Greetings, Magic Online players!
It has been a crazy year so far, and we hope everyone is staying safe. Since we're a quarter of the way through 2020, it seemed like a good time to check in on what Magic Online has been up to and set the stage for what's coming.
It's been nearly a year since my last State of Magic Online, and since then, we've launched the Play Lobby updates, eliminated the $9.99 fee when you create a new account (though you still need to purchase an upgrade kit if you want access to all of MTGO's features), revamped MTGO Premier Play to a seasonal model, released a bunch of card sets, helped R&D launch a new format, updated our infrastructure to further reduce how long we're down for maintenances, launched several new Cube experiences, added more messaging to the Home scene, and delivered a bunch of other minor updates, like the maintenance indicator on the Log In scene.
While we've been busy, there is much more we want to do in the coming months. Let's go over some of them, starting with the release of Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths.
Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths
We're just around the corner from our next release, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, and if you peeked behind the curtain during development, you'd see this was one of the most difficult sets we've ever had to build. The challenges were evident after the first few internal set reviews, so we budgeted as much time for Ikoria as we normally allocate for two card sets.
The new set mechanics weren't just complicated on the battlefield, where they required some fundamental changes to how we deal with displaying and moving cards in various zones, but also required work in other areas of Magic Online, like collection, deck building, and even game startup. This set was the definition of a full team effort, and literally every engineer on the team was needed to deliver Ikoria on time.
Even after conscripting the entire team, we were constantly managing the scope of the supporting features, but the team did a great job buckling down to get Ikoria ready for release. We were even able to deliver some quality-of-life features for Ikoria mechanics that we thought we might not be able to get to when we started building the set last year. For more information on the set mechanics, design, and release plan check out Alli Steele's article.
While we delivered much of what we wanted for Ikoria, mobilizing the entire team to build the set had some carryover costs. We weren't able to deliver as many live fixes and features as we would have liked during the first part of the year. In addition, we wanted to release Ikoria Commander cards simultaneously with the main set, but as we worked through the challenges of Ikoria, it became clear that delivering 71 additional cards at the same time as the main set was impossible, so we decided to delay the Commander portion of the release.
We know that players are excited for the Commander cards, so we'll release as much of it as possible at the end of May. We're targeting the most exciting cards first, followed by everything that is easy (cards that mostly just work), followed by the rest. This means you can expect to see many of the rares and mythic rares, but it is possible that we are not able to release every card at the end of May. Those that are missed will be targeted for a later release as time allows.
As usual, Commander cards will be delivered via Treasure Chests after they are released.
Secret Lair Drop Series
Secret Lair Drop Series drops are awesome releases designed to inspire and delight all sorts of players. We were exited to participate in the launch of Secret Lair at the end of last year and look forward to participating in future releases as well. One of the exciting elements about Secret Lair drops is how quickly they can be delivered to players, sometimes seemingly out of the blue.
Unfortunately for Magic Online and how we build cards, we often need more lead time and structure for our releases than is available for some of the surprise Secret Lair drops. MTGO development batches blocks of cards, typically clustered around a set release, which allows us to consolidate some of the work and provides scale efficiencies. One of the drawbacks of this process is that we typically don't have the ability to insert surprise drops off-schedule, particularly when we're dealing with a set like Ikoria. That said, we love Secret Lair and are taking the following steps moving forward.
When the schedules align, we'll participate in Secret Lair releases with codes that allow Secret Lair purchasers to add the cards to the their MTGO collection. This will be similar to how we participated in the December drops.
Where our schedules don't align, we will bring select Secret Lair cards to Magic Online after the fact. We'll likely focus on drops that are not tied to a specific timing, so you're more likely to see the Secret Lair: Stargazing cards than you are the Secret Lair: Year of the Rat cards, but we'll try to be as flexible as possible, and if there is a particular drop you'd like to see, let us know at MagicOnlineFeedback@wizards.com. When we go down this path, we'll explore different ways to deliver the cards, from Treasure Chests to codes to special events, so keep an eye out for future announcements.
MTGO Champions Showcase Series
At the end of 2019, we announced a major overhaul to our Premier Play system, moving from an annual model to a seasonal model. The end of the first season is rapidly approaching, with the last set of Showcase Challenges on April 11 and April 12. While we're happy with where Season 1 is directionally, we think there are a few places where we can improve.
