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By: one million words, Pete Jahn
Jan 02 2015 1:00pm
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 The Problem with Winning

Explanatory note: over the last two weeks, either Joshua or I, or both, have been busy with real world issues. For me, it is travel into areas with no cell or Internet service. All of this meant I cannot produce more typical State of the Programs until the holidays are over. State of the Program will return, with full prices, tech, and a lot of news January 9th.
 
I want to talk about winning for a bit. Magic, at its heart, is a duel between players which continues until one player has won and one has lost. This is in contrast to role playing games and cooperative games.   I’m thinking about this because Ingrid got me Castle Ravenloft for Christmas. That is a cooperative game. The players face obstacles and win, or lose, collectively. Magic isn’t like that. In Magic, one player (or team) wins, the rest lose.
 
That is not bad, per se. Most games are played until a winner is determined. Chess is a great game, and has been for millennia, and it has a clear winner and loser. Poker does as well, as does Bridge, Go, Whist and most of the great games from history. Part of what makes any great game great is that the game provides a challenge, and very often that challenge is winning by making the other players lose. That’s a fundamental part of most games.
 
Magic is clearly a great game, and part of why it is great is that it is played to be won. If Magic were just a thing to be collected, it might have caught on and had a brief run, but it would not be a great game. At best, it might have been a fad, like Beanie Babies.   Likewise, if Magic was just a game wherein you built decks, without the ability to pit those decks against each other to see who had constructed a better deck, the game would never have been a hit. A critical part of Magic’s success is that it is, at its core, a game played between two players until one has won and one has lost. That’s important.
 
By now it should be obvious that I think winning is important. Also by now, you should be wondering what I mean by the article title. If winning is critical to Magic’s success, what is wrong with it. The answer is – well, nothing. What actually creates the problem is that having a winner means that you also have losers, and losing sucks. 
 
We all know this. Losing is a huge downer. It means we lost. It means we don’t get the laurels, or prizes, or accolades. It means we were not good enough. We don’t get the accolades, the glory or the reputation. 
 
It means we lost. We are losers. 
 
Losing sucks. 
 
Losing is the down side of Magic. What makes Magic tolerable is that it has so many positives that counteract the negative of losing.   One obvious positive is the winning. We may lose, but we may also win, and winning is good. Winning is glorious, and all the good things that come with winning go a very long way to making  up for the feel-bads that come from losing.
 
Winning, however, is not the only plus that Magic provides. Players  don’t play  Magic purely to win, Players gather around kitchen tables and flock to FNM for a host of reasons. They may want to interact with friends. They may want to highlight their deckbuilding skills, or demonstrate that they have mastered Magic’s incredibly complex rules. They may want to challenge themselves in new ways, or they may just want to act silly at Magic lets them do that. Any or all of these are valid reasons, and any given player may be motivated by some or all of these. 
 
Magic meets a host of needs for players.   Winning is just one.   A huge one, but just one.
 
The problem is that it is pretty much the only one when it comes to Magic Online.  
 
Magic online is an incredible accomplishment, when you look at it. It takes a constantly evolving paper game and lets you play it on the computer.   It correctly implements a 200+ page rulebook, the most complex of any game I have ever seen, and implements it almost entirely correctly. MTGO takes a game with almost 15,000 cards and incorporates all the ones that matter correctly and almost seamlessly. It handles steps of the turn and the sequence of casting a spell perfectly – and that is something that new judges struggle with, and most players don’t know completely. (Think you know – which happens first, spell is cast or spell goes on the stack? And how does damage order assignment work if my Palace Guard blocks three creatures? What if the attackers have banding?)   The point is that MTGO knows, and gets it right pretty much every time.
 
Yes, there are bugs, but the number of cards that are bugged are generally miniscule, compared to the ones that work. Sure, we can all point to significant bugs that took a while to fix. We can also point to bugs that affected tournament results, but those are the exception, not the rule. It’s like fatal accidents: they happen, but the vast majority of car trips don’t involve accidents of any kind.
 
