This entry is part 1 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

Magic is the greatest game there is and I would almost always rather be playing Magic. Like everything else in life, every rose has its thorn. Even Commander–one of the all time great Magic formats–has some things I could do without: mostly the waiting.

 

This week, I’m going to discuss five things that create lag in a game and suck the fun out of playing Commander, but the hidden subtext of this article is that they can all be fixed by just playing Magic online. MTGO definitely has its problems, but in these particular areas, playing online is far more enjoyable than the paper game.

 

Shuffling

In my article a few weeks ago, I talked through ways to improve the mechanics of shuffling physical cards. Even if you’re well-practiced and efficient, the task can still be onerous. It’s time consuming, creates opportunities for shady characters to cheat, and causes undue stress to aging cards.

 

Shuffling is nothing more than a slight nuisance in most Magic formats and usually only occurs between games. In Commander, however, the format is dominated by search effects that require constant shuffling. A typical Commander game will be ground to a halt by shuffling on nearly every turn during the early game because of the ubiquity of fetchland mana bases.

 

In a multiplayer game or among close friends, you can find ways to shortcut and speed up the game. Shuffling each other’s decks, performing the shuffle while the game continues to another player’s turn, etc. If you’re playing one-on-one, though, your opportunities are limited. One player can take their entire turn and pass back to you before you’re even done shuffling. Living in a physical world definitely has its problems and shuffling is one of them.

 

MTGO is run by a computer, which can randomize cards in a fraction of a second. Pretty simple. Even taking into account how slowly the program runs sometimes, it’s still way faster than shuffling.

 

Choosing A Tutor Target

When I cast a tutor or go searching for a land, I usually know what I want ahead of time. This is not just a courteous way to play, but also good strategy: always be thinking ahead. When you flick through your library to find a certain card, you usually want to avoid showing the contents of your deck to everyone at the table, so you have to be careful and take your time.  You might miss the card you’re looking for your first time through, and you can’t lay your deck out to compare multiple options.

 

The best way I’ve found is to pick up multiple possibilities as I drill down into my deck and once I get to the bottom, I  compare my choices and shuffle back everything I don’t want. This takes time and is almost impossible to do quickly if you’re playing a new brew or borrowing a deck from a friend. This effect can be compounded by decks that regularly tutor for a certain subset of cards like Zur the Enchanter. Each time you take a look through your deck, the cards you want will be spread about randomly. After all of that, you still have to shuffle. Every. Single. Time.

 

If only there was a better way…when you tutor on MTGO, a window pops up to show you the entire contents of your deck. The cards are first arranged so that all the legal tutor targets are grouped in one place, cards you can’t choose are grayed out to indicate them as such. Secondly, the cards are further sorted alphabetically. This system is pure genius and makes the entire process quick and easy. It also helps you avoid choosing a suboptimal card because you can clearly see all the options. As long as you can dodge misclicking, you’ll cut out a lot of play errors because of the beauty of the interface.

 

The Stack

You know how this goes: some knucklehead is checking their phone or has walked away from the table to get a drink and then misses something important. When they return to the game they indicate that they wanted to interact in some way, but the effect has already been resolved. You might have to literally go back in time within the game. Maybe you’ll need to have a detailed conversation about what phase we are in so that the timing of the line can work properly. This situation is a complete mess and it happens all the time, especially with new players or in distraction-rich environments. If intentions are unclear, the game can devolve in an investigative argument about how certain effects will resolve and who has priority.

 

In the wonderful world of Magic Online there is a handy tool in the middle of the screen that clearly indicates what phase of the turn we are in. There’s a game log window that shows a complete history of every action and what the results were. There’s no dispute over life totals, missing counters, or missed triggers–all of that happens automatically. Whenever priority is passed to you, MTGO asks for an input to move the game along. You have to be looking at your computer and click “okay” to pass priority back, and it stops automatically to give you that chance to respond when you need to. If you have no effects you want to play, or if you want to walk away from the keyboard for a moment, there’s F6, which yields priority until your next turn. This is perfect for speeding up the game and conserving the clock when your opponent is comboing off or other players are going through combat decisions.

 

Oracle Text

In Commander we often use cards that are quite archaic. Magic’s gone through many changes with visual designs, text templating, comprehensive rules changes, and even individual card errata. Unfortunately, none of these later revisions are posted on the physical card. Some cards are so hard to look at you either need either a magnifying glass or a law degree to understand all the words–maybe both. (I’m looking at you, Chains of Mephistopheles.)

 

Magic Online is great, because it always has the most up to date wording for every card and you don’t have to spend any time searching for it on Gatherer. You can even zoom in to look more closely at a card and read it if necessary. Most of the time, though, you don’t even need to bother because the program will just resolve the effects for you and it doesn’t make errors or forget details like a human might…except for the occasional programming bugs that pop up from time to time.

 

Worst case scenario, if you don’t fully understand a card you can just let it resolve and trust that MTGO will do it right. This is ideal for complex scenarios that require an in depth knowledge of the rules. Layers? Time stamps? Pfft, ain’t nobody got time fo dat.

 

Starting A Game

Trying to get enough people to sit still for three minutes to discuss whether or not they want to play a multiplayer game can feel like herding cats. People aren’t great at making quick decisions or at thinking into the future. When playing Commander, you will often struggle to find enough people who want to play a game or they may not be able to come to agreement about what format or special rules they want to use. It takes a leader with real charisma and a lot of initiative to get things going in some play groups and that can be mentally exhausting. Even worse, it Wastes precious time that I wanted to spend actually playing the game. As I said at the jump, most of the time I just want to be playing Magic. Messing around trying to get a game together can really eat up your afternoon and doesn’t reward you with any of the fun that you wanted from playing the game.

 

Joining a cue on on MTGO is super simple. There’s no guarantee that you will be able to find players that want to play exact game type you do; in fact, multiplayer Commander games often take a long time to fire, but that’s also true in the real world. Most of the time, MTGO matches you up with an opponent in less than a minute and you can even have multiple games running simultaneously so that you don’t miss out on the action when playing back-to-back. The added power of being able to play with other people from all around the world at all hours of the day makes finding a game much faster and more comfortable than driving down to the card shop. Even better, you can switch formats on the fly without having to dig out a new stack of cards and you always have access to all of your decks to play with, no more trying to carry an entire closet in your backpack.

 

All in all, MTGO is pretty great. It definitely has its problems, which I am wont to talk about, but if you can get past the absolutely atrocious design of the user interface, there’s a ton of fun to be had underneath. Magic Online has so many awesome features that make playing my favorite formats quicker, easier, and more fun.

 

Does waiting for someone to shuffle really grind your gears? Do you think reading the bottom line of Clockwork Swarm from across the table feels like you’re looking at a Snellen Chart? Share your answers in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support Commandercast.com on Patreon.

 

-GG

“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

 

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