What Happened to Casual MTGO?

Hello friends. You know, I have read quite a few articles about MTGO (Magic Online) and ways that it could be improved. Many of them have good ideas! However nearly all of them I’ve encountered have focused on the competitive end of the spectrum. Add a pack to prizes here, change entry fees here, optimise EV on this, only have queues for Standard/Draft/Modern and so on.

Very few of them acknowledge the other side of the magical coin, that of the casual players. I’m probably a bit on the unusual side in that I love playing casual decks and tournament decks alike. I’ve been a few Pro Tours, but I also can’t get enough of attacking with krakens and wolves or playing some off-the-wall rare that bends the rules of the game. While I have often prepared for events on Magic Online, the vast majority of my time on it has been playing kooky decks for fun.

I started playing casual MTGO back in 2003, starting with this sweet Goblins theme deck and I’ve continued to play varying amounts all the way until now. This means I’ve been spending time in the variations of the ‘just for fun’ room for a really long time, and I’ve observed it change from a part of Magic Online which was always busy and full of various game types, to what honestly feels like an afterthought.

I’m sure that Wizards of the Coast does consider the Magic Online casual room to be important, but perhaps not as important as the parts of Magic where people pay money to enter. I don’t mean that just in a mercenary sense, but also in the respect that if someone encounters a bug in a draft it’s miserable – more important and impactful than if you discover a bug with Stinging Barrier or your Rainbow Stairwell deck doesn’t handle Devoid cards correctly.

I just want to greenuce my opponent’s life total to zero!

For a long time, MTGO has been tipped as the place to play if you want to get better at Magic: the Gathering. It has constant drafts and constructed magic no matter what time you want to play, and generally at a standard above most local stores. This is all true! But you know, sometimes people are satisfied with not playing serious events all the time. What if you want to try out your idea for a Demon theme deck, but people in your local store are too focused on playtesting for the upcoming GP to want to waste time playing against it?

Now, you may be the type of person that will openly mock the idea of playing any deck that isn’t a top tier strategy. Asking, why would anyone just want to play for “fun”? Isn’t winning all the time the way to have fun? In that case, that’s fine, everyone is different. I’ve already heard things along the lines of ‘lol, who cares’,  maybe this post isn’t for you.

So, the theory behind this post is that it used to be very easy to have fun in the casual room on Magic Online, but now it is not. As a result, people are silently leaving MTGO. I don’t have hard data on this, of course. I’m just a person who really likes to play casual Magic to unwind. But what I can tell you is that I used to play basically every evening, and I would see rapidly firing games, vocal players promoting formats like 2HG, Commander and many others, and rather tellingly I could see how much demand for casual cards there was. Now almost everything that isn’t a tournament staple is worthless, whereas in the past all kinds of things could be a popular card.

Sleeper hit, thanks Emperor!

But it occurred to me just recently just how seldom games seemed to happen in the casual room. Out of curiosity, I tried to start a Momir Basic game yesterday, and just waited. It took 20 minutes to get a game. I opened a Free for All game in standard which used to start every couple of minutes. I quit after waiting an hour. I realised that my options for casual spellslinging were few and far between. What happened?

Objection! Why Should You or WotC Care?

Even if you don’t have disdain for the type of people who’d hate to ever play a ‘net deck’, what does any of this matter? Surely they are better targeting people who will pour money into Daily Events and Drafts?

I’ve often read on Wizards articles that kitchen table Magic is still the most popular kind, with many people never making it past a pre-release in the tournament structure. They might not be paying for entry fees, but those players do like to buy theme decks and packs proving a large revenue stream. Casual games on mobile phones and IPads make money hand-over-fist. People regularly pick up Duals of the Planeswalkers,  and ask “where do I go from here?”. The answer is almost never ‘Magic Online’. In fact, most people actively tell newer players to stay well clear of Magic Online, because it’s so unwelcoming and difficult to use.

Isn’t that kinda sad? In no particular order, here are some of what I have found to be the biggest issues plaguing the casual scene, and where I would look if I wanted to stimulate some interest.

The MTGO Specialty Formats Are All Gone, Bring Some Back

I’m talking about Emperor, Vanguard,  Rainbow Stairwell, Planechase, Teams (not 2HG), Tribal Wars, 2HG, 3HG, Prismatic, 100-card Highlander, Standard Highlander, (I prefer Highlander to Singleton for obvious reasons).

