Magic: The Gathering Online
Developer(s) Leaping Lizard Software (initial)
Wizards of the Coast (v2.0 and on)
Platform(s) Microsoft Windows
Release date June 2002
Genre(s) Online Collectible Card Game
Mode(s) Multiplayer
Rating(s) ESRB: Teen (T)

Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO) or Magic Online is a direct video game adaptation of Magic: The Gathering, utilizing the concept of a virtual economy in order to preserve the collectible aspect of the card game. It is played through an Internet service operated by Wizards of the Coast, which went "live" in June 2002. Users can play the game or trade cards with other users. It is only officially available for the Microsoft Windows operating system.

As of February 2007, Magic Online has over 300,000 registered accounts;[1] however this does not represent the true number of players, since people are allowed to register multiple accounts. At different times during the day and night, Magic Online hosts on average 2,000-4,000 simultaneously logged in accounts; according to the developers, there is a hard limit of 4,400 players in version 2.5.[2]

According to Wizards of the Coast, Magic Online is "somewhere between 30% to 50% of the total Magic business."[2]


Main article: Magic: The Gathering

Magic Online is played as an electronic analogy to the physical card game. Digitized artwork reproduces the look of a card game, while users click on cards to play them on a virtual tabletop. Each game is hosted by the server, which applies a rules engine to enforce proper play. The logic for handling card interactions is provided by Perl scripts. Though the rules set as a whole is largely accurate and works well enough for production, it occasionally suffers from bugs.[3] Similarly, built-in engine limitations frequently impose clumsy user interface characteristics such as having to click away a large number of pop-up windows that can be generated by certain cards. This is one of the issues being addressed by the revamped version 3 software.

Players are free to setup or join games of their choice. In addition, official events such as leagues, drafts and tournaments take place according to a regular schedule. Entering events requires an investment of sealed packs and/or event tickets, but winners are also rewarded with additional product. Some players equate this to gambling.

Card sets available

Currently about two-thirds of all physical Magic cards ever printed are available for use in Magic Online. The earliest set available upon release was Invasion, which had been released in printed form in the fall of 2000; all sets moving forward were made available online as well, with the exception of the Unhinged self-parody expansion.

Wizards of the Coast has since attempted to release more pre-Invasion cards online. In the fall of 2005, Mirage was released online, nine years after its 1996 print release.[4] This set was chosen as the earliest set usable on Magic Online because it was the first to be designed with both Limited and Constructed play in mind and the first to be intended as part of a three-set block. Additionally, Wizards unambiguously owns the rights to the artwork in Mirage block, and Mirage block contains no ante cards (unlike Ice Age and Homelands). It has been confirmed that the eventual goal of the developers is to have every expansion set from Mirage onward available online.[5] In April 2006, Visions, the second set of the Mirage Block, was released online. The third set, Weatherlight, was released Wednesday, December 12, 2007.[5] For cards released before Mirage, a special MTGO-exclusive set called Masters Edition was created. It features selected cards from earlier sets and was released on September 10, 2007.

New sets come out on Magic Online about three or four weeks after their printed counterparts. The delay is a policy measure to appease "brick & mortar" retailers.[2]


Leaping Lizard Software initially approached WotC with an offer to create an online version of Magic: The Gathering. WotC was skeptical about whether such a system could actually be implemented. LLS then created a tech demo to prove to WotC that an online CCG could work. WotC was sufficiently convinced and contracted LLS to develop the service, which was then known as Magic Online with Digital Objects (MODO). Initially, the idea of charging for virtual goods, as opposed to a subscription model with unlimited access, was greeted with skepticism. Additionally, concerns were floated over how solid the server and trading code would be;[6] if exploits were found, the entire economy could easily be destroyed. After a period of beta-testing, the game became available to the general public in June of 2002. The name was changed from MODO to its final commercial title, Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO). The trading code has proven resilient so far; while the game engine has faltered several times, and ordinary fraud is a risk, there have been no mass-devaluations of cards. So far, no one has been able to give themselves free cards or exploit the server to damage other users' collections.

