Recurring Nightmares – Beta Max

This week was supposed to be the week where you were forced to test out the new MTGO Client—the Open Beta. This came about in the wake of the announcement that as of this summer, the full transition to the Beta client would be made, and players would no longer be able to use the old client (the “Alpha,” or Alpha client).

At the time of the announcement, I was one of the 70% of Online players who had not tried the Beta Client, but I could tell that the writing was on the wall, and it was time to try the new MTGO in order to get a feel for the way the system works before there’s no turning back.

I was jarred when I first opened the program after downloading, because the interface is vastly different from the Alpha client, and there were a LOT of new things to absorb.

I’ve never been one to read how to use a software system. I’m the kind of user who wants to dive in and figure it out for himself, and then figure out what I don’t know, and then read how to learn or fix those gaps. So I played with the client for a while, and lost a bunch of tix because I didn’t understand how to properly use the system. I also had some difficulty with some of the simpler UI tasks that seemed easy in the Alpha, but very complicated in the Beta.

And yet, the more I use the Beta client, the more I like it.

Change is difficult, and it can cause a lot of friction when you ask a whole world of players to do even something relatively painless—let alone reinvent their Magic experience entirely. To sooth that transition, I’m hoping to give you some of my insight into the Beta client, show you some of the things I like about it compared with the Alpha, and point out some of the areas for improvement.

Before jumping into the specifics of the client itself, there is a point you should be aware of. While the Alpha client is entirely self-contained, that’s not true of the Beta. It’s a Windows-based system, and I don’t mean that it only runs on Windows (it only runs on Windows). Each of the new scenes you open will be in a new Window, which can be a little hard to juggle for players not familiar with this structure.

In a game, for example, your main screen is one window, your game is a second, and your chat field is in a third. For a player like myself, who is utilizing a dual monitor setup, this is fantastic, as it gives you much more room to work with on my desktop, and a better view of the game itself. I get to effectively “minimize” the chat log, while actually keeping it open on another screen. I can also switch to my deck list on the Home window, and keep it up while looking at my game simultaneously. Of course, were I not on the dual monitor setup, this could be painful, but fortunately it can be mitigated to some extent by docking the chat window in the Game window—and you get to select any side of the screen (top and bottom included) to dock the chat field to.

With that out of the way, let’s dive into the client itself.

We’ll begin where you begin when you log on to the Beta—at the Home screen.

Much like the Alpha Client, the Home screen is intended to give you the latest news and announcements regarding MtGO, as well as display your buddy list. Unlike the Alpha Client, it also shows a selection of featured events and times they begin.

It’s here we find my first bone of contention with the Beta—the buddy list.

As you see above, the buddy list is the lower half of the screen, with an icon-based interface to show which buddies are online and which are not. Here, you can see a close-up shot of that section.

(Names will be redacted as much as possible to protect those who were not consulted in writing this article.)

As you can see, there’s a small red dash in the lower right corner of each of these icons. This means the user (Feb31st, in this case) is not online. When the user is online, there is a green circle in that corner. From right-clicking on the icon, you can see the “Private Chat” selection is grayed out. Why, then, is their avatar shown? And why are there a bunch of avatars which are grayed out? There’s no rhyme or reason why one avatar appears and another does not, and it has no correlation to the online presence of a user.

To me, it would be better to gray out the avatars of the offline users, and have the avatars of online users shown. This is easier to see at a glance, and much less confusing than a mishmash of on and off avatars.

The issues with the buddy list don’t end there. If you move your cursor to the upper-right corner of the screen, and click the “Chat” dropdown, you can choose to begin a new chat session with a member of your buddy list—maybe.

Though I have sixty or so contacts in my buddy list, only about half of them fit into the selection window as shown above. There is no scroll bar or method of selecting a buddy that isn’t shown in those thirty names. There is no discernible organization pattern to the names. As you can see, the online and offline members are mixed in, with no appreciable arrangement.

So far, we’ve only looked at a single screen, and we’re already finding issues. Let’s press on, and see if we can’t uncover more interesting things.

Across the top of the screen is a navigation bar. This allows us to find our way around the program, much in the way that the bottom tabs in the Alpha Client allowed. While we could move linearly across, I’d rather take an intuitive approach—so let’s take a look at the “Account” screen.

