As many of you know, we have been hard at work here at Wizards of the Coast redesigning the user interface (UI) for Magic Online. In fact, I'm sure many of you are participating in the beta, where your feedback and bug-finding have helped inform our decisions and improve the experience—thank you so much! As for the rest of you, it is my great pleasure today to give you a tour of the new Magic Online beta client!
There are some exciting upgrades to almost every major Magic Online feature: the way players build decks, draft, trade, chat, find opponents, and play the game itself all have significant improvements, and those are just the big ones. When you have the opportunity to explore the new UI on your own, you will discover many other improvements—and that time is finally upon us!
The new UI is primarily a client update, so we will not need a blackout period or a hard transition as we move players from the old version to the new. Instead, we will run both versions at the same time. The transition will come in three stages, with the first stage right around the corner.
The Sneak Peek: Starting next Monday, July 16, the Magic Online beta client will be available to the general public for a nine-day test drive. Because we made no changes to the servers or game-rules engine, players running the current client can play against players running the beta client. This Sneak Peek is your chance to check out our progress and tell us what you think while we are still in development! A short survey will be available so you can share your feedback. Please take the time to do so, as your involvement will help shape the future of Magic Online.
The Wide Beta Period: Later this year, sometime after the Sneak Peek ends, we will be offering a Wide Beta. This Wide Beta will be open to everyone and run parallel with the existing client for an extended period of time. Players can transition to the new client at their own pace, either jumping right in or testing it out slowly over a period of time until they are comfortable.
The New Magic Online Launch: At some point, the Wide Beta will end and we will officially launch the new Magic Online. At this time, we will also discontinue support for the current client, but we will make sure players have plenty of notice before we do so. After we launch the new Magic Online, don't think it means we're done—quite the opposite, in fact! We have many improvements to the Magic Online experience lined up, many of which players have wanted for a long time. But none of these improvements can come until we have a robust, modern client with an improved user interface.
With the new client on its way, let me take you on a quick tour and I'll show you some of the things that fill me with excitement for the future of digital Magic: The Gathering!
The Installment Plan
As with any new application, your first introduction to the Magic Online beta client will be the installation. The time between starting the download and logging in—a process that is frequently a multi-hour, eat-dinner-and-come-back proposition on the current client—now takes about five minutes for the typical user to go from clicking on the installation link (don't forget to check the What's Happening page Monday for the link) to being greeted by a 25,000-year-old dragon.
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Five minutes! A massive, welcome improvement that carries over into the weekly updates as well.
Home Sweet Home
As you log in for the first time, you'll notice a makeover of the Home screen. Nicol Bolas is there, as well as a list of all your buddies currently online. Nicol Bolas represents the default theme, but you can switch to a different theme in your Account tab to match your personal Planeswalker preference, as well as adjusting a variety of settings.
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The Account tab is one of several options across the top of the screen. You can move quickly to Collection, Play, Store, Trade, Account, and Help from anywhere in the client, and the persistent Chat button allows you to join the conversation wherever you are.
Hit the Deck
In the current client, the deck building and collection tools are in two separate tabs despite the heavy overlap in function. For the new UI, we have combined these two areas into a single Collection tab while expanding the collection-filtering functionality. Instead of the icons and drop-down menus of the current client, there is an extensive checkbox system that allows you to drill deeper and more specifically into your collection, whether you are building a deck or just checking out your cards.
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The card presentation in the new collection tab also improves upon the current client on several levels. There are size sliders in every pane that can contain cards, allowing you to set the card size to your exact desires from within your collection instead of picking from among a few options in the Settings. The card text is more readable and the background is light instead of black, making your digital cards look more like physical cards.
When you are done browsing and want to start brewing, you'll notice several improvements to the process. All of your existing decks are viewable and loadable within the Collection tab itself, and all of them are stored and saved automatically. This takes place server-side, so no matter where you log in, all your decks will be available to you.
Decks are tagged with formats in addition to names, and are stored based on format legality, or in boxes of your own creation. This makes specific decks much easier to find when you are looking to edit or play. No more hunting through clunky system folders; your decks are available right where you build and play with them!
The Play's the Thing
Now it's time to find a game! In the current client, what to do next at this point depends on what you want to play. Are you looking to draft? Play for fun in the Constructed room? Maybe you are looking to compete for prizes, or perhaps you want to practice for the next big Premier Event against serious competition. In the current client, all of these choices involve navigating to a different room, and then re-navigating if you decide you want to play in a different structure later.
