"Digital" Magic: The Gathering
When I first heard about SpellTable I thought "Oh this sounds great, I can't wait to play Magic remotely!" But then life happened. Throughout the last couple of years, I have had to move several times, switch jobs, and restructure my entire life. Finally, after what I hope is my final move for several years I have been able to partake in many hours of SpellTable. Was it worth the wait?
What Exactly Is SpellTable?
Well if you believe the headlines it's "Remote Magic Made Easy!" Using a webcam or smartphone SpellTable can recognize real paper cards played on your tabletop which you can click. Once selected a card appears in the right-hand margin for easier reading. There's also audio built-in but I have played with someone who used an index card and the camera to indicate choices made on their turn! Originally a fan project appealing to players unable to enjoy Magic during Covid quarantine, SpellTable was subsequently purchased by Wizards of the Coast.
What Does SpellTable Cost?
SpellTable is available to play for the astonishingly low price of FREE. Yes, you heard that right: really, truly, free. It is my opinion, among others, that Arena is one of the LEAST GENEROUS free-to-play digital card games, ever. With SpellTable, a better free Magic experience is now available. You can even use Moxfield and OBS to play without any physical cards. Yes, read that AGAIN. For absolutely ZERO DOLLARS you can play digital Magic with paper Magic players over the internet. Amazing!
What Can You Play On SpellTable?
Every. Format. Ever. Mic drop. Yes, because SpellTable is physical Magic: the Gathering, you can play pretty much every format. Want to play Archenemy or Planechase? You can do that! Want to play with any of the Un- sets? You can do that! Two-Headed Giant? Yep! Standard? Easily! Want to test Modern decks? No problem!
By and large, Commander is the vastly most popular format on SpellTable. There are about a dozen games up almost 24 hours a day. The number of players for all formats tends to swell during the weekend but I am pleasantly surprised with just how many people are playing even at crazy hours. Also, there are a lot of players from all over the world which I think is awesome.
What Is The Experience Like?
Let me blow your mind. It's great! You are basically playing paper Magic. Tables tend to be very social and there is a lot of latitude when playing anything not labeled as "competitive." Even in competitive games, there is a certain amount of leeway required for playing remotely. Most game lobbies suggest a numeric range for the approximate power level of your deck but many also include stipulations such as "no infinite combos," "no extra turns," or "no holds barred." If there are elements you don't want to see in your games simply add that fact to your game description.
Power Level? What The Heck?
The power level range is, theoretically, one through ten. The scale does a very poor job of approximating what decks should or should not be played at any given table though. I've never seen any tables that use decks at the one through three ratings or the ten rating. I've only seen the four rating used a few times. How powerful are decks at these levels? I generally assume decks are either merely stacks of cards and not much of a deck at the low levels, or a cEDH tuned ten out of ten. While there are plenty of games marked as competitive/cEDH, if you are not using 50% of the numbers on a scale, to me, that's a flawed scale. My advice is to play what you believe are your weaker decks unless the games are labeled as competitive. In that case, you should play your best deck. Gradually, you will get a very rough approximate feel for the power level of decks others are bringing to the table.
Still Confused On Power Level?
Essentially, the scale boils down to, I would say, three actual ratings. The first is decks with no real "wincon" or end game. Here, players just want to tap lands and cast spells. Most of the pre-con decks also fit here. These decks are a five or six on the typical SpellTable scale. Next up, are decks that have wincons and are trying to win, but are not completely competitive decks. They are either deliberately de-powered, or competitive decks in the making waiting to upgrade cards. These two decks typically fill the seven or eight spots on the scale. That leaves nine as cEDH or tournament experience decks.
To say that most players have very subjective ideas of deck power is one thing but to experience it is another. However, by and large, most tables are very friendly and will discuss power level pre-game to make sure everyone is approximately on the same page. It really is that simple. If you think your deck might be too powerful or too weak then ask the table if you can switch or if others would be willing. Most players are very accomodating on non-competitive tables. If you need a little more about having a Rule Zero conversation at a table, take a look at my article here.
This All Sounds Great! Are There Any Downsides?
Unfortunately, there are a couple of issues that SpellTable cannot overcome in the near term.
Space The Final Frontier
Number one, it requires a LOT of playing space. Some players may disagree with me on this and suggest that you can play on your normal desktop surface. While I've seen pictures of SpellTable setups that look compact, for me that's not nearly enough room and I cannot imagine I would be alone in this need.
My current setup is far from ideal, but the fact that I must have a camera suspended over a medium-sized table requires a fairly large footprint. Further, while you could theoretically have a wireless mouse, wireless keyboard, and wireless headset, a PC monitor likely needs to be nearby. That means your PC needs to be nearby. Remember that footprint I talked about? Don't forget any other accessories you may want within easy reach like decks, dice, tokens, and so on.
Lighting is also tremendously important. Too much light reflecting on cards can result in them being impossible to see both by your eyes and by SpellTable. Not enough light can cause the same. Again, without a dedicated space for this kind of thing, I'd say your results may vary considerably.
While it is unfortunate, I cannot imagine this kind of setup would be very accessible to absolutely everyone. The barriers to entry are not high, which is great. However, I cannot think everyone that plays Magic is enough of an enthusiast that they can devote so much space to a single hobby.
Number two, while most cards work the same in person as remotely there are a significant number of cards that work quite a bit less well. I'm talking about cards that reveal information only to you such as Duress and cards that reveal AND steal like Villainous Wealth or Gonti Lord of Luxury.
Physically you can just pick the cards up and look at them, being careful not to show anyone else at the table. Remotely? It's not super practical. The one upside of this is that you are sure to get table talk for these types of decisions. Since Commander is intended to be a social game this can be a lot less of a drawback than suggested but for ultra purists or competitive players seeking practice, these issues could be deal-breakers.
For me, I compare this to the downsides of playing on Arena or MTGO. Both of those games approximate paper Magic but fail in many ways. The interfaces for both are lacking. The timer systems for both are not accurate to paper play as you can execute many things in real paper games flawlessly that you can't easily accomplish in digital, like infinite loops. Playing digitally offers no shortcuts for such situations. Add awkward priority systems to multiplayer for Commander and you have a less than stellar gameplay experience. That is on MTGO. There is no multiplayer on Arena and no Commander as we usually think of it. There is 1v1 Brawl if you count that experience, but it's lacking, to say the least. In my opinion, SpellTable easily trumps both of the current digital offerings by a wide margin, with many more upsides, and just a couple of corner cases where it's a little awkward to play.
Should I Try SpellTable?
Absolutely without any hesitation, yes. Do your best with whatever setup you can manage. If you have not played paper Magic in ages and you enjoy Commander do yourself a favor and try SpellTable out! It's the freest of free! And who knows, maybe I will bump into you in a game?
Have you tried SpellTable? How did you like it? Let me know your experience with it in the comments.