo you wish to Mulligan?Ē) and buttons to pass priority or answer the prompts.

The bottom left-corner has two parts.  First, you have several buttons representing the steps and phases in the turn.  During your turn, these represent your steps and phases; during your opponentís turn, they represent his or her corresponding ones.  The game will only stop at steps and phases where you request a stop.  You do this by clicking on the step or phase where you want to pause, and the game will set a stop there (indicated by a red dot).  By default, your two main phases, the declare attackers and blockers steps, and your opponentís upkeep and end phases are marked for stops.  The system works surprisingly well, and itís very easy to set or remove stops on the fly, based on your card needs.

Overlaying this section is the stack.  Each time a player plays a spell or ability, an image of it goes on the stack.  This allows both players to visually keep track of who played what and what needs to be resolved. 

The bulk of the play window is taken up by the in-play areas.  Each player has their own area.  The cards dynamically resize to fit the available space.  So if you have just a few permanents, theyíre all visible at full size.  If you have too many to fit, the game will automatically resize them down.  (You can control this from the Display Preferences  window.)  If you have a huge number of permanents, you can scroll the in-play area to see them all.

The bottom of the screen has your hand, which shows your cards, and a chat window so you can discuss the game (or whatever) with your opponent or observers.  Major game events are also logged to the chat window.

Online DCI Ratings

MTGO is heavily influenced by the existing DCI structure.  Each player has ratings, just like normal DCI ratings.  The DCI has already announced that they plan to sanction tournaments online and carry online ratings just like real-life ones.  You have two ratings, one for Limited play (Rochester draft, booster draft, and sealed deck), and one for Constructed play (Standard and block constructed).  These two ratings are averaged to produce your Composite, or overall, rating.  A playerís online ratings will remain separate from their real-life ones.

The DCI foresees running championship events in the future.  The game already supports running qualifiers that feed into master events.  Tournament organizers can create tournaments limited to players of a certain rating or higher.  A Magic Online Limited Championship is already scheduled to take place on Saturday, November 17.  There is a chance that someday, weíll have a Magic Online World Championships with comparable prizes and prestige to the current World Championships. 

What can I Play?

There are several main sections in the game, presented as a graphical menu.  The ones that will most interest players are the Casual Play room, the Leagues room, the Sanctioned Events room, and the Premier Events room.  The names are largely self-explanatory, but there are a few surprises. 

Casual Play

The casual play room is divided into several categories, including Constructed, Drafts, Sealed Deck, and Multiplayer.  For constructed and sealed, you can choose whether to play a duel (one game) or a full match (best two of three games).

Currently, several constructed formats are supported.  These include ďLaunch Standard,Ē which is essentially Standard (Type 2) with only the cards currently working online; block constructed for both Invasion and Odyssey blocks, and an interesting format called 7E+IBC Ė Invasion block constructed plus Seventh Edition.

Drafts are currently implemented in an unusual manner.  When you enter the draft room, you are greeted by a number of eight-player tables.  An empty chair at a table represents an invitation to join the draft.  You can join any draft awaiting players, or you can create your own draft table.  The person who creates the table controls when the draft starts.  For testing purposes, you can start that draft with less than eight players, but this is likely to be restricted by launch time.  Despite the fact that these drafts are run in the Casual Play room, they count towards your ratings.  Again, this is likely to change as the Sanctioned Tournaments room comes online.  (See below for more info.)

Multiplayer Casual Play

Multiplayer is a fun and fascinating format for the casual player.  The game supports several variants, including Emperor, Two- and Three-Headed Giant, 3-6 player Multiplayer, and two and three player teams.

Emperor is a format representing a challenge between two rival armies.  Each team is composed of three players: the emperor and his left and right ďflankers.Ē  Each flanker can only attack the opposing player next to them, and emperors canít attack unless one of their flankers has fallen.  If a flanker dies, then the game goes on without him or her Ė all that playerís permanents are removed from the game.  If a teamís emperor is eliminated, then the whole team loses the game.  Emperors can ďpassĒ creatures to their flankers and can cast spells to support their team.  Unfortunately, the format doesnít work well yet. .  Itís still heavily under development, and many of its key features donít work as advertised.  For example, emperors canít pass creatures, and there have been numerous incidents of the game continuing after an emperor has lost the game.

Two- and Three-Headed Giant games are team games where each team shares a life total.  Each player can only attack the opposing player on the other team, but spells can be targeted at any player.  This format works well, and is both popular and fun as a break from the humdrum routine.

The Multiplayer format is more commonly known as Battle Circle.  Each person can attack only to their left, and must defend against creature attacks from the right.  Spells have a limited ďradiusĒ Ė that is, you can only reach players who are within a certain range.  Again, this is a popular format, as you have to substantially change your thinking and strategy from normal constructed play.  So far, I havenít had any problems with Multiplayer.

I have yet to try a team game, so I canít comment on that now.

Leagues

The Leagues room currently holds two leagues, one for Invasion-Planeshift-Apocalypse, and one for Odyssey.  When you sign up for the league, you get one starter and two boosters.  Each week, you can add another booster to your deck.  You can play up to five matches per week for points, and any matches beyond that count as your tiebreakers.  You can edit your league deck at any time, but you canít trade any of your league cards until the league ends.

Sanctioned Tournaments

The Sanctioned Tournaments room is currently ignored by most players, as itís not yet functioning correctly.  For example, the constructed section only allows games with 7E+IBC, not with Launch Standard.  You cannot use Odyssey yet in this room.

Drafts in the Sanctioned Tournaments room use an interesting queue system.  Basically, you donít sign up for a specific tournament.  Rather, you join a queue of players who want to play a particular format (say, Odyssey draft).  Once at least 12 people have joined the queue, the game randomly picks eight players and starts a draft table.  If more than eight players are left, itíll immediately pick another eight, until less that eight players are left.  If youíre one of the unlucky ones who didnít make the draft tables in this run, you are guaranteed a spot in the next run.  This system significantly reduces the chances of collusion among players by making it harder to restrict the players you go up against.

Premier Events

The premier events area is a corollary to real-life premier events.  A few weeks ago, an online version of the Odyssey prerelease was run, with a new tournament starting every few hours.  Qualifiers for an online Limited Championship are currently running; as I write this, a number of last-chance qualifiers are being created and run.  I believe that the Championship, scheduled for November 17, 2001, will be the last major event before the open beta-testing phase begins.

During the testing phase, anyone can create a tournament in the Premier Events area; previously, it was called simply the Tournaments room.  Later on, this function will be limited to registered tournament coordinators.

Conclusion

Well, this article is far more massive than I thought it would be.  I havenít even touched on trading cards, deck building, the mechanics of play, the fantastic folks at Leaping Lizard Software, Inc. who are developing the game, or any number of other things.  Thereís so much more to tell about this game.  As I mentioned, Iíll be publishing a series of articles soon reviewing each aspect of the game and discussing how it works.

I hope you enjoyed this overview of the Magic: the Gathering Online.  Iíd like to invite you back soon for much more as we explore this brand-new offering from Wizards of the Coast.

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