MTGO gets the structure of the game right. Take parts of the turn. We all know that the turn involves upkeep, draw phase, first main, combat, second main and end step.  Most of us know that there is also an untap step, and that end of turn is actually the end step plus cleanup.   A typical question for higher level judge candidates is “if player A does nothing but player a lands and say ‘go’ one his first turn, how many times is priority technically passed?” To get the answer right, the judge has to know that players don’t get priority during the untap step, and that if no blockers are declared you skip straight to end of combat, and that nothing in the turn as described would give players priority during cleanup. 
 
This is arcane stuff, and it almost never comes up. But when it does, MTGO handles it correctly. Players tend to overlook this, but it is actually a huge accomplishment. Saying MTGO gets the rules right, and plays like the paper game is saying something.
 
To make this happen, Wizards has had to focus almost completely on “performance and stability” – on making the game and rules work. This has left precious little time and resources to doing anything else. This includes the social aspects, aesthetics, non-traditional game play (like multi-player), collection management, etc.  As a result, MTGO does not do these things very well.  
 
The result, at least as far as MTGO is concerned, is that Online Magic follows the old Vince Lombardi mantra: Winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.
 
In the paper world, some players play Magic for the social interaction. That is seriously curtailed on MTGO because of the limitations of chat, and complete lack of clan functionality or features like voice chat. You can try to get some of this out of the crippled interface, but it is hard. And that means that players motivated mainly by social interactions tend to leave MTGO.
 
Likewise, players who are motivated by exploring different formats and ways of playing are generally disappointed by MTGO.   Multiplayer formats are, I understand, quite difficult to play on MTGO. I don’t know – I found multiplayer so unpleasant last time I played that I have not played multiplayer for a long time. But that’s what I hear. 
 
Playing off-beat formats is also very difficult. Only a few of them are even programmed into the client, and some of those have problems on and off. (“cough” *Legacy Tribal Wars * “cough”) Playing the formats not programmed into the client is even harder.   To do so in v3, you had to request a game in a more traditional format, then insert a comment specifying the format. Since most players didn’t read the comments, getting the match you wanted was difficult. In v4, I don’t know how you could get that sort of event. The matching algorithm is automatic. I don’t know if is even possible to read a comment before the event starts. I also don’t know how to find a player requesting, for example, Rainbow Stairwell Highlander in v4, other than meeting up in chat and then directly challenging the player.   Practically, players who enjoy special formats really have only two choices – play in the infrequent player run events, or play friends. Begging for events in the chat rooms just doesn’t seem to work.
 
The win/lose problem is particularly hard on new players. Magic is a very hard game, even for highly experienced players. It is really rough on new players. Most stores know this, and work hard to introduce new players gradually. Most store owners/employees know who can teach Magic to newer players. Those players are patient, can explain the game clearly, without overwhelming the new player. More importantly, those players know how to lose, or at least how to win slowly enough that the new player at least gets to play. Those stores try not to pair new players against “cut-throat Carl” who just wants to win, decisively, then crow about it.   Magic Online, however, has no ability to make that sort of discriminatory pairing. Once the new player leaves the new player events, he or she is in the same pool as the sharks, and pairings are all first-come, first paired randomness. This does not make MTGO the most welcoming environments for new players. 
 
Another real problem for most new players, whether they are new to Magic or just to MTGO, is that the interface is not intuitive. It is better than it was, but it still requires a lot of unintuitive keystrokes or mouse clicks. Some of this is inevitable, given how complex the rules of the game are, but some of this is just poor planning and implementation. At the very least, Wizards needs to come up with really good help screens and tabs, and a complete set of introductory videos. This stuff is still missing from MTGO, or if it is not, then just well hidden.  Either way, it’s a problem.
 
The misnamed “collection tab” is another example of a program compromise that meets the needs of most players but completely misses for others. It lets constructed players import and tweak decks fairly easily. MTGO is less useful for player who like to build really large decks from scratch, or who have really large collections and like to look at the cards.  
 
MTGO also has an inherent limitation – it does not have a macro engine that lets people repeat an action an arbitrarily large number of times. In the paper world, for example, I can create a combo to pump out tokens, like Squirrel Nest / Intruder Alarm / Natures Revolt and create 1.57 trillion squirrels. On MTGO, I cannot – I have to click through each iteration manually. This is not a huge problem for most players, but I used to love to create off-beat “infinite” combos. MTGO does not welcome that sort of thing,.
 