In 2003, the Magic: The Gathering Invitational was held online for the first time. It was played on Magic Online each year from then on until 2007, when the Invitational was moved back offline.

Version 2.0

In 2003, Wizards of the Coast decided to relieve Leaping Lizard of the responsibility of maintaining Magic Online, and took on updating it themselves with in-house programmers. The first showing of the new team was to be the online release of 8th Edition in July of 2003, which was ambitiously scheduled to coincide with the paper release. The goal was to release version 2 of the software with new functionality and implement the changes in rules that 8th Edition had brought. Version 2 was released on schedule at the deadline with disastrous results. The servers constantly crashed, and laughable rules mistake bugs were in abundance, showing that the project had clearly been shoved out the door on the deadline unfinished. The game went to beta servers for a short time, but did eventually return to reasonably working order. That said, most of the promised features of version 2 were cut, and some functionality within version 1 was even removed for version 2, such as the "My Games" feature which allowed replaying games from earlier sessions.[7]

To make up for the disruption, Wizards planned to throw "Chuck's Virtual Party," a weekend of free tournaments after the problems settled down. Unfortunately, it turned out that each user took up more memory in version 2 than the lightweight design of version 1.[8] The result was that the servers crashed again under the strain.

In retrospect, some have merely chalked the decision to remove Leaping Lizard up to hubris.[9] Others, however, point to certain intractabilities in later maintenance that suggest that Leaping Lizard had not delivered a very extensible program that, by nature, was too monolithic and hard to improve. Wizards of the Coast has said that "[Leaping Lizard's] 2.5 interface and backend are not scalable like we need it to be. It wasn't written with the goal of ten thousand users in mind, it was written thinking a couple thousand."[2] Regardless, Wizards decided that version 2.0 was not worth supporting indefinitely. They decided to maintain version 2.0 in the background, but to start a new development team to rebuild Magic Online from the ground up. The labors of this new project would be called Magic Online version 3. Since Chuck's Virtual Party, Magic Online (version 2) has been somewhat more stable, with Wizards carefully booting users to try to prevent a recurrence of the events from before.

Version 3.0

Magic Online version 3 has been planned to feature an updated interface and expanded in-game guidance. It is also being designed so it can run off multiple servers rather than one master server. The release date has slipped several times; it was originally intended to be released in late 2006, and then the "the first or second quarter of 2007."[10] External beta testing began on February 19, 2007, with the Phase 2 beta opening on March 9. In this phase, MTGO 3.0 was offered for testing to members of the FilePlanet website. Also on that day, an official MTGO 3.0 Launch info page was opened, where MTGO developers can share their info in a blog which is updated two or three times a week. In August 2007, version 3 began open beta testing. In December, 2007 Wizards launched a countdown clock ticking off the days until a supposed release in January 2008. However, the countdown paused several times, and a January 2008 stress test on the MTGO 3.0 beta just two weeks before the release led the developers to cancel the release yet again to focus on scalability issues. It should also be noted that MTGO 3.0 when released will lack the league and multiplayer functions currently enjoyed by many players. The user interface has received harsh criticism for being dark and unreadable and for having a universally despised vertical chat box. Wizards stated these deficiencies will be the first things they will repair after MTGO 3.0 has gone live and is stable.

Parallels to paper Magic

All cards that enter circulation originate from sealed booster packs or other products; on Magic Online, these packs are represented as digital objects tied to a player's account.[11] Virtual packs are purchased from the Wizards of the Coast website at MSRP, which is typically higher than the street price (e.g. eBay) for the physical product. Once purchased, packs may be opened, traded, or used as entry materials for events.

Foil cards are available online. They are distinguished in their virtual form by a glossier appearance and an intermittent "shiny" animation.

"Deck Editor" and "Collection" interfaces exist to allow players to build Constructed decks or browse their collections.


