Battle for Zendikar limited is great. I’ve been playing a lot of BFZ Sealed and Draft this week, and i’ve got some inital —

“But wait. You’ve been playing a lot of BFZ Limited? How did you get that many packs? Are you repacking your prerelease packs? Making proxies?”

No. I’m not repacking them. No proxies. While i’ve done one draft in paper this week, it’s all been online.

“But MTGO doesn’t have it available yet!”

Yes. That’s true. I don’t play MTGO.


I’ve also been testing new standard online too. It’s been fun. I’ve got these decks brewing —

This is how a number of conversations have gone this week, and to be honest, last week too. I took a week off writing for two reasons. A] I was very ill last week and had to conserve my energy to for my day job, and B] I had to absorb more of the research for this article in order to effectively write it, because i’ve come down pretty hard on a decision on joining Magic Online.

For those who know me and read my column, you already are familiar with my work/life schedule, and the resulting limited time I have available to play Magic. The option for many people, it has seemed to me, since getting back on the Magic saddle, has been Magic Online. It’s conveniently located (in your home) and, especially for limited, available nearly any time one wants to fire up a draft.

That’s all well and good, but I have always had a few speedbumps to getting into the MTGO investment.

I have a Mac. When MTGO released in Beta some 15-ish years ago (someone fact check that for me?) I remember downloading it onto my PC and playing a small number of games. Before that, I’d played every available digital version of Magic imaginable, and they were all designed for the PC. I grew up in a PC home, so it was never an issue, or much of a question for me, as to the how. Even back then for me, thought, it was always the why. I played Magic to play with people, and I had an LGS and regularly commuted to tournaments in the tri-state area (thats CT, MA, and NY for those elsewhere). I didn’t need to play online, as I played enough Magic as a kid already. So I never invested, and eventually sold my MTGO account to someone on ebay.

Now imagine my surprise when I come back to the game and MTGO remains available only to PC users. ‘Get BootCamp’ some suggested. Okay. So I got bootcamp and fired it up. My computer choked from being only a few years old (two years old) and lacking the processing power. I tried drafting — if you remember, late last year — and had a miserable time. The screen often went white, the little spinning eye kept delaying my actions, and I went to time nearly every round. I kept at it for a week, hooked by the prospect of playing at home and using the free, quiet space to talk out my lines and plays. But it failed me again and again. It didn’t seem worth it, so I put it down.

I asked a friend at the beginning of 2015 to build me a PC tower so I could play MTGO, but as soon as my mind assessed what I am about to address, I pulled the plug.

I would have to invest entirely in another, digital collection of magic cards, effectively multiplying my investment into the game wherein I owned digital objects. This, I am sure, will come as no surprise to some, but the cost of drafting on MTGO being nearly the same as in paper was a nail in the coffin. The cost of buying into, say, Modern, in order to test was another nail in the coffin. I was, and remain, unwilling to invest in digital cards. And on top of that, the cost to play in daily events should I elect to play the format competitively. Yes, yes. There are circles around the card availability issue — borrow from friends, for instance — but I didn’t want to go down that hole with friends. It was too inconvenient.

This created quite the tension in my mind. I needed reps to get better, but I refused to commit financially to cards I already owned in paper. It seemed excessive, unnecessary. I found myself wishing there was another way, another avenue I could utilize for all the unprocessed ideas that lay stagnant within me. I decided to leave it alone, and continue the path I had already laid for myself. Play Magic whenever I can, write to you, and theorize.

Shortcut a few weeks ago. Battle for Zendikar just finished spoiling, and I was getting excited, both for the limted format and for the magic time of New Standard Brewer’s Paradise. I, like last year when Khans of Tarkir released, hunkered down and began brewing on my phone and my computer. Writing lists, reading articles, getting inspired. Typical theorycrafting excercises that left me wanting execution, refinement.

