We've been really hesitant to talk much about new features for Magic Online since we can't really do much with the current code. As we've explained before, we're committed to maintaining our release schedule of new card expansions, but all our other development resources are devoted to Version 3. The initial goal for V-3 is to replicate all the existing functionality on a code base that is scalable (so we can handle a lot more users), extensible (meaning we can easily add more functionality), and stable (of course). Meanwhile, we're also taking this opportunity to clean up and improve our user interface since we needed to rewrite that code anyway.
After we successfully launch V-3 (hopefully in the fourth quarter of 2005), then we get to start having all the fun conversations we've been looking forward to about what new features to add to the game (well, other than card sets, of course). Internally, we often refer to “3-A” and “3-B” where “3-B” is where all the new functionality goes. Our list of cool stuff we want to add in version 3-B is really long and keeps growing every day. Eventually, we'll probably start dividing it up into bite-sized chunks and trying to give you guys new features on a somewhat regular basis in 2006 and beyond.
So that's the big picture … and with that disclaimer out of the way, I'm going to share one of our ideas with you: There's no ETA yet, but there is a general consensus inside Wizards of the Coast that we definitely want to add Vanguard functionality to Magic Online at some point.
Vanguard will be a special format and if you choose to play a game using the Vanguard format, then whatever avatar you're using to represent you will give you special powers inside the game. Every avatar in the game will have a unique set of Vanguard powers (and you have to own the avatar to be able to use it for a Vanguard game). Specifically, each one modifies your starting life total and your opening hand size as well as giving you a special ability.
So, for example, if you happen to own a Fallen Angel avatar (maybe because you won it in one of our special Holiday Events *hint, hint*) and you're using it to play a Vanguard game, then when you start the game, a special Vanguard window will pop up and show you what effects your avatar has on the game. R&D has been working on Vanguard for a little while now and our current version of Fallen Angel says “Whenever a creature goes to your graveyard from play, target opponent loses 1 life and you gain 1 life.” When playing Fallen Angel, you still start the game with the normal 7 cards, but your opening life total is 15 (instead of 20). Things are still subject to change at this point, but hopefully this gives you a sense of the way Vanguard works.
We think this format will be an awesome new addition to Magic Online's casual constructed rooms and there's actually an outside chance we could get this functionality before V-3 comes out. Because our card programmers are getting better and better every set, they may actually “get ahead” of our card set release schedule and have some time to devote to new formats like Vanguard. For example, they actually finished coding the last card in Betrayers of Kamigawa last week, fully six weeks before the set's Beta test can begin. Anyone who has participated in our previous Beta tests for new card sets knows that we're sometimes racing to get all the cards coded before the paper prerelease, which is when the set goes public and our MTGO Beta testing can begin. This time around we'll actually have plenty of time for internal Alpha testing and the set should be in great shape by the time any of you see it. 2005 does have four releases (Betrayers, Saviors, Ninth Edition, and Ravnica) but if things continue to go well maybe we'll be able to sneak out Vanguard sooner rather than later.