Magic: The Gathering Arena Preview

With the exception of the Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon trading card games, there aren’t many titles that provide the amount of strategy, depth, and competition that Magic: The Gathering brings to the table. Created by Richard Garfield and released back in 1993, Magic has been the staple of the genre, inspiring countless card games that attempt to emulate its massive success. While paper magic has been the primary way to play the game, the advent of newer digital collectible card games (DCCG), such as Elder Scrolls Legends, Gwent, and especially Hearthstone, has taken over the digital space primarily because of their accessibility to new players, and an overall more simplistic approach to the genre.

In an attempt to compete with those other popular DCCGs, last September The Wizards of the Coast released the Magic: The Gathering Arena beta. In comparison to Magic: The Gathering Online, this game is being developed to be much more welcoming for new players. One of the recent updates has added the New Player Experience which gives newcomers a series of battles against the A.I., meant to focus on the mechanics of the game. New players are also awarded about a dozen starter decks to help them get started.

Like in many other card games, you and at least one other person play against each other, using mostly pre-constructed decks and a variety of different card types and strategies to outwit the opponent. There are seven different card types that can consist of lands (mana), creatures, planeswalkers, artifacts, enchantments and sorcery as well as instant spells that all can be utilized together to achieve victory. Once you become familiar with the basics of the game, it’s very simple to play and understand. At its highest level of competitive play, though, there simply isn't anything out there that has the complexity Magic offers.

Unlike newer DCCGs, Magic The Gathering wasn't originally created with digital gaming in mind, so the transition to digital can be tricky to pull off. Arena does a superb job of giving players the in-game tools needed to make the process go as smoothly as possible. Fans of the card game are already aware of how much interaction goes on between players irrespective of whose current turn it is. Either player can play their cards on any turn, which can sometimes lead to a lot of abilities being activated or counters being played. Arena givers you a full control of the game, allowing you to pause your opponents turn and phases ahead of time, so you don't miss your chance to play your cards during their turn. The user interface remains clean and intuitive despite how crowded the board can get in longer stretches. There are fancy special effects that come into play when some of the top cards are used, as well as other visual ques to help players keep track of exactly what is happening during any given turn.

As of now, Arena official formats are Standard, Sealed Deck, and Booster Draft. Other casual formats, such as limited, are also available in the game. Since the beta release, hardcore fans have been asking for the popular Modern format, but as of now it hasn't been added yet. On the other hand, Wizards of the Coast has announced a new format exclusive to the game, called Historic. It will include all the cards that have been rotated out of the Standard format going forward. As time goes by and the legal card list grows, I believe Historic will be Arena's version of Modern format.

There’s a pretty familiar progression system at work here. You are given daily quest that can be as simple as winning matches, or a more specific task, like casting certain spells or creatures. Upon completion of these quests, you are awarded gold that can used to purchase booster packs, participate in drafts or special events. In the current standard there are approximately 1900 cards available, but as with all rotation formats, that is subject to change as new cards are added and older ones removed. Seasons are on a monthly rotation, and rewards are given out respective to whatever rank and tier you achieved the previous season. There are six ranks ranging from bronze to mythic with four tiers within each.

As is the case with most free-to-play games, MTG Arena is financially supported by micro-transactions. Gems are available for purchase with real money and can be used to buy booster packs, as well as other cosmetic items such as card sleeves, avatars, and a variety of different bundles. The latest patch 0.16 introduced a new Mastery System which gives players more ways to unlock booster packs, as well as other items without having to spend real money.

There’s an unique approach in how you obtain cards. You can't break down cards that you have for any resources, so any cards you obtain regardless if you want them or not will always be in your collection. Wildcards are instead used to get individual cards. Wildcards are rewarded randomly in booster packs and any single wildcard can be used to get a single copy of any card with the same rarity. I found wildcards to be abundant enough that I could make a few decent decks early on, but the system still lacks in comparison to more traditional ones.

With Magic: The Gathering Arena still in beta, there are few features still missing, most glaring being the lack of a friends list. Currently there is no way to invite friends to play, or see if they are online. You can play against friends, but you both must challenge each other at the exact same time. Since there’s no way to communicate with other players in the game, this limits personal 1v1 matches greatly, so most games are played against random opponents.

There's been a lot of updates to the beta since its release, so some of these issues are sure to be fixed as more updates roll out, but still, Magic: The Gathering Arena beta is a fun game that remains true to its roots and gives players a more convenient way to play one of the most popular card games around.

Writer for Darkstation since 2014. I've been playing games my whole life and starting writing about them in 2010. Outside of gaming I enjoy anime and watching my Philadelphia Eagles let me down every Sunday. Follow me on Twitter @jsparis09