What I've Learned From a Year of Webcam Magic

What I’ve Learned From a Year of Webcam Magic

Scott CullenCommunity

Control. Combo. Aggro. Midrange. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the pandemic hit. Only Spelltable, master of paper Magic over webcam, could help them; but when the world needed it most, it was there, actually. What feels like a hundred years have passed, and we’re still playing online with friends, despite local game stores reopening and events slowly returning.

I believe Spelltable can save paper Magic. Not that it was going anywhere, really.

Back in 2020, at the height of all the lockdowns, Spelltable started to rise as the most common and convenient way to play paper Magic. Not only did it turn out to be a great way to keep playing the decks you love with friends, but it’s looking like it will be responsible for some of the biggest changes we’ve ever seen in the Magic community. 

I’ve spent a lot of time playing on Spelltable this year: I would play with my local playgroup two nights a week on average, and I would be a guest on at least one Commander stream every week. I estimate I’ve played over 250 games through the site this year alone, so I’d consider myself somewhat of an expert on the subject. I’m going to dive into the lessons I learned through my time on Spelltable, and how it has changed Magic for the good.

Communication Is Still Hard

One of the most important parts of the play experience, especially in Commander, is communication. How you interact with others can make or break a game, and making sure you’re doing so clearly can be tough. It’s made that little bit harder when you can’t see eye to eye, in the most literal sense possible. Trying to tell a person’s mood without being able to read their body language can be difficult at the best of times, and conveying everything through hand gestures alone can even make people with a degree in communications break into a cold sweat.

I’ve never been the world’s best communicator; it has been a trial by fire for me, but I’ve learned that the best thing to do is just be direct. Ask someone if they’re okay, or see if there’s a different kind of game that the table would prefer to play. There’s nothing wrong with ending a game early to start a better one!

One advancement in communication that I have noticed, however, is the “Rule 0” power level discussion. More players are engaging with the table at the start of each game, and more often than not, it has deviated from the typical positioning on the number scale. I’m hearing less of “my deck’s about a 7” or “I’m playing mid,” and more details about the deck’s plan. Players are more forthcoming about whether their deck has any combos, if there are any stax elements or chaos cards, etc. This has helped immeasurably in creating amazing game environments, and has been one of the main contributors toward positive play experiences.

The Game’s Landscape Has Changed

When you consider the dramatic differences in how games have been played over the past two years, it’s no surprise that the decks that see play are now very different, too. Decks that usually involve interacting heavily with your opponents’ cards now see little to no play, due mostly to the logistical nightmare that they quickly become. There’s an extra level of difficulty to playing a theft deck like Memnarch when you can’t physically touch your opponents’ permanents; you’d need to prepare a stack of proxies to represent the cards you steal from them, which can become confusing quickly. The extra level of brain power and time needed to ensure it works properly seems a step too far for many people right now, and I can’t blame them at all.

The same goes for commanders like Sen Triplets. Looking at your opponents’ cards and playing with them over webcam can be tedious, and not everyone is up to the task. I’ll still include a card like Gonti, Lord of Luxury in the 99, as it’s not too difficult to resolve their ability just once; unless you’re ready to commit to the extra work of having them at the helm of a deck, however, then it’s something that will have to wait for your next in-person game.

Naturally, these difficulties and considerations have led to a change in deck building, too. While I’ve noticed an overall downtick in the number of cards that require interacting with opponents, I’ve also seen a rise in cards that players can comfortably interact with remotely. Cards with abilities like will of the council or demonstrate have started to show up more in games; this leads me to think that players still want to interact with each other, but in ways that are more reasonable.

With that in mind, despite the additional tracking involved, there are some exceptions to the rule. Some individual cards that cross from one playmat to another actually seem to be used more now. For example, I’ve seen more Humble Defectors in the past six months than I have in the rest of my time playing Commander. Perhaps players want to have that extra little bit of personal interaction? Sometimes, maybe it’s worth the extra work.

Another aspect that has changed due to online play is readability. Webcams only provide so much detail, so being as clear as possible is best to make sure all involved know what’s happening. Token decks aren’t the hardest thing to play properly over webcam, but your limited on-screen space can make it difficult for others to parse your board state; this goes doubly so when you don’t have all the right tokens!

No matter how many times I check a deck for the tokens it needs, I’ll always miss one card that needs a unique token. I’ve found the substitute cards to be invaluable for making sure you always have what you need. These are the blank cards found in booster packs that can be used to represent transform cards or MDFCs. You’ll have to show off your artistic flair (something that I’m yet to succeed at with these), but they’re a fun and practical way to accurately represent your board state!

Don’t judge the frog lizard, it’s very self-conscious.

Production Quality

Before the pandemic and the rise of Spelltable, paper gameplay was almost exclusively reserved for those with the biggest budgets or the right setups. As much as a positive influence the larger shows like Game Knights are, they seem to have set a precedent for the minimum required production level. It always felt like you needed to have a large space with great lighting, multiple cameras, overhead mounts, and a professional editor to tie the room together. 

