Magic: The Gathering is a collectible card game known to and loved by nerds everywhere (and it's a game that has also made nerds out of normal, everyday people). The premise is simple: Each player carries a deck of different cards--with magic spells, items, and monsters--which can be played in sequence, and the first player to use those cards to defeat the other player wins. However, the strategy involved in Magic cards is extremely deep, especially since the game offers a huge number of cards to put into your deck. There isn't just a constantly updated "basic set" of standard-issue cards; there have also been a great many "expansions"--additional sets of themed cards that have added new creatures, new items, and new magic spells to the game. Magic publisher Wizards of the Coast decided some time ago to put the game online and has since decided to completely revise it in the form of Magic: The Gathering Online III--a revamped version of the online game that has been developed completely in-house at Wizards. We recently had a chance to take a look at an early version of the new client.
Interestingly, the Magic Online III client will be offered free of charge to download--players will simply have to purchases the cards they'll use for their decks. The new online game will launch with all the most recently available cards and sets, and there are also plans in place to distribute older card sets dating back to the Mirage expansion pack from 1996. Even now, the Wizards team is working on new card expansions--we're told that at this point, the publisher has streamlined the process for getting new printed cards online to the extent that new online cards are available about four weeks after they hit print (to make sure there are no problems with information leaks). The new Magic Online III client will offer a brand-new, fully 3D interface with improved networking functionality. Apparently, the plan is to host the game on master servers in Wizards' home state of Washington, as well as to host it on redundant servers on the East Coast of the US.
The new client has been revamped mainly to cut out side menus and expand the size of the playing board in the center of the screen. The built-in instant messenger has also been improved. Now it lets you keep a buddy list on the side, and you can even detach, resize, and move the messenger window around. Though the game still offers context-sensitive explanations and card and gameplay descriptions, this text has been minimized to run along the top and bottom of the screen in much smaller gutters that obscure less of the board. And thanks to the game's new 3D engine, you'll be able to scroll around and zoom in on individual cards to check their descriptions (including their exact wording, if you're a stickler for the rules), as well as to admire their fantasy artwork. In addition, the new client will offer all-new 3D avatars--the iconic characters that represent players sitting at card tables in the online lobby. These new 3D avatars will include revamped versions of existing favorites, such as the Royal Assassin and the Fallen Angel, and will feature full playing and idle animations.
The new client will also offer several other amenities--a revamped collection binder to store your online collection, advanced sorting features, and new deck-editing tools that should help make the process of building a killer deck much quicker. In addition, the new client will integrate the Magic Online store so that you'll be able to purchase cards without having to leave the game (previously, you had to fire up a Web browser and make your purchase there). The new integrated store will also continue to offer paper redemption for your online collection--if you own specific card sets online, you'll be able to "cash out" by trading them for their paper equivalents. Once again, this only applies toward "current" sets, as Wizards tends to discontinue sets from redemption after a period of time.
In addition to these amenities, the launch of Magic Online III will bring with it an increased focus on customer service. The client will still offer tutorials to new players, as well as a new "free trial" server that lets you walk through games with pre-created decks. However, with the new client, Wizards will also offer more-comprehensive online help with Magic Online Mentors, actual customer service staff who will be available online at all hours of the day to help explain rules and coach new players on the fine art of building new decks to play. Magic Online III sounds like it will offer welcome new functionality for both beginners and experts alike. The game is scheduled to go into beta in the next few months and to launch in the second quarter of the year.