This is a natural feeling screen if you’re familiar with other types of software. The list on the left side of the screen shows your different option screens, much like many websites do. The right gives you your selections. The billing and shipping defaults are shown here, as they require your password to change. It’s as good a place as any, I suppose.

This page appears to be most like your “Options” screen from the Alpha.

Switching to the “Game History” page, you can see your recent past games, and watch replays. For whatever reason, Limited games aren’t included in my game history, despite having played in drafts on the Beta earlier in the day I took these screen caps. You can filter these games by a number of choices, which will be a recurring theme as we move through the Beta.

This page is a marked improvement over the previous version of the software. Having a dedicated page, rather than a tabbed sidebar, means you have better access to more information about your game history.

The only complaint I have about this page is that the default display is your newest game listed last, and even if you change that view, it will default back to that filtering when you leave this screen and return.

The next tab is a new one, the “Input Settings.”

Here you can manipulate your hotkeys, which is something you did not have the ability to configure in the Alpha client. Even more simply put, the hotkeys are actually laid out here, rather than having to guess what each function key does or be told by other users. I had no idea what F8 did until I saw someone else use it in a video, and it’s one of the most useful keys you have. The same goes for F7. Now, you know.

The “In-Duel Setting” screen is mostly where you set your stops, as well as disabling the extremely annoying “Miracle Bluff,” and enable the Red Zone (which really just disables the animation from popping up every combat). It is nice that they’ve split the 1-v-1 and multiplayer stops, so you don’t need to keep hitting ok a thousand times a round.

I’ve skipped the “Buddies, Groups and Chat” screen, because it’s particularly redundant to the Home screen.

The meat and potatoes of the Account window—where you pick your theme, turn down your sounds, and select how you see the physical cards during games and when browsing your collection.

I cannot stress this enough—set your theme to either Gideon (default) or Nicol Bolas. NOTHING ELSE. There are a number of reasons.

First, switching between themes (to test them out, for example) takes no less than six seconds each—three to actually select the theme, and three to switch the display.

Second, the themes are actively painful to look at. Here’s a nice look at the “Rakdos” theme on a screen we’ll get to in a few:

Some of you may be interested in looking at the output of a Windows 3.1 spreadsheet program, but personally, I can’t handle all the bright on dark and white on bright. Most of the themes resemble this in various forms.

The third issue I have with the theme selection is that none of them actually change the way the program looks. They’re skins that switch the color of some minor background pieces and text colors around, but none of them allow you to do something as simple as change the backdrop of your play area (like the playmats in the Alpha client). I assume you’d be spending the majority of the time on the program in the Play screen, and the navigation bar is the major change between themes. Why bother?

From here on out, I’m in the Nicol Bolas theme, since it was the least offensive to my eyes, and most subtle after the default.

The last three screens on the Account tab are the three you’ll probably never have to deal with, so we’ll skip them for time. Let’s move on to the Store.

First of all, this is the fastest loading page in the entire program, which is a complete 180 from the Alpha client. It’s like they recognized that the faster you get into this screen, the more quickly they can take your money.

To that end, they managed to put the shopping cart, the checkout, and the payment info all on one page. This is both a great and a terrible thing. For me, having those extra barriers to my credit card was one of the only things stopping me from blowing inordinate amounts of money on Magic Online, and I’m worried I’m going to bankrupt myself. More realistically, it’s very convenient to get everything all in one shot, and it’s about as close to one-click checkout as we’re likely to see.

The storefront is pretty to look at, because the packaging is highlighted, and the category settings are much more intuitive than they were in the Alpha. Another marked improvement from the last client—and I’m sure that was a major focus, since it’s literally where the money comes from.

Let’s say you don’t want to buy from the store. You have a bunch of tickets or cards, and you want to get them off your account for more useful ones. Fortunately, there’s a Nav Tab for that—Trade.

This page is very similar to the way the Classifieds worked in the Alpha Client. You can search for keywords, or you can select a user from your buddy list or your clan to trade with. There’s a new way to select, which is by your recent previous trade partners. If you frequent a particular Bot, you can select them after the first time you successfully trade.

This is also the window for adding an item to the Classifieds.

This is also where you choose which binder you’re trading from. And down the rabbit hole we go.

