It's not a big tournament. By the standards of Magic's peak in 1999, it's average: The Sheraton Cambridge. A small ballroom. A banner for "Your Move Games," the hosting store from Sommerville, MA.
I'm embarrassingly old to be in the room -- over 30 -- and yet I sit stock still, sunglasses and baseball cap firmly planted, a flesh-slack face birthed from losing too much poker. We're drafting Urza Block -- a recent but complete expansion for Magic: The Gathering which relies heavily on artifacts. It's the most depraved expedition into my Magic addiction, leaving a pregnant wife at home to spend two days surrounded by fetid black T-Shirts. But it's exciting.
I lose miserably in the first round. But weeks later, the avatar of our local card shop, one Darwim Castle, will go on to draft a better deck based on the same ideas and win the Washington Pro Tour. As geek memories go, it's up there.
"OK Daddy, I'm playing this card."
Reverie snapped, the 1999 Sheraton Cambridge dissolves in a David Lynch soft-cut to my 2009 kitchen table. The card in question is "Giant Growth." It's a trick. My daughter has blocked my attacker with a pathetic Llanowar Elf, who is now hopped up on Hulk Juice, and will kill my sad little goblin without a thought. I mentally hit the fast forward button. I look up. Her hands, still unable to effectively manage a good fan, mangle the cards of the 9th Edition Starter Deck. A few inches above the pasteboard, her face is split by the grin reserved for triumphant children.
"Good game kiddo," I say, reaching across the table with an obligatory losers handshake. She tosses her cards to the table and leaps up, entering a sing-song choreographed victory "I won, Oh Yeah, Beat my dad, Oh yeah" dance straight from the tragic pages of an iCarly episode.
This is what Magic is supposed to be.
Three thousand miles and three hours away, Worth Wollpert agrees. Wollpert, Senior Business Manager for Magic Online, is directly responsible for my daughter's happy dance around the kitchen table.
"The whole point of the project was to expose Magic to people who have never heard of Magic," he explains. And the avenue of choice was Xbox LIVE Arcade. "I mean, it's hard to own a 360 and never have actually heard of Magic," he says. "But judging by the forums, a lot of the players have only heard of it, or played 10 years ago and the cards are now under their bed. Those are the people we really wanted to reach."
Worth's project is Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers, a simplistic XBLA re-imagining of the ridiculously successful collectible card game by Wizards of the Coast. A game so successful that as of March, Wizards of the Coast, the games publisher, had given away over $33 million in prizes at tournaments. That's cash, not funny-money or Microsoft Points.
It's worth pointing out (sorry) that Worth's got street cred. He's not a suit -- he dropped out of his MBA program (and the Magic Pro Tour) 9 years ago to work at Wizards R&D full time, designing the ever-expanding game that is magic. He's a known quantity from my Darwin Kastle hero-worship days. At Wizards he's mostly focused on Magic: the Gathering Online, a fully rendered version of paper Magic, complete with drafts, singles sales, outrageously expensive addiction, and 14-year-olds with too much money. But where Magic Online is designed to represent that $33 million dollar price-winning chaotisphere in its entirety, Duels is designed to be exactly the opposite: simple, even simplistic.
It delivers on the promise. By limiting the number of cards available to a few hundred -- drawn from an existing universe of many, many thousand cards -- Duels is the ultimate magic trainer, as evidenced by my daughter learning the game from 15 minutes of pre-programmed tutorial. The genius, really, was in the selection of the cards. Each of Magic's five main factions -- the mana colors -- which are represented using iconic cards recognizable, at least in spirit, to any experienced magic player. And every card is extremely straightforward. It's a tremendous act of editorial prowess, as much as one of game design.
"We knew that it was going to be a challenge," says Wollpert. A challenge made doubly difficult by the need to devise a competent AI. "We knew we had to severely limit the card set. We have a pretty good spectrum from exciting to some of the less-exciting stuff. We tried to have something for everybody." With a hand-picked card set designed by WOTC R&D, the company made the wise move of handing development off to a third party, in this case, developer Stainless Games. Stainless isn't exactly a household name -- they're one of myriad studios focused on delivering "small" games to the 360 and hand-held platforms. They're behind the competent and fairly bulletproof ports of most of the classic Atari titles to XBLA, from Centipede to Tempest, and a few other licensed games like the PSP and DS versions of Scrabble. Not exactly Irrational Games, but also quite likely on time and on budget. Given the number of orthogonal interactions possible between cards at any given point in a magic game, basic execution is more important than you might think -- it's something Magic Online has struggled with for years, and it doesn't even attempt to provide a robust AI. In under 2 years, Stainless delivered.
But the experience isn't without it's flaws. By simplifying the game so much, I find myself yearning for the "real" experience of Magic: customizing decks to min-max my way to cheap victory. Deck customization in Duels is anemic, consisting only of adding more cards to basic decks, with no ability to fine-tune the distribution or remove ineffective cards. Wollpert admits this is a deliberate and limiting choice. "I sympathize -- greatly -- with the players who are asking for more advanced deck customization, but if you want that, it's available, it's just not what we wanted on the Xbox." To be clear, he's suggesting I leave my house to play real Magic, which means buying cards and booster packs and investing far, far more money than $10 in the game, or at least that I get off the couch and fire up my PC. "If players want the richer experience, well then the Xbox isn't really going to give it to you in the near future. We want you to go to your friend's house and play, or to Magic Online, or to a Friday Night Magic game at a local store."
And that's really the problem. Magic -- the big game -- is phenomenally addictive, and for someone as OCD as myself, Duels is a desperate and terrifying free-hit in a shiny back alley lined with foil packages containing 23 cents of cardboard for the low-low price of $2.99. After 10 hours, I had unlocked the majority of the available cards in Duels, and the inability to dig deeper -- to put this card in that deck -- was cruel shoes on a long walk. But Wollpert is clear: This is not the game for me. If I want more, I must dive headfirst back into the pit.
And what about my daughter? Or perhaps more to the point, the legions of gamers who represent Wizards' true target audience for Duels?
"We know that the migration path is not as clean as we'd like," says Wollpert. "When you finish Duels, it's not like you're ready to jump into Magic Online and start tearing it up in 8-person drafts. There's still a chasm there, and I acknowledge that." And maybe that's the big issue. Even as an experienced player, the gap between the first-one's-free tease of Duels and the deep, deep end of the pool represented by Magic Online is simply too large. I know I can make the leap -- I've still got hundreds of cards sitting in my Magic Online account. But perhaps it's just one I don't have the time, money or inclination to make.
Wollpert seems unconcerned.
"At some point you have to kick the baby bird out of the nest," says Wollpert. And I guess, 15 years later, I'm back to being that baby bird. "Some are going to go splat, but most are going to fly, and hopefully most of the ones that fly, fly to us."