In the new UI, every play experience on Magic Online resides in one room: Play. Select from Constructed Open Play, Constructed Tournaments, and Limited Tournaments, and then fine-tune the details like format, level of competition, and deck choice and you are ready to play.
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When this time comes in the current client, it can be a little frustrating. You either have to start your own match and wait for someone to join or play the whack-a-mole game by clicking on matches from the ever-shifting list of open tables, attempting to join before someone else beats you to it. While you can still search among games waiting for participants, the new UI has a "Go to the Next Game" button to automatically match you with the next available opponent. Unfortunately, during the Sneak Peek, this function will frequently match you with someone who has abandoned his or her game in the current client, so you are better off hosting your own game or choosing one from the list. We will shore up the pairing logic for the Wide Beta, though, and at that point the "Go to the Next Game" button will be the most painless way to join a game.
The Play interface also remembers your recent play choices and offers them as quick-start options. The "Recent Play Choices" drop-down menu contains the last five ways you chose to play, and selecting one will populate your options to match it. Clicking a link automatically populates the play settings to match your selection, at which point you can jump into the next available match or tweak some of the settings if you want something slightly different.
Do You Feel a Draft?
Drafting is my favorite way to play Magic Online and I'm happy to report that drafting got one of the biggest upgrades in the new UI. When you find yourself in a draft, you will notice that the draft table is visible, showing players' avatars and their positions at the table. Additionally, you can right click on each avatar to bring up each player's user profile, so you can figure out who passed you that awesome bomb or where your first-round opponent was sitting relative to you at the table, just like you would in a paper draft.
When it is time to pick your cards, note that a single left-click on a card doesn't add it to your deck immediately like it does in the current client. Instead, it reserves it as the pick you will make if your timer runs out. To draft a card, you either double-click it or drag it into your deck or sideboard. This change should cut down on misclicks significantly, particularly for those who make a habit of dragging picks directly into their decks.
Wait, what? Dragging picks directly into your deck?
That's right! Possibly my favorite feature of the new UI is that instead of simply drafting a pile of cards into a window that you build into a deck after the draft, you can build your deck as you draft! Your main deck and sideboard windows are available from Pick 1, and you can move your picks between those zones at will during the draft, sorting them as you like.
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Besides giving you a great picture of what your deck needs as you draft it, this system is a huge timesaver. In one test draft on the new UI, I submitted a deck within five seconds of the end of the draft: Suggest Lands, Add Lands to Deck, Submit. Done!
Another new feature of the deck-building interface is the card-size slider. In the current client, you can tweak some card-display settings in the options, but the options don't provide much fine-tuning ability, and they can't be changed efficiently on the fly. Now, you can simply drag a slider to resize the cards in a window to fit the needs of that window at that moment, as well as resizing the windows themselves! This allows for a lot of on-the-fly customization of your cards and windows as your deck grows larger or your pick options grow smaller.
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Once you finish drafting, you'll notice some changes to the Limited deck-building process. In addition to the same deep filtering options found in Collection, we've also added a "Hidden" zone during Limited deck building. If you are like me, one of the first things you do with a paper Sealed Deck is put aside the cards you deem unplayable. This makes it easier to parse the cards you are actually considering for your deck. In the new UI, you can "hide" cards during deck building, which puts them in a third pane other than your main deck and sideboard. You can still access that zone if you change your mind about a card, but it is nice to put that Wild Defiance out of sight when you know it will never make the cut in your deck.
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All in all, I find the Limited experience is greatly enhanced in the new UI, and I hope my fellow Draft fanatics feel the same way once they get their mice on it. But how about the play experience itself?
When you join a game, a new game window appears showing the details of your match, and a three-second clock counts down before unveiling the new and improved duel scene. Note that the game window is entirely separate from the main navigation window—if you are a dual-monitor user, this is an important new feature, as you can now have different windows on different screens. The new chat system works similarly: you can dock your game log and chat within a game window, or you can float chats separately. This untethering of windows gives players much more flexibility to customize their Magic Online layout.
Once the battle begins, longtime Magic Online players will notice some changes. First and foremost, it just flat-out looks better. The battlefield is styled attractively to match the theme you've chosen and the cards themselves are sharper and better looking. Most of the panes are resizable, so you can adjust your hand, graveyard, and battlefield zones to your liking. Lesser-used zones like exile, revealed, and shield zones start out collapsed, but pop open when a card or effect enters them.