In the Alpha client, all of your collection was located in the same place. You had one collection, one binder, and many, many pages on which the cards were displayed. If you wanted to look for a card, you could just look for it. If you knew what set it was from, you could sort by that set or select that page, and there you were. Of course, if you had two versions of a card, you were out of luck, unless you knew exactly where to find them. Sorting was a bit of a pain, but it was serviceable.

That isn’t how things work anymore.

I’ll get back there in a moment, but first let’s look at an actual trade:

Much like the Alpha Client, you get to see the cards in your partner’s collection, and they in yours. You pick what you want, and they pick what they want, and you’ll be required to submit your trade once both parties are satisfied.

The functionality of the actual trade itself has not changed. This is good, because it was fairly intuitive before, and muddling it up a bunch serves nothing.

Let’s move on to the Collection screen, and get back to the binder issue.

This is your collection. This is your deck editor. This is your everything.

I have to admit something. I have no idea how this page is supposed to work.

I can tell that when you want to select a particular kind of card, there are filters to do so. Color, format, etc. All the filters you could ever want.

I can tell that there’s a nice tab for “Other Products,” where I can take a look at all the War Marks I can’t get rid of.

I don’t have a clue why some of the cards are dark, and others are bright. I have no idea what the numbers in the lower left corners of the card imply. I mean, I get that I have 1 [card]Boseiju, Who Shelters All[/card], but I don’t really understand why there are two numbers on some cards, and none on others.

I have some assumptions—but these are ideas I’ve worked out based on playing around with the interface, not by any intuitive grasp of what WotC intends for them.

My guess is that the cards go dark when you’ve added all of those in your collection to the current deck. The white number is how many are available to add to the deck, and the second is the number of them in the deck. The total number you own would always be the sum of these two numbers.

Why? Is it really that important that you let me know how many I have left to work with? Why don’t they just disappear when I’ve used them all in the deck?

The answer is binders. Binders and binders and binders.

Because this is both the Collection screen and the Deck Editor rolled into one, they don’t want you to ever have a card disappear from the collection part unless you really get rid of it. Since you can have a card in multiple decks and in multiple binders, you just see it blacked out when it’s unavailable in the current view.

Earlier we mentioned trading. Instead of “make this available for trade,” you now have a “Trade Binder,” which is effectively a deck of unlimited size that you bring into a trade with you. When you want to add a card to this binder, there are a number of ways to do it (right clicking, dragging, etc.), but it’s effectively the same as adding it to a trade deck. This is the way you add tickets to the trade list, as well.

It’s not all that different from the way it worked in the Alpha, but it’s a pain to get used to doing it this way, and is VERY confusing if you’re making the switch to the new client from the old.

The other thing I’ve noticed about this screen is that not every deck from your old client’s Net Decks folder will automatically switch over. You may need to rebuild a deck or three.

These are all relatively minor issues, in my mind, despite the fact that they add up. Sure, the chat functionality needs some work, but even if you couldn’t talk to another player at all, you’d still use MTGO. We’re here to play Magic, not to IM. So how about we get to Magic?

The “Play” tab. It’s where the games are at.

This is where you’ll find your queues. The Limited ones, the Constructed ones, the casual ones—they’re all here.

To navigate this maze of play, you’ll mostly be focused on the left hand panel—the Play Lobby.

The lobby allows you to select your game type by simply following the order of choices as they’ve laid them out:

1) Choose a game type—Constructed (competitive, or for stakes), Limited, or Constructed Open Play (casual, or free)
2) Choose how your event begins—the choice between 2- or 8-man queues, or scheduled events. For Limited play, this can mean Release events.
3) Choose a deck.

It’s pretty simple.

The rest of the Lobby is intended to allow you to refine the displayed events in the right hand portion of the window. You can filter by format, if you are looking to play some Standard, you don’t have to scroll past Commander games, etc. These options change, depending on what type of event you’re looking to join (based on your selections in the above options).

Let’s assume you want to draft. Most of us do. You make the right selections, and you choose to enter a Cube draft (or whatever). If you’re familiar with the Alpha client, things are about to change.

The first thing you’ll note—you can see the names of the players in your queue before you actually start the draft. That’s a pretty interesting difference, but overall it shouldn’t impact your decision to enter a draft or not.

