Magic the Gathering Online; A Well-Oiled Machine

Part 1: A Card Game

Created by Richard Garfield in 1991, the card game Magic: The Gathering has been a pinnacle within the fantasy genre. Held alongside with Dungeons and Dragons, in fact published by the same publisher “Wizards of the Coast,” MTG (Magic: The Gathering), has transcended a niche activity between a couple pimple ridden high school boys to a widespread global phenomenon. With an extremely complex mix of game play mechanics, beautiful card art, and its inherent communal nature, this card game is an undisputed glory in the cardboard realm of activities.

Given the card games growing nature, and the emerging advanced technological capabilities by modern computers, Wizards of the Coast published the game “Magic the Gathering: Online.” To be a more accessible form of MTG for those who simply do not want to get outside and get to their local game store, or simply have no friends who play the game, MTGO (Magic the Gathering: Online), is not nearly as popular in 2017 as the card game itself. While its popularity has not stood the test of time unlike its cardboard counterpart, MTGO players still log on every day to match make games with other worldwide players who want to shuffle around virtual cards, cast cyber spells, and engage in a favorite past time.

The game has not only resulted in many fists slammed on tables out of rage, but has its own language, economy, and cultural norms. Players have truly taken the card game and created something completely different, a way of life. As someone who has played the game for over 10 years, I have found community and love within the game. It would be fair to say that MTG is one of the most interesting games to ever be created.

Declare Blockers


Part 2: The Rules

            A large reason this card game, and video game, gains such praise is because of its dynamic and difficult rule set. To go as far as for game stores to require MTG Rule Judges, and the existing profession and levels of MTG Judges, the game is by no means easy to learn. While the game is simple to begin playing, even to this day many long-time players may look down at their cards, then back up to their opponent, and think “can I do this?”

Let us start defining the game along simple terms. In MTG, the goal of the game is to make your opponent lose the game, typically by reducing your opponent’s life total to 0. A player plays mana cards to cast spells to achieve such a task. Each player, given the standard game type, has a deck comprised of 60 cards minimum. A deck can be comprised of any cards the player wants, but usually contains a specific combination of cards to execute a specific strategy to beat the other player.

Given the extremely extensive nature of these rules, I will simply link you to the full comprehensive rules list. I will simply say, have fun reading.


Part 3: Games, Art, and Virtual Cardboard

The art I am focusing on within MTGO is strictly derived from the beautiful, efficient, and deceptively simple nature of the rules. Therefore, I must first convince you, the intelligent and engaging reader, that MTGO is a game.

Utilizing Caillois, a game may be defined as “an activity which is essentially: free (voluntary), separate [in time and place], uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe.” (Juul). Using the term obviously fairly carefully, it can be seen that MTG is, in its game form outside of MTG culture and economy, unproductive, rule governed, and definitely make-believe as the game relies on fantasy. Moving forward, now we can begin to explore the ways to which the games rules, to which I will simply refer to as the rules, have beautifully created efficient, personalized, and artistic game states and worlds.


Part 4: The Stack

“Leo, what are these special fucking rules you keep droning on about?” The shining glory that which is MTGO, and MTG, is its utilization of a gameplay mechanic known as “the stack.” Since this abstract concept is so much more easily shown and played through within MTGO, this is basically the sole reason I am focusing on the glory that which is MTGO’s base rules. Playing through the stack in real time in “real” life can be extremely tedious and, at times, utterly confusing. In MTGO, since it has the capability of being run by a computer, the stack and other gameplay mechanics are effortlessly and easily carried out creating such optimal and beautiful player decision making. So, what is the stack?

The stack is where spells must resolve before entering play. The stack is a liminal space between the player’s hand and the actual play field. One taps mana, to play spells, that which go on the stack to resolve, and then enter the battlefield. Unlike other linear online card games (Hearthstone, Duelyst, etc… ), MTGO allows for what seems like a constant string of actions, reactions, and communication between players. Since there is no other game like it to my knowledge, I have a hard time finding games that live up to the beauty of game play that which is the stack. Thanks to the stack, many, and I mean many, types of decks, cards, and strategies can be played within the game. Playing the game online and being able to fully control, understand, and respond to the information being presented to me so clearly is a hallmark of efficient and fun virtual card game playing.


