Strengths of Magic Online
- A really handy program, with lots of menu options and hotkeys, makes using things intuitive. The action stack (probably the most difficult thing to understand about the game) is handled very intuitively, and the game runs blazingly fast because it's all on your hard drive. However, I do wish for an "automatically say Yes to this ability" option, which would make games with the trigger-heavy starter decks much faster.
- The tutorial game against the computer lets you mix-and-match two colors (a big selling point of the new Ravnica block), while the free trial lets you use a full five mono-color starters, and against other trial players no less. I've definitely gotten better at Magic by playing online with these decks, sealed though they be. It's loads of fun to crush random noobs, or actually lose to someone who knows what he's doing.
- I'll say it again: ONLINE PLAY. Also, the numbers and abilities of your modifiers are automatically added, a big help when calculating stuff like Blanchwood Armor. It's really nice not to have to keep track of these unwieldy numbers.
Weaknesses of Magic Online
- The tutorial game is very weak because of AI and consistency problems. The AI will do really stupid things against you (wasting its power cards on your weenie creatures, choosing blockers in odd ways, etc.), and because it runs three colors, it has a high chance of either drawing a perfect hand and killing you for free or getting manascrewed and losing for free. It's also never fun to see the AI doing things you can't (like using a deck you can't pick).
- The tutorial never explains when or why to use certain cards. For example, I haven't met a single person who understood when to use Master Decoy (in the beginning of combat step, which you have to enable manually) without learning it the hard way. And it'll also prompt you to emulate the computer by doing things as soon as possible instead of waiting until you actually want to do them.
- The tutorial lets you get away with things you can't do online, like tap your lands after you play a card. I much prefer the tutorial's method, because Magic Online's "must tap beforehand" is quite annoying, especially when I want to pay X for something. This adds needless learning curve and many a newbie has lost by mana burning themselves due to vague phase descriptions.
- The free trial uses Ninth Edition (as it should) but the tutorial uses Eighth Edition. This is a definite loss, as the Ninth Edition starters are way better than the Eighth Edition bombs.
Strengths of LOTR Online
- LOTR benefits even more than Magic from having the computer add numbers for you, as there's endless stat and cost modifications. And it auto-sorts your cards for you, and lets you undo assignment choices (the most strategic part of the game), which is quite nice. The sounds are much better, with a satisfying thwock for archery fire and the like. In general, it emulates the feel of the physical game more, with more automated passing when you have no opportunity to respond.
- The 2 starters available are pre-seeded with some juicy rares, all of which are extremely handy for the matchup at hand. This makes games faster and more exciting. It also helps that the importance of sites is played up beyond what it often is in the real game. And no balance problems like in Magic either.
- The AI is mean, nasty, and generally a difficult opponent. I had definite trouble in the Rohan/Uruks mirror match, until I figured out how to bait it into using its strength pumps early. And it looks like it discards Still They Came just like I do, 'cause it's a bad card.
Weaknesses of LOTR Online
- The "basic" game is totally scripted and much stupider than the advanced game. It's very difficult to learn a game when you are forced to make the plays the tutorial tells you, which at times aren't even the best plays to make. It doesn't help any that you're immediately thrown to the wolves in the advanced game, with no guide on how to do the more important aspects of the game like double moves or assigning minions, with an opponent who throws out game-winning cards like Savagery at just the wrong time.
- The computer does have faults: it doesn't save its events for Frodo, it never tricks you into double-moving, it's too happy to throw away unique companions rather than add burdens to Frodo, and it bids way too high at the start of the game. However, these are minor quibbles, and I suspect there must be some hardcoded strategies in there that make sure the AI plays its rares at just the right time.
- Only two starter decks and no online play means that there are exactly four matchups you can play, severely limiting your choices. Granted, given the next bullet point online play would be close to impossible, but still, sealed deck LOTR is a lot more about the mindgames and less about your deckbuilding chops than Magic, so online play is sorely missed.
- The tutorial is very dated. So old, in fact, that in a couple months all the cards in it will have been rotated out of Standard format. This risks alienating players who actually buy LOTR Online, as they have no idea how to play sites now, or why muster is good, or whatever.
- The "emulate physical game" ideal goes a little too far when it gives you physical tokens instead of numbers and expects you to count them all. For the twilight pool (which often has over a dozen tokens in it) there is at least a mouseover function, but counting Frodo's myriad burdens and wounds requires too much bookkeeping of the sort an online game is supposed to eliminate.
I'd have to say Magic Online is a better implementation of the online TCG, but they could stand to take some lessons from LOTR Online, which looks and sounds better, isn't narrated in a dorky monotone, and doesn't force you to press "Pass" all the time when you have nothing you could possibly play.
I think the inherent dis/advantages of the games even out, as a sidenote. Magic's rules are a lot simpler (you play your spells, you play your mana, everything goes out on the table and you swing with all your guys) than LOTR's byzantine seven-recurring-phases scheme, so a single "You could play creatures now, but you might as well attack first." dialog box introduces you to the right way to play things, as opposed to lots of "Skip the Maneuver phase for this basic game" confusion. (Hey, at least there's no seed phase!) On the other hand, in Magic, you have to worry about getting enough of the right mana from turn one, and I've played many games that featured a ten-turn stall while both players topdecked their way to a solution, or a straightforward mana screw while player 2 plays the game alone. In LOTR, the insane tempo speedup means you always have a hand chock-full of playable cards. So neither one is really easier to learn. Magic is easier to pick up and play, but also much easier to be horrible at.