First, we're taking data from Season 1 and using it to evolve our Preliminary schedule. We'll be reviewing schedules and format participation to make adjustments, and it is likely underperforming formats will be moved around or converted to a format that is performing better. Our goal with the changes is to ensure that players can be confident that a scheduled event they join won't be cancelled and will start on time. The updated schedule, along with the details of the changes below, will be on the Premier Play details page soon.
Next, were increasing the QPs players can earn in most leagues. For Season 1, we erred on the side of caution to ensure that Premier Events did not get too large. While we know that the major events will be long, we prefer them to be closer to 8 rounds than 10, and we've stayed clear of that 10-round mark so far.
For Season 2, we're making the following prize structure updates to some Leagues and Queues:
- Constructed Leagues and Competitive Sealed Leagues will add 1 QP to the prizes for 5 wins (from 4 to 5 QPs) and 1 QP to the prizes for 3 wins (from 0 to 1 QP). Note that we are not adjusting the prizes for 4 wins.
- Draft Leagues, Phantom Draft Queues, and Swiss Queues will add 1 QP to the prizes for 3 wins (from 1 to 2 QPs)
- Elimination Draft Queue will add 1 QP to the prizes for 3 wins (from 2 to 3 QPs)
This change is designed to help players who can't commit to the 5 consecutive rounds required by the Preliminaries earn enough QPs over time to participate in Showcase Challenges and PTQs.
Third, we're adding more Format Challenge events to the schedule to give players more chances to participate in their favorite format. Each format will have a Challenge on Saturday and a Challenge on Sunday. On Showcase Challenge weekends, we will continue to use the schedule established in Season 1, replacing one Format Challenge each weekend (with the exception noted below for Pauper and Vintage). In addition, we are switching Legacy Challenges to the 64-player minimum structure for Season 2. While we're only committing to this change for Season 2, we'll continue to use this structure as long as the participation levels warrant it.
Fourth, Vintage is replacing Pauper as a Showcase Challenge format for Season 2. This means that on Showcase Challenge weekends, the Saturday Vintage Challenge will become a Showcase Challenge, require 40 QPs to join, and qualify the players who reach the top-8 playoff for the Vintage Champions Showcase Qualifier at the end of the season. All the other Showcase formats will remain the same for Season 2.
Finally, while we originally planned the seasonal model to allow us to run Showcases much closer to when players earned an invite, we want to make sure that players can attend our events as safely as possible. As we hinted at several weeks ago, with the uncertainty around health and travel right now due to COVID-19, we've preemptively postponed both the 2019 MOCS Championship and the Season 1 Showcase until later in the year. While we're not ready to announce the new date yet, it is very likely this event will be in the fall.
Into the Future
While our first quarter was incredibly busy, there are still many features and improvements we want to deliver in 2020. We're continuing to update the client. We'll be adding new features, such as adding more information to the Play Lobby (for instance, tournament standings) and updating the Trade scene. Beyond the smaller stuff, we're working on two major updates this year: updating the Duel Scene and updating the Draft servers.
Make It Merrier for More
As you may know, Commander Legends is arriving at the end of the year. This makes it a great time to overhaul our Duel Scene and make improvements, particularly for multiplayer matches, so we're aiming to release an update to the Duel Scene alongside the Commander Legends release.
Our plan is to leverage the things our Duel Scene does well and combine that with some of the things we've learned playing MTG Arena to improve the overall experience. As a legacy platform that has dozens of formats and play styles to account for, we have some limitations we'll need to keep in mind, so it's worth noting that this isn't a ground-up rebuild. We're not changing our development platform or adding super flashy animations and effects, and the cards will still look like Magic cards.
Keeping these constraints in mind, we have several goals: to build toward a better and more welcoming Commander experience, improve how it feels to play Magic Online, and improve engineering sustainability. So how do these goals translate to action?
Second Place or Bust
Commander is an amazing format, and for many of us who work on MTGO, our favorite way to play Magic together. We know the best way to play is gathered with your friends around a table at home or at your local game store. When you can't get together, however, we want MTGO to fill that gap and still let players get their Commander fix. In order to make MTGO the best digital home for Commander, we're looking to address three main issues.
First, we want to provide important information more clearly, giving you what you need to play better. Ensuring you know which Commanders you're facing, how much mana someone has available, how much Commander damage you've taken, and what someone's Commander tax is are all important pieces of info that we can present better, so we'll be looking at ways to do that.
