Online vs Real World Play: The Pros and Cons
One quick look at Steam these days, and you'll find plenty of tabletop games that have made the digital transition from the tabletop. In comparison, Magic the Gathering has been letting itself be digitised by a number of different developers for some time, with the earliest iterations of the game hitting PCs back in 1997.
Not all of these have been faithful representations of the original game, with some taking it in different directions and others offering a cut back experience because of the available technology, but they all showcase Magic in a way that's different from real world play.
Today we have something much closer to the real thing, with the latest Duels of Planeswalker (DotP) and then there's Wizard's own efforts with Magic the Gathering online. But how do these measure up against grabbing a buddy and some counters and sitting across from one another for a quick game? Are they better? Worse? Worth the money involved? That's what we'd like to talk about today.
Of course, gaming on your PC, tablet or laptop definitely has some big advantages. For starters, if you have the hardware required to play already, start up costs are far lower than your average magic collection. One copy of the latest DotP is less than $15 and with some investment of time rather than money, you can unlock all the cards to have a lot of fun and remain competitive. However, if you don't already have that sort of hardware, then buying up actual cards is much cheaper, as with the money you'd spend on a new tablet, you could build a serious Magic collection – even if you do buy the odd individual card from your favourite retailer.
Finding opponents is certainly easier online. Chances are there will always be at least a handful of players ready to go head to head with, even if the current system doesn't let you choose opponents based on any real metrics, like skill, or experience. In comparison, in the real world you either have to live near a local hobby store, or have friends who are willing to play – but even then you have to organise them and it involves travelling of some sort.
Then you have to factor in the set up of the game itself. Playing in the real world means making sure you have counters, tokens, some method of tracking health (though with the advent of smartphone apps that's gotten a lot easier) and the actual physical space to play. Chances are you won't have much difficulty finding a table top, but if you wanted to try a two vs two game or one of the more exotic game modes, then you'll need much more space when those lands start stacking up.
With the online game though, you only need the hardware to boot the game up: it handles everything else. It has a playspace, tokens, health counters and even tool tips and tutorials if you're just getting started.
That's a lot of plus points in the digital gaming camp, making the physical card version seem a bit redundant – but if that was truly the case, then Magic the Gathering as we know it would have died out back then in 1997. So there must be some reasons we continue to wage war across the tabletop, when there's so many flashly animated, cheaper, easier to set up and organise games waiting to be had.
Of course there are.
One of the biggest reasons is easily freedom of play. In their current iterations, the MtG online games are restricted environments, with a number of safeguards in place to keep the game fun for everyone. That means no touching the other player's pieces, no taking your time if you need it, no ordering the cards in your hand how you like and no house rules. In the real world, without the digital shackles, you can do as you wish. You can show your opposite number your hand if they're helping you learn the game, you can knock their draw deck over just for laughs and you can stop mid-turn and spend half an hour talking about that movie you love.
Point being, real world play is much more relaxed. Maybe not so at a competitive level, but for day to day games, absolutely. It can also be a lot faster. Once everyone's familiar with the rules, you aren't waiting for timers to count down or players to realise it's there turn. If everyone's on the same page, you can hammer through a lot of games in a short amount of time.
Then there's the social side of it. There's something special about sitting down and playing a game with a real person, watching their reactions as you play cards, or looking for cracks in their poker face as they hold a hand full of mischief close to their chest. This is an aspect of all card and board games that's lost in the digital conversion and until we get a decent holodeck, it'll stay that way too.
Don't forget the cards themselves either. You can have all the pretty artwork you want on the PC and console version, but nothing quite compares to holding the cards in your hand, selecting the one you want to play and going through the motions yourself. Again this is something that may happen one day in the digital versions, but for now, nothing quite compares to the real thing.
Ultimately it seems that both playing in the real world and online have their own distinct advantages and draw backs and that's great, because it means wherever and however you play Magic, you should have a good time.
But if you had to choose, what would you pick?