I’ve been an avid player of Magic: The Gathering for years now, but more recently have gotten back into it with my friends and family. There is something about slinging spells on a Friday night, watching your nephew grunt as he gets picked on by the rest of the table, only to have all those same players turn on you the next game. The feels of euphoria when you pull off a sweet combo can rival that off a great video game.
While Magic Arena isn’t the first time Magic has been presented digitally, is it the best? Is it enough to overtake playing Paper Magic, or even checking out the dated, but feature full Magic Online? Here is our review.
Building Your (Mana) Base
Magic Arena has the benefit of being a recreation of one of the most popular games in the world. It’s not like Gwent or Hearthstone that had to prove they were quality games; people will pick up Magic Arena knowing it’s a recreation of an already stellar game. How well that game translates, as well as bring in a stable base of players for the long term, will still be determined. As of now, Magic Arena is wildly popular, coming off the heels of an extensive beta period throughout the last year or so.
Magic: The Gathering is a game that pits two players, dubbed Planeswalkers, against each other. Players use creatures, Planeswalkers that act as the main character of Magic’s story, and other spells to drain their opponent to zero life. There are multiple different styles of play, such as White’s tendency to favor large armies and life-gaining tactics, or Blue’s superior style of controlling the board and gaining card advantage to overwhelm and dishearten your opponents (Yea, I might be a Blue player you guys).
Building Magic Arena hasn’t just been by creating the game client. The team at Wizards of the Coast have been building it with the fan base through shifting its major esports focus to the digital version of the card game. This has come at the expense of paper Magic, with many of the traditional events getting less and less coverage versus the major Mythic Championships that take place on Magic Arena. However, it’s worked with Magic garnering major audiences on Twitch as a result during every tournament weekend. It’s something I’m not a huge fan of personally – there is something about sitting across the table with a grip of cards as you eye your opponent that is simply lost in the digital space – but I can understand the appeal. Magic Arena has done a great job of setting up Arena’s success for years to come.
Where're My Modern Formats?
One of my major gripes with Magic Arena is its desire at the moment to truly only support the current format of Standard – the competitive format that is based on cards released over the last year and a half. Standard can be fun – but it can also be incredibly boring where one main deck takes over the competitive meta and we don’t see the stellar deck variety that makes Magic so much fun to watch. Standard the last few years has been like this. Going back even to Kaladesh/Amonkhet standard when Magic Arena first started we saw a swathe of Mono-Red beatdown decks that really haven’t let up. As a control player I’ve enjoyed watching Esper and Grixis Control move in and out of the format, but even then it’s easy to understand that my favorite card in the last year – Teferi, Hero of Dominaria – has helped stagnate Standard.
The real issue for me though is an inability to really use your whole collection competitively. Historic formats exist on Magic Arena, but by and large if you want to move up the competitive ladder, a vast swathe of your cards are useless. Paper Magic has other competitive formats to make up for this, with Modern, Legacy, Commander and more to make use of your whole collection. Heck, when we play at my house on Friday nights, we don’t care really about format – we just use cards. I’d love to see something like that come into Magic Arena to help make it feel like playing the paper game, just online.
Additionally, Magic Arena’s Best of One Standard format takes out much of the tactics in Magic in my opinion. There is no side boarding – you play one game against your opponent and move on to the next. This puts you at the whim of the matchmaking and it may match you up with a deck that you just aren’t able to overcome because of a bad matchup. At least with the traditional Best of Three format you can sideboard cards from your 15-card sideboard to adjust to a specific match up, such as moving in more creature removal spells to handle a fast moving, aggressive deck. Traditional Standard is in Magic Arena as well, so that option is there for players like myself who prefer traditional Magic, so there are options for everyone.
Getting Value Out Of Your Cards
Magic is not a cheap hobby, whether it be paper or online. Magic Arena is, at its core, a free-to-play game. It provides you with some basic decks when you start up, and while these decks aren’t great, they provide a good base for those who are just getting into the digital game. However, if you want to really build your collection and get a competitive deck, you’re likely going to have to spend some money. You can unlock packs and join some Limited events using Gold you earn through completing quests and winning games, but it’s absurdly slow.
Gems aren’t cheap either, with 750 gems costing you a cool $4.99. That amount of Gems might be enough to buy a single booster pack of cards (with only 8 cards in it versus a physical pack consisting of 15 cards, oftentimes for the same price), or you can join the Standard Event and win some cards and coins by stringing together some wins. Joining Limited events, such as a Sealed tournament where you’re given six 15-card packs and you build a deck out of the cards in them, costs about 2000 gems – or about $15 of real money.
