M.O.: Magic Online or Manners Optional?

Feature Article from Jay Schneider
Jay Schneider
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Neither I nor Brainburst regularly write social articles. Brainburst is an M:tG strategy site and I’m an M:tG strategy author. Random flammage about social issues is mostly useless (ignoring the personal benefits of venting) and I’m too busy to go tilting at windmills when there are decks to discuss. Occasionally though there’s an issue that can’t be ignored, one that disrupts player’s abilities to play M:tG, one that public attention can help resolve. The issue of sportsmanship on Magic Online (MTGO) is one of those.

Like many of the Brainburst readers, I play on MTGO. It’s a great interface for drafting, practicing constructed, and otherwise working on play skills with players of all play strengths. Like many of my friends, I’ve encountered jerks online. People who lack the ability to engage in polite conversation. Other players who have a recurring connection issue that disconnects them from a game when they’re just about to receive lethal damage. I’ve generally ignored these people and their actions, thinking it was just a fact a life and par for the course in online games.

What made me realize this was a real issue - not just the occasional rude players - was a column written by Robert Coffey. Robert is a senior writer at Computer Gaming World (CGW), the Ziff-Davis PC-Gaming magazine, and writes the back page issues column. In the most recent issue (July 2003) he wrote a column “Scorched Earth”, where he discusses the player social interactions on MTGO and he isn’t exactly favorable. Phrases like calling MTGO “the roughest toughest destination on the Internet” and comparing the average MTGO player to “a crybaby Lee Marvin in diapers”. When the national gaming media takes notice of the poor sportsmanship of Magic players, the M:tG community should also.

Before going on I’d like to recommend you read Robert’s Scorched Earth article. Robert and Ziff-Davis were kind enough to give us reprint rights on Brainburst for his column. I’d like to thank him and ZD for this and recommend that y’all take a look at Computer Gaming World – it’s a great magazine and the reason I initially saw his article is I subscribe to CGW.

So, please before continuing on with this article please follow the link and read:

Robert Coffey’s “Scorched Earth” originally printed in CGW July 2003, number 228. Reprinted on Brainburst with permission of the author & copyright holders.

So, now with that overly long introduction done, I’d like to look at the issues and discuss ways in which we can address them as players, as a community, and what Wizards of the Coast could do to help.

What are the inappropriate behaviors occurring on MTGO?

Given the large body of anecdotal evidence and expert testimony on the subject, it’s clear that a problem exists. To refine this problem further, this behavior can generally be broken down into the following anti-social behaviors:

  1. Inappropriate language: I’m not a fan of language filters or any blanket restrictions on free speech. However, I also don’t consider abusive terminology directed at another player to be appropriate behavior in the MTGO community. Verbal abuse, whether by obscenities or just abusive phrasing is not an activity that should be considered acceptable. Examples include: streams of obscenities (English or 1337 speak), degrading the opponent's play or person, and threats.
  2. Abuse of interface: Many MTGO players will do things to “spam” the opponent's screen. This is sometimes done to be annoying, to run down the clock, or in an attempt to “trick” the opponent into making an incorrect “click”. Examples include: spurious activation of abilities (some of which can’t be ignored) such as activating Circles or Mistforms 15 or 20 times/turn.
  3. Initiating chat dialogs in the attempt to change the focus of a user's input (this can cause improper selection of creature type during resolution of a spell.)
  4. Abuse of clock: This includes the range of clock “tricks” that some players do. This includes dropping the connection a click or two prior to lethal damage, making you and everyone else in the tournament wait 10 minutes before continuing - Warning! Some players will reconnect 9 minutes later and click O.K. just to make sure you’ve been sitting there waiting the entire time. This also includes people in casual no-time limit rooms who just leave there terminal and force their opponent to “Concede” the game.

This article will ignore issues relating to fraud & trade violations, which while a legitimate problem, are beyond the scope of what is to be addressed here.

Are the anti-social behaviors of players harmful?

Let’s look at a scenario: Imagine that you are a new player, having just gotten your free online starter deck. With your casual-play Magic background and no experience with the MTGO interface, you head off to find your first game. You go into the casual room; your first opponent is a player who uses many of the above-mentioned anti-social behaviors. You are verbally abused, you spend much of the game clicking “OK” for no apparent reason and you can’t figure out how to complete your game, (aside from quitting the program all together). So, there you sit, for 5, 10, 15 minutes, not doing what the original objective of the game is… to have fun. After this happens 2 or 3 times in a row, would you really want to invest your real world dollars for online digital cards?