Once the lockdowns hit, however, things started to change. Players began picking up webcams and wedging them between stacks of books, balancing them on deck boxes, or even cutting holes in cardboard boxes to allow their phone’s camera to rest over their playmat for a good view. Paper gameplay streams started to pop up throughout the community, all played online through Spelltable. 

The lines between creator and community member started to blur a bit, too. Creators started to widen the circle of players they invited on to their shows, thanks largely to the reduced logistical strain provided by remote play. There are now even players in the community that are known for being regular guests on many streams, despite not releasing any content under their own names. 

Now that paper gameplay streams are one of the most popular types of content in the community, the preconception of production level is shifting more towards a DIY approach. And with many streams often posting for additional guests on Twitter, it’s become more community-engaging as well as financially inclusive.

Not only have the perceived requirements for production quality dropped, but it has become more apparent to players that a fairly high level of production is possible for a fraction of what it was before. This is just a rough ballpark, but you can have a professional-looking, well-lit setup for about $150:

  • USB microphone & stand: $50
  • Main webcam: $30
  • Webcam boom arm: $20
  • Second webcam: $30
  • Ring light: $20
  • Total: $150
Don’t judge the second monitor, it’s very self-conscious.

This is my current setup. My microphone is an older, more expensive one from my days as an audio engineer, but apart from that, it’s the same as above. This even has a second webcam for my face — which, as I mentioned earlier, is important to help communicate effectively. 

Since completing this setup, I’ve had some of the best games in years. With that said, though, the old “balance a webcam on some books” setup is still perfectly acceptable; no one should feel the need to even go this far, but it’s nice to know it’s reasonably within reach.

We Should Have Started Doing This A Long Time Ago

When you can freely go to your LGS or a friend’s house without the threat of a pandemic looming over you, it can be hard to imagine why you might want to play paper Magic over the internet. If you can meet in person, why bother? It turns out there are actually a number of reasons, as well as benefits.

Arena and Magic Online may be just a click away, but it’s just not the same. The tactile sensation of shuffling your deck and flicking your cards isn’t present digitally, and your opponents spamming the “Your Go” or “Good Game” emotes is nothing compared to even idle chit chat during a paper game.

Webcam Magic has also helped to grow the community. As more players invite one another to play games together, creators have been able to network and mingle with each other more frequently than before. It certainly feels like there have been more collaborations and guest features through webcam streams than at any other time in Magic’s history. Cross-pollination like this always ends up with more and better content, which is a win for the creators, players, and viewers.

As an extrovert with boundless levels of “golden retriever energy,” I can say that webcam Magic has really been a savior during this year. My social battery is recharged solely by the presence of others, so lockdowns have been extremely taxing for me. Without regularly guesting on webcam streams or playing weekly with my friend group on Spelltable, I believe I would have had a significantly more difficult time through all of this. The pandemic has still been excruciating, but it’s at least bearable now. It has also kept me from mindlessly grinding video games every single night, which is another plus; I don’t want to come out the other side of the pandemic with a contempt for the one hobby that I was stuck with!

It’s Not The Same As In-Person Magic, And That’s Okay

Webcam Magic won’t ever replace “real” in-person paper Magic, but it was never supposed to. It grew as a way for more players to play conveniently over long distances, and for people to keep playing with friends during a tough time. When the world returns to a safe enough level of normality and paper play returns in full force, will Spelltable go away? Absolutely not.

Many players aren’t within reasonable traveling distance of an LGS, so webcam Magic is perfect to help them keep up with their hobby. Countless friendships have been made over the internet during this time, and they won’t just disappear once all restrictions are lifted. Take my playgroup, for example: the friends I play with regularly live all over Ireland, and some live abroad. Sure, Ireland isn’t that big, but it would be next to impossible for us all to continue playing regularly if we had to meet in person. I wouldn’t have such a great playgroup without Spelltable, and I don’t plan on changing that any time soon.

In a similar vein, webcam Magic can even be seen as an alternative to large conventions, at least when it comes to seeing friends that are further afield. Nothing beats meeting friends and spending time with them, but there will be times when it’s just not feasible. It may not be the same as meeting in person, but there will be times when you’ll be glad it’s there so you don’t miss out completely.

Webcam Magic has changed the game more than we know, and it’s here to stay. If you were to tell me in December 2019 that paper play involving webcams would be the most popular way to play Magic in the future, I wouldn’t have believed you. Though to be fair, I probably wouldn’t have believed almost anything else from the past two years, either.

These are just some of the many things I learned during my year on Spelltable, and there’s still so much more to learn. Given everything that’s happened, anything is still possible. How do you think Magic will look post-pandemic? Do you think webcam Magic will be a permanent mainstay in the community in the future? I’d love to hear what you think over on Twitter!