Stuck at home? LGS shut down its play space? Starved for social interaction? If any of these describe your current situation, it's a great time to look into alternative ways to hang out with your friends. Fortunately for you, it's totally possible to play paper Magic online with a relatively small investment! We've been using this kind of a setup to play Commander with our Spike Feeders patrons, and it's been a great way to stay social while doing our part to flatten the curve and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Don't overcomplicate it. You can spend thousands of dollars on a setup, but at a bare minimum all you need is:
In this article I'm going to outline one of the many ways you can set up your online playspace, but you may need to make your own adjustments.
This one's pretty self-explanatory. You need a computer with a decent connection to the internet to be able to video chat with your friends. The bar's pretty low here.
The most common webcam people use for streaming paper Magic gameplay is the Logitech c920. This is a basic 1080p-capable webcam that should run you about $60 to $80 USD. It fits most camera tripods and camera mounts, and you can physically manipulate which direction it's pointing fairly easily once it's mounted, making it an ideal choice for what we're trying to do.
If you're looking for a budget option, you can absolutely go with any 720p webcam. I don't think I'd go much lower than 720p resolution, but there are a ton of affordable options like the Logitech c270 that clock in at around $20 to $30 USD.
I'd also recommend checking to see what you can find used! At the time I'm writing this there are two used c920s on Kijiji (a buy-and-sell website) for around $50 CAD ($35 USD).
There are approximately a million ways to mount a webcam, so I'd definitely recommend shopping around for one that suits your space. If you're using a Logitech c920, I've found that a mounting height of 18 inches from your play surface to the front of the camera is ideal, so whatever you pick up, make sure it's capable of doing that.
If you've got something to clamp it to, this scissor mount won't require you to drill holes in anything. You can also get the more flexible equivalent, which is especially nice because it folds into a smaller package for storage when you're not using it.
You can also find some great options that have an integrated base like a desk lamp if you don't have a great spot to clamp it to.
The specific mount you choose doesn't really matter as long as you have somewhere to put it and it fits within your budget. Just keep in mind that if you're using a Logitech c920, you're looking for a mount that has a 1/4"-20 screw. This is fairly standard for most webcams and camcorders, but if you're using a different type of webcam you're definitely going to want to check.
If you're particularly handy, you can also build something to mount your webcam on! You can buy 1/4"-20 bolts from any hardware store, and use them to mount your webcam to a structure of your own design. You could punch a hole through a wall-mounted shelf, or even build a frame out of wood or PVC pipe that straddles your playmat.
Most webcams have a microphone built in, and it can be really tempting just to use that. If you don't have any other options, you can, but just know that webcam microphones aren't great, and they're going to pick up a lot of ambient noise from your room like your computer fan. The best setups I've seen use either a proper microphone like the Blue Snowball or Blue Yeti, or any gaming headset that you can get your hands on. Whatever your setup looks like, make sure that you're listening through headphones and speaking into a microphone. If you're listening on your computer speakers it can cause echoes and feedback, making it difficult or impossible for your opponents to hear you.
Once you've got all your equipment, it's time to get situated! Fortunately for us Magic players, the dimensions of a single playmat are almost identical to the widescreen resolution that webcams capture, so physically positioning your webcam isn't difficult at all. Try to get your entire playmat in the frame, and try to make sure your webcam is pointing straight down, or close to it, rather than capturing your field at an angle.
In an ideal world, your webcam is going to be oriented such that the image of your playmat that you're capturing is right-side-up. If you're using one of the scissor mounts I mentioned earlier, this means clamping it to the same side of the desk that you're sitting on. This can work, but it can be a little awkward playing a game with the mounting arm in the way. The flexible mounting arms give you a few more options, but there are software solutions that you can use to flip the image your webcam is capturing, so don't worry if you can only capture an upside-down image of your mat.
SplitCam is a program that acts as an intermediary between your webcam and whatever software you're using to video chat. It gives you the ability to mirror/flip the image as well as adjust the color and contrast. If you're going to use this, make sure you set it up before you start video chatting. I'd strongly recommend turning off auto focus as well, because as your hands and cards get closer and further relative to the camera lens, auto focus will be very distracting for your opponents.
