Magic is a passion for me personally,” John Smedley told me in the offices of Sony Online Entertainment in Denver last December. When Sony asked me to go out to the Mile High City to check out Magic the Gathering Tactics, I expected it would be like any other press event, with controlled game demonstrations and limited access to the actual developers making the game. Those kinds of events are usually a one-way avenue of information from developers to journalists, without us able to speak our minds on whether a game worked or not until whatever we wrote was published. But that’s not what Sony had in store in Denver. The team led by Mark Tuttle has been working diligently the last 18 months or so crafting a game that works on both the tactical level and as a trading card game. Despite all of his experience, Tuttle needed the help of a few experts to perfect the gameplay and internal economy to ensure the game was a success with Magic fans. Who were those experts? Well, me, and a handful of other Magic players. The developers soaked up our feedback and that changed how I thought about the relationship between us players and the people who make the games.

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The desire to make a turn-based tactical game based on the lucrative trading card game all began with SOE’s President and CEO John Smedley, and his love of Magic. “This is a labor of love for us,” Smedley told me. “I play a lot of Magic the Gathering Online, which I think is a great game. I prefer [playing Magic] face-to-face, but I like Magic the Gathering Online because I can play anytime.” That didn’t stop Smedley from pulling out a deck of Magic cards and offering to play anyone who had brought a deck to a match. Unfortunately, or fortunately for the success of SOE’s game, we were all too busy playing MTGT to oblige him.

SOE Denver didn’t start out as part of Sony. Before the studio in Denver was purchased by Sony in 2006, it was called Worlds Apart Productions and focused mainly on helping design physical card games (called paper games by Tuttle’s team) like the Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game, but the team also designed their online counterparts. Since the Sony acquisition, SOE Denver continued making online trading card games based on Sony’s MMOs like Legends of Norrath (based on EverQuest) and the Star Wars Galaxies Trading Card Game. Mark Tuttle leads a team of about 30 employees who’ve been in the TCG business for a long, long time.

“We’ve released thousands and thousands of cards with the combined experience in the studio,” Tuttle told me in his office when I took a break from playing MTGT. “We understand the mindset of the customer. We understand the expectation that when they purchase a product that has ten things inside the box, even a digital box, if you will, there are certain things that you have to deliver on. We want to make sure that when they open the pack, they find out what they have inside is compelling, is exciting and is fun.”

What’s hard to do is to balance all that comes with a trading card game on top of tactical gameplay with which many Magic fans may not be familiar. Tuttle accomplished the balance by having the rules of MTGT not mirror the card game exactly but rather feel inspired by them. “Familiarity is the key,” Tuttle said. “In the card game, Lord of the Pit is a great card. Serra Angel is a great card, Shivan Dragon is a great card. As long as, in our game, those figures are also great and also help you win, I think that will really help the Magic players because they know this brand.”

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It’s precisely because Magic players are so insular that we were brought to Denver in the first place. Tuttle’s team had spent a long time perfecting and iterating MTGT, but his boss Smedley still had misgivings. “MTGT was supposed to launch quite a long time ago, and we held it,” Smedley said. It was a lengthy process and Smedley and others kept saying things like, “It’s not fun enough yet, it’s not fun enough yet, this isn’t cool, this isn’t fun. Let’s get it to the point where we’re all super proud of it.”

With a game like MTGT‘s built-in audience and the ability to make it better after it launches, why didn’t he just pull the trigger? Well, the landscape for such decisions has changed at SOE. “We’ve released games too early,” Smedley admitted. “We’ve simply learned from that mistake. We’ve learned that we don’t see the same financial results as we do when we hold a game and build something that we’re proud of.” Such caution just makes sense in today’s crowded videogame market, and Smedley certainly said that rival MMO company Blizzard’s success was influential in teaching him that fact.

