Board Game Review: Magic: The Gathering Arena

8/10 Generous for free players but a heavy barrier for new players

Magic: The Gathering Arena is the latest digital implementation of Magic: The Gathering, introduced in 2018. I’m not sure it’s possible for a human to find themselves on this page and not know what Magic: The Gathering is, but in case an alien or lizard-person is here, Magic is the oldest and most successful collectible card game that’s been going on for decades.

Digital card games didn’t start to take off until smartphones and tablets became commonplace, though there were efforts before that. Magic has had several attempts, with mixed results, to enter the digital… arena. In fact, I hesitated to try out Arena because of my mixed experiences with digital versions of the game. Some versions didn’t run very well. Some had terrible UIs that were awful to use. And none of them lasted very long except maybe the last before Arena. I really wish I had jumped on board with Arena a lot earlier. I won’t dive much into how Magic plays or how insanely successful it’s been, I’ll be focusing on Arena and what you can expect from it. I’m also not a hardcore player that hits up tournaments or worries over the current meta. I’m just looking for a fun game.

The App

The UI is decent, though there are some icons that aren’t clear what they do or options that are obfuscated behind a sub-menu (in fact, while collecting screenshots for this review, I discovered yet more options I hadn’t seen). It’s certainly not the worst UI a Magic game has had (the worst of which was almost unplayable).

There’s not much customization under Profile; you can change avatar, emotes, and pets, all cosmetics which you can buy in the store (though there are a handful of free avatars to choose from). Your other customization options are in the deck-builder and menu.

There are a lot of gameplay options to choose from, and many of which really only mean something to hardcore players who need extreme levels of control. You also have a handful of keyboard shortcuts if you need them. This is by far, to the best of my memory, the most customization players have had over the app and how the game controls. Options are great to have, and over time, you might start fiddling with some of them, like turning off evergreen keyword reminders once you’ve thoroughly memorized them all.

When you’re ready to play a match, you can pick between Standard (current sets only), the new Alchemy set (rebalanced and digital cards), Historical (all Arena sets), Brawl (Commander), or a Bot match against the AI. You can also pick between ranked and unranked. While playing a match, it’s easy to get into as the app will highlight cards you can pay for, highlight cards with abilities you can use, and generally make the game easier to manage. But it’s not perfect.

When your opponent plays a card, it flashes on the screen for a brief second before resolving, so if you don’t know the card, you’ll have to go find it to mouse-over and read it. If it goes on the table, fine, not that difficult. Fishing for it in the graveyard is annoying but acceptable. But some cards are exiled (removed from the game) when used, and you can’t read exiled cards. And there’s no log tracking all the things that happen during a turn, which seems like a strange omission at this point in digital card games.

If you have the ability to respond to a card, it will stay on-screen and wait until you respond or decline, but reminder text that normally appears next to a card won’t show during this window, so if you don’t know what a particular ability does, it’s not as helpful as it should be. And there have been a couple times when the game needed me to decide something, but it only gave me the options “decline” or “resolve” and I wasn’t sure what effect it was applying to which option. I hit “decline” and that was apparently the wrong button. It can also take a bit to learn where all of the response windows are during a turn, which is crucial to playing well. Some effects have very delicate timing and it’s difficult to know what the right timing is.

In the short time I’ve been playing (a little over a week?), there have also been a variety of events held, some of which do cost gems or passes to enter such as drafts, but some are completely free to enter and offer rewards for winning. Magic has accumulated several different formats over the years, and of the ones still supported, they seem to all make an appearance here. Though, for some reason, the names might not all be what you’re used to. Commander is instead called Brawl. And just recently, only a few days after I started playing Arena, they introduced a brand new set and format exclusive to Arena: Alchemy.

In the Alchemy format, they’re taking advantage of the digital landscape by making updates to rebalance cards as well as introducing new cards with effects that can’t be replicated in the physical game (or not easily replicated). These include effects you may have seen in games like Hearthstone. Some can alter cards in your hand, others can track complex information players wouldn’t be able to track, and others allow you to draft from a set of semi-random cards. You can buy Alchemy packs which feature current set cards, rebalanced cards, and the new cards.

