Digital Cardboard

“It’s in the basement; follow me.”

I follow Alan down the steps and into the cool, dark room. My toes curl on the cold cement floor as he stumbles and curses his way to the light switch. I’d asked to see his collection of Magic cards so I could bring a few decks to the local game shop where a friend of mine works. Alan is a client, so I know him pretty well. But discovering another geek in your midst requires a leap of faith and a prayer that he’s not going to reveal his life size elf queen statue -- who also happens to be his wife.

The fluorescents hum to life and the cold floor is forgotten as I look at the hundreds of boxes arrayed on countless shelves and tables. “Yep,” he says, hooking his thumbs under invisible suspenders. “Every Magic card ever made.”

With Wizards sponsoring us this week (don't worry, we're off the clock here) it got me thinking about Alan and what his place is in our digital future.

Up until a couple years ago, Alan and his son would go to Magic launch parties and buy boxes of the new cards to keep their collection current. They’d go to tournaments, challenge each other daily and arrange stacks of binders containing different deck builds for future reference. But as his son grew older, he started to spend more time with girls and online games, and Alan's bond with his son has become more tenuous. There’s a bit of nostalgic melancholy in the air as Alan roots through his piles for some cool builds he thinks I’d like. Some of the binders are looking pretty dusty.

I ask him if he’s looked into the Magic Online game. He’ll have none of it. “Real cards have meaning and value to me; I don’t get why anyone would pay for pictures and bits.” He brandishes a stack of cards. “This is my favorite green/red tournament deck. Last time I played it was at the lake with my kid. I don’t think a laptop would cut it.”

I thank him for the cards and make my way out. The next day, I wipe the floor with the other Magic players at the local shop. He wasn’t kidding about that red/green deck he’d perfected over months of play. As I revel in the victories I borrowed from Alan, I couldn’t help but notice every gamer in the place was in their mid-twenties or older.

There’s a growing social divide between cardboard die-hards and a younger generation who seem perfectly fine playing with digital variations of old standbys like Magic -- if they play at all. Wizards of the Coast and companies like them are scrambling for new ways to digitize their most popular brands and leverage internet social sites to bring some new zip to the old tabletop games.

My wife has been going to a weekly D&D Encounters night for a while now. Like most of the adults who show up, she’s there for some light and fun D&D with new people. The fact that there are gamers all over the world playing the same encounters and earning virtual points places a distant second to the local, social aspect of it for her. The DM she tends to play with doesn’t even use the Twitter feed that adds modifiers to the game in real time.

It’s no surprise that Wizards of the Coast is looking to social networks to spread the word and keep people engaged in the hobby. While digital apps like a comprehensive character builder have been a huge help to pen-and-paper players, the dream of everyone playing online remains an elusive goal. The Magic franchise has seen more success with Magic Online and Duels of The Planeswalkers thanks to the head-to-head, strategic aspect of the games. Playing in person has always been more fun to me, but the online variations are good enough when you're too busy or not interested in collecting anymore.

Despite their online success, they’re not abandoning the physical market—they’re also trying to scratch that social media itch with TweetMTG. The goal is to encourage players to put down their mice and go visit their local game shop for the weekend. Whether or not initiatives like this succeed in keeping the cardboard flowing (or if they even care as digital sales grow) is still up in the air.

The next time I visit Alan's basement I hand his cards over and thank him for the opportunity to look like a big shot with the local nerds. "Oh man," he rubs his hands together. "I should have given you my cheat deck. It's full of cards they don't even make anymore because they're so game breaking." He turns to rummage through one of his shelves. You won't see cards like that on a digital service for long. With constant patching, tweaking and editing, curiosities are ironed out and balanced. It's a great feature for online players who want a fair game. For guys like Alan, it misses the whole point. These are conversation pieces. He would probably buy that elf queen statue for the right price just so he'd have an excuse to tell you about his Elvish deck.

As he opens up his binder and starts pointing out some of the most notorious cards ever made, I'm left wondering if guys like Alan will exist in twenty years. These physical games are so tied up in getting everyone to sit down at the same table for a couple hours that they already seem a relic from another world. I get a lot of mileage out of my internet friendships. Most days, I have little drive to drop my friends-on-demand world of IM and voice chat and go to a local shop. But like every human being, sometimes I just want to make eye contact, roll some dice and deal out some cards. Which way the balance shifts in the long run remains to be seen.

