The State of the MTGO Beta – SPOILER ALERT: It’s Bad

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Over the last few days, WotC ran another “Wide Beta Spotlight” for Magic Online, during which the existing client (V3) was disabled, and players could only access the program using the Beta client (V4). Prior to this, I hadn’t used the Beta client all that much. I dabbled with it a little bit during a previous spotlight, and once when my laptop was unable to download the old client for some reason, but my previous experience was very limited. I was about to leave for a week long trip for Grand Prix Minneapolis and Pro Tour Atlanta, however, and I wanted to record a video for StarCityGames before I left, so I decided to wade into the Beta and give it a shot.

I’d seen a lot of hyperbolic comments about Beta client leading up to this, including being sent links to a Change.org petition calling for WotC to scrap the whole thing and start over. My assumption going in was that these things were blown completely out of proportion, and that there’s no way the Beta client could really be as bad as people were saying.

Well, that was before I’d really tried to use it for myself. You can take a look at my video when it goes up on StarCityGames to see my live reactions to a lot of things about the client, but my takeaway was that even if the client isn’t as bad as some people are saying, it’s still terrible.

Let’s take a look at a few of the experiences I had while trying to record my video:

When I was recording my “deck tech” portion, I maximized the deck and sideboard views, because otherwise at any kind of smaller resolution it’s impossible to view all of the cards on the screen at once, let alone read them. This completely obscured any visibility of the rest of my collection, and when I later tried to enter an event and realized I had no tickets, I couldn’t figure out where to find my packs to try to sell. It wasn’t until I just started clicking and dragging around the screen that I was able to uncover my collection again and finally find my packs.

During actual gameplay, because I was recording on a smaller resolution, it was almost impossible to actually read anything on the cards in play, including the power and toughness of creatures. At one point, I decided to minimize my hand completely so only the titles were visible just so I could see how big my Tarmogoyf actually was. A few turns later, because my hand was minimized, I failed to notice that I drew a lethal Thundermaw Hellkite before I went to my combat step and lost the game as a result.

In another game, I looked at my opening hand and didn’t see any proactive cards, so I quickly decided to mulligan. I looked at my next hand and was about to mulligan again when I realized there were only five cards on my screen. The client was loading the cards in such a way that part of my opening hand was off screen, and I had to click to actually see my entire hand. Who knows what I actually mulliganed away?

Once I was finished recording my video, I immediately signed off and closed the client. Despite the fact that I had both a Grand Prix and Pro Tour coming up for which I could test, I had absolutely no desire to play on the client any more after that.

There are so many things wrong with the Beta client that I don’t even know where to start. But hey, I might as well try:

The graphics and UI design are poor. Cards look significantly worse than in V3, and are difficult to read when they’re in play. The default skin is some kind of bright papyrus color or something, which hurts my eyes to actually look at for any kind of extended period.

What’s going on with the buddy list? Why in the world does it take up half of the bottom of the home screen, and why does it display icons for every person rather than just a clean list with names and online/offline status? The nature of the MTGO marketplace system basically requires that I keep a bunch of bots on my buddy list (more on that later), and the new presentation of the list means that I have a huge block in the middle of the home screen that I have to scroll down through to find anyone because they’re represented by oversized images that serve no purpose.

There have been a few improvements to the deckbuilder UI – I will grant that. I like the fact that I can view decks by format rather than just in a huge clump, but I see very little value to the graphical deck box representations that end up taking up a huge portion of my screen. But now the program seems to just autosave any changes I make to any deck, and doesn’t seem to have a way to “save as” so I can use the shell of an existing deck to build a new one. Tuning and tweaking is a huge part of Magic deckbuilding, and forcing players to save over or rebuild decks from scratch is miserable. It’s possible that this feature exists, but I could not find it, and that alone is a problem.

What in the world is with the game creating window after window for different things happening in the game? What other games do this? Did someone decide that the world hates navigating within a program window with tabs and that what they really want is to have to dig through a stack of different windows to find the right one? If so, they should really tell companies like Google, because my Chrome browser (in which I have eight windows currently open that I can seamlessly switch between) must need fixing.

Not only is it annoying to have a bunch of new windows popping up, but it’s functionally problematic. I’ve streamed a lot of Magic Online in my day, and I’ve done a great deal of it using Magic Online as a game source in XSplit. I haven’t tried to stream on the Beta recently, but I’ve been told that the windows make this difficult, if not impossible. I’ve also been told that the Beta client is a huge memory hog, which can cause people to crash and have to restart if they’re playing for any extended period of time.

This is something that’s truly insane to me. Wizards has clearly embraced the new media culture of streaming with Pro Tour and Grand Prix coverage – they’re still behind on those fronts, but they clearly get that it’s a thing. How in the world do we have a new MTGO client that is vastly less friendly to streaming than V3?

