Thoughts on the Magic Online Cube

So they finally announced Cube format was coming to Magic Online today. The way they are running it is very similar to the way the rumor mill had said it would run – Wizards has a single customized card list that everyone drafts from. They are running events as normal via phantom queues, and you will be playing for 4322 payout (SIGH).

It would be great if the people at Wizards of the Coast hinted to us which way this was going to go, maybe by providing a roadmap or something (remember when you recently said you would be communicating more clearly and effectively with the community? This would be one of those times!), but right now all we have is the announcement linked above. If this is the first step to making a real, fully-customizeable Cube product for Magic Online, then great. Good for them, and I’m sure this will be a fun format to draft. However, if this is the end product – a slightly varied, super-powered draft format that pops up on the list of draft queues from time to time – then it sucks.

Let me explain…

Complaint 1) This is Not Cube
This might be a cube, but this is not the format Magic players know and love. Much like the way Constructed is being able to design your own deck to play against other people, Cubing is the ability to actually design your own Limited formats. It would suck if Wizards of the Coast actually predesigned all the Standard decks and we simply had to pick one to play at FNM, and it will suck if Wizards has predesigned the Cube format in an unchangeable way. The community designed this format, much like they did with Elder Dragon Highlander (later renamed Commander). WotC produced new Commander product this past summer to rave reviews, but that contained new cards. THIS format is designed to work with existing cards and collections from throughout Magic’s history.

I view this announcement as a “product” much the way the Commander decks were a product, and From the Vaults is a product, etc. To me, it’s the equivalent of tossing up Ravnica draft queues once every 12 weeks, except here we don’t get to keep the cards. It will be fun for a while and it should make money, but it’s not the infinitely interesting, casual draft format the community knows and loves.

One of the great parts about Cubes is that they let Magic players be Limited set designers, which is a little like crossing constructed deck design with being a member of the Development team. Some of my friends have 5, 6, even 10 different Cubes that they own all the cards for and run regularly at local game nights. They are actually brilliant Cube designers that spend at least as much time designing these formats as they do figuring out which 75 cards to play at the PTQ, and their formats are fascinating to play and try to master. Cube as it exists in the community is crowd-sourced Limited, where instead of 20 people in Magic R&D designing a format, you get hundreds of thousands of players designing and playtesting every single day.

With WotC’s initial implementation, you get none of that. This implementation steals the spirit of Cubing and replaces it with a product designed to maximize revenue. Again, if this is the initial step to making fully-personalized Cubes, then great. If it’s not, then it’s just another legacy draft format where you don’t get to keep the cards. Bleh.

Complaint 2) I Can’t Even Play THIS Cube Just With My Friends
Cubing is an inherently social experience, and yet to play this Cube I have to get lumped in with whatever random guys happen to join the draft queue. This is not how I want to Cube, ever. For most people I have talked to, Cubing falls under the fun side of Magic. Sure, it’s a little competitive because Magic is a game, but mostly it’s a fun puzzle-solving experience that we do with friends. Lumping me in with the general populace every time I want to Cube is not remotely the experience I am looking for.

While talking about the social aspects of Magic and Magic Online… Why can’t I have voice chat on MTGO? If I could just shoot the shit with Becker, Kevin An, BDM, and maybe Marshall from Limited Resources while making fun of Flores and DRAFTING, I would be on Magic Online all the fucking time. Yes, I need to have the ability to mute voices so that I never have to interact with the classic MTGO troglodytes in any shape, form, or fashion, but by not having voice chat via the client platform, you make it that much more alienating and less social for new and old players alike.

If Cube + Voice existed, I could see myself making scheduled appointments in my extremely busy life to play with friends around the world, chat, catch up… everything you do at Pro Tours/Grand Prix that make them so awesome for seeing and interacting with old friends. The same must be true of Commander players. There are few things in this world better than sitting around a table with a bunch of intoxicated judges playing EDH. Right now on Magic Online, you end up with a dumpy old UI, chat boxes, and an extra layer of separation that simply shouldn’t exist in the modern era. This program is ten years old!

Complaint 3) It is SO easy to justify doing this right from a business sense.
This implementation of Cube just reeks of “How do we monetize this so that we can bother to spend development money and time?” I work in the real world, so on one hand I get the need to build that business case, but on the other hand I think it misses a much larger, more interesting, and more salesworthy point – customer conversion.

Aside: I (and others) have proposed a couple of different models in the last year that would easily work for monetizing personalized Cubes as well. I would definitely pay 1 ticket with 0 prize payout just to play someone else’s Cube, and I think most people would too, but obviously you can do a little market research and tweak this as necessary. There is a much longer strategic game involved in getting money out of customers via Cubing than this initial proposal seems to take into consideration.

Two of the most difficult things to do in business are A) attract new customers and B) convert existing customers to new products/platforms. Over the last three years, Wizards of the Coast has proven to be rather adept at A), with the core set overhaul and Duels of the Planeswalkers gateway drug proving to be particularly effective at successfully indoctrinating new players into the Magic business model. B) on the other hand…

Magic in the real world is hugely popular and according to Hasbro’s official announcement, the game has doubled in size in the last three years. Magic Online is also growing massively, but the best outcome possible for Wizards of the Coast is if players float between the online and offline worlds at will. The problem here is that while the competitive market is already converted (in fact, it’s almost pre-coverted since MTGO is the place where you can get the most games/drafts/testing time against the best competition in the world), Magic Online finds it very difficult to penetrate the casual market. This means that there is a massive source of additional revenue and interest sitting there, just waiting for a reason to try Magic Online.

One of the best parts about designing custom cubes is that it lets you maximize your existing Magic collection, just like Commander does. Players now have a use for all those old cards, and also a reason beyond playing Constructed formats to add new cards to their collections. Adding personalized Cubes gives a boost to the secondary market, but more importantly, adding voice chat along with it reduces two barriers to entry for the casual player – additional use of cards + recreating the social element of hanging out slinging spells. This market is already converted and interested in your game, so is far cheaper than new customer acquisition, you just need to find a way to drag them to the new platform of Magic Online (which is better at deriving revenue from customers than IRL Magic).

Adding the EDH/Commander format (which was actually done as a side project by Lee Sharpe, similar to what you get from Google Labs spin-off products) was a reasonable step, but it’s not quite enough to grab real-life kitchen table players and drag them online. Cube + Commander + voice chat might be.

Picture this sort of schedule for Magic players at your local gaming group:

Friday: FNM
Saturday: PTQs etc
Sunday: Store drafts
Monday: Casual Magic/Whatever
Tuesday: Online Cube
Thursday: Online Commander

Supplement it with individuals entering the MTGO draft queues or Daily Events whenever they have free time and you get the best of all worlds for WotC, hitting casual + competitive in real life and online. Some of the revenue goes directly in their pockets, while a bunch more goes to the stores they have deemed incredibly important for the future of real world MTG (which many of us don’t actually have, but that’s an article for another day).

Anyway, that’s my perspective on the new Cube announcement for Magic Online. This seems like a solid product, but it’s not really Cube, and that makes me sad. In my opinion, taking the steps necessary to make personalized Cubes a reality makes sense from a business perspective as well as from a “make existing players happy” perspective, so it is my hope that today’s announcement is the preliminary step along that journey instead of the announcement of yet another way to try and gobble up my hard-earned money on Magic Online without actually giving me what I want.

–Card Game
@mixedknuts on Twitter

PostScript: With regard to voice + moderating player-to-player interactions, Dan Barrett (@dangerawesome) points out that letting people do voice chat with buddies only  resolves every moderation complaint about voice before it even exists.