Comments

I miss the collecting and kid like feeling of opening a new pack of cards. But honestly, I couldn't even tell you if a "local" game store exists anymore. And by local I mean less than a 20-30 minute drive. I've looked and can't find one. When you add in the time and responsibilities of real life, and it is just too hard to do anymore.

I don't know. I think the online versions are handy for certain things, but when I recently convinced my wife to learn Magic with the release of the 2010 core set, I slung physical cards for the first time in over a decade. It felt way better than any of the dabbling I did in Magic Online.

I prefer playing games in meatspace (boardgames, LANs, side-by-side Xbox) over virtual.
I vastly prefer to play games with people I know over complete strangers, doubly so if we're randomly paired (as opposed to meeting because of similar hobbies/interests).

These things aren't true of many of the younger gamers I know. So in one sense, the evolutionary pressure to weed out the Alan's of the world seems high. Particularly if the argument is being defined in terms of gamers seeking out competition play in a public venue.

But we also know that board gaming is at an all time high, and we've seen a resurgence of very targeted, successful RPGs in recent years. Granted both of these can occur in virtual spaces as well, but the bulk of the transactions (if you will) occur in meatspace, around countless dining room tables and living room floors.

Bottom line: interesting article, and I am not sure we'll know the answer for quite some time.

One thing I certainly don't regret about abandoning physical CCG's was the absurdity of the cost of it. I played a few of them in the late 90s and remember booster packs costing between 3 and 4 CAD each (Someone tell me how much they are now?) Back then, that was my allowance for a week. By the time you have a fairly sizable collection, chances are most of the stuff in those booster packs can be pretty disinteresting, or at worst, your 10th duplicate of an uncommon card. Your alternative was to buy specific cards from the shop at crazy prices I couldn't afford.

Alan says that physical cards have meaning and value to him. Virtual cards, such as those in Duels of the Planeswalkers, have meaning and value to me - 10$ for a dozen legitimate pre-made decks with hundreds of cards represents amazing value, and that means I don't have to burn all my money on one card game.

Financial aspects aside, I will always prefer playing physical board games, and am really bummed that my board-gaming friend just moved overseas. Physical social interaction just can't be replaced online. That being said, i keep hoping beyond hope that my favorite games (Looking at you, A Game of Thrones) get ported online, because between playing a physical game rarely and an online game frequently, I'll take online any day.

EDIT: Also, given that it's thursday, I didn't realize this wasn't a Sean Sands article until I read the byline. Your game is good, Certis!

My elf queen statue wife takes offense at your insinuations! What's that, honey? Oh no, we couldn't possibly do that to Certis... who would clean up the mess?

I was Alan from 1996-2001 or so. Then I could no longer justify the expense.

I still remember the "newly-opened-boosterpack" smell quite fondly. I had some good, fun years with MTG. Haven't played in about 8 years or more...

Ahh, fond memories of my MTG Cards. The fondest memory being when I sold my collection of alphas and signed uncut proof sheets to buy some nice high end audio equipment and part of a down payment on a car.

Since then I totally lost track of where the game even went. Duels of the Planeswalkers has allowed me to step back into playing without a huge investment - as well as the ability to sit down and play anytime I like.

I was into Magic pretty heavily 10 years ago (holy crap I am old. Someone put me out of my misery).

I never really spent much for cards, though. My buddies, nerds that they were, had TONS of leftover commons that they banded together as a starter Black (w. some white) deck. For a while, the pickup games were fun. I was never much of a strategist, so most games involved me treading water. It was really about being with a group of folks, never really about the game itself.

Then, in about March of 2000, my buddy decided to buy a "Kai Budde Tournament Deck". Up until that point, there had never been an arms race in the cards -- it was pretty much play with what you've got.

That Deck ruined the little group we had. My friend was pulling Thrawn Dynamos and Scorched Earth and un-tapping then re-tapping lands. It was a mess and none of us could commit the cash to finding a way out of his twisted, store-bought empire.

When I play Magic online, I capture a smidgen of that early fascination. Just some guys and cards.

One thing that strikes me about the 'cheat cards' being balanced out of existence with the online game, where as the physical card can be held onto and used, is that MTG shares something with a lot of video games now.

With the 'old ways' of video games you could install the game, and with a manual patch take it to any point in it's supported life, if a glitch is there, it will stay there if you want it to. With an auto updating system like an awful lot of games use now, that's a shrinking possibility, once it is patched it is changed forever, and is very hard or impossible to get to another state that it used to be. Some games will be in constant flux and players have to know how to adapt to the new rules when a patch comes down whether they like it or not.