Wizards of the Coast allows collectors who have assembled a full set of digital cards to exchange them for a factory set of printed cards. Regular cards and foils cannot be mixed. Each set is eligible for a period of up to 4 years after the online release. This program was initially created in order to allay doubt and uncertainty over the investment into virtual cards.[2] However, due to the cost of stocking and shipping the factory sets, WotC eventually adjusted the policy to charge a shipping premium for each set redeemed, dissuading players from utilizing this option. Wizards of the Coast came under serious criticism for this price change because players rightly feel that the cost of redemption is baked into the purchase cost of the digital cards, so they should not be made to pay again for the redemption service. The redemption policy offers a medium of exchange between the digital card market and the physical card market, though it should be noted that physical cards cannot be 'redeemed' into digital cards.

In-game economy

The client software for Magic Online may be downloaded for free from Wizards of the Coast's website, but to play the game, it is necessary to register an account[12] and purchase cards.

Users may trade cards, sealed packs, event tickets, and in-game avatars (which are released for special events as promotions) with other players. Several venues exist to facilitate this:

  • A "Trading Post," which acts as a searchable bulletin board on which players post buy requests for certain cards, or notices of cards they own that are available for trade/sale.
  • A "Marketplace," which is a scrolling chat of individual offers.
  • User-created chat rooms, such as the unofficial Auction room, where traders can sell larger and often bulk numbers of cards quickly to buyers looking for a discount.

A large number of the users posting offers to buy or sell are entrepreneurs with large collections looking to make a profit by selling cards at their own websites or on eBay in addition to their in-game trades (though in practice the amount of money that can be made heavily trading in the game is not large). Technically any transfer of cards in the game is not considered a "sale" because, for legal reasons, the digital objects are not actually owned by the collector, but rather Wizards of the Coast themselves.[11] This enormously simplifies transactions, as issues such as import/export laws, duties, and underage concerns are sidestepped. Wizards has currently shown "benign neglect" of players buying and selling digital objects for (legal) currency on the secondary market.

Due to this neglect, however, there is a serious problem with fraud, including non-delivery of paid-for product and false claims of non-delivery resulting in reversals of Paypal payments. Many players feel Wizards should do more to close the loop on these transactions, such as at the very minimum by documenting delivery of product for fraud victims to use in their defense of false claims of non-delivery. Failure to close this loop is a major flaw in Wizards' digital object business model. It is easy to convert cash into these digital objects. However, critics charge that without a safe and secure method of converting digital objects back into cash, these objects lack a very important characteristic of property - the ability to sell it.

The economy

Overall, Magic Online's economy is quite efficient. Event tickets act as a de facto unit of in-game currency; demand for them is sustained by the tens of thousands of tickets used up every day to pay for tournament entry. Every single ticket in the market was purchased from Wizards of the Coast for US$1, offering a baseline. Since tickets can be traded between players and they have a roughly fixed value in dollars, prices for cards in the trading rooms are usually quoted in tickets. When sold for money on the secondary market, a ticket is usually worth slightly less than US$1; typical prices are usually in the range of around $.85-.90.

As for the cards themselves, Magic Online allows players to use the same cards in multiple decks. Since the maximum number of copies of a card in a deck is usually 4 (the major exceptions being basic lands and Relentless Rats), any duplicates of a card beyond the fourth are unnecessary for deck building and can be traded off.

Due to the ease of trading away unwanted or extra cards, transaction costs on Magic Online are very low. While in real-life, the money gained by finding a better price at a different store might not make up for the expense in checking the other store (gas, time, effort, etc.), it's simple and quick to search for other values of a card you'd like to buy or sell online. This ensures competition where all prices move quickly towards the market price.

One inefficiency that the market does have is that since the ticket is the main unit of in-game currency, the bid/ask spread on cards is effectively fixed at one ticket. This makes buying and selling of cards quickly somewhat inefficient; other effects are that cards which cost less than a ticket must be offered in bulk (or else as standard barters). A typical example is 32 common cards for one ticket (32 items being the maximum number of objects Magic Online supports per trade). If the trader only desires 24 commons, he or she either "wastes" the rest of the ticket, gets other, less desirable commons, or has to rely on the vendor to honor a credit system for further trades.