Now I am not saying that players motivated by collections, or multiplayer, or social interactions can’t play MTGO. They can – but the program is not geared towards those players. The program is clearly geared to players who like to compete, head to head, in duels. That is why the vast, vast majority of players who spend money on MTGO either draft or play Standard. These players are looking to win – either for the glory or for the prizes, or both.   That has always been true. It still is.
 
MTGO has always struggled to support fringe formats, for anything but casual or PRE play. It has also struggled to get players to play in larger events, like PEs, unless the payout was significantly better than the payout for Dailies and one demand formats. The players who are motivated by a desire to win and earn prizes stick to the events with the best time to EV ratio. PEs have rarely had that, so attendance fell. Wizards has now abandoned PEs altogether. 
 
For a decade, MTGO has been successful mainly because it attracted enough of these players. They had few alternatives. They also appeared in large enough numbers that Wizards did not have to make MTGO attractive for all the other sorts of players out there.  The revenues provided by the competitive, prize motivated players made up for the lack of widespread investment by the other players. MTGO supported the drafters and competitive Standard players, and they, in turn, supported MTGO.
 
MTGO is in a rough place right now because the interface has gotten tougher to use and enjoy, and because these players now have alternatives.   Hearthstone is not another Magic – it is smaller, simpler and less interactive – but it does let you draft and play constructed Magic-like games for glory and prizes. Its interface is designed into the game, rather that tacked on to an existing shell. It isn’t Magic, but it is more enjoyable than MTGO for a lot of online Magic players.
 
Magic isn’t dying – quite the opposite. MTGO is also not dying, but I think the loss of competitive players to Hearthstone has woken up the MTGO crew to the fact that the program needs to improve. It needs to be stable and perform, but it also needs to work for the players who do more than drafts and Standard constructed events. I am hopeful that Wizards sees this. The fact that they are actually testing leagues is a positive sign. For the last six plus years, drafters have kept MTGO going, and Wizards has been able to get away with “leagues will be here soon.” Now Wizards needs leagues, and leagues are coming.  I think this is a good indication – and actually having leagues back will be a better one. I can’t wait.
 
And I really hope I don’t have to write the same sentence in next year’s annual wrap-up article. 
 
Happy Holidays, everyone! The more traditional State of the Program will be back next week.
 
PRJ
 
 

 

15 Comments

Re: Collections by BlippyTheSlug at Fri, 01/02/2015 - 14:17
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Re: Collections (and Art)

One of the things I loved about v3 was the binder, where I could just flip to the Promos, smoke, and ogle my full art/textless cards. Now I have to work for it, and they look like crap. ALL the art looks washed out and muddy anymore. To make it worse, I can no longer change my local card art.

Progress.

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Re: Leagues

When I hear of Leagues in the closed beta, and the bug list therefrom, it frightens me. Given WotC's track record with all things online, it takes no Nostradamus to predict they're going to roll it out too early (if at all), and too buggy, and it'll be another months long nightmare.

I'd love to be wrong.

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Re: MTGO (on a semi-technical level)

Yeah, it's currently [REDACTED]. I don't do much but host events. I watch more games than I play; which has it's own unique set of bugs and lag issues that I don't report because it's a pain to do so when they happen (I'm in the middle of running an event), and they do what they want anyway.

That being said, I think that v4 is a step up, technically, from v3, and does allow greater freedom and flexibility. It does "get better" with each build I try, even if some of those steps are lateral rather than forward. I do think this client has potential, and needs a Coding Poobah (who's willing to tell the Magic Poobahs above him to "get real") to bring it through. Hang tough, my man.

That being said, I think that, from my understanding of the work environment, if I were a coder, there is no way I would be able to work there. Someone would get hurt, either physically or psychologically. But that's me. I'm sure there are people would would jump at the chance.

Which I think may be part of the problem: instead of hiring Programmers, it's been Gamers who can code? Then, when that didn't work, hiring mercenaries who tore down the castle walls and rebuilt from the ground up? Dunno.

Either way, I'm predicting a halfway decent client by Q3 2015, followed by Q4 2015-Q2 2016 Leagues/Rotation issues.

