Magic: the Gathering is one of the best games ever made. If you've never played it because it looks too nerdy or complex, you're missing out; even though it takes time and patience to learn, MTG is thrilling, smart, fantastical, improbably deep, and intellectually rewarding. But it's also far from being the game it could be.
I regret not playing Magic earlier in life. I remember watching kids playing in middle school but never gained the confidence to jump in and give it a shot. It wasn't until a few years ago that my roommate Scott, a person I would have never guessed might be into Magic, revealed that he was a huge MTG nerd. Scott showed me the basics and I was completely hooked. We played hundreds of games in a single year, filling Moleskines from cover to cover with scoreboards while perfecting our trash talk. It was one of the best years of my life.
The good news is that I can play Magic from my computer, the bad news is that it sucks.
Since then I moved to New York City, and while I still get the chance to throw down cards and twist sick combinations of spells and tricks, I don't play as much as I used to. Sure, there are gatherings like Friday Night Magic where you can meet up with local people who also play, but sometimes I just want to chill and be a wizard from the comfort of my home. The good news is that I can play Magic from my computer. The bad news is that it sucks.
It feels like playing Magic inside Windows File Explorer
There are two digital versions of Magic the Gathering, and both have huge flaws. The biggest and baddest of these games is Magic Online (MTGO), which is designed to digitally replicate the full physical game. It's an unglamorous and cumbersome program that feels like playing Magic in Windows File Explorer, though to be fair I imagine a lot of development resources are tied up in managing the game's enormous scope. Magic has been around since 1993 and there are over 10,000 unique cards, including many that completely break the rules of the game in weird and unpredictable ways. But it's the only choice for people who want to play a Magic video game that's not watered down. And like the physical game, that extensive catalog is costly to obtain. MTGO forces players to buy card packs just like they would for the original game, except it's even more expensive because you can't buy the cards in bulk.
At the other end of Magic's digital empire sits Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers, which developer Wizards of the Coast calls the "arcade" version of MTG for casual players. It's actually got some good stuff going for it compared to MTGO, including visual effects, contextual tips, tutorials, and a campaign mode that lets players battle against AI as part of a brief plot in the Magic universe. The latest version also added some nice deck building tools, but as a minuscule shadow of the larger game it lacks long-term playability. Even with much higher production value than MTGO, Duels suffers from one of the worst user interfaces I've ever seen in a video game.
Magic is a fractured game, set apart by deep rifts in the digital and physical realms. But I have hope for a better future.
The case for a unified Magic world
Lead designer Mark Rosewater recently revealed that Magic the Gathering would be undergoing a huge change: in his words, a "metamorphosis." Each year, MTG players look forward to a number of releases that expand and refresh the already enormous universe, kind of like how every year there's a new Madden game with an updated roster. Each new world is called a "block" and comes with a unique theme that adds flavor to the Magic universe; the most recent block, Theros, is a gorgeous and imaginative set based on Greek mythology. But Rosewater and the rest of his team realized there was a big problem with the way they were releasing new blocks.
Each block consists of three expansions that extend the story of that new world. On top of that, Wizards of the Coast releases a yearly "Core" set which includes a less complex catalog of cards intended for beginners. The problem is that this Core set release format basically confused everyone while appealing to nobody.
Now, Wizards will release two MTG blocks per year, each with two expansions. The changes are much more detailed than that, and if you're an experienced Magic player you can read more about it here, but the moral of the story is that Magic as a product is going to be a lot easier to understand. Now the company just needs to work on its video games.
MTG is still making bank for Wizards of the Coast and its parent company Hasbro and is one of the most successful physical games in the world. But MTG's designers shouldn't count on that success lasting forever, and the company has already received customer backlash for its lackluster video game efforts. (One prominent MTGO player suggested last year that people delete the game.) Digital card games are quickly getting better. I didn't think I'd like Blizzard's Hearthstone, and while it's admittedly a much simpler game than Magic, it's fast-paced, fun, and free to play.
It's time to start from scratch and bring everyone together
Wizards of the Coast should nuke both MTGO and Duels of the Planeswalkers. In their place, it should create a sleek, modern Magic the Gathering video game that lets everyone play as part of one community. Sure, it'd probably be costly, but Wizards has already committed to refreshing Duels every year. Instead of making the same mistakes it should start from scratch and build a product that satisfies experts while allowing beginners to grow.
Magic's lead designer, who has a background in MMO development, should know that you can build a game where beginners and experts can live together harmoniously. There are countless inspirations to draw from, like the mentoring system in City of Heroes that allowed experienced players to fight with inexperienced players, or the coaching system in DOTA 2 that allows observers to watch and guide beginners.
I am confident that people would gladly give up some of the production value in Duels to get a more complete digital version of Magic that lets them learn at their own pace while eventually having access to Magic's entire online community. There's even potential to marry the physical and digital worlds.
Tron for monsters
Right now if you want to play Magic the Gathering and you're not a rich person you have to make a choice. You can either have a great physical collection, or you can have a great digital collection. This creates a huge, impassible divide between the physical and digital games for all but the most determined (and monied) Magic players. But what if the physical and digital games were linked? What if every new card in every new Magic block contained a unique code that could be scanned by its owner and added to their digital libraries, too? It'd be a total game changer.
When I visited Hasbro's headquarters in Rhode Island back in June I got to see a neat trick. The company showed me these little physical toys called Telepods that can be used with various Angry Birds games. The Telepods have unique QR-like codes that can be scanned by an iPad to "warp" the physical toy into the virtual game. So, for instance, if you have the Yoda toy, you can scan it into the game and launch the video game Yoda at evil Imperial piggies. It's basically like Tron for monsters. A similar product with better execution is Disney Infinity, which lets kids scan their favorite Disney characters into a video game.
It's ultimately a short-lived gimmick for a game like Angry Birds, but the concept could be powerful when paired with a game that has a huge physical component. Say, Magic the Gathering.
A more compelling digital game would be more valuable to players and might even convince them to buy more cards than they would otherwise. I certainly know I'd buy more cards if I could use them online, too. But there's also opportunity to experiment with different pricing models to allow casual players to get a taste of the game without committing hundreds of dollars up front. Like MMOs or streaming music services, a new Magic game could offer a tiered monthly pricing model that allows players to rent any number of cards from various blocks. This kind of model could revolutionize the game, allowing a lot more people to experiment with cards and strategies that would normally be out of reach. There are a lot of smart people out there who might not have the money to build the best Magic decks, and making the game more inclusive would be better for everyone.
There's nothing but opportunity for Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro with Magic The Gathering. Magic has a huge, loyal following and some of the richest worlds ever imagined a game. I just hope Magic catches up to the digital era before someone else comes along and does it better. My wallet is ready.