Magic Online: The Game Changer

It’s Friday, June 29th, and I am on a plane. However, my plane, unlike the planes my friends are on, is not headed to Atlanta. I can’t believe I am missing a Legacy GP where Threshold is one of the best decks, but sometimes life gets in the way. I am on my way to Poland with my mom and grandfather for an educational tour of our ancestral homeland for two weeks, and then head to Zagreb, Croatia to meet up with some long lost family. My mind hasn’t really been on high level Magic recently given that there were only a few PTQs to prepare for and transitioning from living the Magic life (i.e. traveling around the world playing cards) to real life; finding a job and an apartment.  I have used this time for a little bit of introspection into my recent and past results, and found that a lot of my game has been developed through Magic Online.

My relationship with Magic Online is a love-hate one. I am not talking about the opportunity cost of time spent playing or the winnings I have accrued online. I am strictly speaking about my game. I want my history with Magic Online to serve as a lesson, outlining the pitfalls and the opportunities of playing online. I used to firmly believe that Magic Online was a waste of time. I reasoned that I played Magic a great deal due to amazing friends I have made playing the game, and playing online removed the social aspect of the game, making it far less enticing. I couldn’t say or do things beyond the mechanics of the game to lead my opponents into making mistakes, something I prided myself in. This article is going to begin the things I have gained from Magic Online and the potential for learning within it. Towards the end, I will discuss some of the possible pitfalls (which I am guilty of falling into) that come along with too much Magic Online. It is my hope that this article will ensure that you get the most of your likely limited MTGO time, and that you will be able to use MTGO as the amazing tool that it is to improve your magic playskill.

Technical Playskill

My first real foray into MTGO was as a tool to prepare for my first Pro Tour; PT Honolulu 2009. My Magic friends and teammates were, as I was, strictly eternal players. My teammates even told me not to bother going. I was a Vintage and Legacy player; my constructed rating was sub 1600 from losing miserably in the only events of a constructed I had ever played.  The format of the PT was Alara Block Constructed and Draft. I logged onto MTGO, grabbed some packs and started the grind. I couldn’t win. I didn’t get it at all; when I drafted locally I would always do pretty well, but online was a different story. After the Pro Tour, I kept drafting online to try to get better, and it slowly slowly got there. It is only retrospectively and through others comments that I realized what happened. In real life, I played very quickly while constantly talking and interacting with my opponent. Not only did Magic feel like a social game to me; I treated it like that while I was playing tournaments.  It was the only way I knew how to play; my technical play skill was lacking and my circle of friends couldn’t help me the way I needed it.

My solution to this issue was a combination of things. The first, group learning; will be discussed in detail in the next section. The second, you probably won’t like. Honestly, I think repetition and hours put in online played a large role in aiding my technical playskill. Because if I lose, I would need to buy packs, it gave me incentive to play well and to attempt to improve at every possible opportunity. Sooner or later (and it was later for me), I was winning 8-4s at an alarming rate. I managed to go infinite without touching a constructed deck online, as long as I was well-versed in the format, I seemed to consistently profit. I realize this is not what you want to hear, but that is how it worked for me. It doesn’t require a huge long term commitment, but it does require putting in some solid hours.

Group Learning and Self-Improvement

Magic Online provides a unique tool in some ways. There is no other way that a group of people can get together and discuss ongoing drafts and matches, working through lines of play and seeing the outcome. I have moved around a lot the last few years, and every city I’ve lived in, I’ve had new people to play with. I want to put this out there: there is no better way to learn from someone than to MTGO with them. Live walkthroughs of lines of play, draft decisions, strategies and tactics allow players to discuss their logic and compare opinions, often finding the optimal play. This is by far my favorite way to play MTGO, I feel you get much more out of the experience beyond the basic improvement in technical play. You get a feel for how others play the game, how others think and can compare and contrast it to your own play style. I honestly thing that my playstyle, while my own, incorporates an amalgamation of all the players I’ve played beside, watched and learned from.

