A Brief History of the Magic Online Client
Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO or MODO) was released in 2002, developed by Leaping Lizard Software for Wizards of the Coast (WoTC). The original motivation behind MTGO was to give players access to the game who otherwise would not have it, primarily with the goal of coaxing lapsed players back into playing Magic. But, being able to draft at any time of day proved to be a big hit with many active players as well.
Eventually WoTC relieved Leaping Lizard of development and maintenance responsibilities and took on the job in-house. This was prior to the release of 8th Edition in Summer of 2003. The transition to Version 2 of the client was problematic as crashes became frequent, especially around release events when large numbers of players would log on.
An aside for a brief personal anecdote. Making it through a Mirrodin release event (released in Fall of 2003) without a server crash and with a sufficient number of wins would yield prizes which included a Platinum Angel avatar. Crashes occurred often enough that not many events actually finished and thus the awarded avatar was quite rare. I happened to make it through one and eventually sold my awarded avatar for 42 tix on the classifieds. The premium on angel cards has been around a long time it seems!
The release of Darksteel heralded an even higher frequency of crashes and it was obvious that the client had become more unstable over time. Eventually the WoTC programmers got the client working more smoothly and a relatively stable period resulted. But, development had begun on Version 3 which was promised to be a complete redesign of the client in order to produce a more stable and maintainable piece of software. They also intended to create a brand new user interface.
Approximately three years later, Version 3 was released in the Spring of 2008 and it was a disaster. The redesigned user interface was (and still is) terrible, and the promised stability was not a hallmark of the early days of this client. Additionally, a significant piece of functionality was missing from Version 3 with the removal of Leagues.
This was a popular version of Limited where you would get to play sealed deck for a month. Each week you could add a pack to your pool, subtly changing your card pool week to week. Leagues were a low cost way to play Limited and offered decent prize support to boot. WoTC continues to promise the return of Leagues, but as of yet there is no firm date for their return.
This brings us basically up to the present, where most of the stability issues of Version 3 have been ironed out, the user base continues to grow, and another complete redesign is in the works. The Wide Beta client (Version 4) can be run currently as an alternate client and WoTC has stated that a complete transition to Version 4 will occur in July with Version 3 going dark at that time. If history is any guide and WoTC sticks to their timeline regardless of how stable or usable Version 4 is, the transition will not go well.
The Wide Beta Spotlight
The Wide Beta Spotlight is a two day period where MTGO will only be available through the new client. It will begin next week after the downtime and it will be at that time that Dragon's Maze (DGM) online prereleases will begin. This means that the initial wave of prereleases on Thursday will only be available to those using the new client. On Friday Version 3 will come back online in parallel with Version 4.
For speculators, this period of only being able to use Version 4 should be very interesting. First of all, if the system suffers a decrease in stability, this would be a huge warning sign moving forward. If the servers are not stable and frequent crashes occur, this drives users away from MTGO and will simultaneously reduce demand for cards in general and reduce the supply of cards from the most current draft format.
Although these are competing effects, my experience suggests frequent crashes depress prices in the short term, but will inflate prices in the long term. This pattern occurs because prices eventually recover when WoTC restores stability to the client and players return. But, available supply of the current draft format is permanently reduced, meaning that future price increases can be very rapid and large. The transition to Version 3 occurred right around the release of Shadowmoor so cards from that set (and it's sequel, Eventide) offer a good guide as to how persistent client issues can affect prices.
Have a look at the price history of the filter lands from Shadowmoor compared to the first iteration of filter lands from Odyssey. Cards like Rugged Prairie from Eventide are practically never used in competitive Magic, but regularly carry a price tag in the 2-4 ticket range (chart here). Meanwhile, the older Odyssey filter lands such as Sungrass Prairie can be had for 1 ticket (chart here). Although not a perfect comparison since the lands are functionally different, this indicates what effect an unstable client can have on the supply of cards and thus prices in the long term. The bottom line is that if Version 4 is unstable, be on the lookout for cards from DGM to stockpile cheaply in anticipation of a future, more stable iteration of the client software.
The Wild West
Another potential opportunity with the Wide Beta Spotlight could be found on the classifieds when Version 3 goes temporarily dark next Wednesday. The early reports on the trading interface of Version 4 is that it's riddled with bugs and thus difficult for bot owners to program for. It's possible that the regularly available bots will simply not be present on the classifieds during the Wide Beta Spotlight. If this turns out to be the case, it presents a strong short-term opportunity for speculators.
One of the functions of the larger bot chains is to provide a reference for prices on singles. Although mtgotraders or cardbot might not have the best prices at times, they are large bot chains that give a good approximate price for every card available online. Informed players use this as a benchmark to guide their actions on what price to buy and sell cards at. With the possibility of no bots on the classifieds combined with the release of DGM, a speculator with an eye for value could post a competitive buy price on the classifieds and accumulate some of the new cards at low prices. Once the bots return with Version 3 on Friday, prices will become more predictable and there will be some short term inflation as they buy up cards in order to gather stock.
Profiting on this strategy will require a speculator to dedicate some time to studying the classifieds and identifying cards that are underpriced. This is a skill that builds up with experience and so there is no current recommended target for this strategy. On the evening of Thursday, May 9th, 2013, if you message me in-game, I will let you know in which cards I see value and at what price. My user name on MTGO is 'mattlewis'.
A second strategy which is a bit more predictable is to step into the void created by the lack of bots and sell cards on the classifieds. Players and brewers typically don't do much buying of the cards they will need in advance, so those players who are looking to break Obzedat's Aid will be looking to buy cards like Omniscience and Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker. When they are looking to buy, a good speculator should be looking to sell. Ordinarily for me this means selling to bots once demand increases have triggered price spikes, but this time there might not be any bots. One should be able to charge a premium on these cards when the bots are not online. Without a benchmark to refer to, players will have to pay whatever the market is selling for in order to play with their new toys.
If you are new to speculating, taking advantage of the Wide Beta Spotlight and the potential lack of bots is a somewhat advanced and short-term strategy. It's less predictable than other strategies and so should be approached with some caution. But, there is an easy way to speculate on this if you are interested. I'll be posting an ad to the classifieds on Thursday night, selling Putrefy for 1 ticket each or a play set for 3 tix. Currently these can be bought for 0.25 tix from cardbot, and I think I'll be able to sell a few play sets that night for a small profit.
This is a brief rundown of what I am buying, selling and watching in the market.
- Nothing to sell this week as I have gotten rid of everything worth selling from Return to Ravnica (RTR) and Scars of Mirrodin (SOM) blocks.
- Gatecrash (GTC) boosters have drifted down to around 2.95 and I restarted buying these every day in order to build my stock. I expect prices to rebound in the second half of May and packs are liquid enough that I have no qualms about buying these at the moment. There's no upper limit to how many I would buy at prices less than 3 tix.
- I'll be paying attention to paper tournament results once DGM hits to get a sense for how the Standard metagame might shift.
- And of course I'll be watching how the Wide Beta Spotlight goes.