This is the new interface within the draft itself. It looks markedly different from what you’re used to. There are still 15 cards, and there’s still a spot for your picks, with plenty of ways to sort them, but there are some changes. Now you can see where you are in the table. You can also see how many picks each player has made, which means you know where the road blocks are. Beyond that, the interface for selection and the organization of past picks are quite different.

I picked Jace.

This is a snapshot of me right-clicking on the [card]Greater Gargadon[/card] in P1p2. You can see that this function has changed. In the Alpha, you would “reserve” a pick by right-clicking. Now, you have two ways to do that. You can right-click, and choose “reserve,” or you can drag the card part of the way down the screen, into the white area next to the timer. This will reserve the card, but not add it to your pool. The middle click zoom function is the same.







A bit further in the draft now, and you can see that despite the fact that there’s no way to hide cards you’ve drafted, you are able to move them to the sideboard, where they won’t clutter your picks. The amazing (and really, it shouldn’t feel amazing) update to this functionality is that you can have your cards sorted by mana cost, and then MOVE the cards to where they actually should go. So, for example, a [card]Gathan Raiders[/card] can be moved to the three-mana slot, rather than the five. Obviously this is something that should have been possible ages ago—but it’s finally here.

The deckbuilding screen post-draft is very similar to the one you’re likely used to, with the deck on bottom, board on top configuration. The nice thing is that it’s ported directly from the draft, so if your deck is pretty much already built at the end of the draft, you don’t have to start over.

There are two things worth mentioning here. First, the “Add Basics” button is FAR away from the Submit button, which may confuse you at first. Second, if time expires and your deck is legal to play (40-card minimum, etc.), it will auto-submit. That means we’re less likely to see people like Brian Kibler play a 70-card deck in game one because they forgot to submit while recording. It may also mean you’ll take the full 10 minutes more often for deckbuilding, because players will seize the opportunity to grab a drink or a bathroom break while the clock ticks down.

In the middle of the draft (between rounds), you’ll have a new window to look at, which will show the match results of each of the other players in the draft. This is pretty similar to what we used to see with the standings page, but it gives a more intuitive breakdown of players, with expandable results:



Now, the gameplay itself is quite different in many ways, but I want to start by showing you the slight difference in joining a specific game. In the Alpha client, you just double-click on a particular game in the selection area, and you have a window pop up that says you’re joined. Then you wait for the host to start the game, and you play (all of this applies to casual games. Competitive queues are a little more streamlined). In the Beta client, double-clicking on a game will bring up this window:

Where you’ll need to click once more on “join game” to actually begin. When you do this, you’ll see the button on the screen change to a timer, and the round begins when the timer hits 0. It’s about 3 seconds.

This is a subtle difference between the Alpha and Beta clients—but when there are still players on both platforms, you can get your games sniped by a player who only has to click once. Kind of an odd occurrence, but it is possible.

Welcome to the new game play screen. And BOY is it brown. Here I’ve shown it as a pair of windows, with the chat window in the familiar right-hand position. As I said at the beginning, you have much more flexibility with the positioning of this chat now, so if you’re more comfortable with it in another location, you’re free to put it where you want.

One slight change with the move to the multi-window approach is that closing the game screen concedes the match. This is fine, since they require confirmation before you can exit the window to prevent accidental concessions, but it was odd that I couldn’t find a *right-click, concede match* button before I figured that out.

Note that the mulligan decision question is VASTLY improved from the Alpha client. No more accidentally shipping a hand you wanted to keep, or keeping when you didn’t mean to. Your choices are “mulligan,” or “keep.” It doesn’t get much more clear than that.

The next thing to note is that the game phases are now along the bottom of your battlefield, rather than along the left side of it, as they were in the Alpha. This takes only a little getting used to, and it’s actually quite a bit easier to tell where your stops are on the new client, as they’re represented by the white arrows above and below the phases—denoting which player’s turn they refer to.

There are four boxes (three with icons) on the right side of the screen for each player. These represent the “revealed cards,” the “exiled Zone,” the “shields,” and the “command zone” for each player, and once they’re populated with cards, you can expand these zones to see the cards they contain. This was a little difficult to get a feel for, especially when your opponent reveals cards first, and you have to manually expand the view area to see the card they revealed. The shields zone represents any regeneration or damage prevention effects that are active, and will have a pseudo-card to denote them.

