strategy card gaming

I’m not sure what draws me to get into new hobbies like strategy card gaming. Time is a resource of which I have very little, I really don’t need another outlet to spend money and I’m in my early 40’s which isn’t exactly the target demographic for a lot of the new things I try out. Nevertheless, Magic: The Gathering has been something that intrigued me and I felt like I’d enjoy if I got started and learned the game. Where to start though? Here’s how I got into this new hobby and some of the mistakes I made that cost me money and wasted my time.

I’d never tried strategy card gaming even though I’ve been playing RPGs like D&D since the 80’s. Even though they are quite different, these two hobbies are linked in that the types of people who play them are often similar and the hobby shops that sell RPGs usually also sell cards. So I’ve been exposed to games like Magic: The Gathering since they were introduced in the mid-90’s. I remember seeing some guys at a comic shop play Magic in 1995. I guess I thought that this was kid’s territory or something and it took me another 20 years before I had the idea that I might like this game and another 22 before I actually gave it a try. The impetus behind actually learning to play was my girlfriend’s suggestion that we play “cards” one night. I don’t know what she wanted to play, cribbage or something. Card games with diamonds, hearts, spades and whatever they call that clover thing have always made my eyes glaze over. I figured I could get into a game that had orcs, werewolves, knights and other creatures I was interested in on the cards. Turned out that I did find this game much more compelling than Blackjack, cribbage or poker. Maybe too compelling!

Being in my 40’s I don’t exactly have a lot of friends who have binders and decks of Magic Cards who could teach me the game. I also didn’t think it was a good idea to prowl the local card shop asking kids to help me learn the game either. I decided I’d at least go buy a deck of cards and look at it to get some idea of how the game worked. I went to my local card shop and asked what I should buy to get into the game, they got me set up with a good intro deck and I even made a video opening it with a guy from work. You can tell how clueless I am to any of the game dynamics or what the cards meant in this vid.

So I looked at these cards and they were really cool! I loved the way they felt in my hand, the art, the game seemed really fun. How was I going to learn to play though? I typed, “Magic: The Gathering” into a search engine and “Magic The Gathering Online” came up.

“Perfect!” I thought, “Exactly what I need to learn to play this game!”

I began signing up and the website asked me about my skill level with Magic. When I responded that I was a fresh faced virgin to MTG, the game directed me to play a game called Magic Duels. Like Magic The Gathering Online was just not for you if you were just starting. Turned out that was more true than I knew.

Magic Duels was available for Xbox One and PC, not my preferred console, PS4. But it was fine, I have an XBOne. Playing it and getting achievements on it is like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest with no one hearing it because everyone I know plays PS4 not Xbox, but console wars are a very controversial issue I don’t want to get into.

Magic Duels was a pretty great experience for learning the game mechanics of Magic: The Gathering. I learned how different cards worked and I was able to understand the game well enough to start playing my 12 year old nephew and have a pretty good understanding of the RL game. He’d been playing for a few years and I was actually able to correct him on some of the newer card dynamics and rules. I purchased a bunch of booster packs with the coin I was making by defeating the AI in Duels and felt like I had a pretty good deck. The interface was intuitive and the graphics and effects were good enough to keep me interested. Magic Duels is a nice looking game and the controls for your cards are simple.  After a few hours of play it’s fairly easy to understand how the interface works and execute different effects of the cards.

I’d actually have been happy to play Magic Duels forever and I would have probably spent some real money buying my cards in Duels but there was only one problem. Wizards of the Coast had suspended support for Magic Duels and when I went to try my skills out against a human opponent, there was no one online to connect to. One weekend afternoon I did get matched with a person who obviously was a much more skilled player and they destroyed me in about 10 minutes and then disconnected.

So, between playing the RL game with my nephew and Magic Duels, I was no longer a neophyte, I figured I was ready for Magic The Gathering Online. I noticed the game had a couple of different modes of play including “Just For Fun,” where I thought I’d find some people just starting out like myself. In contrast to Magic Duels, MGTO had a $10 fee right off the bat after I signed up, clicked that I had “Played Magic a few times and understood the rules.” It now allowed me to create an account and download the game. I installed it on my Microsoft Surface since MGTO had no software compatible with my multiple Macs. I fired up the game and signed in. I was greeted by this screen…

Okay,” I thought, “I have this beginner set, looks like I can make a decent dinosaur deck if I get a few cards,” I looked in the Store which only sold an array of full Planeswalker Decks and booster packs of the latest decks. I figured I must be able to get the other cards in the “Trade” area. I clicked on that and was greeted by this confusing screen.

I was actually scared by that screen and decided I’d just purchase a Planeswalker deck, I’d done that in real life and although my nephew still beat me, it was a deck that worked pretty well together without me having to assemble it.

