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Re-igniting the Spark: Magic the Gathering Arena Early Impressions

We got into the Magic the Gathering Arena Closed Beta and here’s what we think!

Magic the Gathering has been the quintessential trading card game for many in the geek community for over two decades now. From its humble origins in 1993 to the present, MTG has blossomed and evolved into an gigantic institution synonymous with the Trading Card Game genre. However, despite its popularity and prominence in geek culture, there is one space that Magic the Gathering has struggled to capture, and that is the realm of video games.

Early attempts at producing a Magic the Gathering Online card game have resulted to either uninteresting, no-frills simulations or watered-down amalgams of the MTG we know and love. These have been received pretty tepidly by the community in general, with only Magic the Gathering Online, garnering a select, hardcore following.

But all that looks like it’s about to change with Magic the Gathering Arena.

Lay of the Land

(c) Wizards of the Coast

 

Magic The Gathering Arena is Wizards of the Coast’s latest attempt to establish a presence in the digital space, something that has eluded them, like Norin the Wary eludes removal. Obscure references aside, MTG: Arena is shaping up really well. It takes a few lessons from other more modern card games and infuses it with the signature MTG systems to produce the closest thing to what that the community has been dreaming of since its foray to video games. MTG Arena is definitely looking like it has a decent shot at the throne.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

….of Bone. Ok we’ll stop

Immediately when you boot it up, Magic the Gathering Arena is noticeably more aesthetically pleasing and full of personality and flavor than its predecessors. When you first play the game, you are taken through a tutorial where you play against some colorful NPCs as well as a certain particularly familiar Dragon. The tutorial takes players through the basics of playing Magic The Gathering, as well as infusing a little bit of strategy and metagame, all while giving players a taste of the MTG narrative.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

 

For those already familiar with the card game’s mechanics, the tutorial still serves the purpose of teaching how that real-life knowledge is translated on a digital space. A feature that is much appreciated because even the most savvy MTG player may find that MTG Arena does have quite a bit of a learning curve in using the various systems.

After completing the tutorial, you are given a bunch of free Constructed decks in the current Standard format (Kaladesh, Amokhet, Dominaria, Ixalan, and M19 ) and a deep library of cards to customize them with. You can also brew your own deck from all the cards if you are so inclined.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

 

From there, you can test out your deck in a variety of game modes to choose from. Free Play, Quick Constructed, Competitive Constructed, and its variations are your typical Ranked Ladder fare, with different “Best of 1 or 3” formats between them.

Quick Draft and Competitive Draft incorporates drafting into the game. You pay a set fee of in-game currency to join the draft and you participate as you normally would in tabletop drafts. You are given 3 booster packs, to be opened one at a time. You and a pool of players draft one card from your packs before passing them around to the next player. Once you draft through all the packs, you form a 40-card deck from them and participate in the draft tournament.

Brewer’s Delight is a newer game mode where players are encouraged to make weird and wild deck builds and fight each other. The focus of this mode is to craft creative builds. As such, the rewards for winning in the mode are cards that are useful but aren’t necessarily being played in the current meta.

Revel In Riches

(c) Wizards of the Coast

 

Speaking of rewards, Magic the Gathering Arena has a bunch of rewards and currencies that are all earnable in-game or through microtransactions.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

 

First of, there’s the signature MTG reward system of Booster Packs. These contain a random set of cards: comprised of 5 commons, 2 Uncommons and 1 Rare or Mythic Rare. Booster Packs can be earned through winning in the various competitive game modes and drafts, straight up purchasing from the store, as well as completing daily and weekly quests.

There is also good old Gold which can be used to buy Booster Packs and serve as your entrance fee to the various drafts and competitive game modes. There are also Gems that are the more premium version of gold which can be earned in the draft tournament through microtransactions.

An interesting new feature is the Wildcard system. Over the course of playing the game and acquiring new cards, you can earn what are called Wildcards. These come in Common, Uncommon, Rare, and Mythic Rare varieties and can be used to redeem any owned or unowned card from the MTGA library. These are earned when a player has more than 4 copies of a card. When the same card is pulled from a Booster Pack, it is then transformed into a Wildcard to redeem any other card of that rarity that the player chooses. For example, if you already have four Llanowar Elves (a common card) in your collection, and you get a fifth one in the pack, the game turns it into a common-rarity Wildcard.

Igniting the Spark

(c) Wizards of the Coast

 

All the basics of playing Magic the Gathering apply in MTG Arena: 60 card deck minimum; tapping or untapping; Mana; Phases; Creatures; Spells and Instants. My god it feels so good to have instants again in a online card game.