Dysplastic wrote:

One thing I certainly don't regret about abandoning physical CCG's was the absurdity of the cost of it.
...
Your alternative was to buy specific cards from the shop at crazy prices I couldn't afford.

Another alternative is to just play with friends and you can proxy any bloody thing you like because there's full spoilers for everything online. That's how I used to play Vintage with Power 9, Yawg's Will, all sorts of expensive junk. All you need is a printer, some spare basic land, and sleeves.

Spaz wrote:

Then, in about March of 2000, my buddy decided to buy a "Kai Budde Tournament Deck". Up until that point, there had never been an arms race in the cards -- it was pretty much play with what you've got.

That Deck ruined the little group we had.

That's a pretty common criticism of MTG, but it's not untrue. You can, more or less, buy your way to victory. I played MTG for a short while (to have invested a bit in one theme enough to be annoyed when the next theme was coming out), but with games like Dominion to scratch that CCG itch without the basically artificial market of the first C, I'll never have a reason to go back.

I mmmmissss hyoooomannnsssss.

Spaz wrote:

I was into Magic pretty heavily 10 years ago (holy crap I am old. Someone put me out of my misery).

You're sufficiently younger than I am that I don't want to think too much about it, and yet your experience matches mine. The impression I've been under for quite some time is that M:tG mostly appeals to a specific age range.

Certainly, Duels of the Planeswalkers is a nostalgia experience for me, while the tournaments at my FLGS are mostly attended by teenagers.

Was listening to an old gwj podcast the other day. Elysium joked that Certis criticized an article draft for sounding like something he (Certis) would write. Whether that criticism were true in the past, it isn't here. Good stuff.

I never played the physical Magic, well I played it exactly once, about 11 years ago. I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on so I never played again. Then when I heard about the costs involved, and the additional costs involved living where I do, I was relieved.

Duels of the Planeswalkers has been a nice introduction to the game for me, although the frustration of getting a horrible starting hand is, ummm, frustrating. And the game showing you what happens makes effects far easier to visualise for my videogame atrophied brain.

As for guys like Alan, there's a big part of me that respects his dedication to his hobby, but another that thinks it's a little crazy, like guys who spend more on their train-set than their car. I don't look down on it, but I don't understand it.

The MTGO product Wizards put out to represent the full deck building and playing of its game in the digital realm is a sad effort. It's such an amateur bit of code with bad fonts, clunky interface, major bugs that have been around forever. There's such a lack of usability research and rough presentation that they clearly are devoting very few resources into it. It looks like the effort of a first year college team. Mechanically it is fairly sound but the game is years old and has never gotten around to polishing or bug fixing or even a visual makeover.

Then there's the lack of incentives. A booster pack costs $4 across the board thats pretty standard for retail but there's not a bulk discount either. You can't buy a 'box' of boosters. It's not uncommon to get a box of 36 new set boosters for about $90 in the real world. Online that would be $144. The closest thing to a bargain online is the 'sealed' packs that give you 3 or 6 boosters and 2 Event Tickets (essentially $1 coupons for trading or tournament entry fees) for the price of 6 boosters and 1 Event Ticket.

These have to be part of the reason that the game's peak concurrent users is a number even a struggling MMO would smirk at. There is obviously some dis-incentive for them to cannibalize their own audience to go online rather than into game stores, but I imagine it beats losing them to card fatigue, collectors remorse and Starcraft 2.

polypusher wrote:

The MTGO product Wizards put out to represent the full deck building and playing of its game in the digital realm is a sad effort. It's such an amateur bit of code with bad fonts, clunky interface, major bugs that have been around forever. There's such a lack of usability research and rough presentation that they clearly are devoting very few resources into it. It looks like the effort of a first year college team. Mechanically it is fairly sound but the game is years old and has never gotten around to polishing or bug fixing or even a visual makeover.

I agree with everything except the bolded part; it seems mechanically iffy (although that may be leftover trepidation from the bad old days), and they did do a significant visual makeover with 3.0 -- and it was terrible. The current UI is yards worse than the old one, and to top it all off, 3.0 was delayed for years -- literally -- and when it finally arrived, not only was it uglier and harder to navigate, it was feature-deprived compared to 2.0 .

I haven't bought cards since 3.0, and I kinda miss it. Leagues were great; RIP.