I try to recognize each player I play along side’s strengths within the game and learn from the best in each of them. From Glenn McIelwain I learned how to find and exploit limited metagames. From Dan Lanthier I learned the conservative player’s perspective and how to play properly with Jace. Tyler Longo always watches out for the pseudo-playables in draft and made me much more alert to them. John Smithers can build a sealed deck like no other man I know. Matt Bernard somehow turns unplayables playable (but only sometimes). Alex Hayne’s forward-looking strategy and quick math skills taught me how to better evaluate plays and take the risks with the highest upside and lowest downside based on probabilities. Ben Murphy reminds me to take a second and think through decisions; and that magic requires a balance between impulse and thoughtfulness. And these are just a few of the players I have learned from; playing online alongside others provides a wealth of valuable information.

The Pitfalls

Magic Online is not a slot machine; so don’t treat it as one.

This means multiqueing is a bad idea when trying to learn. Stop firing drafts to try to crack a fun deck or a good rare and only half playing your rounds. This is counterproductive and can lead not only to a large loss of product online, but playskill deterioration by promoting auto-pilot, which is another problem that can come from playing too much online. You shouldn’t be running 1v1 Qs with the same deck over and over again; it will just cause boredom (unless it’s an awesome deck!) and put you into autopilot. Switch it up! Play limited, constructed, different formats. Take a break, or play in segments.

Magic Online makes you forget you are playing a person.

You are not playing a single-player game, despite the lack of social interaction. When you go to a tournament, there will be an actual person sitting across from you, and Magic Online doesn’t really help you in that department.

Where does that leave me? Well, there is no question that my technical play skill has improved immensely since I first started playing online. I have won two MOCS online (one 550 person and one 650 person), the second in April, but haven’t had a good real-life tourney finish since last year. This article, in addition to hopefully providing some valuable insight to my readers, has served as an introspective look into where I am with my game now. Thinking back to the last few live events I have played; this article has given me a lot of insight into why things went poorly. Not only have I found myself recently lacking in the social-interactive aspect of the games. I am playing slower to ensure that my tactics and strategy are correct, according to the book. I can see myself playing less on feeling and gut and not taking risks I would otherwise take. My magic philosophy also suffered; I believed things should happen according to the game mechanics. I pointed out missed triggers even under the new IPG; all triggers occur on MTGO, you can’t miss them, why should you be able to in real life? I started playing with my head down, looking at the board state, my hand, graveyard and not paying nearly enough attention to the person sitting across the table from me. It took me a few months to realize what had happened, and now it’s time for damage control. My technical playskill, thanks to Magic Online, is no longer my issue. I need to revert to my old playstyle and concentrate not only on the cards in front of me, but the match and the opponent.

It is my hope that my history with Magic Online and my analysis of its benefits and pitfalls allows you to make better use of one of the best tools at your disposal to improve your magic game. I hope I can follow my own advice and transfer some of this knowledge to play like I used to, and hopefully you will be seeing me on Tour sooner rather than later!

While I was right in my assertion that MTGO does not provide the awesome social environment that the real-life tourney scene does, it does provide many other things that real-life events don’t, and I think that a healthy combination of MTGO and online play can make players better.

Until next time,

David Caplan

goobafish on MTGO

goobafish88 on Twitter

Bonus Section:

I have spent way too much time playing Vintage since my last article. I have spent hours and hours running my list against Stax with my good friend Jason.  Here is my most current list, in case anyone has a Vintage tourney coming up (anyone going to Gencon??), or just wants to build a fun deck to goldfish.  There are two cards I would like to fit in, but haven’t decided if they are worth the slot yet: A singleton [card]Dark Ritual[/card], and an [card]Ancient Grudge[/card]. The sideboard is still the same, but I swapped an [card]Ingot Chewer[/card] for a Grudge

[deck title=4 Colour Gush Storm]
[Spells]
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Mystical Tutor
1 Merchant Scroll
1 Imperial Seal
1 Tendrils of Agony
1 Empty the Warrens
1 Yawgmoth’s Will
1 Tinker
3 Preordain
1 Ponder
1 Brainstorm
1 Memory Jar
4 Force of Will
2 Flusterstorm
2 Hurkyl’s Recall
1 Wheel of Fortune
1 Timetwister
4 Gush
1 Fastbond
1 Time Vault
1 Voltaic Key
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mana Crypt
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Vault
1 Lotus Petal
1 Black Lotus
[/Spells]
[Creatures]
1 Blightsteel Colossus
[/Creatures]
[Land]
4 Scalding Tarn
1 Polluted Delta
2 Island
3 Underground Sea
2 Volcanic Island
2 Tropical Island
1 Tolarian Academy
[/Land]
[/deck]