Mantis Scotland

There were so many formats that Magic Online had that had cult followings, and this was always reflected in the casual room. Whatever kind of Magic anyone wanted to play for fun, there was a constant stream of opponents available. Even the most niche options like combining multiple formats like Singleton 2HG or Rainbow Stairwell/Vanguard were doable. After all, you could just type into the chat window for the room if you wanted something unusual. You can open a game and leave a note on it, but most people get auto-matched and never see any comments.

All the unusual formats died off for various reasons. I’m not going to argue that Wizards actively support all of them at once, of course not, that’s too many things to program and promote all at once. There is a giant list of weird and wonderful formats. Commander doesn’t remotely come close to being a catch-all replacement fyi, besides it even takes Commander multiplayer games ages to launch. In real life, you can barely go 10 feet in a Magic venue without trying to start a game.

Multiplayer (aside from 3-4 player Free For Alls) is straight up removed from the current version of Magic Online, so okay, you can’t promote that. Even though it was pretty awkward they just released Oath of the Gatewatch, a set specifically designed to pay well with 2HG, and 2HG is not available online. So we can’t play any of the team variants. Which is a shame, since people love teaming up with others.

That reminds me, remember clans? Not just for groups of grinders, people actually used to form clans based around interactions in the casual room, post on forums and invite more people to play! *ahem*

They also stopped giving any of the formats exposure on Magic Online. Remember when Vanguard had dailies? Prismatic? Highlander? No? Sure, still 95% of all events were Standard/Extended/Modern/Sealed and so on, but the small amount of novelty format events nearly always fired, and then people would hear about the sick Zubera deck and try it out.

Related to this, you will never accidentally discover a new format on MTGO Version 4. People used to see people advertise ‘Prismatic’, not know what it is, then ask. They would then maybe become interested, and give it a try. Behold, a new player to the format! Now, every format except the one you specifically ticked is invisible. A bit like if you went to the store to play standard FNM, but they hide all hints of draft existing. Sure, maybe they will be happy with standard forever, but they’ll never get curious and try something new, maybe something they like even more.

Just as an aside, having fans of niche formats really helps retain players when they get bored with the current format. Even if 80% of casuals play standard, and only occasionally play other formats, if standard is seen to be boring or too expensive, it’s good to have alternative ways to have fun. Not that I’m implying current standard is like that at all, oh no.

So how do you bring any of these back? Where do you start? Well first, all the official Wizards pages about these formats seem to be broken. I’d fix these. Next, run some special events again! Let people see cool decklists and they will get interested. Momir Vig daily events were the last holdout of the novelty format events, and apparently those weren’t okay despite being popular. But you don’t *need* to have them follow the same format!

Don’t make them dailies or premier events under the usual rules. They don’t need to give out QPs or have big prizes. Make them cheap-to-free to enter. This would address the concerns that someone might accidentally take a step towards the Pro Tour not playing ‘real magic’ and without big prizes there’s less incentive to try and shark up the joint.

It’s Hard to Set Up Games

I would also change the interface. Sure, everyone says that, but at present the social aspect of Magic is troubled on MTGO. (you might argue that online is inherently non-social anyway, but I disagree. So many communities form online – and indeed used to form on MTGO – that Wizards are missing out when things are made difficult for people to come together organically)

Find somewhere for people to leave easily visible requests for games! As much as people like to make fun of the ‘No LD, no Discard, no counters, no Planeswalkers’ group of people, everyone has preferences for how they want to play. Make it easier for people to play the types of games they want, whether it’s a slow game, a fast game, a niche format, 500 card decks, it’s all good.


People Have Tasted Rewards in Other Games

Yes, I know, Magic Online is not ‘Free to Play’ nor am I going to suggest it should be. But if you play MTGO, I’m going to ask you a potentially silly question. Do you have promos? Don’t look it up! Which ones did you get? Why did you get them? When?

I asked a bunch of people this question. Some were vaguely aware that some promos existed, because they found some foil land or a Khabál Ghoul in their collection one day.

Sure, maybe details of whatever in-game rewards exist on the internet somewhere, but in the program itself? They might as well not exist, and there’s no feeling of reward for getting them or playing matches.

In comparison, there are daily rewards in nearly any other game. They are accompanied by nice, easy to understand and satisfying chest-openings or whatever. When you log in, you are told clearly what to do in order to get the reward. You are given updates on your progress.

