Magic: The Gathering Arena – Beta Review

Hello Magic fans and novices alike. The NDA is down, Twitch is going nutty with streamers, and everyone who didn’t get Beta access is asking – Magic: The Gathering Arena, is it good?

Well I’m here to tell you: Yes it is. See you next time!

No, but really. I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering Arena (let’s shorten that to Arena, yes?) for the vast majority of the Beta window, and have seen a number of rollouts, wipes, patches, and improvements. This game absolutely knocks my socks off.

Since an MTG client already exists there will be a lot of comparisons to it throughout this article, so its reasonable that we break down the good and the bad of MTGO (or MODO for you oldies out there).

MTGO is a relatively solid program if your only use for it is a $10 chat client. In almost every other way, MTGO falls short of not only the 2018 benchmark, but any benchmark post-2000. The client is visually unimpressive, looking like a second-year IT student’s presentation. The client is slow, often taking minutes to load full functionality from startup. The client is invasive, installing itself into unreasonable places on your PC and generally making a mess in the registry. Barely a month will go by when certain cards aren’t banned in MTGO because their use simply breaks the game or functions significantly different than intended. For an example of this, have a chuckle at ChannelFireball’s video of Louis-Scott Vargas initiating the unbreakable-infinite loop of 3x Oblivion Ring here. The ‘Tickets’ system is fairly annoying, since you’ll often buy the tickets just to throw at a card vending bot, or into MTGO itself for event entry and are really just a proxy for a US dollar.

However, I have to give credit where it’s due. No doubt that it’s a huge effort to support all of the main MTG formats (and some non-mainstream ones) in designated queues, which check decks on submission for legality. They hold special events with pre-constructed decks, or a special draft set like the Holiday Cube. There’s a massive amount of love being poured into MTGO by the creative staff; its just that the people who first built the engine and are responsible for making the thing robust kind of dropped the ball.

It’s 2018. It’s time for an upgrade – and fortunately Wizards of the Coast have exactly what we need. Enter Magic: The Gathering Arena.

VISUALS

The Good

This game is built from the ground up to be  appealing, fresh, and clean, and this shows most obviously in the user interface. Buttons are relatively responsive, animations are pretty but mostly not overwhelming, and most importantly, things just make sense as to their location and function. I would draw comparisons between Arena and Hearthstone in terms of visuals. Both have a clear identity, but Arena wins it for me because every card I draw or effect I trigger isn’t plastered on my screen like I need a week to read it (except when you’re building a stack). The stack is very well implemented, both visually and mechanically, with effects and spells stacking and resolving correctly as far as I have seen. Even cards revealed by other cards’ effects remain revealed in the location they went to. If your opponent adds a spell to hand through an activation of Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, it will stay revealed in your opponent’s hand until used.

The Bad

Certain cards have animations that can last some time, being made worse by the absence of other animations. It seriously takes about four seconds after playing my Jace, Cunning Castaway to get past him making a dumb quip like “Don’t make me change your mind.” Cards often stack on top of each other and move to odd places, mostly during declare attacks/blocks, so you can’t quickly tap three creatures and proceed to next phase.

FORMATS

Arena is not meant to truly replace MTGO, but to serve as a clear indicator of Wizards of the Coast’s priorities going forward. Arena will contain all sets in Standard Format at the time of launch and nothing before, with Amonkhet block just added for this patch. This means that Standard will be the only format playable on Arena unless (and this is my baseless speculation) WotC announce a new Extended (double the sets of Standard) or New Modern starting with the earliest set available on Arena. Apparently Wizards have an announcement about these things later in the year, so we’ll find out then. For now I’m content to play Standard only on this client, and treat it like Hearthstone. For those who love non-rotating formats, MTGO will still be available (as far as we have heard) and will get new product as well, you just don’t get the flashy new client.

To get you started you’re given ten decks – one for each colour pair – with which to play in constructed queues. These decks are actually fairly good. I would even say better than the Planeswalker Decks that are available in paper product.

