Jumping into Magic Arena
I dipped my toes into Magic Arena this past week and decided to give the program a whirl. After all, with all the hype and positive reviews coming from the community, I wanted to see with my own eyes and click with my own fingers to confirm if the game was as good as it was advertised. After several days of playing through the various modes the game had to offer, I've decided to write up my initial take on where Magic Arena stands.
Slick and Smooth
For anyone that has played Magic Online, otherwise known as MTGO, there's a world of difference visually when it comes to the interface of Magic Arena. "Slick and smooth" sounds cliché to a fault, but there's a sense of refinement and polish to the user interface that doesn't exist on MTGO. Daily and weekly quests are displayed clearly on the bottom of the screen, drawing attention to the various rewards that have yet to be earned. At the top of the screen, the five tabs direct the players to the home screen, profile selection, deck editing and collection viewing, booster opening, and the game store, where players can purchase gems (the in-game currency) and boosters. In the center of the screen, we're presented with the various game modes to play – sealed, draft, and constructed – and toggling the Advanced Play Mode button on enables players to partake in higher-stakes events. Finally, the upper right corner of the screen displays the amount of wildcards ("cards" based on rarity that can be cashed in for any card of the same rarity), gold, and gems that you own.
What sticks out from all of this is the fact that there is very little clutter – the UI was clearly designed in such a way that people could hop onto Arena to do whatever it was that they wanted to do, whether that be playing, deck building, or purchasing boosters. This streamlined product is a far cry from the convoluted, disorganized mess that is the MTGO interface, and as silly as it sounds, there's a small sense of enjoyment that comes from playing something that looks, well, clean.
The Joys of Playing
None of that would matter, of course, if the gameplay itself wasn't any good, but Arena absolutely delivers on that front. The word that I keep coming back to is "smooth," but it's the word that most aptly describes how the games feel. Unlike MTGO, there's no incessant "Okay" that I have to click every phase, and the animations for the cards are swiftly carried out. Combat actually feels like combat, with cards winding up and smashing into opposing creatures or barreling towards the player. Certain cards have accompanying graphics when they resolve or enter the battlefield, and planeswalkers are displayed on the side of the screen in all their full art glory. While bells and whistles aren't enough to make a game good on its own, the bells and whistles combined with the enjoyment of playing Magic leaves behind any doubt which platform is the game of the future. Being able to zip in and zip out of games, resolving cards and triggers swiftly and with clear indications about what is happening, admiring the carefully crafted "playmats" on which you play – all these things add up and make a huge difference in the player experience.
Despite how great Arena looks, what has kept me coming back ever since downloading the game has been how Arena has brought back the excitement of picking up a collectible card game back to a jaded, grumpy player like myself. The two biggest draws of any collective card game are the ability to build up a collection and play a multitude of decks using said collection. Picking up cards – whether it's through drafts, trading, or simply buying them off of the Internet – and watching your collection grow is a key part in any collectible hobby. Being able to show off the cards that you have built up over the years is part of the fun, and Arena offers a new, sleek avenue for players to do so for free, albeit only with Magic's newer sets. By drafting, playing daily, and opening boosters, a beginner can start from scratch and slowly build up a collection. This is a pivotal advantage that is not available to those who want to play on MTGO – anything you want to do on Magic Online costs money, and every deck brings along some sort of price tag. On Arena, however, players start off with five, mono-color starter decks and are gifted additional decks each day simply by playing a game. Each of these starter decks include a mix of rares and a single mythic, as well as important commons and uncommons like Llanowar Elves and Lightning Strike. For me, there's a sense of progression that is more accessible and affordable than any other way in Magic. This certainly isn't Modern or Legacy, where you have to fork over several hundred euros at a time to increase the number of decks you can play.
Speaking of the number of decks you can play, Arena does an amazing job at making sure players can play a variety of decks at any given point. Instead of allowing players to play their Modern Dredge decks or Legacy Storm decks, Wizards has gone in the opposite direction for an inclusive, diverse format: casual, best-of-one ladder. On the surface, this sounds problematic – casual formats are formats in which there isn't a determined baseline for a power level, so the end results in many cases are tuned decks facing off against decks of unequal and lesser power level. This is something that regularly happens, for example, in casual EDH, where one deck in the group is a pre-con worth thirty euros and the other is a finely-tuned, thousand-euro machine. The way in which Arena solves this problem of power imbalance in best-of-one ladder is by giving each deck a hidden "rating" based on the cards that are played in it. If your deck is B/G Midrange copied straight from MTGGoldfish, your deck is going to face off against the other meta decks of Standard. If you join the queue with your starter mono-red deck, you're going to most likely face off against others that are playing their starter decks. This means that whenever your collection grows, the number of possible decks grows with it because
Magic is for the most part a pay-to-win game, and there are many moments where players can look back and say, "If I could afford that card, my deck would play better and win." By instituting a deck-rating system, there's now very little pressure for players to have to upgrade their decks into something more powerful because doing so will simply put them with other decks that are deemed just as powerful. In fact, there's a lot of fun in playing inefficient removal and vanilla 2/2s that remind me of kitchen table Magic mixed in with a hint of limited. The starter decks that players are given have cohesive themes but not the optimal cards for each slot, and the variance and swinginess that comes from them brings back the joy of picking up a deck of cards and playing against other people who just picked up the same cards.
That's not to say Arena doesn't have its faults, and I'm hoping that the developers will look at fixing some of the more glaring issues. The three biggest problems I have so far with Arena are the daily gold cap, the absence of Brawl, and a lack of diverse payment options. The daily gold cap is the biggest fundamental flaw with the game and the one that is the most difficult to overlook. After the daily and weekly quests are done and you've racked up your fifteen wins for the day, the only other way to accumulate gold is to enter events with entry fees. Competitive constructed has been touted the best bang for your buck because you can enter with the lowest amount of gold, but this necessitates a tier 1 deck to compete with. Other than stinginess, there's no other reason why players shouldn't be rewarded for spending time on the casual Bo1 ladder queues since they are playing the game and increasing the number of available players. If the developers were to even go further and add a single-player mode that would reward gold, the game would be an even bigger success than it already is.
The absence of Brawl, while a smaller complaint than the former, is still a missed opportunity in implementing a fun, affordable format with a diverse array of viable decks. Brawl matches offer a unique gameplay experience due to the nature of a singleton format, and it also provides a space for otherwise unplayable cards to see the light of day. Even if Brawl itself isn't possible (due to technical problems in implementing a commander, for example), a singleton format is greatly welcome as another avenue for players to play with their collection.
Finally, the lack of payment options other than PayPal or a credit card is a head scratcher, especially for someone who lives in Europe. As an American, one of the things I've come to greatly appreciate living here in Europe is that I've never needed a credit card. I rely daily on my bank card to make all sorts of payments without a single problem, and Wizards enforcing an American-centric payment method makes the matter of purchasing gems a nuisance and an actual deterrent.
I've seen comments refer to the target audience of Magic Arena as different to those who play MTGO or in paper. This couldn't be further from the truth – aside from a few blemishes, Arena provides a fantastic Magic experience that hearkens back to the initial joys of discovering and playing the game. I'm happily looking forward to the development of Arena, and I can't wait to write more articles about the program in the future.
What has been your experience so far with Arena? In what ways would you improve the gameplay experience? Leave your comments below, and I'll see you next week!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.