Even when you’re not playing for a quest, you usually get *something* for playing games. Whether it’s 10 gold every 3 games, or some experience, it’s just expected now.

For Magic Online, there are so many ways to go with this. For a start, I’d want to make it obvious right there on the store that you can get promos from buying things. I’d like to see quests like ‘gain 40 life in a game’ or ‘play an angel, demon, dragon, wurm and kraken’ to encourage people to build some decks they usually wouldn’t. Maybe they’ll have fun, and continue to play those decks.

You don’t need to give out playpoints, though I’m sure that wouldn’t hurt too badly in small amounts. Just giving people random promo versions of neat old cards once in a while is nice, or alternative playmats, or avatars for playing a lot, people will take pretty much anything as an excuse to play Magic.

Get to the Point!

Magic Online had a huge head-start on all competitors, and the lead was somewhat squandered. Feels sad to me that the bustling casual scene on Magic Online, once vibrant and multi-faceted is essentially gone. It was like going to a local festival that had fairground rides, music, stalls that sell the kind of unhealthy snacks you only have occasionally, and people everywhere loudly shouting they needed one more for the Haunted Emperor Ride. Now you go along and there’s one Wallmart-advertising booth, wearily selling you some Standard Cola. That’s nice, but…

Magic is uniquely excellent in terms of fun decks you can make. If you play Hearthstone, you might have a couple of wacky and/or zany random effects in your deck, but you can never truly play any decks that are really different from the others. Magic has so much variety, so many different cards that appeal to different people, it’s a shame that we’re not making the most of it. These people would buy the cards they need to make their decks, making all kinds of cards worth something. They would enter pre-releases to get the Avatars. They would tell their friends to get Magic Online so they can team up with them over the internet. It can only be good for Wizards of the Coast to throw the electronic casual players a bone.

I know that the Magic Online team is probably overworked and underfunded, and that everyone wants everything. Maybe it’s just too hard to identify the long term health benefits to whoever is making the decisions to make it seem worth it.

I also know that the people I’m talking about, the casual players that skipped out of Magic Online aren’t the loudest demograph. They’re the people that just quietly walk away from a game when the things they like go away, rather than having thousands of twitter followers that will make them visible. I do feel a bit like an old man yelling at clouds, since I can’t *prove* most of what I’m saying.

An accurate representation.

I just want people who think Magic is fun to keep thinking that. Someone who tried Magic Online recently after a long hiatus told me:

“I tried to play my morphs deck but the only formats it was allowed in was Legacy or Vintage. I sat there for 20 minutes before someone joined. They mulliganed to 4 and conceded. I couldn’t figure out how to get multiplayer to work so I tried again. I eventually did get to play someone and their bird deck, and it was fun, but then I realised I’d spent 50 minutes and I’d only played one game, so I played LoL instead.”

I could only nod and say “sounds about right”.

There’s more to say about Magic Online that can ever be put in a single article, but that’s what I’ve got for now. Ciao!

2 thoughts on “What Happened to Casual MTGO?

  1. Hi Jecht, I just wanted you to know that this really resonated with me, to the extent where I’m leaving a comment on the internet. I used to play a handful of games in the casual room every evening, and your experience is basically identical to mine- I’m extremely competitive, love drafting and PTQ/GP-ing to win, but also want to explore the weird diversity of decks magic makes possible. Nothing scratches this itch, Hearthstone is samey, EDH is appalling, weird cube or wacky draft formats come closest but doesn’t have the same sense of personal exploration, of showing off what you can do while intentionally not playing the broken strategies in Legacy etc. Just remembering how there used to be a thriving enthusiastic community of weird niche formats online, how much Wizards itself used to push this with Mark Gottlieb and Bleiweiss’s columns about tuning precons for fun on MODO… I’ve made myself sad, as they say. Perhaps the casual room imploded under the weight of its own contradictions: it was always a tossup whether someone would concede to T1 Duress or storm you out on T2 before you could Gifts for Eternal Witness, Regrowth, Life from the Loam and Corpse Dance. But something seems to be lost, something that is captured reasonably well with Hearthstone’s Tavern Brawls, but Magic is so much deeper and richer, and they’re just leaving it all on the table.

    Anyone want to buy a bunch of virtual fringe Legacy cards?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, thanks for the comment! I have had a few people sending me similar messages to this, so we’re not alone. We are all scattered though, and there’s no easy way to find similar people on MTGO itself. 😦


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