Deck Building

There are several things to consider with a good deck-building tool. One of the most important is how cards are displayed, and Arena has two options, one zoomed out and one zoomed in. Zoomed out, as above, you can see quite a few cards at once, which is great once you’ve started learning them and can recognize cards at a glance. Mouse-ing over a card also brings it up in full size for easy reading and includes details about the various keywords and complex effects that cards have. And boy do they have them. Magic has gotten significantly more complicated since I last played the physical version many years ago.

On this screen, you can quickly narrow searches by color, including multi-color, artifact, and land. There are also indicators (perhaps a bit too subtle) as to how many copies you own of a given card. While deck-building, cards in your deck have their diamond lit up for easy reference. While here, you can craft new cards using wilds (more on that in Packs below) or buy alternate versions with gems or gold. You can even have the deck-building tool change layout!

By clicking the button with 3 little rows in it (at the end of the sorting options on the left-hand side of the main collection screen), you open up the advanced filters.

Here, you can narrow it down by a lot more, such as specific set and card type. When you click into the search field, you can of course just type the specific text you want it to find, but you also get a reference screen where you can use code to search for more specific things such as “green creatures that cost greater than 3.” It has a bit of a learning curve, but they do include some examples.

You can name each deck, choose the “cover” image of the virtual deck box, make a sideboard, and select which “sleeves” (card backs) to use for the deck. While all that’s nice to have, a very important tool for a competitive game is a way to see a breakdown of the deck, showing what’s in it from every angle possible. If you click the little yellow bars (cost distribution) in the top right next to the deck name, you get a very important screen that probably should be more obvious how to access it.

Here, you get all kinds of information from the mana curve, distribution of colors, creatures and non-creatures, and every sub-type in the deck. In the center, you can also change the deck’s legal format. Need to make a singleton deck? Set your format to singleton and it’ll automatically limit each card in the collection viewer to 1.

In the deck screen (above), it clearly shows you what colors each deck has and if there are any cards not legal in the current format (those little triangles over a few decks at the bottom). You can also quickly clone a deck if you want to make tweaks or make a version of the deck for a different format. That’s a great touch. While some of the screens and options are a little obfuscated, this is probably my favorite deck-building tool I’ve seen in a digital CCG.

The Model

Arena is of course free to play, as all online CCGs are if they want to be competitive. But the real questions are, what does the model look like? How friendly is it to free players? Does it punish you for not playing enough, or worse, not winning enough? And is there anything to spend money on other than cards?

For starters, when you first open Arena, you’ll go through a tutorial with a free starter deck. After the tutorial, you can continue a series of challenges in order to unlock a deck of each color. Note, at the end of each challenge, you will face a player (also armed with a starter), not the AI. But you’re not required to win against players to advance through the challenges. These decks include a variety of rare and mythic cards, though, in my limited experience, these decks aren’t all of equal quality. Some are solid enough for a starter, but some of them (black and red) only seem to function if they get perfect draws. But they’re starters. Free cards.

Eventually, you’ll no longer be able to earn rewards from facing the AI, you’ll have to take on other players to keep earning rewards, but you can take a new deck against the AI to try it out. So how do you get more stuff? There are two main currencies, gems and gold, and then XP.

Paying

Like every free-to-play app, there are “fun bucks” in the form of gems. Why always gems? In any case, they come in various quantities, but depending on what you buy with them, they won’t go very far. If you just want cards, they can get you decent amounts with higher quantities giving you more bang for your buck. Also worth noting, instead of buying gems, there are two bundles available (for $4.99 and $14.99) that give you a nice starting boost in cards and gems. If you’re going to spend money on Arena, these will be the first two things you buy.

There are sleeves, avatars, animated versions of cards, pets, and special bundles for events. Many of these can be bought with gold instead of gems, though some are exclusive to gems.

