Magic Online Leagues are awesome. This is hard for me to say, as I have been a critic of Magic Online for quite some time. When I initially heard that they were rolling out Leagues for constructed play only, I was on the side of the skeptics. Why would I want to play constructed leagues when I had such fond nostalgic memories of playing Sealed Leagues from the days of yore?
The sensationalist in me thought it was awful. After some reflection, I came to the conclusion that I actually didn’t even like the old leagues. They took a month to complete and you only played around 5 games per week before you could add a booster for the next week. That wasn’t fun. However, it did remind me of a time in which Magic Online let me join the 1800+ room and allowed me to be auctioneer in the “/join auction” room, which instantly makes the old Sealed Leagues better; thus, why I probably hated the new Constructed Leagues in a knee-jerk reactionary manner. Presently, though, adding these on-demand leagues is probably one of the better business moves that WotC could make.
LEAGUE IS THE NEW LEAGUE
I believe one of the larger initial mistakes WotC made regarding Magic Online was that it pressed too hard to emulate paper Magic. Normal paper Magic tournaments have 50 minute rounds with time gaps between each round. It isn’t uncommon for players to spend more time waiting for the next round than playing Magic. This is obviously the norm and fine in paper Magic; no one will dispute this. Further, these logistics were then transferred over to Magic Online and we all accepted this norm as well. Every competitive aspect of the game – be it Daily Events, Premier Events, PTQs, Prereleases, Drafts, 8-man queues – had the same 50 minute round structure and the in between round downtime. The Magic degenerates – me included – needed to consume an insatiable amount of Magic, and as a result, turned to double/triple/quadruple queuing in order to minimize the amount of time we weren’t playing Magic. Moreover, with the emergence of streaming, the downtime between rounds could be detrimental for viewership numbers; again, resulting in the propensity of double queuing. This paper model of competitive Magic just wasn’t working in the online medium.
It took a decade for Wizards to figure this out. When players log-in, they want to play as much Magic as possible. This is particularly true for those of us who have full-time employment and can only play 2-4 hours per night. Can I play a Daily? Nope. Can I play a weekday PTQ? Ha! Surely I can draft? Only if you want to stay up late. This is the void that the on-demand leagues are now filling. As gamers, we have become accustomed to on-demand games, such as League of Legends and Hearthstone, which lets you enter the next game almost instantly. Why did it take so long for us to get this for Magic?
WELCOME TO THE LEAGUE OF MAGIC
As I said above, Leagues offer us an experience with our favorite format with minimal downtime, maximizing our games-per-hour ratio. Furthermore, it opens up an opportunity for each individual player to play during their most convenient times. Do you know offhand what time the Standard Daily’s occur? Not many do. Viewing the Magic Online Daily schedule can be confusing, and when you do find a Daily event during a semi-convenient time it’s rare to have enough time to devote four hours.
As a gamer that has a full-time job, a kid, a partner, and minimal free time, it’s difficult to justify such a time commitment in one sitting. As an aside, I usually play games that allow me to pause my play at a moment’s notice to attend to my real life duties; games such as Diablo, World of Warcraft, and Hearthstone offer voluntary downtime in order to tend to other things. Hearthstone, for example, is great for short 10-15 minute games; however their 90 second in-match time between turns doesn’t allow one to jump off freely. This is what Magic Online already has going for it – it allows a 10-minute time flexibility between inputs. Magic Online Leagues further accentuate this time-flexibility feature, as I no longer need to blackout 4-hour blocks of time in order to play Modern, or a 2-3 hour block if I want to play limited. Using leagues in lieu of Daily Events or limited queues allows a greater amount of player freedom, without committing a chunk of time and adhering to a convoluted schedule.
Another great aspect of the new Leagues is that they are going to make us better Magic players. I’m within the school of thought that the tournament structure of Magic Online actually makes players play worse and helps them develop bad habits that can translate into paper Magic. The propensity to double queue inherently makes us lose the total focus that we would give to a paper Magic game. When I play Magic Online, I almost always double queue; as a result I play faster and think less about individual plays, all so that I can hurry and start another draft. Consequently, I’ve made countless mistakes and misclicks – a feeling I’m sure many of you have endured. Even when you only play in a single event, the downtime is usually long enough to make you lose at least some of your focus. Now, though, instead of double queuing to keep us immersed in Magic, we are given the opportunity to play five consecutive matches, allowing us to maximize our focus into the one format we’re trying to improve upon.
In a similar light, leagues are giving us the invaluable resource of playtesting. Beforehand, if we wanted to test our new Modern deck in this meta, we had to either play in a 2am Modern Daily Event, 8-man queue which didn’t fire often and only gave us an average of 1.5 matches, or you could jump in a heads-up game which yielded the most random decks imaginable. With leagues, we can now play a solid five matches against a proper meta in the most convenient times possible, all for a cheaper tickets-per-match price. Along the same lines, the Sealed Leagues allow us limited-challenged players the opportunity to experiment with different decks and try them out against other players. After opening your sealed pool, should you play a deck with bomb rares, or should you play a deck with a ton of removal? Save both decks and fire them up to see which one was actually the better strategy. In fact, a popular strategy for limited testing – even amongst pros – is to draft in a swiss queue in order to maximize playtime. With the Sealed League, you’re amplifying this testing with five guaranteed rounds.
LEAGUES OF THE FUTURE
At the time of this article there are five leagues currently on Magic Online: Sealed Battle for Zendikar Block, Standard, Modern, Pauper, and Legacy; all but one of which has about 1000+ current players. Concurrently, there are still Daily Events, Drafts, 8-man Queues, and 2-man heads-up queues. I’m confident that when the League data comes in, they’ll start to talk about eliminating a number of these, establishing on-demand Magic as the new norm. It seems silly to have a Standard Premier Event, Daily Event, 8-man Queue, and 2 man Queue running simultaneously, when you can simply satisfy all Standard players’ desires with just one Standard League. This would free up valuable real estate within the competitive Magic Online space, and will – I hope – lead to some more fun league variations.
What I truly hope the Magic Online team implements is a whacky “Tavern Brawl”-esque League, which rotates weekly/fortnightly and highlights either obscure defunct Magic Online formats or fun and crazy format rules that Lee Sharpe can pull out of his bag. Obviously Hearthstone does this with their weekly changing Tavern Brawl, and recently League of Legends announced rotating fun and exciting game modes. In fact, Magic Online already touches this with their quarterly Cube Drafts and weekly Flashback Modern Drafts. I view these “Planeswalker Chaos Leagues” to be the next step in their entertainment repertoire. Whilst it is crucial for WotC to properly nurture its core formats, I also think it’s imperative to bring this type of variety.
Imagine sitting down after a stressful standard league, and wanting to just unwind and play a casual league — hop into the Momir Basic league that’s only here for two weeks! Or use your old Avatars in Modern Tribal Vanguard League! Enjoyed watching the Vintage Super League? How about trying out one of the random decks in the VSL Gauntlet League! Love awful red rare enchantments? Let’s try a League where everyone starts the game with the card Risky Move in play. Love overused old memes? Play the one week only league where each player can play two lands per turn! There are indeed a ton of options to try out for these fun and whacky leagues.
In closing, I find the implementation of these leagues to be a cornerstone in the Magic Online playing experience. We’ve been waiting for these for almost a decade, but that aside I’m quite glad they are here. This is one of the more positive things to come to Magic Online in while, so for that the team deserves praise, and I look forward to whatever Worth throws our way next.