 

THE ECONOMY

The economy of Arena has been totally overhauled and is actually really enjoyable. No longer do I have to hand over my wallet for a deck. I simply play to earn packs and Wildcards to get better cards to earn packs…etc. The Wildcards and Vault are absolute masterstrokes in my opinion. A Wildcard can take the place of any card opened in a booster, or earned in an end-of-match reward and comes in one of the MTG rarities. This can then be exchanged via your collection for any card of that rarity you like. The Vault is a more long-term reward, with every booster opened and every fifth copy of a card opened (in place of the fifth, obviously) your account gains some progress toward The Vault opening. At 100% you get showered in Wildcards in every rarity that get added to your collection. All of this combines together to make deck construction a super smooth process. It took me about a week of play to have my BW Vampires at what I would call a competitive level.

It costs 1000 gold to buy a booster. With most quests bestowing 200-400 gold on completion, and your first win per day giving 200 gold, a player can earn a pack after around ten wins, assuming they complete a quest along the way. You also get an additional prize of a booster pack for your fifth, tenth and fifteenth wins of the week. While not much in the short term, these will add up over the first few weeks and get you that much closer to building your deck of choice.

My only criticism of the Wildcard/Vault system is that you’re often hoping for Wildcards above all else.

PRIORITY SYSTEM

For the uninitiated, priority is the term for how games of Magic decide who can take an action (like casting a spell) and follows the basic rule of ‘active player gets first dibs on responses, non-active player goes next’. Simple stuff, until you put it in a real life situation. In an actual game of Magic I’m not going to pass my priority willy-nilly, I want to represent ‘responses’, or instant-speed spells and abilities that may give an opponent an idea of what kind of cards I’m holding. When using the default settings of Arena you absolutely get priority at the correct times, but your priority will often be passed through if you have no responses with the means to be used.

Confusing? Let’s use an example. My opponent casts Lightning Strike on my 2/2 Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle. I have three mana up including a white and two cards in hand. I want to appear as though I’m thinking about casting a buff spell, in particular a Vampire’s Zeal. In paper Magic, no problem. You look at your hand, squint quizzically at your cards, maybe fiddle with your lands and finally say “It resolves”. In Arena, if you don’t have an activated spell or ability that can be correctly activated or paid for, tough luck, we whizz past your priority and your creature dies without you being able to bluff something. The more important layer here is that your opponent now knows that you don’t have any instants in hand that could be paid with that mana so they can attack without fear of being blown out by a combat trick.

The system also has a small flaw in that it may not properly give priority as players move back down the stack. I wanted to cast Moment of Craving to effectively negate an opponent’s buff spell, but when my opponent’s ability resolved, despite not normally having to hold priority to get priority back, I was passed over.

Fortunately, new in this patch is the ability to toggle ‘Full Control Mode’ which holds priority at every interaction, step and phase. It makes the game a long affair and takes some effort to use, but if you can’t stand the idea of not bluffing cards (like me) you’ll find it useful and worth the pain.

So there you have it. Magic: The Gathering Arena, a client for the new age and a game for all MTG lovers out there. No doubt Arena will follow in the footsteps of other OCGs and deploy a mobile version in the near future so we can play on the go, in bed, and even at game stores! I am so amazed by this client and the work that Wizards of the Coast have put into this project. We hope that the days of buggy sub-optimal clients are behind Magic players forever.

Next step: Wizards Event Reporter, right? Right? Please?

Stay tuned for a lot more MTG: Arena content here at Australian Tabletop Gaming Network. In the meantime checkout our short video of Ben cracking open some digital boosters –

And if you are looking to chat, hangout and chill with other Australian Magic: The Gathering Arena players then why not join our Facebook Group?

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5 Comments
  1. borgmater
    March 23, 2018 |
    • March 23, 2018 |
  2. borgmater
    March 23, 2018 |
  3. Michael Van Tosh
    March 23, 2018 |
  4. Connor
    March 24, 2018 |

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