Second, we know Commander games are long, so we want to improve turn management and speed up games. We'll be exploring ways to give you more control over where the game stops, including letting you set a stop on a specific player's end step or yield to all actions that don't affect you or a permanent you control. We still need to see how much control we can provide in these scenarios, but those are just two of the scenarios we're looking at.
Finally, we want to improve the social experience of each game. We're looking for ways to capture some of the Magic you get in a tabletop game where there is more politicking and trying to convince others at the table that you're NOT the threat. We have some ideas, but this is also the most ambitious area to explore, since we'd like to play in some spaces that MTGO hasn't typically supported and we're not sure what we'll be able to accomplish for launch.
While some of the work we're doing for Commander applies here, we also want to decrease the gap between playing MTG Arena and playing MTGO and really try and learn from some of the great innovations they've made.
For example, we really like how revealed cards are handled in MTG Arena for both cards in hand and cards on the top of the library, so we'll explore how we can use that design in MTGO. Since we currently show a library icon that indicates how many cards are left, not an actual library, we'll need to solve for this in the design that fits with how MTGO functions.
In general, we know that our solutions have often involved giving you windows that include the information you need. While that is a utilitarian solution, it can be tiresome managing four or five windows with different information in them. We want you to have quick access to information but not be forced to juggle where the stack is while you're choosing targets for your twelve triggered abilities from that sweet combo you just assembled. This means being very deliberate about the changes we make and making sure that we account for as many gameplay scenarios as possible.
The Dreaded Tech Debt
Currently, the two-player battlefield and the multiplayer battlefield use slightly different versions of the Duel Scene. If you play both, you're already familiar with the differences: the prompt box location, where the graveyard and exile zone areas are, how opponent's battlefields are displayed. This update will combine those views so that when you need to open your graveyard, it will be the same process regardless of how many players are in the game. The same will be true for other major interaction points. Not only will this create a more seamless experience for players, it will help us maintain the Duel Scene for all players as we make changes and upgrades to keep the experiences more closely aligned.
Serve up the Drafts
In addition to making changes to the Duel Scene, we're updating MTGO's Draft servers and format legality systems to offer more options for what kinds of games you play. While we're still working through some of the details, there are three main components: more Draft play options, more Constructed play options, and better multiplayer support. While I can't talk in detail about exactly what we're building since not everything we're working to support has been announced yet, I did want to talk about the philosophy of the changes.
First, there are changes to support upcoming releases. Wherever we can, we want to help ensure that Magic Online continues to provide digital support for the experiences you love on tabletop. Over the years, some of those experiences, like Conspiracy Draft, have been far too complicated to deliver on MTGO. The changes we're exploring will be a small step toward making those experiences more possible. (GIANT DISCLAIMER: This is just an example of the types of considerations we're making. We are NOT saying that Conspiracy is imminent on MTGO or anywhere else, only that our digital tools will be better positioned in the future to consider these kinds of experiences.)
Beyond supporting as much of the tabletop experience as we can, our second goal is to provide more tools for crafting unique experiences on MTGO. These updates will help us expand on experiences like Constructed Gauntlets or Chaos Draft in ways that leverage the digital platform. We're excited about the possibilities here, but we're not quite ready to share what we have in mind (other than one of the ideas we're kicking around called Anarchy Draft).
Finally, we want to provide more structured opportunities for Commander and multiplayer formats, such as Leagues. As Commander events at MagicFests and other tournaments or conventions become more popular, we're exploring how we can translate some of that experience to Magic Online. While we're not looking to have cutthroat Commander PTQs, we think there is some space to provide league-style play where players can battle for rewards in a multiplayer match. Our focus here is on fun, not competition, and we're looking to build a rewards structure that reinforces that ideal.
Wrapping It Up
We know there is a lot to digest in this article, but we're excited about upcoming features and wanted to share some of the vision we have for MTGO's future. Please keep in mind that while this is our current plan, challenges or changing circumstances could require that we adjust it over time, but we're doing our best to make sure that 2020 is Magic Online's best year yet.
Finally, I wanted to take a moment to say thank you. We hope that we can be a beacon of joy and help provide an outlet when you need to take your mind off the world. A strong community will help us through these difficult times, so we'll continue to explore ways players can get together and play Magic when other options are not available.
To stay tuned with everything Wizards is doing during this time, we've collected our COVID-19 responses in a single hub page. In the meantime, stay safe, be kind, and know that your compassion can be exactly what someone needs to make a dark day brighter.
Senior Digital Product Manager