Specifically, I would like to focus even more on the aesthetics of the stack, and see how such simplicity be boring to some but utterly gripping and beautiful to others. Within the MTGO, the interface has not, since its release in 2002, had a visual update. While some may see this as horrible, I think it yields the perfect experience MTG players are looking for. I revel in the simplicity of the command portal since it is not utterly bombarding me with graphics, things to press, and special effects. Simply I hit an “ok” button when I want the game to move forward, how wonderful.

According to Lauteren, as expressed by Neidenthal,

“Lauteren identifies pleasure with, among other things, resistance to “structures of preference” within a text [30]. In short, these approaches to game enjoyment focus on ways in which games allow us to achieve and maintain particular mental states.” (Neidenthal).

While Neidenthal argues for the lack of explanation of direct sensory experience within Lauteren’s definition of a form of aesthetic, Lauteren’s definition of aesthetic can be a great asset in describing the ways in which MTGO creates a fluid, structured, and universally beneficial playfield for the player.

I cannot stress enough the way in which the computer, and the digital aspect of MTGO, aids the typical MTG to make more coherent, well thought out, and enjoyable decisions when casting spells and playing cards. Playing MTG, in its cardboard form, can be quite confusing and at some times rage inducing to some players. MTGO easily mitigates such confusing by offering such a well framed rule system and framework. If it was not for the computer, and the digital, and video, aspect of MTGO, such a beautiful, well-oiled machine could not function.

Concluding, it is through the digital nature of MTGO that optimal MTG playing can be achieved, played, and enjoyed. MTGO finds artistry within its most core game play feature. Even without wild graphics and a traditionally “pretty” virtual landscape, MTGO is still able to find beauty, artistry, and efficiency within its virtual cards.


Jesper Juul. (2005). “Video Games and the Classic Game Model” in Half-Real: Video Gamesbetween Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press: pp. 23-54. [PDF]

Simon Niedenthal. (2009). “What We Talk About When We Talk About Game Aesthetics.” InDiGRA 2009: Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice and Theory. [http://]


3 thoughts on “Magic the Gathering Online; A Well-Oiled Machine

  1. Very solid post. One of the barriers to entry with card games is the insane level of player knowledge required to go through each stage of play, to understand the application of each card, and to anticipate the next move your opponent will play. Do you think the removal of the face-to-face social element of the online platform is a positive or negative element within the community that card games bring? Should people be encouraged to seek other players, or does this ease of access simply streamline the process and increase accessibility?


  2. “Do you think the removal of the face-to-face social element of the online platform is a positive or negative element within the community that card games bring? Should people be encouraged to seek other players, or does this ease of access simply streamline the process and increase accessibility?”

    I think it acts solely as a positive force. Let me explain why.

    I think the virtualizing of MTG, while indeed removing the face-to-face, does not totally exclude important elements of the social. Yes, the person across from you is not a person but instead a screen, but this does not mean the important facets of communication is lost entirely. I have had many chats during gameplay talking about the cards we played, moves we made, and what we could have done better. What I think happens even more often, since played somewhat anonymously, is players becoming more hostile towards another in communication. I am guilty of this as well. From something as little as sending a pre-emptive “gg” or something even more absurd like plain insults, MTGO makes this type of hostility more easy. If I was playing MTG in person, and the person in front of me was speaking ill about me or my playing, I would have to cast “these hands” on my opponent thus ending the game.

    Here is another key point here.

    Playing MTG is better than NOT playing MTG.

    If you cannot play the card game in person, or are simply to lazy to, online works great.
    If you are a member of your local game store or regularly play with friends, you will probably not touch online.

    I think people should go out and seek players to play with, but MTGO makes that job far easier, especially for new players, or players who just want to play in the comfort of their own chilled naked skin, alone, in their room.


  3. Interesting read, I myself have not been a fan of magic, but i have played other card games like YUgioh or pokemon, but I do not know if those are compatible. What I like to bring out is the MTGO (Magic the Gathering: Online), is not nearly as popular in 2017 as the card game itself. I completely agree with why the online game is not as fun as the card game. Because doing something on the other side of the screen takes out the actual feel of dueling or battling against an opponent face on. It takes out the feel of the game.


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