Given this scenario, we should consider what the effects are of such activities. They’re clearly disruptive to the community. They create an environment that is unappealing to many of regular players and absolutely hostile to new players. When a new player goes online, plays their first match and has to deal with a rude player, it makes an impression. An impression that will drive them to another online community.

So are the social issues discussed here going to keep the Kai’s and other PT Veterans away from MTGO? No. But it is going to keep those players away who bear the majority of the costs for keeping MTGO “live”. Without the casual and new players, the PT player won’t be able to play either as the system costs will be excessive. Initially this will lead to slower/negative growth and eventually the abandonment of MTGO. So it’s clear that anti-social behaviors threaten all players that desire to play MTGO.

Why are the social interactions on MTGO so bad?

Before considering a solution, it’s important to consider what causes these interactions. Considering the expert evaluation from CGW has equated MTGO as the online game with the worst online behavior, it seems unlikely that it’s simply the issue of mediated communication (typing online) as opposed to face-to-face communications. After all the MTGO communications tools while not the best are far from the worst in online gaming.

However, the interface/social system design of MTGO at a minimal doesn’t encourage and seems to discourage positive social behaviors. It’s well known that proper interface design can augment and improve social behaviors in a virtual community. However, the MTGO reward system and interface is set up to encourage insular activity and personal gain, as opposed to social interactions and the public good.

Consider the limited social interaction tools provided by the MTGO interface. There’s the “ignore user” feature. This is the only tool users are provided with to handle users who you don’t want to communicate with at the current moment. Is an ignore tool needed? Certainly. However as the only tool it’s overkill. It’s akin to providing people with a gun as the only method of conflict resolution. I don’t try to hide my MTGO online presence as I’m glad to talk to Brainburst readers. But sometimes I’m preoccupied and someone wants to chat. I’m focused on drafting, a game, etc. The only tool I has a low cognitive load is to ignore them.

Another tool that has implementation issues is the MTGO buddy list. MTGO doesn’t grant you approval rights on being added or even awareness of who has added you to their buddy list. This can lead to online stalking, people hiding their identities or players with multiple online accounts.

This isn’t meant to be a list of social interaction interface flaws on MTGO. These are simply a couple of examples that people strongly suggested I include. With that said, the interface problems issues although existent, aren’t enough to make a senior CGW writer equate the MTGO community with the bottom of the barrel for online behavior. Many other online communities have made these same mistakes and their communities are considerably more social.

Another possible explanation is the tournament environment in which Magic is played in the real world. Let’s be honest, a Magic tournament is not the most refined of social engagements nor are most serious Magic play groups what anyone would define as “polite society”. This has been attributed to, but is also symptomatic of, the lack of female players in Magic Tournaments. Especially considering that there are many more female players in causal play.

This makes it very telling that MTGO also has a lower ratio of women than occur in other online communities. The ratio of female players on MTGO is more closely related to the numbers in Magic tournaments as opposed to those who play casual M:tG This makes the argument that the negative social aspects from the M:tG tournament scene in the real world is carrying over into the online game.

Another interesting argument is the structure of Magic itself encourages anti-social behaviors. Most online games have a component of rewarded or mandatory social behavior be it the requirements for reputation points in games like Everquest or default alliances in Dark Age of Camelot. Magic is very much a 2 go in 1 comes out (0 sum game) and tournaments are scaled versions of this be it 8, 16 or 256 players with a single “winner”.

A last argument is the lack of outside enforcement for social interactions. On June 10th Blizzard has just done a sweep of their Battle.net and closed 112,000 accounts for violations of their End User License Agreement. I don’t know of a single case of MTGO closing an account for inappropriate behavior. I’m sure there have been some but there aren’t enough for the deterrent factor to help impose social standards. This is also a legacy from real life Magic where behavior that would result in expulsion or bannings by the authorities is often overlooked or ignored.

My belief is the problem isn’t due to a single factor but rather an unfortunate combination of these factors.

So what can we do about the problem?

As players we are far from helpless to handle anti-social behavior. As a group we specify what acceptable behavior is and as individuals we can certainly help to guide the community in the right direction.

Patrick Swayze in Road House gave several behavioral rules to his staff of bouncers in the roughest toughest bar in the county. This advice seems strangely appropriate for the “roughest toughest destination on the Internet”. His advice was as follows.

