A few months ago I was invited to the Magic: The Gathering Arena alpha test. There was an NDA and all at the time, but I found it a pleasant enough experience, with what little I tried. At that time, they launched with only the cards from Ixalan, and because at the time I had already played with and bought a bunch of packs of Ixalan in real life, I wasn’t too excited to play. Fast forward a few months and the NDA is dropped. They’ve finished the Ixalan block along with adding the Amonkhet block. Recently they added Dominaria, and I assume they will add the Kaladesh block before it rotates out to give the full standard experience. Or maybe they won’t. I have other thoughts as well.
I’ve played most of the digital versions of Magic in existence. The yearly Duels of the Planeswalkers series was interesting, but such a restrictive package. Magic Duels that was out a couple of years ago seemed like Wizards of the Coast’s answer to Hearthstone, but they didn’t get too far in before they stopped supporting it. Magic Online seems to be the only place where people get a near table top experience and it’s the only version I haven’t used. I’ve seen it in action though, and though it looks a bit archaic it still seems to be the best version of the game available in digital form. I think that with Arena, Wizards of the Coast are trying to revitalize their aging OG platform by bringing the graphics and gameplay up a notch.
I would be sharing screenshots but there is no built in screen shot button, and I was too lazy to use a work around. At the end of the day, Arena looks great and plays smoothly. The animations are well done, the sound effects are immersive and the cards look great. At this time it doesn’t support ultra wide 2k resolutions so my monitor has a lot of wasted real estate, but I’m sure that sort of support will be added in the future (along with a screen shot button). This is one of the first digital versions of Magic that I’ve played that actually feels intuitive. Some cards in this game require you to search your library or draw a set amount of cards and then put cards on the top or bottom of your library, etc. The interface with which these actions are completed is fast and makes sense. I feel like new players and old veterans who haven’t played in years will be able to pick up and go.
Now for the bad stuff. You’re given a few packs to get started with, and this means you’ll have random chances to either get something worthwhile or get a bunch of crap. The preconstructed decks work okay, but none seem competitive enough — particularly when playing against someone who has been playing for quite some time and is dropping Teferi’s on the board. Packs can sometimes come with a “wildcard” which will allow you to essentially craft a card of your choosing of the wildcard’s rarity. That’s a nice way to pick up a Teferi of your own, but it isn’t necessarily going to win you the game. Getting packs takes forever. You’ll have to complete 2 quests a day to get a pack. At that rate, getting a decent deck together means grinding out with a bunch of draft chaff doing the daily quests for gold, and hey if you manage to get 5 wins you’ll get a pack, but if you just keep on losing, well you get the idea. There’s a missed opportunity here to be more like Magic Online, where there is a marketplace for singles and you can just create a deck and buy it outright. I’m a firm believer that it’s not the cards but the pilot who chooses their own destiny, but at the same time I’d much prefer to be able to throw down some cash to make a decent deck and be done with it. When I play the game in real life, I build decks using a combination of existing cards and singles purchased online. I want that same sort of experience. I’ll take the rewards slowly as they come, but I’d like to build a decent deck outright.
Some things I can see happening with the platform: I could see the above store option working well. The problem there is that it still won’t compete with Magic Online, because there’s still not the whole 25 years worth of cards available in Arena. One option I do see them having the ability to promote is Brawl — the new EDH variant that works with Standard-only cards. The problem there though is that like standard it is a rotating format, so how do they justify removing part of the cards from the program as they add new sets? What do people get for credit for the cards they already purchased? Unless they do go ahead and program this game to be the new version of Magic Online I think that I won’t be putting money into it. It’s an okay time waster, but I just don’t care about Standard enough to want to play this that often. I’d rather go to a store and play EDH with strangers face to face. If Brawl is added that might at least give me a reason to both play Brawl at all, and to play Arena as my go-to for Brawling.