Trading and collectible card games (TCG/CCG) are having a field day lately, with Hearthstone coming out a few years back and finally showing online gamers that card games can be fun, engaging, and deeply competitive. New card games have been sprouting like mad, with relatively no success to speak of, and now Artifact, a brand new online TCG set in the universe of DotA, is being developed by Valve, further showing the PC and console communities that the card game genre will be here for the long haul.
In all of this mess, however, one can’t help but wonder what’s been going on with M:TG, the first-ever trading card game, the progenitor, the predecessor to all bar none of today’s card games. Still going strong in the tabletop communities, with new editions regularly coming out (M:TG recently celebrated its 25th birthday!), the question presents itself: with the immense lore, incredibly varied, complex, and satisfying gameplay, years of development and experience behind it, as well as a literal army of fans, why hasn’t this game gotten a dedicated online client that’s worth its salt?
Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO) came out way back in 2002 and has been, honestly, a rather weak attempt at adapting the game for digital. Numerous issues plagued this client, which I won’t go into right now, but let’s just say that it didn’t feel as dynamic and magic-y as it should. Now, however, Wizards of the Coast seem to have made the right move with the brand new MTG Arena, currently in closed beta. You can apply for a key on Wizard’s website if you want to get in on the action, or wait until the open beta version comes out with, hopefully, many of the current bugs solved. Even still, with all the current small bugs and nuances that can be fixed, MTG Arena is a substantial advancement over its MTGO predecessor.
This time we have a much smoother ride, an AI that’s smarter (even though there’s still much to work on), sweet combat animations, as well as interesting voice acting for the planeswalkers. It’s satisfying to hear Nicol Bolas roaring „I have returned“ as you play him onto the field. Some of the rare and mythic rare cards have summoning animations when you slam them down onto the board – Dragons emerge out of the card and show their fire-breathing face from the card, Artificers come out and survey the environment with a spyglass, planeswalkers say their greeting („Sorry I’m late“ says Teferi, always joking). Of course, these are just flavor and add nothing substantial to the game, but they’re a nice addition, making the game feel more real. It’s one thing to cast „Lighting Strike“ and watch a bolt emerge from the card hitting your target, and completely another just playing it out and the 3 dmg taking place without a visual cue. Again, these additions would mean nothing if the gameplay itself weren’t improved, but it is, and big time!
Magic requires a mix of the fluidity of gameplay, as well as the ability to act on both your own and your opponent’s turns, and MTG Arena seems to have done a successful job with how they’ve set up the turns in this game. Each turn follows the usual progression of a M:TG turn with the upkeep, main phase, combat, 2nd main phase and end step, but it all flows more smoothly and the computer takes over if you have no available plays, providing for a more dynamic approach. You don’t have to manually click „next“ on each phase, risking a misclick when the phase which you do want to play in arrives. On the other hand, this could be a possible drawback, as you reveal more information to the opposing player – if the computer automatically ends your steps when you have two lands open, your opponent might infer that you have no available instant spell for that mana cost. If you’re playing more competitively, you could turn this option off and manually click each time, so as not to give away any extra information on your plays.
Another thing you can toggle is the „Auto Tap“ feature which pays for your cards automatically, without needing to manually tap the appropriate lands. Again, this feature can be a real headache, and even more than the previous one, when the AI trips out and taps you out of all your lands of a certain color, leaving you with no mana for that next play you had lined up. I always play with this feature off, the AI has mana-screwed me more times than I can count. The feeling is abysmal, as those plays (or lack thereof) can literally be game-losing.
There are some other bugs here and there which can prove immensely frustrating, like not being able to click on a land to tap it, watching the timer count to the end of your turn and leave you with no play that turn. Or there’s the sometimes unclear sequencing of clicks required for cards that ask you to target both your own and your opponent’s creature, for example, so you end up destroying your own flier instead of theirs. The client also can sometimes be laggy or not load at all, but these are all minor issues that I expect to be promptly fixed even before MTG Arena moves out of closed beta.
The aspect I like the least about this game is the apparent greediness with which Wizards of the Coast have approached it. It’s unclear why they would set up the economy of MTG Arena in this way, as I’m sure they would’ve been able to sell their products even without acting, in my opinion, maliciously. What I’m talking about is the unclear distinction of how much one pack costs, exactly. There are two currencies, a soft one which you can grind for, called gold, and a hard one which you buy for real cash, called gems.
A pack is 1000 gold, so you can get a feel as to how much time you need to invest to be able to buy a pack, though you can only buy one at a time, there’s no discount for bulk purchase. However, when you try to buy them with gems (which let’s face it is the only way to really get cards), the line gets blurrier. The prices don’t match 1/1, so if you want to buy 15 packs which costs 3000 gems, you’ll need $19.99, which is 3600 gems. 600 gems leftover? Why? And how much is a pack, exactly? This is all done to trigger the addictive part of our brain and lure us to buy more gems and more packs, and I’m sure MTG Arena could’ve done without it. Another terrible decision is the lack of trading of cards – what you get is what you’re „stuck“ with. There’s not even a disenchanting option, like in Hearthstone. Here we have „wildcards“ that can be redeemed for a card of your choosing in the appropriate rarity slot – for example, if you have a Rare wildcard, you can redeem it for that Goblin Siege Gang Commander you need for your Goblin aggro deck. However, these wildcards are, well, rare. You earn them from opening packs, and you get one mythic rare wildcard every 18 packs you open. It’s a bit steep.
As for game modes, there’s a variety of them to play, including Free Play, where you take your constructed deck for a spin against an evenly matched opponent, Quick Constructed, where you enter with a standard deck, pay 500g or 95 gems and see how far you can take the deck (7 wins or 3 losses to end the tournament), as well as Quick Draft, where you draft your deck out of 3 booster packs and then enter into a similar style of ladder like in Quick Constructed – 7 wins or 3 losses and you’re out. The draft costs 750 gems or 5k gold, and the more you win, the higher your reward at the end (a pack or two and some gems).
There’s also Competitive Constructed and Competitive Draft, which cost more to enter, offer higher rewards, but feature best-of-three matches with the possibility of sideboarding between games. There’s also a new mode just released called Brewer’s Delight, where you can earn up to six „Brewer“ cards which are outside the current meta and are made for fun. The sets available in MTG Arena are all the sets included in standard, from Kaladesh all the way to the current Core Set 2019. With the number of cards available and a number of different modes, MTG Arena offers good entertainment for the skilled player, although the newer folks might struggle a bit outside of Free Play, as the Quick and Competitive modes can be rather challenging.
So, it looks like Magic: The Gathering is finally making the move to digital in the correct way, and I hope to see Wizards of the Coast make the appropriate fixes to the client, as well as to the game’s economy. MTG Arena can easily become a powerhouse in the online trading game scene if they focus on the players’ feedback and move slightly away from the pay-to-win model, adopting a more open and user-friendly approach, especially for the newer players. All in all, I see great potential in this game, even though there’s so much to work on. I’m waiting for the official release before I can give an actual rating, but right now I’d say its hovering around a 70/100.