Not only with memory usage and window pop-ups, but with the actual game screen. If it’s hard for me to see what’s happening on my own screen, how is someone watching a stream on their laptop or iPad going to follow? There’s so much space taken up by unnecessary elements, and so much information that’s presented incredibly poorly.

My life total is among the most important pieces of game information for me to know at any point in the game – why in the world is it buried all the way in the bottom left?

Why is the graveyard a zone that is locked to be visible to both players? In the average game, how frequently does one player want to look at the contents of each graveyard in a given turn? The answer is pretty closer to zero. So why is it sitting there in my face without the ability to turn it off? It’s worth noting that this is a departure from V3, in which the graveyard is a selectable zone that players can view when they choose, and can expand to view more clearly if they wish. The inability to disable the GY view *and* the inability to enlarge it to see it in whole were apparently conscious changes made from the previous version, and both make actual gameplay appreciably worse. When you don’t care about it, you can’t hide it, and when you do, you can’t see it in full.

Why is the Red Zone there? Sure, I get that moving up attacking creatures is a reasonable visual indicator that they’re in combat – and there’s some value to that. But you can’t afford the room on the screen! You don’t have the luxury of some locked-in extra space when players can’t actually read the stats on cards in play because they’re too small!

Why is the stack horizontal across my screen, covering up the game text of the different effects on it? Why does it pop up over other important game information by default? Why don’t we have arrows indicating targets anymore so we can see visually what’s going on without having to mouseover every effect?

The most important thing about a game UI is presenting important game information in a way that is accessible to players. The Beta UI has a ton of wasted space on things like the Red Zone and the Graveyard, and the centerpieces of the game – the cards that are actually in play – are too small, and too hard to read.

Now, not everything is actually worse than in V3. In addition to the deckbuilder format sorting options, I much prefer the new drafting UI that allows me to build my deck as I go by putting hidden cards into my sideboard. The purchasing interface is also much smoother, though to be fair that’s due to it being an absolute disaster before. The reason I found out the purchasing interface was better, by the way, was because none of the bots I typically trade packs to were online when I needed tickets. I’ve heard that the memory usage issue create big problems for anyone running multiple instances of MTGO in order to support a bot network, so that’s not terribly surprising.

The real issue, though, shouldn’t be whether some bits of the new client are better than the old. I see tons of commentary about how the beta “isn’t that bad”, or how this thing or that thing are small improvements over the old client. The fact is that there shouldn’t even be a debate. This new client has been in Beta for *two years* now. That’s longer than Hearthstone has been out. Hell, that’s before we even started designing SolForge. How is it still in the state that it’s in? Why are we looking at whether it’s marginally better in some areas than the existing ancient program, instead of whether it’s actually objectively *good* by the standards set by the industry today?

Magic Online has been out for over ten years. Hearthstone came out of beta mere months ago. Look at the streaming viewership numbers of the two games on Twitch. Recently, Magic brand boasted that Magic was the most commonly searched for game on the streaming site, but that’s a dubious honor that mostly means *it never has enough viewers to make the front page*. Why is that? The game looks terrible. It’s impossible to follow what’s happening as a viewer, because key game information just isn’t presented in an approachable way.

The new client doesn’t do anything to fix this. If anything, it makes it worse with the readability of cards and bizarre decisions made about placement of information on the screen. Nor does it fix any of the really key issues with the game, like actually exchanging cards between players.

Remember how I said I’d get back to the bot buddy list issue? Yeah…about that. Why in the world is the only efficient way to buy or sell cards through bot networks? Why doesn’t MTGO have a useable marketplace, or auction house, or anything of the sort? Instead, I have to keep a huge number of bots on my friends list to trade with them regularly so I don’t lose my fractional ticket credits that I have to just trust that they’ll honor sometime in the future. I actually quit playing MTGO entirely for a long time years ago because I hated trading in the game so much. I’d be happy to pay some percentage rake to WotC in order to actually have an efficient way to directly exchange cards with other players in a usable marketplace instead of having to slog through postings or rely on bots.

The big problem with the MTGO Beta is that it doesn’t actually fix any of the major issues with the game, and in fact makes some of them worse. Why does it even exist? What is it supposed to accomplish? I’ve seen a lot of commentary about how difficult or easy it should be for WotC to do various things to improve MTGO, some from laymen like myself and some from people who purport to be experts in programming. I have a vague notion about how difficult anything is to do in an online game from my work on SolForge, and that is that everything will always take longer and cost more than you think.

I thought I’d give the last word to someone who *does* know about these things, though – one of our programmers on SolForge, who was complaining about the MTGO Beta completely unprompted by me this morning.

“I don’t even care that it’s not ready (making games is hard, I know this. I’m understanding). I care that it hasn’t gotten noticeably better over the past six months and that they apparently think that it is actually going to be ready in July. Which it will not be.”

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