I have to view my collection by Joe Fiorini at Fri, 01/02/2015 - 17:35
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I have to view my collection in list view just to avoid it slowing way down. and I usually do trades that way too.

I don't even have a big collection. It's a couple pod decks and a delver deck, and they share a lot of cards, then a bunch of junk. I sold everything I wasn't using to fund the decks I have now.

Interesting thoughts Pete. by thewoof2 at Fri, 01/02/2015 - 14:55
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Interesting thoughts Pete. An important addition I would like to make is that the fact people are so focused on winning breeds other behaviors/problems as well that limits MTGO from growing without additional functionality. What I mean is if you try to play a casual game with the intention of finishing the game without a concession or lost connection it is near impossible, because people can't stand losing or have no vested social interactions with the opponent. Also people many times in frustration will make attacks on others decks, "you topdeck lucky ...", "mommy buy you all those cards", and worse. There is also no good way to match like skill and like deck power besides the rooms which really just breaks down into tourney, new players and everyone else. Lastly we are confined in many psychical ways because MTGO cannot be played on an iPad which also limits our social interactions, it's not easy to bring a computer to a friends house and play but an iPad would be...

I guess my point is MTGO is strong even with all these issues, but imagine if they could address them? We might just have a game that beats Hearthstone in usage...

Thanks for mostyl saying what by Paul Leicht at Fri, 01/02/2015 - 17:36
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Thanks for mostly saying what I've been thinking Pete. That's quite a knack. The main problem for me is that while I care about winning, if my opponents can't be bothered to be minimally sociable ("hi gl hf", "U too!" is all the interaction one can expect most times) I get seriously cranky. I may be feeling cranky anyway. But it tilts me when people just blank chat. Really? You can't type 4/5 characters?? Go Redacted yourself (Thanks Blippy, that's handy.)

So for me the fact that MTGO is a social deadlands where only a small % of players actually use the chat option makes it less appealing for me. The other problem is, if I want to solo game without social interaction I have hundreds of other games to choose from so when my MTG addiction is abated I play them instead.

Hearthstone I know nothing of because my attitude towards Blizzard these days is they are a far worse company than WOTC with horribly subpar Customer Service (personal gripe concerning D3 and their network.) So I don't know if it is a worthwhile product but if WOTC takes heed then I guess they must be doing something right. But I doubt the game will draw that much of the MTGO population away from MTG. Just as Sol Forge didn't. Nor any of the myriad other ccgs now digitally available.

I hope WOTC stops thinking only with their "Win AT ALL Costs!" brain and starts thinking with their "Have a heart dammit!" brain too because frankly, MTGO doesn't need to die to be a total failure. It just needs to continue on without serious improvement. I don't think that it will fail, mind you. I think there are enough adults at WOTC who care that stuff will get done eventually despite the weird anti-options aesthetic. (Many of the problems as I see it stem from this attitude.)

Of course the problem with "eventually" is that it means the "now" is not just rough but is nigh intolerable.

@The Woof, your complaint is echoed quite often in the forums but as many have replied there, it is a part of the game. If you want completed games you need to be more selective with whom you play. That simple. You will never get 100% completion in vintage either. People see power and bail. That's the nature of power vs not having it.

I understand that but my by thewoof2 at Fri, 01/02/2015 - 19:34
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I understand that but my point was the software should handle it like many other games do, many feel like I do. By the way I am fine conceding in vintage when you have lost, what bothers me is we finally fire a 2hg edh game and round 6 when it is getting interested someone just quits because of something small like a mana leak on their commander.

I don't know how many people by romellos at Fri, 01/02/2015 - 23:00
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I don't know how many people are playing MTGO, but Hearthstone already reached to 20 million players during October 2014. And I guess, this number will increase by time as even some of mtg pro are also streaming hearthstone.

I hope Wizards will take this serious and improve V4 to decent levels.

I wish that there was more by Joe Fiorini at Sat, 01/03/2015 - 00:36
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I wish that there was more stuff for someone like me, who likes playing duels, best of three, high level of competition etc, but don't have the free time for daily events.

I'm not sure what that would be, or how they'd accomplish that, but it would be cool.