Free

I don’t have much money to spend on games, so I almost always play these games for free. How the model works for free players is important. The game has a free currency in the form of gold. You also earn XP, and leveling increases your mastery (more on that in a moment). These resources are mostly earned by just playing. Each day, you’ll get a quest to play spells of specific colors, or kill a certain amount of enemy creatures, etc; goals you can accomplish while losing. The quests give you a payout of 500 gold and 500 XP; 1,000 gold being enough for a pack of cards. You also earn a limited number of daily and weekly rewards for winning. These are smaller rewards that eventually exhaust, acting as a nice bonus for doing well without overly emphasizing winning over just playing.

You’ll also have daily challenges that continue to unlock new decks, these being two-color decks for the classic match-ups. At the end of that, you’ll get a challenge to cast 100 spells which unlocks an additional set of multi-color decks of the remaining combinations. You’ll have a fat stack of free decks after your first week. During that time, you’ll also have a lot of gold to spend on a variety of things. And some of these decks are really solid and fun to play. You’ll soon have enough of a collection to do your own deck-building.

So what’s “mastery?” It’s a concept that goes by other names in other games but has become fairly common in free-to-play games. Basically, as you “level up,” you’ll earn rewards. And if you buy a special pass, you’ll get even more rewards. Above, I earn packs and red orbs by leveling up, and the gold locks on the bottom row are everything I would earn with the mastery pass, which costs 3,400 gems. Wouldn’t you know it, one of the gem bundles is exactly 3,400 gems and costs $19.99. But if you plan on playing a lot, it’s a good value. You’ll earn a lot of packs, gold, “foil” cards (animated), and even be reimbursed for some of your gems.

Regardless of whether you get the pass, you’ll also earn red orbs which you can slot into a mastery tree that unlocks color-specific cosmetic card options. This is honestly better than log-in rewards which are often so minor as to be almost worthless since you don’t even need to play to earn them. Mastery, at worst, is just more free packs for playing. You don’t even need to win.

Packs

Packs in Arena aren’t like the variety of packs that normal Magic uses (which has gotten much more complicated over the years). Each pack is made of 8 cards: 5 common, 2 uncommon, and 1 rare or mythic. Any of these cards has a chance to be replaced with a wild card of that rarity. These wilds can be cashed in at the collection screen in order to craft any card of that rarity. You also earn these wilds as you open packs.

One nice thing is that when buying packs, you can pick from any set available in Arena. That’s a lot to pick from. And there are some fun sets focused on specific themes like the Viking-inspired Kaldheim and the Dungeons & Dragons tie-in set which introduces some really neat mechanics like dungeons. The current set, Crimson Vow, is full of gothic horror tropes like vampires and werewolves.

Conclusion

Magic has continued to evolve over the years. It was fairly streamlined and easier to get into back when I played in high school during Judgement and Onslaught. I feel like it’s gone off the rails a bit. Getting into Magic after not having played since maybe 2015 with one of the previous digital releases, it feels like every other card now has a wall of text.

Mythics are almost universally complicated. And some of the new mechanics are also complicated and create knotted interactions. And there are way more tokens than there used to be. +1/+1 counters are all over the place. Physical Magic must be a pain to play these days. At least the app handles the calculations and the piles of tokens and counters for you. That said, if you stick with it, you’ll get used to it, but that’s if you enjoy Magic. I honestly don’t know if Magic is that good to get into as a new player these days. It’s dense.

The app is at least very generous to free players. You can start earning packs quickly, and you get a LOT of cards from the free starters once they’re unlocked. And games can be pretty quick since the fiddliness of tapping and drawing and counting mana and calculating damage is all handled automatically. I’d say my average game is 10-15 minutes. Magic is still prone to its traditional problems. You might get mana-screwed or flooded. Your deck might draw in the wrong order and stall. You might get matched against your perfect counter. It happens, but it doesn’t take much of your time and your main rewards are for playing spells or attacking.

I think there’s enough here to enjoy as a casual player regardless of whether you end up spending money on the game. A solitaire format would be welcome, and there are useability improvements they could make, but it’s a good app. I’m already planning decks and saving up my wild cards so I can craft everything I need all at once. I might even spend money on the game.

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