After Smedley’s admission, the specific group of people invited to Denver suddenly made sense. I was there with about fifteen others, some of which came from major game outlets, but most of whom came from Magic fansites who know the game backwards and forwards. These guys not only knew how to use a Black Lotus to beat you on the first turn, they also knew about the economics and personalities of Magic players – from professional tournament players to those who just like to buy a few boosters to throw down with their friends. We were there not to report on this game to our audiences – although that would certainly be appreciated – we were there to report to the designers what we thought of MTGT.

To start, we were treated to a presentation by Mark Tuttle on the interface of the game. Once he showed us the general look and feel of the menu screen, he went over how the trading and store system would work. The Store (or Bazaar as it was called in the game then) would allow you to post your card for sale with a fixed price. Then if another player wanted to buy it, the card would be put in his inventory and you would get the Station Cash (Sony’s currency) or “tickets,” a closed currency for MTGT used to join tournaments and other events. That’s when everyone around the table started speaking up.

“I’m interested to see how it goes, but I think you’re going to find that the players want [peer-to-peer] trade,” said Patrick Jarrett, editor of Mananation.com, and author of a few articles on The Escapist.

“This might be a stupid question, but how much do tickets cost?” asked John Stevens from TCGPlayer. Tuttle responded that they were thinking around 10 cents each.

“I think that will help you a lot,” said a representative from a Magic retail store that was also heavily involved with Magic the Gathering Online. “Because with Magic Online before, there wasn’t a lot of trading because an event ticket was one dollar. So no transaction could take place that was less than a dollar. If you just have an auction house system, you’re going to need a currency below that amount, otherwise so much stuff gets lost.”

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The problem with that is that a draft tournament that costs two dollars or 200 tickets to join, then the idea that one ticket gets you access to something is lost. “Is ticket the wrong word?” asked Tuttle, wondering if the currency should be called something else like “credit.” And here’s the thing, the lead designer of Magic wanted to know what we thought. He implored us to give him feedback and listened to the answers with genuine interest. This wasn’t a press junket, I realized. This was a beta test.

After playing for hours, we all communed in another conference room and told Tuttle and Smedley what we thought about the game. Chris Tremblay, owner of MTGFanatic, couldn’t tell what had just happened in the matches he played. “I don’t play as much as these guys, I guarantee it, and so some of the spells they were casting I was like, ‘I have no idea what it does. I know that it just killed all my creatures but I have no idea what it does,'” he said. It soon became clear that most of the problems that we had with the game had to do with funneling information to the player.

The developers soaked up all of this feedback like a Duskdale Wurm soaks up damage. John Smedley, in particular, was incredibly engaged in asking follow-up questions and explaining why they did certain things. “The good news is that the stuff you guys are complaining about, and that you are absolutely right to complain about, is actually fairly easy to fix,” Smedley said. “It’s cleanup. It’s not like, ‘Oh shit, that’s totally different than how we designed it.’ What other stuff annoys you?”

And we told him. For more than forty minutes, we told him everything we could think of to make the game better. Then, over dinner, we kept talking about the possibilities of Magic the Gathering Tactics and where SOE Denver could take the game. Smedley and Tuttle weren’t actually sure where the playerbase would spend their time. If the single-player campaigns proved popular, they would write more of them. If the audience clamored for peer-to-peer trading or some other feature that the devs couldn’t anticipate, they would consider adding it. A lot of game designers say things like that for online games, expressing platitudes of supporting a game long after launch, but I believe it this time. They proved something by bringing out a bunch of Magic players to get their feedback on a game, and then implementing those changes in the beta I played a week later. Gone were the problems with the interface and inconsistent language. In its place was an elegant strategy game that solved many of the problems we had with our first few hours with Magic the Gathering Tactics. John Smedley and Mark Tuttle’s team at SOE Denver know how to listen to the experts that can give them the most precise constructive criticism on the game. The Protection from Feedback spell blocking communication between developers, players and press was effectively Counterspelled.

Greg Tito was as impressed with John Smedley’s karaoke rendition of James Taylor’s Steamroller Blues as he was with Smed’s Magic deck-building skills.

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