I guess I'll get back into playing two-mans until i win enough packs to draft, draft, sell the cards, use the tix to enter more 2-mans... that's what I used to do.

I like to about the by Joe Fiorini at Fri, 01/02/2015 - 17:43
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I like to about the philosophical aspects of magic and mtgo, so this was a neat thing to read. You make some good points.

I play to win, I like constructed, one on one, tournament practice or higher skill level. I imagine that I'd be unhappy if I was in to playing multiplayer.

Somehow, I feel like MTGO makes people get angrier than paper magic. it's hard to say, but even I feel the inner jerk bubbling to the surface when I have a bad loss.

I remember one incident where I was furious that I was getting mana screwed in a KTK draft, and my opponent played a turn three savage knuckleblade, off of basic lands. I was the one that passed the knuckleblade, as I didn't want to wreck my draft committing to a three color rare so early. In paper, I feel like I'd just have shrugged it off quickly. I'm not entirely sure why, but I think the disconnection from the human element makes raging at someone much easier to do.

Great Article! by Dwarven_Pony at Sun, 01/04/2015 - 02:02
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Great article as usual! I agree with all your points.

I wish to add that it is a scandal that for years (and still now) we have been prompted to block when we have no creatures on the board (or no untapped creatures on the board) at the beginning of the Declare Blockers Phase. Do the coders not understand the basic rules of the game? (namely that if you have no untapped creature at the beginning of the Declare Blockers phase, it is IMPOSSIBLE to block). No flash creature or instant can change that.

This bug is a serious [redacted] nuisance, timewaster, and has led to skipping turns accidentally. (And yes WoTC have been notified for a long time.

I remember one answer was by Paul Leicht at Sun, 01/04/2015 - 02:33
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I remember one answer was that it was simpler to not check to see if there were qualified blockers. So in a sense, the programmers deliberately prefer to not "know" about the rules when the rules get in the way of making the program function. Sadly I think this mentality will continually bite us all in the feet until something dramatic happens with the decision makers.

Actually, Masako the by AJ_Impy at Sun, 01/04/2015 - 17:59
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Actually, Masako the Humorless allows you to block with tapped creatures.

Masako the Humorless by Dwarven_Pony at Mon, 01/05/2015 - 02:44
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Good point AJ Impy, but this is one card and one which sees virtually no play. Could not a coder allow us to block if there is a Masako the Humorless on the battlefield? Do you think that one card amongst many thousands of cards (and a card which sees practically no play) should dictate the rule for the 99.99% of other occasions when we are being asked to block despite having no untapped legal blockers?

I think you may have missed by Paul Leicht at Mon, 01/05/2015 - 02:46
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I think you may have missed AJ's admittedly probably pedantic comment. It isn't that they couldn't. The edge cases even the ones that are 99.99999% unlikely mean that they either always code for that case (and check for it) or they work around it somehow. In this case they decided to be lazy and put it in the hands of the user. IE: It affects everyone equally so it isn't inconveniencing just one set of players and thus is just as "good" as if there were no problem.

I am in no way excusing this. I think it is reprehensible but it isn't the primary issue that bothers most players so it doesn't get much attention.

WOTC... by Fred1160 at Mon, 01/05/2015 - 08:54
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I've actually talked to WOTC people in person and the company line is: "We know what we're doing." I think that's highly debatable, but that's their position. Criticism is not welcome. Why? "We know what we're doing."
Their second go-to line is: "Be patient." It's easy for them to take a glacial pace to do things because the money just keeps rolling in from suckers who will put up with a sub-standard product just to play online Magic.
Now Hearthstone comes along and it is very popular right now. WOTC's company line on that is: "It's not a threat."
Okay, buddy, just keep on thinking there will never be any threats to the empire. Why do you think they upped the number of Grand Prix tournaments? Star City has a wildly popular open series and WOTC saw the dollar signs.
The only things that ever get their attention are dollar signs.

I noticed that attitude you by Paul Leicht at Mon, 01/05/2015 - 09:05
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I noticed that attitude you mention from several public appearances by WOTC honchos. It seems to be prevalent among them no matter who does the speaking. But I suspect some of that is merely cover and some is the culture of not talking company business out of school.