WotC's MTG is goin' down. They lost me when they said "screw you," when I complained that they've taken my money, but not delivered my preorder for weeks after the agreed-upon dates. I may become interested in more Magic in the future, but right now, it doesn't seem very likely.

Thanks, another great read-From my Nook!

MacBrave wrote:

I was Alan from 1996-2001 or so. Then I could no longer justify the expense.

Similar for me, but I ducked out around 98. I just got frustrated by a totally new rule set / expansion coming out every few months.

SallyNasty wrote:
MacBrave wrote:

I was Alan from 1996-2001 or so. Then I could no longer justify the expense.

Similar for me, but I ducked out around 98. I just got frustrated by a totally new rule set / expansion coming out every few months.

Yeah, it started getting ridiculous at around/after that time. In the end - around Oddyssey? - I just said "to hell with it" and sold my collection, arena cards and all.

My local shop closed years ago and is now only a distant memory. I hadn't though about it for ages - until I read your article.

I'm off to hunt though my garage now....got to find my (memories) stuff.

There's actually quite the resurgence in my circle of friends-- we play every week, sometimes twice. 6 months ago, it had been close to ten years since I had played. I started buying cards again using the Gatherer to search for card effects.

The hobby isn't as expensive as it used to be but building a great deck can cost hundreds. On the other hand they sell pre-built decks that are super fun and full of good cards for 15-20$ (they have made 5 decks from the Duels game that you can purchase for about 16$ and come with a booster pack).

I've definitely got the bug again but it's all thanks to my friends (7 of them, which is a lot and awesome) because I could never go to the shops and sit down with strangers. It just feels wrong at 31 years old.

Nice article. I have decks too, ziplocked and ready to go with some counters thrown in for camping/festival times. Every Summer we go to the Teluride Bluegrass festival and those Magic decks are a staple source of fun for my son and I. And Munchkin too . . .

interstate78 wrote:

On the other hand they sell pre-built decks that are super fun and full of good cards for 15-20$ (they have made 5 decks from the Duels game that you can purchase for about 16$ and come with a booster pack).

Back when I was still buying cards, one way of getting a semi decent deck was to get 2 copies of the same pre-constructed. pull out some of the dross. and double down on of the more useful uncommons/rares (which there were never a full set of within a single pre-con deck).

Ahh Magic. I playtested it back in the early 90's then followed every release collecting every card right up until there was a shortage of cards available in Ice Age. That pretty much killed it for me, not wanting to spend crazy amounts of cash to purchase individual cards.

I can totally relate to the "killer constructed decks" sucking the fun out of the game, we had the same dynamic within our playrgoup back when multiple Sol Rings, Black Lotii and Moxes ran amok with second turn kills and infinite timeloops. *sighs*

The only way I find the game fun anymore is Zen magic. Highly suggested for anyone that wants to get into the game with a group of friends and spend next to no money.

Rules: Buy a starter and two boosters. Shuffle. Play against other Zen decks. Ante every game (the smallest deck decides how many cards go in the pot). No removing or adding any cards aside from what's won or lost in the ante. It's amazingly fun, varied and eerily balanced.

Now that's Magic..

I love playing Magic. I got into about a year ago, right around when 2010 core set peeked its head out. However, I am not a fan of playing with people who devote so much time and money into the game. I have a few hundred recent cards and enjoy putting together basic decks to challenge with. Playing online isn't the same as playing a buddy at the table but sometimes it's all I have to get my fill in.

Johnvanjim wrote:

I can totally relate to the "killer constructed decks" sucking the fun out of the game, we had the same dynamic within our playrgoup back when multiple Sol Rings, Black Lotii and Moxes ran amok with second turn kills and infinite timeloops. *sighs*

What, second turn? No channel fireballs?

I started playing magic as Unlimited was phasing out into Revised and simply fell in love with the game. Around the time of Homelands I had to stop playing due to work, school and a growing family that put too much of a demand on my time. When MTGO first came out, I was excited since it gave me an opportunity to play both casually and competitively in the evenings after finishing all familial responsibilities for the day. Yes, the interface is sub par but WOTC is definitely trying to increase the value of the online experience by offering Thursday night magic, pro tour qualifiers, monthly championship seasons as well as officially sponsoring a pauper format in regular events with prizes to provide low cost competitive play.

Nothing beats sitting across from people at a real table playing the game face to face, but without MTGO I probably wouldn't get the chance to play at all. For this, I welcome the opportunity to again buy packs, trade, draft and experience the bulk of what I enjoy about the game.