The hand, deck, life total, and graveyard info is a straight port from the Alpha client, but the graveyard itself is laid out for each player in the area between the avatars. Essentially, your graveyard is always expanded into that region of the screen.

The small window at the bottom right of the above cap is a pop-up that tells you that some action has occurred. You can control which of these you’ll see, and they’re pretty nice for reminding you that a game is going on if you’ve navigated away from that window.

In this screenshot, you see two important items. First, the orientation of the cards on the battlefield is centered, rather than left aligned as it is in the Alpha client. While this does eliminate the dead space that plagued the right side of the battlefield in the Alpha, it seems like kind of a waste of space in and of itself in the Beta—but it replicates the way you’d play in a live event much better. I’d be interested in functionality that allowed you to align the cards on the screen as you choose (not like, snap them to a grid or anything, but to just choose R, L, or C), but that’s such a minor nit to pick that it barely registers.

The second item is an ability being placed on the stack. Here, my [card]Bojuka Bog[/card] is highlighted on the battlefield, and the ability pops into a new transparent window where the functionality is similar to that on the Alpha client. The interesting thing to note here is that there’s no way to be sure how big or small the “ability card” will be in that transparency until you actually see one. I’ve had them this size, minuscule, and quite large, and there’s apparently no real consistency to it, beyond the fact that in a specific game, they’ll remain the same. You can also see my commander being displayed in the command zone on the right of the screen.

In this final screen cap, you can see a bit more of a cluttered board, which displays the size of each of the elements on the field. This is the largest you’ll see the cards—there’s no more ENORMOUS [card]Dryad Arbor[/card] when you play it first for turn 1.

Again, the highlighted cards have activated abilities that could (theoretically) be played, which is obviously a good thing for you to recognize.

Overall, I have to say that I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of the Beta Client. It has some real issues, and the aesthetic design leaves a whole lot to be desired. On the other hand, there are a number of marked improvements over the Alpha client, and the bugs are being worked out continually. Once you gain some experience with the program, it runs quite smoothly, and the game play itself is very similar to how you’d expect it to work as a player familiar with the live game and Alpha client.

My number one gripe at this time is completely transparent to the screen shots, and something you need to experience to understand. The Beta Client is a resource hog, and eats a ton of computing power when in use. Combining it with any other kind of software (Spotify, for example), creates a TON of lag, and you end up running incredibly slowly, despite having a lot of processing power and bandwidth available. You have to worry about your clock far more in the Beta client, because the slow response rate means you take longer to do basic tasks, and you can find yourself timing out much more frequently than you may be used to. I consider myself a fairly rapid player online, and have only timed out once or twice in the Alpha client—but I’ve done so more than a couple times on the Beta, with no discernible difference in my play speed. In my opinion, if you’re single-queuing, and sitting at your desk playing actively (meaning not going AFK), you should never be at risk of timing out. With the Beta, you are. This is something that must be corrected before a full roll-out, because it will be the number one complaint across the board, and cost people actual money when it really shouldn’t. I don’t mind a bit of processor and bandwidth use for a robust program like MtGO, but this is excessive.

I hope you all found this interesting and helpful if you’re just starting to use the Beta client, or thinking about making the jump. The earlier you adopt the new software, the better you’ll be at playing with it once you are forced to, so don’t wait too long before giving it a shot. It’s being improved every week, and sometimes more often than that; and the focus of the digital team is now on this client, rather than the old one.

I’m certain there are nuances or details within the client that I haven’t touched on, and if there are any specific questions you have I’d be happy to try and answer them. I’ve been playing solely on the Beta since I downloaded it, and am beginning to get a real feel for the way it works. I’d be happy to share any of those experiences with you moving forward.

If you have any specific improvements you like about the new client, or SPECIFIC bugs or issues you want to bring up, feel free to leave those in the comments as well. I’m sure Worth and the team will see this article, and be paying close attention to any constructive feedback you guys have to give, so be polite, be concise, and be specific, and you may see some real action based on your experiences.

If you want to see the client in action without the need to download and navigate yourself (in the short term), I’ll be streaming exclusively on the Beta client from here on out, so check that out and follow me on twitch to know when I’m live. I’ll be trying to win a trip to Ireland this weekend, so I may be spotty here and there, but I’ll try to get some of the prerelease for DGM on there for you guys if I get the chance.

Don’t forget to share your experiences with the beta, and see you next week!



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