  • "Be nice, be nicer, and continue to be nice.” No matter how inappropriate their behavior, keep a (virtual) smile on. Don’t retaliate to flaming or inappropriate behavior. Many issues can be kept from escalating.
  • "Be polite.” Don’t flame at your opponent because you were mana hosed, mana flooded, they top decked etc. If you’d like to say hi, gg (shorthand for good game) or gl (good luck) do so. And if you’re opponent wishes you “gl” and says “gg” it’s just polite to do the same. The issue isn’t the depth of your meaning behind these phrases but rather contributing to a social structure that is of benefit to both players in a match. It’s part of Magic that isn’t a 0 sum game.
  • Don’t handle problems alone. If a player insists on being a nuisance or engages in overly anti-social behavior tell an Adept. Also, follow the Adept recommendation if they request that you file a report with magic online conduct.

So what can Wizards do about the problem?

Wizards of the Coast, as the operator of MTGO, have a strong responsibility to its customers, the players of MTGO, to address these issues. Failure to do so will cost them money in both the short and long run. It will also lead to the loss of the virtual cards and the virtual Magic play environment that so many players have enjoyed. To resolve these issues Wizards must address the technical issues, the social issues and create technical artifacts that will support desired social structures.

The first action Wizards could take is to enforce the rules as they exist. MTGO’s Code of Conduct includes the DCI Universal floor rules. Section 42 of the Floor Rules is Unsportsmanlike Conduct. The conduct occurs; the penalties are clearly spelled out. So why aren’t the penalties applied now? Section 43 of the Universal Floor Rules is Slow Play – not making a game play action in order to time a game out (say by dropping a connection) is clearly slow play (and stalling) by the DCI rules. The DCI rules must be applied leading to warnings, game losses, tournament expulsions and eventually banning accounts. The rules are there. The judges are there (Adepts). The Adepts should be trained to and allowed to handle social problems using the guidelines that already exist.

This also holds for complaints. When a complaint is filled with Magic Online Conduct

it can be looked into. Not just a nod that we have received your complaint. They also need to be informed that investigation has been completed and the issue resolved. There are logs of all actions on Magic Online. The people at Magic Online Conduct need to be given the manpower and resources to resolve complaints; otherwise you will discourage players from bringing forward abusive behavior complaints.

In addition to enforcing the rules of conduct there are technical solutions that can be added to help with the social issues. Here’s a small wish list some are simple others would need to wait for a new release:

  • Fix the bugs that encourage socially inappropriate behavior (ex. the focus bug mentioned previously), the draw offer bug etc.
  • Examine the disconnect timer. 10 minutes of inactivity is too long. Also, even on the no-time limit casual games there should be an inactivity timer
  • A reputation system. This doesn’t need to be (and shouldn’t be) similar to EBays where players rate each other. However, Adepts should be able to give “demerits” to players who behave inappropriately. Also, demerits could be automatically assigned for certain behaviors that are known to be anti-social (ex. if a player times out in a game and hasn’t taken any action in the last 3 minutes they are automatically assigned a demerit.) Demerits would expire over time but having an inappropriate number of demerits should prevent you from taking certain actions – ex. trading cards or playing in premier events.
  • A voice system. Some virtual games are inappropriate for voice. M:tG is not one – it’s far better suited to voice communications than the IRC chat that it uses.
  • Increase the prizes for multiplayer and “fun” environments. Encouraging multiplayer and casual play is the key to developing a social environment. In the real world there are many women who play magic, mostly casual or multiplayer but very few who play tournament magic. Encourage social play environments
  • Have an interface review, to focus on issues that will augment community development. Wizard's headquarters is about 6 miles from Microsoft where the Microsoft Games group is located. A group which produces truly massive online games and successful communities like Asheron's Call. I know first hand than many of the Microsoft Games people are M:tG players. Hire a few of the experts from MS Games as consultants to review the interface.


There are problems on MTGO. To ignore them would be foolish. It hurts the player base. The people who are the future players of MTGO, future Wizards of the Coast players and it threatens the future of the game of Magic. I hope this discussion will help to resolve the issues presented.

As always I owe a great deal of thanks to the Mtgtech team and my local Redmond team the Samurai of the Food Court for their feedback on this article.

Jay Schneider in addition to being an M:tG player is also a leading researcher in the field of wearable communities. He has established several large virtual communities that have grown to include several thousand players and have lasted over 10 years.

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