Magic's It Factor: Tabletop vs. Online
- Andreas Reling
Today, when someone wants to play Magic, they have a choice between both digital and paper Magic. And with the advent of Arena, digital Magic has never been better. There are benefits to both paper and digital, but Andifeated is here to tell you why he clearly prefers tabletop play.
Magic as an Esport
Shortly after the release of Magic Arena, Wizards announced big changes to their organized play system and especially the Magic professional player scene. Many old players and fans were initially skeptical of these changes and the proceeding year of relative silence from Wizards certainly didn't help that, but these changes offered a lot to Magic, things that could potentially help our old game survive in a world dominated by digital entertainment. And they have since cleared up a lot of the fuzzier details of their new organized play system, but there are plenty of articles on that. I'm here to talk about the advantages of "Magic as an Esport" and the crucial elements I personally feel digital Magic misses out on, and why those elements make tabletop the clear preference for me, even in a post-Arena world.
The first very clear advantage a larger focus on digital Magic brings is availability! Not every region has a Wizards Play Network store and, as a result, plenty of regions lack any cost-efficient method of participating in tabletop organized play. This means a lot of people will be turned off of Magic because they simply can't afford to go and play in Magic tournaments with their paper cards on a regular basis.
For those people, it's awesome to have the opportunity to play Legacy, Modern, and Pauper on Magic Online at every hour of the day and to play Draft and Standard on Magic Arena while also offering high stakes events with invites to premier play tournaments. These online options don't care about your location (as long as you have an internet connection and knowledge of one of the many languages Magic is released in). Coming from a rural area, having had to commute a lot to play in Magic tournaments, I can relate to these problems and I appreciate the steps WotC has taken in order to make the best game in the world accessible to everybody - no matter where you're located.
Practiced to Perfection
Another benefit is for those seeking the pinnacle of Magic competition. In order to compete with the best, you need to practice extensively for tournaments. Kai Budde – the most successful player from a time when online Magic was far less important – frequently talks about how different tournament preparation was back then and how far ahead of curve you could get when you had a good team of players to test with before major tournaments in new formats.
In today's Magic, everyone has access to tournament results and decklists, and can theoretically playtest all day on MTGO or Magic Arena against friends or other competitive players, making it easier for any dedicated player, new or old, to learn a new format. You don't need to be in a region with strong players in order to maximize your ability to prepare for competition. Players like Shaun McLaren have shown that it's possible to be competitive in regions with less access to organized play, being able to turn to these convenient online options to get your practice in. The end result of all this is making competition significantly fairer than it was before these clients were available.
Magic as It Was Meant to be Played
Okay, I've discussed the advantages, but as you gathered from the beginning, I still feel that Magic is not meant for E Sports and is best in tabletop. With all these advantages, why would I prefer tabletop Magic. Well, put simply, online Magic is just not the same as tabletop Magic and the things you lose when moving to a digital client are, in my opinion, the aspects of Magic that make it the best game in the world. Now for the long answer.
Magic is a very old game. It was meant as a game people could meet up and interact with eachother over some games. The different decks you'd see for the first time, using these new cards, would keep the game fresh and you'd have a blast learning the different ways you and your opponents have found to interact with the game. The social aspect of Magic was important to Richard Garfield and was one of the core components of the game.
Of course, this was before video games exploded in popularity and long before Esports had become a serious aspect of the gaming landscape. Inspired by roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, players could choose from many different creatures, spells, and lands in order to craft a deck that represented their personality or the kind of wizard they wanted to be – and then they could show that personality off at the table against anyone else who had gone through the process of building a different deck that reflected their personality. This is one of Magic's greatest appeals, for me at least. I get to meet new people, try new strategies, learn about new cards, decks, and what other people think of them whenever I go somewhere to paly Magic in person. The new focus on E Sports in Magic understandably makes players like us question whether the game will lose this identity, an identity that defines Magic for many of us.
Okay. This is all well and good, but what is the measurable advantage of this identity? After all, the addition of these online clients has significant practical advantages. Well, let me give you some anecdotal evidence (to some degree, this is going to personal opinion). If I sleeve up my Legacy Deck and go to a weekly local tournament, I'll get to meet and catch up with my friends, friends who also play Legacy and who push me to play Legacy. We'll hang out, play some Magic, and go to dinner after the tournament. At dinner, I'll be able to ask them questions about the decks we're playing, the interesting scenarios that came up, and make plans to travel with them to MagicFests and other big events. This sense of comradery is much harder to replicate online and pushes us to actually go an compete, and that push makes us better players – it's also more fun when you're doing something with your friends!
This spirit can also make paper Magic more entertaining to watch! A comment that I'm sure will confuse many of you. While Magic Arena and MTGO have both taken strides to making their clients more watchable and more interesting, I find it harder to focus on these clients, where I don't have physical cards that have their own histories and stories. It's hard to argue that these clients have made watching Magic harder, at least for players less familiar with the game, but for us old hats, watching the paper game is often just more interesting. I relate to it better and can remember the good times I've spent, personally, at these events. I just focus better in paper and thus my play improves in paper. I still value the ability to play online and do so whenever I can't play in paper, but I definitely will always choose the paper tournament, given the choice.
I love that Magic is expanding, growing, and getting more attention through its online clients and through the new organized play system. But I'm holding out hope that the game never loses its identity in a social context. I really feel that it would kill the game in the long run. Diving into online gaming and digital products is a nice way to further enhance the game, while also giving players more availability and accessibility, but the core game needs to be a tabletop game, which means physical cards and an organized play system that supports local games stores. This is where Magic shines in my opinion, and where it outperforms other games.
There are games that are better suited for an online gaming experience and those games will provide stiff competition for Magic in the online space, so I'm hoping that Wizards will remain aware of Magic's strengths and that they won't sacrifice those strengths for some short-term success. I'm definitely more optimistic about this with the recent announcements, as tabletop play seems to remain essential to the organized play experience, so this isn't meant as a warning, but more as an attempt to crystallize why tabletop Magic is so special.
What do you think about the recent changes, about what makes Magic special, and about digital Magic in 2019? Please let me know in the comments your thoughts and whether you prefer to play online or in paper.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.