Now, at this point, even where I to have access to Magic Online I would be unable to test in any capacity with these new cards, these new theories. The card database takes weeks, WEEKS after a sets inital release to update with the latest set. If I had qualified for Pro Tour BFZ and did not have a team, the time I would have to actually test with the BFZ cards would be ridiculously short had I relied solely on Magic Online for tournament preparation. Thankfully, this is not the case at all (Thankfully? Sheesh Derek!) and I am preparing myself for the PPTQ Season and Team Draft League. Much smaller stakes, but it still matters to me, and when I do qualify for the Pro Tour… where will I be then? The same place, but with more on the line?

The whole business felt unbalanced for someone without enough access. Were I to have a team to test with, perhaps the card availability and practice would present itself. But going in solo, or perhaps with one friend, would be a daunting task on several preparatory levels that lead to the same perfunctory end.

And that’s when I discovered the alternative.

This third party program**, introduced to me via whispers on twitter / facebook among the competitive grinders I follow, made mention of the entire BFZ set available to both draft and build standard decks with a mere days after it’s full spoiler posted online. Some even bragged over it, ridiculing WoTC for taking their glacial pace with regards to getting the set running on MTGO. I looked it up and read about it on their website. It seemed too good to be true. A rules-enforced Java-based program where I could find players available all over the world to play every format, with all the cards across the history of Magic, and for FREE!? I downloaded it, installed it, and within minutes I was putting together decks.

The program is intuitive, smooth, and did not clog up my processing power. It was a gift. How did I not know about this beforehand? Why was I so focused on MTGO only? How many others used this program?

It turned out, as I drafted and played BFZ standard, to be more than you’d think.

Conveniences and economics nonwithstanding, the real appeal has been the ease of developing an understanding of the limited format and brewing ideas for standard while playing against other, like-minded people. Sure, the hardcore MTGO community at large does not exist here, but I don’t expect them to. What I expect instead are the people who need to craft ideas before big events with an unknown metagame. For instance, the SCG event this weekend features BFZ Standard. It’s the first coming out party for a new format, and everyone is going to be paying attention to what decks and cards perform well. If I planned to go, to get myself on a plane to compete, it would behoove me to have done adequate preparation if I intended to win. The card availability isnt’ the issue. It’s the crafting of ideas. The edge of understanding just a little more what cards matter.

MTGO does not give you this option, but the program in question absolutely does. And had I plans to travel for this event, I would have a solid idea by now of what deck(s) I would be evaluating going into the tournament. Down no other avenue do I have the same access to refine my ideas, and without any financial investment.

The biggest heartbreak, in case you haven’t put these pieces together, is that the discovery of this program actually drives me further from MTGO. And that’s disappointing because I would be interested in supporting the official program and joining the ranks of hardcore grinders. Hell, i’d even consider starting up a Twitch stream next year if I get a new computer that can handle MTGO. I hate PC’s and prefer Mac’s, but I would make the change if it was reasonable. But is it?

As it stands, no. I have no actual reason to join MTGO until something changes fundamentally. This program allows me to sidestep everything that’s wrong with it — the non-Mac compatability, the buying of digital objects, the delayed pace of updating the card database when a new set drops — by sacrificing the player pool and potential prizes. So it serves me in every way I want it to, except that I cannot stream… which is fine, ultimately, because that’s a big commitment in of itself.

Recently, fellow Hipster Zac Clark wrote an interesting proposal on shifting the fundamental structure of MTGO to subscription-based service instead of the current financial commitment structure. If something like this were ever to happen, I could be converted and play MTGO. Because as it stands, I do not believe the investment is worth the cost. It doesn’t serve to the delayed new releases of sets, but at the very least I could play existing formats with a wide player pool! And, if these alternative programs grow in popularity at all, perhaps the structure of MTGO will change in order to retain users. Maybe i’m stubborn, but I can only see it as further growth, and for the betterment of the game.

If Apple, one of the landmark companies in human history, develops Apple Music from the Itunes store — a subscription based service over a pay-per-song model — then i’m convinced MTGO can shift its operations and maintain a cash flow adequate to survive. This may be ignorant of me to assume, because I am far from knowing much about these business models, but the outside looking in has quite the view.

**I will not mention the name of this program publically.  

Derek Gallen lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.