You start a match of Magic as you would on tabletop. 1v1 is the current format with each player starting with 20 life points. A player is selected to go first randomly by the computer. Each player draws 7 cards in the opening hand and they play. The game handles keeping track of the various phases and priority passing. Moving from phase to phase is as easy as clicking the context-sensitive button at the lower right of the screen.

To play a land or a spell is as simple as double-clicking or dragging the card to the play area. The game then also taps the appropriate mana for you to cast the spell. You can also tap the specific land you want for mana to cast your spell should the need arise.

Casting a spell in MTG Arena is always something special, the card hovers over the board for a second as the mana from your tapped lands flow into it. When the spell is played they have different visual effects depending on the type of spell, burn spells shoot fiery balls of fire at their target; Saga spells have a whole unique animation of a scroll of parchment unfurling with the Saga’s art; Planeswalkers shoot down from the heavens, radiating energy and spouting unique one-liners. Some creatures even have unique summoning animations where they pop out of the card and roar to get ready for battle before disappearing back inside.

This visual flair is one of the aspects where Magic the Gathering:Arena shines the most and is something that can put a smile on the faces of the most casual MTG fan as well as its most hardcore ones.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

 

Combat in Arena is also pretty straight forward. Declaring attackers/ blockers is as simple as clicking on your creature and dragging the arrow to their target and confirming by clicking the context sensitive button. When you enter damage step the creatures fight.

One of the signature features of MTG, Instant Spells and Fast Effects are handled in a very efficient way in MTG Arena. If the game detects that you have an instant card in your hand, or a permanent with a fast effect ability and the appropriate mana to cast it, the game will ask you if you want to respond. Otherwise, it automatically skips the prompt and the action you wanted to respond to immediately resolves.

Auto-Tron

The biggest key feature that Magic the Gathering Arena adds to the game is the automation. MTG Arena handles a lot of the processes of the playing MTG, it handles Phases, Instants and responses, managing “The Stack”, and as previously mentioned, it auto taps your lands when casting a spell. MTG Arena also checks your hand and board on whether you have possible actions you can do. If you don’t then MTG Arena automatically ends your turn

This automation, however, has proven to be quite the double-edged Sword of Feast and Famine. On one end, it helps a lot in keeping the action going at a lively pace as opposed to bogging it down with empty phases and incessant prompting to respond. On the other, this automation takes away the ability to bluff, a key component in tabletop MTG, by exposing the fact that you have no responses in your hand.

Even the automatic tapping of lands is quite problematic. The system simply selects any available lands to tap for your spell. In multicolor decks, oftentimes this results in frustration and turmoil. That one blue mana source you were saving for a possible counter spell is now hopelessly tapped. That second black mana you were saving for Murder? Gone off to make an Elfhame Druid, despite you having another non-black mana source RIGHT THERE BESIDE IT. And so on.

Luckily with a bit of tooling around, we found out that there are in-game workarounds to address these issues. Switching to Full Control Mode mid match turns off all the automation aspects of the game. Clicking on specific phases in your opponent’s or your own turn timeline creates Stops where you can simulate having a spell to bluff with. And to avoid the Auto-tap Mana Problem, you can simply tap the land you want to float your mana before casting the spell, to ensure that there won’t be any mixups.

Summoning Sickness

 

There are a few hiccups in MTG: Arena that go beyond its  issues with automation. However, as a game fairly young in its development cycle, these are more likely a case of summoning sickness rather than a full blown Pox.

First off, We’ve encountered quite a handful of bugs that resulted in a bunch of funky things happening, missed deathtouch triggers, double strike abilities not registering,  and indestructible creatures suddenly being destroyed by damage. We understand that even MTG isn’t immune to bugs, and these happen few and far in between. However, when they do happen it’s very frustrating and almost always causes you to lose your current game.

Another big nuisance is the lack of a turn history bar. If you turn away in MTG Arena during a big play and you miss the action then your best hope to piece it all together is by rummaging through the graveyards and trying to Argus Kos it out. A turn history bar seems like the most obvious solution to this and its omission is truly felt. Hopefully, Wizards of the Coast is developing one or a similarly helpful feature.

Fiery Conclusion

(c) Wizards of the Coast

 

As it stands, Magic the Gathering Arena is shaping up to be Wizards of the Coast’s best attempt at capturing success at in the digital space.  It’s addictively fun to play, and chock full of the vibrant character and personality of Magic the Gathering.  There are some minor hiccups here and there, as well as a few symptoms of summoning sickness but nothing a coat of spit shine and Healing Salve won’t fix.

If you want to get your digital spell-slinging on, planeswalk over to the Magic the Gathering Arena website to sign up for the closed beta.