This isn't the only option for webcam control software, but it's one that I've found works with most video clients, so it's the one I use personally.
The most common issue people have when playing paper Magic online is glare on their cards. If it's bad enough, it can prevent your opponents from seeing which cards you have in play entirely, which defeats the purpose of having a webcam in the first place! Fortunately for us, there are some easy things we can do to prevent glare on card sleeves.
The most important lighting concept for webcam Magic is the idea that the angle of incidence is the same as the angle of reflection. This means that light bounces off surfaces in a predictable way, and we can use this to position our lights so they don't cause glare.
If we imagine that the thick horizontal line in this image is our play surface, the eye is the camera, and the "object" is any light source we have in the room, you can get an idea of the concept at work here. When the camera is directly above the play space looking down, any light source that is directly (or close to directly) above the camera will cause light to bounce off the play surface and directly into the camera lens!
You can avoid this by turning off any overhead lights and using things like floor lamps or desk lamps to light up your playmat. If you can adjust them so they're closer to the height of the table you're playing on, the light rays will bounce off the table at a shallower angle rather than directly into the camera.
You can get by with a single light source, but I'd strongly recommend using two. A single light source will cause your hands and library to throw long shadows and could obscure your cards, but if you can have two or even three light sources hitting your playmat at different angles, it'll look great. These desk lamps from Ikea are perfect, and if you've got anything similar kicking around the house they'll probably work.
Which client you use is going to depend very heavily on where you're playing and who you're playing with. If you just want to get in a game of 1v1 with a friend, you could very easily use Skype. If you're getting into multiplayer games like four-player Commander, you'll need an option like Whereby, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans or Discord video. My personal favorite is Discord video because I already use Discord, but you may want to poke around and see what works for you. If you're playing on an organized server like PlayEDH, you'll likely end up using whatever the server uses.
There are some really incredible communities for playing online. I think the biggest one is the PlayEDH Discord server. With everyone stuck in their homes, it's not uncommon to see a dozen four-player pods of Commander going at any given time! Just make sure you read their rules document before you join in any games. They've got a four-level structure for matching people in similar-power pods, as well as a few other items that help the games run smoothly.
If you like playing cEDH, there's also cEDH Nexus. I've met some really great people on here, and it's definitely worth checking out! I'd also recommend you take a peek at their rules document before you play your first game.
Webcam games are a little different than playing in person. For one, it's slightly more difficult to track what people have in play. I've found that games go smoother if I'm a little more forgiving on letting people take back plays if they didn't realize it would be a bad idea. I'm also a little more explicit on pausing to wait for responses from people, and I try to give people a heads up on relevant info if I think it will inform the decisions they're making.
It's also a great idea to have some way to represent tokens you might have to make. In EDH you can imagine the common ones like the 2/2 Bird from Swan Song or the 3/3 Beast from Beast Within, but I've also got a ton of mileage from having a stack of post-it notes at my desk that I can scribble on and stick to a sleeve. This can be necessary if you steal something with a Gilded Drake or make a copy of a creature with Clever Impersonator. You can also try these dry-erase tokens from InfiniTokens—they're great!
One other thing to keep in mind is that group voice chats can be a little awkward if someone monopolizes the talking time. I like to avoid talking too much on other people's turns because it prevents everyone from hearing what that person is doing.
In terms of actually playing the games, they play out pretty much as you'd expect. Sometimes in a multiplayer game you might end up with something awkward like having to look at another player's hand or library to resolve a spell like Gitaxian Probe or Praetor's Grasp, but use your imagination! You can look through someone's decklists, or just trust your other opponents to look away while one player holds their hand up to the camera.
When it comes to tracking life totals, you can use dice or any other method, but I've found that using an app on your phone like Gauntlet or Lifelinker works best. It also helps if you turn the brightness on your phone up so it's visible on camera, and set your screen to always stay on.
This should be everything you need to get started! On a personal note, I can definitely tell you that in my experience webcam Magic has been a blast, and that it takes some of the boredom out of self-isolation. Stay home and stay safe, everyone!