Automated trading

Trading is usually done between two individual players, but Magic Online has accumulated a secondary automated traders market. These traders, known as "bots", are accounts running programs designed to trade cards at variable prices and qualities. A simple bot might be one that will buy any three rares for one ticket, and offer any two rares it has for a ticket. More complicated bots can maintain detailed price lists and notice trends; for example, if many traders are selling it one particular card, that is a clue that the bid price is too high, and it should either stop buying that card or automatically lower the price it bids for it. Lastly, some bots are designed to help advertise competing sellers prices and give users a general sense of the values of cards they have. An example of this is "infobot". A player may chat with infobot and follow directions to inquire about card prices available in the current market supplied by vendors who tell the bot their pricing. Unfortunately, recurring single client limitations mean that operators of useful bots must choose between running those bots or playing themselves.

Tournament effects on the market

Drafters and their recently acquired cards represent a main source of singles to the market. Winners in any tournament usually get balanced amounts of the packs used to enter; for example, someone who won 3 packs in an Onslaught-Onslaught-Legions draft would receive 2 packs of Onslaught and 1 pack of Legions. This conveniently is exactly what would be required to do a similar event again, along with a two ticket entry cost. For the not as lucky, or those needing tickets, they can sell singles from their opened packs to help defray the costs of the next draft.

Some online tournament players fund their continued play by selling the packs they win as prizes and extra cards they open for tickets, which they then use to enter more tournaments. Successful players who are able to sustain their tournament play indefinitely this way without further monetary investment are said to have "gone infinite."


When Magic Online launched in the summer of 2002, the current set of the time was late Odyssey block. As a result, the preceding Invasion block was only sold for a very short time on Magic Online. This short supply, combined with rising demand as Magic Online's user base grew and the server became more stable, helped spike some early cards' prices. Chase cards from these early sets demand much higher prices than their paper counterparts; popular rares sell on eBay for 5 to 10 times as much as the physical version, and even commons can command a premium. Odyssey block and 7th Edition also had a shorter than normal print run, though not as extreme.

To counteract the shortage of Invasion block cards, Wizards began offering Invasion block packs as prizes in special tournaments in lieu of normal prizes. While these tournaments were very popular, criticism came from collectors who felt their holdings were becoming devalued. Wizards had previously stated that once a set went off sale, it would never be sold again. While offering Invasion block packs as prizes was not technically selling them, they did replace other prizes in tournament for which players paid entry fees, so the net effect was identical to selling them. This end run created a trust deficit that continues to undermine Wizards' digital object business model.

Notes and references

  1. Hasbro, Inc. press release (2007-02-09). Magic Online® III PC game announced. Retrieved on 2007-04-08.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Villoria, Gerald (2007-09-05). State of the Game Interview: Magic Online. GameSpy. Retrieved on 2007-11-19.
  3. possible password vulnerability
  4. Bennie Smith (2005-06-30). Really Really Big News! No, Bigger Than That. Retrieved on 2006-08-25.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Chat with Justin Ziran
  6. Geordie Tait (2002-06-18). What You NEED To Know About Magic Online. Retrieved on 2006-08-26.
  7. Technically, it still existed, but it cleared the record on exit, making it difficult to check games played at an earlier session.
  8. Randy Buehler (2003-08-29). State of the Game. Retrieved on 2006-08-26.
  9. The MODO Fiasco: Corporate Hubris and Magic Online
  10. Birds and Elves team up again, which contains the MTGO v.3 update at the bottom.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Wizards of the Coast. Terms of Service. Retrieved on 2006-08-25. Note that technically, players own a license to use the cards, not the cards.
  12. This is functionally free; it costs 10 dollars to register an account, but a 10 dollar coupon to the online store is added to the account.

See also

External links

  • Official site of Magic: The Gathering Online
  • PREs Magic the Gathering Online Player Run Events
  • PRE's Player Run Events Calendar
  • PureMTGO MTGO articles
  • MTGOCasual MTGO PREs, Trading PREs, contests, articles, "casual ratings," and feedback.