Creative Uses for Webcams - Playing MTG Using SpellTable

What is SpellTable?

SpellTable is a free browser-based application that was launched in April 2020, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, to enable people to play Magic: The Gathering online using their paper cards.

Magic: The Gathering (aka MTG) is the original trading card game (TCG) and is still the most popular. With a nearly 30-year history and tens of thousands of cards released (with new sets published every few months), it is a highly complex game that has an active player base across a variety of casual and professional formats, with a robust and ever-evolving metagame. Chief to the appeal of MTG is that no two games are alike. With all the possibilities of deck-building, rule variations between formats, and the random element of card draw, Magic: The Gathering is designed to be full of variety and constantly engaging.

Several of us here at NexiGo are both big MTG fans and (naturally) webcam enthusiasts, so we thought it would be fun and useful to write an article that combines both — and even test out our webcams for playing Magic! (Scroll down to the bottom for that)

SpellTable is now owned by Wizards of the Coast, the company that makes Magic: The Gathering, and can be played on your desktop computer or mobile device using the Google Chrome browser. The key feature of SpellTable that gives it a leg up over playing on Zoom is its card scanner, which identifies the cards you play using a database of every MTG card ever printed. This lets each player see hi-res versions of their opponent’s cards, which might otherwise be hard to read in their video feed. It generally works very well, as long as you have a suitable webcam and lighting setup — more on that in the next section. You can even use OBS to stream your games to Twitch or record them for YouTube!

That said, SpellTable can also be used to play other collectible card games like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Flesh & Blood. The scanner won’t work, of course, but if your webcam is good enough it’s much more convenient than using a typical chat app since you can easily track life (or points) and turns within the app and adjust your view of your opponent’s cards.

Wizards of The Coast has a handy FAQ that covers a lot of what you might want to know about SpellTable, plus a troubleshooting page in case you have issues. But there’s no substitute for trying it yourself — it’s free, after all!

Using a Webcam to Play Magic: The Gathering with SpellTable

The tricky part about SpellTable is that you have to capture video of your full play space at an angle where the app can read the cards. This requires you to orient your webcam in a way you’re probably not used to: facing downwards at your desk or table rather than straight at you. In addition, SpellTable’s camera requirements can be deceiving. Technically, it only requires a webcam with a resolution of 1360 x 720 (aka 720p) or higher, which describes the vast majority of webcams released in the past decade, including many built-in laptop webcams.

However, using a built-in laptop webcam for SpellTable is practically impossible, since they can’t be tilted to get a good view of the playing field. Instead, you’ll need a standalone webcam that can either mount on a tripod or on top of your monitor. You will also want one that can tilt downwards at least 70° degrees — the closer to a direct overhead view, the better (as long as you’re not revealing your hand of cards!). Some tripods, including the NexiGo Flexible Tripod and the Selfie Stick Tripod, can do this, but some very basic ones cannot.

One option, which you can see in the header image, involves attaching the selfie stick to the flexible tripod using its ¼” mount, then adding the camera to that. This allows it to extend over the playing field for a vertical overhead perspective, which removes the need for a camera with a 90° tilt.

Alternatively, you can connect a smartphone and use that as your webcam, though you may need a tilting tripod or flexible arm to keep it in place.

A higher resolution webcam will go a long way to improving the SpellTable experience. We recommend 1080p, as anything lower can make it difficult for both your opponents and the app itself to read your cards, but the program will not allow resolutions higher than that. You’ll probably also want a webcam that can zoom, whether optically (which is rare) or digitally (quite common), while maintaining a decent resolution.

With all this in mind, the NexiGo N970P is a great option, as its 4K 8.5MP sensor enables it to use “lossless zoom” functionality to maintain 2K resolution (at 2x digital zoom) or 1080p resolution (at 3x zoom). It also includes a remote control for convenient zoom, pan, and tilt functions, so you can frame your play area perfectly. It has a fixed focus, so you’ll need to adjust its height to ensure a sharp image, but once you get it right you shouldn’t need to adjust it again. Built-in dual microphones round it out, so you don’t have to buy an external mic (or worse, resort to a laptop mic).

The NexiGo N940P is another good webcam for SpellTable that’s a bit more budget-friendly (and about half the size of the N970P). It has excellent tilt and 360° rotation capability in its mount, which lets it work with a wider variety of tripod and mounting options. At 2K and 5 MegaPixels, it can zoom in up to 3x and still maintain the HD quality necessary for SpellTable, so you’re free to rig it up to hang from your ceiling. It also has noise-canceling mics, so your opponents can hear your voice rather than the dryer in the next room. This is the camera used in all the screenshots in this blog.

Unlike the N970P, the N940P uses autofocus, which has its pros and cons. On one hand, you don’t have to worry about re-adjusting the focus every time you move the camera. On the other hand, it may readjust itself a lot, and when your hands are in view it may focus on them rather than your cards. The solution to this is to open the NexiGo settings app, turn autofocus off, and manually adjust the focus to suit your layout.

One thing you don’t have to worry about in choosing a webcam for SpellTable is its frame rate. Since playing a card game like Magic doesn’t require a lot of fast movement, the difference between a 30 fps and 60 fps stream won’t be very noticeable and will have no effect on the game. That said, both of the webcams mentioned above are capable of 60 fps at 1080p, so they should work great for Zoom calls as well.

All that said, setting up a webcam with SpellTable will likely require some experimentation to get just right. You can use the Windows Camera app or SpellTable itself to check the video feed and adjust your settings — just start a game with no opponent, lay down a few cards, and see if SpellTable reads them accurately.

Lighting for SpellTable

One of the trickier aspects of setting up SpellTable is lighting. This is especially true if you use plastic sleeves to protect your valuable cards, which can magnify the glare caused by overhead lighting and the already-shiny cards, making it impossible for SpellTable’s scanner to identify them.

The key to solving this is fairly simple: use non-overhead lights. The implementation, however, is where it gets tricky. You could use a single sidelight, though this may create shadows if there’s anything between it and the cards, plus it may not be bright enough to illuminate your full play space.

The best lighting solution we found was to use our dual ring lights (see above) mounted on the back of the desk or table and spread as far apart as possible, with both pointing slightly upward so they act more like fill lights. This method provides even lighting with minimal glare and illuminates the entire space without taking up any desk space itself. However, if you already have more than one desk lamp (and especially if you’re experienced with pro-level stream lighting), you should be well equipped to adapt it to SpellTable.

Now that you have a working setup, it’s time to invite a friend or three and sling some spells!

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