The Pitfalls of Practicing Only Digitally

Rich Cali
December 28, 2018

For more than 4 years I have been testing and practicing primarily on Magic Online. Since making the switch I have definitely improved a lot; Magic Online is an excellent tool for getting in a lot of practice against solid opponents, after all. Through this time I began neglecting tabletop Magic more and more and didn’t think too much about it. Over time I noticed that my paper results didn’t always line up consistently with my Online results. This left me wondering exactly why this was the case.

When comparing tabletop to Online play, despite being the same game, there are some substantial differences between the execution of a game. These weren’t particularly clear to me at first glance but acknowledging and taking steps to correct the issues is an important part of my improvement.

With the advent of Magic Arena, this issue might be more salient than ever. It can be too easy to forget that playing tabletop Magic feels different than playing on a computer. This week I want to talk about some of the big ones that affected me and hope to illuminate these issues for some people.

Mechanical Execution

I briefly wrote about this point in a previous article about Miracles. There are a lot of actions that get taken in a game of Magic. When playing on an online medium it is really easy to take for granted all of the actions that get carried out in very different ways. To me, the clearest example of this is casting Brainstorm.

If you cast it on Magic Online the cards automatically go into your hand, are all arranged in front of you, and are automatically put back when you click on them. It doesn’t work like that in tabletop Magic. You have to actually pick up the cards and hold them. You have to make sure you take the correct number of cards off the top of your deck and put them back. This may seem small but these small operations add up if you're not used to it. 

While this is certainly a very small detail it is the type of action that happens all the time in Legacy: Brainstorm, fetch, Ponder, shuffle, draw, Ponder, arrange, draw, pass. When you have a lot of practice playing a tabletop game these types of actions get worked into your mechanical systems through experience. If not, it becomes more deliberate to make sure you do it correctly. This leads to mistakes being more frequent and execution becoming clunky and inefficient.

Furthermore, so many of the triggers and game actions happen automatically Online. There’s never any shuffling online, and it is impossible to miss your Chalice or Delver triggers. This means that there are less of these small details to pay attention to Online but they’re still there in paper! Not only does it change the way you have to think, but it tends to require more thinking overall.

While it isn’t difficult to remember these things perse, it is different and I think it’s important to be aware of these differences when preparing for any type of tabletop event.

Time to Think

Magic Online and Magic Arena each use a timing system that is different than tabletop Magic. This means that the time that gets taken to think has to be allotted differently in each medium. This seemed like it would be get used to: I’d play a game or 2 and instantly remember what it was like to think through my plays.

In reality, I became far too accustomed to all of the games I played online. There isn’t nearly as much clock pressure on me Online because I always know that I am taking up my own clock. It also allows me to manage my clock more effectively and I almost never have clock issues Online.

In paper it is far more difficult for me to balance gameplay and the clock. Part of the issue is that I don’t know exactly how long I am taking on a decision. I can generally feel when I am taking too long but I can’t follow the clock along with every play. On top of this when my opponent is taking too long it eats into my time in tabletop Magic. I am not particularly afraid to nudge my opponent towards making a play if they have taken too long (more than 45 seconds or a minute), but it is still influencing the game for both of us.

Making sure that the way I think through a game of paper Magic is efficient is something that I am going to pay close attention to. I have never really had clock trouble in the past but some of my recent games have gotten too close for comfort.

In-Game Information

There is a lot of information getting thrown around in the average game of tabletop Magic. Both you and your opponent are giving away this information with every decision: Where did your opponent’s eyes look when they drew a card? How are they shuffling their hand? How did you touch your attackers? Your blockers?

On an online medium, a lot of this type of information isn’t there to take. You will never know where your opponent’s eyes looked when they cast Brainstorm. You will never see them touch their cards in any way. The type of reads I get from playing Online are far different than in paper: How long was their pause between their main phase? Is there a pattern to the length of their pauses for any one particular card? Did they click on their attacking creatures more than should be expected?

In addition, the actual information of the gamestate is all on display Online. You can always see how many cards they have in their hand, graveyard, and deck. These are all aspects of the game that don’t need to be constantly tracked online, thus making the game easier to follow.

This means that when I play in paper I need to remember to pay attention to to different aspects of the game. While this isn’t difficult, in conjunction with the other the other differences it can influence the overall efficiency of the game.

The Solution

Luckily, there is an easy fix for most of these issues: Practice playing paper Magic. The best way for me to personally do this is to play a local event and re-acclimate myself with playing paper Magic. Practicing against friends helps but I think having the pressure of a clock on me allows me to actually regain the muscle memory of playing Magic for stakes.

I think I need to find more of a balance between Online and paper playing in order to start playing more efficiently more often. Going into the new year this is definitely going to be a point of focus for me as I try to travel to more events. 2018 was a crazy year for me (as it seemed to be for everyone) so I didn’t get out too often to play Magic. I want this to change though, and I will try to play as many events as I can fit into my schedule.

Let me know in the comments if any of these issues have been problems for you or if there are been any issues in either direction (online to paper or vice versa) that have caused issues for you. Thanks for a great year of articles and I will see you in 2019!