It’s not uncommon for free-to-play games to have aggressive monetization strategies, they have to make money after all, but Magic Arena almost feels a bit too aggressive. You can get a pack of cards for 600 gems - or 1000 Gold. That pack has fewer cards in it than its physical counterparts, and when you break down the cost it’s about the average price for a pack at your Local Game Store as it is in Arena.
You also cannot trade away or dust cards just sitting in your collection, meaning the vast majority of cards you get in these packs are going to be useless if you’re really serious about building a competitive deck. This to me is Magic Arena’s ultimate failing. Magic Online has a way to buy, sell and trade cards – albeit a round about way if you’re going through the secondary market – but it truly can feel like Paper Magic in that respect.
Magic Arena tries to help supplement this with Wildcards which are randomly inserted into packs. You’ll also earn Wildcards by opening packs, with you earning a Rare Wildcard every 8 or so packs, a Mythic Wildcard every 18 or so packs and so on. Rare and Mythic Wildcards are incredibly hard to come by, and as such it’s incredibly difficult to build up enough to fully kit out a competitive deck – as of this writing I have close to 100 common, about 60 uncommon, but only 1 rare and mythic each. I have a ton of cards just sitting in my collection. There needs to be a better system to get more value out of the cards you “own.” As of now, Magic Arena seemingly rewards those who can just drop a ton of money on packs in order to build up Wildcards that way. There needs to be a way for players to trade cards, or better yet – buy cards like we can at a Local Game Store or even on Magic Online from other players.
Magic Arena also sells card styles – think foils found randomly in packs – for each card. And these aren’t cheap either. Instead of having a foiled card randomly inserted in packs like we see with Paper Magic, Arena is charging for many of the styles you unlock. You can earn some of these going through the Mastery system – a tiered system of levels you unlock as you complete challenges and gain exp through winning matches – but many of them will just end up costing you gems. You can also fit your cards with sleeves, which also cost gems, meaning there is no way to buy these with the in-game gold you earn through regular play.
Magic Arena really wants you to spend money to get the full experience, and it almost makes me wonder if it would be better off just charging for the game versus making it free-to-play. Magic isn’t cheap, regardless of how you choose to play, but at least when I go and spend $15 on cards at an LGS, I get physical cards I can use for years to come. That isn’t to say I won’t spend money on cards in Magic Arena – I’ll buy gems and boosters when a new set comes out and crack packs like anyone else invested in Arena will. I’ll spend money to do a draft when I feel like remining myself how bad I am at Limited. But I feel the monetization in Arena is a tad too aggressive, especially when the alternative is a more social experience at an LGS.
But Is It Fun?
The best thing Magic Arena has going for it is simple: Magic is just a ton of fun to play. And Arena captures the essence of what makes Magic fun. Deck building (provided you have the cards) is easy enough to do thanks to an incredibly well optimized interface that shows your cards and deck at a glance. Thankfully too if you own a card you can use it across as many decks as you’d like – no more asking your table if proxies are ok so you don’t have to resleeve your shock lands every time you change decks.
Getting into a match typically takes no time at all, and Arena really prioritizes fast play, which I like. I’m the type of player who usually knows exactly where I want to go at any given moment at a glance, unless a turn or board state just gets overly complicated (which if that’s the case, I’ve likely failed at playing control). Players have a turn timer and are rewarded with timeouts across consecutive turns where Arena hasn’t had to remind you to finish your turn. Arena also handles transitioning phases and makes visualizing the Stack (i.e. the order spells and effects resolve on the battle field as they’re cast or activated) incredibly easy to follow.
I do wish also there were ways to brew decks and test them against the PC before you spend your Wildcards in game. With Paper you can simply, well, print proxies to test against decks, but with Arena you must own the cards if you want to play a game with them. It would be nice to see Arena implement a brewers format, giving players access to the sets against a Bot to test theories and cards before wasting your precious wildcards crafting a deck you may not enjoy three games down the line (I’ve done this too many times now).
It’s this social aspect of Magic what is most lost for me in Arena. There is no real way to interact with your opponent. I can’t look up at my opponent’s face and see their reaction to a draw or a play, and that makes the experience somewhat dimmer compared to Paper Magic. But in every other respect Arena is the best representation of Magic in the digital space, full stop.
Magic Arena is a stellar addition to the Magic: The Gathering family. It’s here to stay and the competitive landscape will likely be better for it overall as time goes on. While its monetization is a bit too aggressive for my liking, and the fact we really can’t have full control over what we do with our cards bugs me, it’s hands down the best digital Magic experience Wizards have implemented to date. There’s a reason I play it almost every day. While I don’t think it will replace Paper Magic, especially if Arena doesn’t hurry up and add the other formats to the client, it’s definitely situated to sit alongside Paper as a way for a new generation of Planeswalkers to step up to the table, drop a land and pass the turn to their opponent, grip of cards in hand.Full disclosure: Gems were provided to help facilitate this review.