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The phase bar, which displays what part of the turn you are in, is now displayed horizontally between the hand and the battlefield for easy reference, and you can adjust your stops (which phases you want the game to stop and wait for you to act) by clicking the triangles above and below the phase names. As with current, the battlefield of the active player is highlighted so you always know whose turn it is at a glance.
Once you start playing and have multiple identical permanents on the battlefield, you'll notice one of my favorite improvements: smart card stacking. I've been known to run decks that generate a large amount of creature tokens, which can get quite unwieldy in the current client. The new UI preserves space and helps make sense of complicated board states by stacking all identical permanents and displaying the quantity in the stack. "Identical" means not only the same name, but the same state as well, so you don't have to worry about finding the token with the +1/+1 counter on it in a stack of a dozen; that buffed token will separate from the pack as soon as it is in any way different from its pals.
Now, when I'm ready to attack with some of the tokens I've been creating throughout the game, I don't have to comb the screen counting all of them before doing my combat math; they are all together for easy tracking and easy clicking when I send them into the red zone.
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In the new UI, the red zone is more than just Magic slang; it's an actual zone that appears during combat to make it crystal clear which creatures are attacking and which are blocking. When combat begins, the red zone slides open in the middle of the battlefield. As attackers are declared, they shift into the red zone, so once the attack is underway all attacking creatures are touching the red zone. Conversely, when you move to block, blocking creatures slide into the red zone directly across from the creatures they are blocking.
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Blocking with multiple creatures is particularly cool, with the blockers becoming stacked and tiered to communicate the order of the gang block. When you are ordering your opponent's blockers, you simply drag creatures to the left or right until they are in your desired vertical blocking order. The red zone system clarifies combat significantly, which can be a big help when you are managing your clock in a complex board state.
For those of you who use the keyboard heavily during play, your shortcuts are still there—except for undo, which is now the industry-standard Control-Z instead of the arcane Alt-U of the current client. If you are used to Alt-U and don't want to change your ways, though, fear not! You can map your keyboard shortcuts however you like in the Accounts tab!
Have you ever missed that your second- or third-round match has started, and timed yourself out of the event before realizing it? I've inadvertently ended my run in quite a few events over the years this way—always when I had drafted the Best Deck Ever, of course!
Things like a new round starting are important enough to warrant a more forceful reminder from the system, so that option is available in the new client. Toggle your notification options from the settings, and the events you specify will produce a pop-up message in the corner of the screen when they occur. In addition to the start of a new round, you can also set alerts for chat initiation, a buddy signing in, receiving new product, and becoming disconnected. Quite handy!
I don't know about you, but as a heavy Magic Online drafter in my civilian days, I frequently found myself in the classifieds, turning drafted rares into tickets and tickets into packs. Mostly I was dealing with automated traders that would scour my cards looking for anything they wanted, so I would typically make only a very specific handful of rares available for trade.
Sometimes, though, I wanted to give some of my extra commons and uncommons to someone starting out, or loan rares and mythic rares to a friend, both of which required a different set of tradable cards. Trading different cards for different purposes at different times meant frequently overriding one carefully crafted list of tradable items for another, only to have to re-create the original trade list at some future date. Frustrating!
Thankfully, trade binders are about to change all that. In the new UI, instead of marking cards in your collection as either tradable or not, you add them to any number of trade binders, which you add cards to and are saved automatically on the servers just like decks. Just as you can have a card you own in multiple decks, so too can you have a card in multiple trade binders. If you trade away a card, it is automatically removed from all binders it was in. Now you can have as many binders as you want for as many specific trade functions as you have; simply activate the binder that suits your needs before entering a trade! This is a great improvement for anyone who trades for multiple purposes on a regular basis.
There are many other improvements as well, but I'm way over my word (and time) budget for this article, so I will have to leave the rest for you to discover on your own.
As you explore what the new client has to offer, please keep this in mind: we are launching the Sneak Peek next week not because the new client is a finished product, but because it is in a place of stability, performance, and feature implementation where we feel players can speak constructively to their experience after using it. Feedback from the community is vital as we close in on the end of the current version of Magic Online. We will have a survey link available on the download page (which will be available Monday), in the forums, and in the client. We hope you give the new Magic Online client a try and find that you like what we've done with the place, but no matter what, we hope you share what you think with us.
I hope to see you in the beta—good luck and have fun!
Update: The Magic Online Sneak Peek is now available! Download it now!
Ryan (@RyanSpain, Ryan_S on Magic Online)