So I tried to play the “Just for Fun” mode and I got obliterated by everyone I played. One guy had an UB Control deck which made the game frustrating and long and just wasn’t a very fun experience for a new player. Almost everyone I encountered in “Just for Fun” had played the game for over a decade and was just preparing a new deck for a tournament or trying something new out for their next tournament. There were zero new players of my experience level and it was frustrating.

Being an adult, I figured I would try to match my opponents by leveraging the one advantage I probably have over the younger people playing this game, money. I went into the “Trade” section of MGTO determined to figure it out. After about two hours of reading different MGTO sites, I figured out the convoluted trading system that required me to set up binders and purchase tickets which were each a dollar but could not really be split into smaller amounts among multiple card vendors, so I always had to spend at least $1 even if I just wanted two 10 cent cards. I will say that Wizards does allow you to purchase the cards you buy in MGTO for $25.00 as long as you buy a full set. There really isn’t a great way to determine whether you have the full set or an easy way to tell which cards you are missing. If you try to purchase the set without owning the all of the set’s digital cards your order just gets denied, so one more thing that MGTO does not make easy on you. This apparently is a cheap way to obtain a full set and is the way many cards shops go about procuring their full sets for sale.

I am not playing Magic for the collectibility of the cards however, I am playing it for the fun of playing against someone else and winning with a superior strategy or even losing a well matched game to someone who isn’t echelons above my skill level. My battles against my nephew are like that, he’s better than me, but at least I have a chance to win, he hasn’t put together some highly crafted tournament tested deck that has all sorts of ways to destroy me. His deck is just the cards he has put together as best he can and playing him is fun. MGTO was not delivering this fun part of the experience.

At any rate, after understanding the trade window in the game, I purchased about $50 worth of tickets and put together a deck list consisting of a deck that I played against in Duels which gave me real problems. It was an Eldrazi deck which kept spawning all of these 11 creatures which were really hard to deal with. I found a vendor that had all of these cards and settled on a price, when I assembled the whole deck however, for a reason not at all apparent to me, my deck was categorized as a “Freeform” deck instead of a “Standard” deck, I read for a while about the difference but nothing seemed to point to a way to put cards in this deck that made it standard or point to why this was one type of deck as opposed to another. Freeform was even deeper in the MTG esotericism. Everyone I played with this deck dismantled me and several even suggested I concede the game before I even knew why I was in an untenable checkmate position. I seemed to be boring my opponents and irritating them with my inexperience. I was getting destroyed and it was an expensive lesson from which I wasn’t really learning anything.

Adding to this, the MGTO interface seemed like it was designed in Windows 3.0 or something. There was nothing exciting about it and it was what you might call unintuitive. I have read about very experienced players beaten simply because the interface doesn’t make it clear how to execute some card’s functions. The interface does what it is supposed to, which is display the cards legibly and execute the cards functions but that’s it, there are no animations or any kind of flair or fun involved. Maybe that is the way hardcore MGTO players want it but it just seemed to be missing the fun factor again.

I’d played a lot of the Blizzard game Diablo since the first version in the 90’s and I’d seen this Hearthstone game in the Blizzard App previously. I knew it was some kind of card game and one evening when I had some time after being quickly and frustratingly dismantled by my MGTO opponent, I decided to give it a try. Although initially the graphics seemed cartoonish and silly, after a run through the tutorial, the vibrance and fun factor of the game was clear. The tutorial presented a simplified version of Magic:The Gathering but preserved the fantasy setting, and added some fun to even the loading bars which had funny captions. I understood why a hardcore MTG player would scoff at Hearthstone but it definitely was more fun than MGTO.

The best part was that when I finished the tutorial and decided I’d try my luck against a human opponent, Hearthstone actually told me that it was searching for an opponent that matched my skill level. Certainly seemed to be the case as well since I won my first online match against a human opponent!

The interface was easy to understand, vibrant and with animations and sounds that made it a lot of fun for the casual experience I was looking for. Don’t get me wrong, it is a different game than Magic, the mana system is infinitely less complex and basically takes building any kind of mana base right out of the game, however it also makes the game progress more quickly and speeds up gameplay from 30 minute games down to 5-10 minute matches. Again, as an adult, I don’t have a lot of time to devote to seriously playing a strategy card game so this really fits with the kind of experience I am looking for.

Wizards is apparently producing a game called Magic Arenas which seems like it will incorporate a lot of the fun things going on in Hearthstone and allow you to play with MTG rules. Right now it is in closed beta but I’m on the list to be invited when the next 100,000 players are invited. Hopefully I’ll be able to update this and tell you that Magic Arenas picks up where Duels left off and is a fun experience for players of all levels and commitment abilities.

For the time being though, if you’re a new or casual gamer looking to get into strategy card games, you don’t have a lot of ability to play with other people and you’re looking for a fun experience online. Hearthstone is really the way to go. Leave Magic The Gathering Online to the people it is intended for, hardcore tournament players and collectible card traders trying to finish their full sets of cards economically.