New Magic: the Gathering Online

by kaminazo

About 10 years ago, Wizards of the Coast released an online client for their incredible trading card game Magic: the Gathering. I’ve been playing on and off for about 7 of them online, and 18 years in total. Today when I logged in to play, I got crazy-excited when I saw you could download a sneak-peek of the newly designed UI client. You can download it here, and give feedback here afterward. So naturally, I decided to do a little beta-testing.

The download was surprisingly fast and installed very quickly compared to the old version. When I launched it, I was blown away by how much more modern and fresh the design was. The buttons even looked more candy-like and shiny. It just made me want to press them even more!

One thing I love about the new client is the customizable themes. Taking a queue from their Playstation DLC game Duels of the Planeswalkers, Wizards used the same graphical style in the new UI. You can change the style to match one of the “planeswalker” characters. They’re kind of like color-coded gods that represent a whole host of ideas from chaos & madness to wilderness & justice. I never really liked them in the context of the game until now (way too powerful for a single card and devilishly hard to get rid of). But they’re artwork was always superb and that has been carried over into the new themes.

Along the same lines, the in-game animations are much smoother and more cinematic. When you use certain cards, you “tap” them or turn them on their side. For even a simple movement like that, I noticed a big improvement. The game functions a bit more intuitively and according to the rules and sequence of play, as well. Such as during the “combat phase” when a narrow red rift forms between the two players and creature cards slide into it to meet one another in combat. One thing that was fixed that always annoyed me was the exiled card space. Now it is minimized into a sub-header on the right. Also, the spell stack is now visible in a translucent window that can be cycled through. And you can yield to another player without having to mash the F6 key.

I’ve also noticed increased quality of the image resolution on each card, the client’s appearance, and the sound clips. Everything is crisper and clearer, and the font size is larger and easier to read in high screen resolutions.

But, it is still in Beta, and some problems do persist. Random programing bugs and glitches aside, the main problem for me was usability. Other than the tab system at the top, the menus suck. Specifically for non-play functions like deck editing and creating new games. They are a pain to navigate and make once-simple tasks take longer. The new UI makes use of drop-down menus, which–in and of themselves–are fine. But each one holds too many or too few options to warrant using them. Also, the text size is so large, that you have to scroll for miles to find the one you want while only two or three are visible at a time. In other instances, there are drop-down menus for something with only two options (like whether or not your game can be viewed by other users or not: TRUE or FALSE). This is simply annoying and requires an extra click for no reason other than to satisfy an already cumbersome motif.

A much better and more intuitive design for ease-of-access is to make a series of pop-out or collapsing menus that display all the options at once. Just like the start menu in Windows. Remove the need for scrolling altogether. The old client does this well with its icon-based options menu that is visible at all times. This makes sorting through a collection of 2,000 cards much faster.

Another thing I can’t understand is the return to frames and pop-up windows. Didn’t those go out of style in 2002? I know the game and client are riddled with options, and most of them are necessary. But, it is always easier to navigate a window where all the options are visible on a single screen. Especially if you have to keep adjusting the handles of a frame back and forth to see everything. You can still divide the screen into parts, but allow the contents of them to auto-resize depending on the screen resolution and minimization/maximization of the window. Or utilize good design to make everything compact without sacrificing readability. Just like a good website.

There are also a few things missing that I used quite frequently–which will hopefully be added before the final release or in a later beta version. I primarily use a format called Classic when building a deck. It seems to be one of the most open formats, allowing 4 copies of just about any card ever printed in a deck. Because it has such a large card pool, it’s also the cheapest and very popular online. By playing Classic you don’t have to spend a fortune to keep up with the current Standard format, which bans about 200+ cards every 4-6 months and only includes the most current 6 expansions and 1 core set in its card pool. (Right now there are about 10 core sets and almost 50 different expansions). So I wanna be able to use ’em all!

In the new client, Legacy format has taken the place of Classic in my deck editor, despite all of my decks having been built for this other format. Also, I am unable to save decks to my hard drive like in the current client. But, building decks looks a bit cooler with the better image quality and new “pile view.” Now the deck building function and collection windows are merged into one.

It was my hope that some of the sorting and navigation issues could have been solved by interfacing the program  little more closely with Gatherer, a website managed by Wizards. I use it as my primary method of searching for cards to build a deck with a specific theme or function. It is phenomenal for sorting through the 12,755 different cards currently available. It also uses drop-down menus, but the way they work allows you to auto jump to a desired selection by typing in the first letter of its name. You can also switch between ascending and descending values, and even see community ratings and comments on what combos work well with that particular card.

There is a third-party program that I used for a while called MTG Studio by Palmroot. It used a lot of these same features for sorting and navigation, and even allowed you to view statistics on mana-curves, symbol frequency, spell breakdowns, and other tools to help you streamline your decks to perfection. One example was the ability to draw a starting hand and view the percent chance of drawing a card in your opening hand. The current MTGO client has an option for some of these, but the new client does not. The ones they do have are glitchy at best. If even a few of those options were present in the new client, it would eliminate the need for a separate program to deckbuild and manage your collection (except for your offline paper cards, of course).

It seems as though the new UI of Magic Online is to Windows Vista as the old UI is to Windows XP. It’s pretty, but it just doesn’t do enough for seasoned users to warrant the change. The new design and interface seem to cater to a newer audience who hasn’t been spoiled with all the features and experience of a veteran Magic Online player. But the graphic designer in me still wants the pretty colors and flashing lights. I’ll definitely keep using the sneak peek and look forward to the next beta update.

End [New Magic].