Even if you’ve never played the card game, you likely ran across someone in life who feverishly explained Magic the Gathering as the greatest activity since breathing. Perhaps you even did some research until you realized the rules, deck strategy, start-up costs, and requirement that you often to need to hang out a game store to play it were all too much to start. Luckily, Wizards of the Coast, the company behind the 20-year old hobby recently released Magic the Gathering Arena (Arena) to digitally ease the physical burdens of the card game.
Arena drops you right into the magic. It’s fun, free to play, has a substantial tutorial, and plenty of card collecting avenues to satisfy the deck building rabbit hole that keeps the game interesting. The social aspect of the game could use some work, as you’ll have to know friends’ in-game username to challenge them. Otherwise it’s matchmaking for 1v1. Hopefully with more adoption and development the game gets more complex game modes. Still, it offers a high fun factor, good depth, and daily and weekly quests to incentivize play and level up your account.
A steady learning curve, and tons of goal oriented replay to keep you hooked
The easiest way to get into the MTG world without stepping foot into your local game store.
The tutorial drops you right into the action before you can even glimpse the main screen. Veterans of the game will find this arduous. Designers should have made a skip button. Nonetheless, the tutorial takes you through 5 different opponents of increasing difficulty to show you the ropes of the game.
MTG players will find it similar to the card version but with a more streamlined pace and some of the administrative tasks more automated. It’s pretty similar to Hearthstone where you have to drop the other opponent from 20 to 0 health as you steadily increase your mana pool (the resource used to play stronger cards) and the deadliness of your attacks. Once you get a creature out onto the deck, you can attack, hold off to defend and block, and augment the battlefield with a variety of spells and instant-casts.
It’s all about experiencing different card combinations. This is actually how Arena does its rankings: they have competitive tiers, one for premade decks and another for custom decks. Arena pales in comparison to the card game’s combinatorial skill ceiling but when you’re out of the tutorial you’ll begin to see just how many cards and decks there are. And the endless array of creatures, power ups, and other spells to unleash blistering combos. Part of the fun is certainly the tactical side: figuring out how to build the best deck for any opponent. Unless you want to buy the cards with gems, which you can with real life money, it’s also enticing to earn them through playtime, achievements, and quests.
The UI scores points for being pretty and slick. Manipulating your cards doesn’t leave much room for error, the sprites during an action have quality animations, and it’s simple to understand what you’re supposed to do during a turn.
The main menu presents five separate tabs.
· A screen where you can change your avatar, see your rank for the season for both your constructed decks and your limited decks, and check your progress on your Set mastery and Account mastery.
· This is where much of the critical thinking happens. You can review cards within the decks, create custom decks, and edit standard decks.
· As you increase your account level or buy / earn more packs, you’ll open them here.
· What’s a free to play game without some pay to play options? You can purchase a host of items here, including card packs, gems, avatars, sleeves, card styles, and bundles of those that occasionally go on sale.
· Arena gives you two ways to progress through earned experience: Account and Core Set Mastery. Players complete the Account Mastery system as part of the new player experience which unlocks 15 starter decks and cosmetics. You also progress the Core Set mastery through play time but the Sets do expire, so to speak, as Set masteries are available for the most recent Standard set, starting on the day the set is released and ending when the next set is released. Daily and weekly quests are available to help this progress.
Where can you run this?
Right now Arena only runs on a Windows PC. Hopefully it gets some love as it matures with a mobile app, as Hearthstone has proven that digital card games play very well on mobile and might be the key to mass adoption. System requirements are minimal with recommended specs of an Intel Core2 Quad Q9300 @ 2.50GHz processor, a GeForce GTX 560 graphics card, and 4GB of RAM. Any PC from the last few years should run it flawlessly.
Is there a better alternative?
While the physical Magic the Gathering TCG could be considered an alternative, that’s like saying Gran Turismo on PS4 is an alternative to being a racecar driver. We’ll stick to the digital side of the coin.Hearthstone remains Arena’s most direct competitor, sharing many of the same gameplay features where you gradually play stronger cards to take your opponent to 0. Deck building, seasonal gameplay,and a strong community help it stay relevant. It’s also a great mobile game where Arena plays on PC only. Other alternatives include Gwent, set in The Witcher realm from CD Projekt Red, Valve’s Artifact, set in the DOTA 2 world, and Eternal, which is considered a hybrid between Arena and Hearthstone.
Arena plays well, has serious depth, shows a ton of promise, and finally reveals to the casual gamer what the 20 year hype of Magic the Gathering is all about. We like almost everything about it but it could certainly use a better social system. Currently you can only challenge a friend if you have their tag. They need to incorporate a friends list, groups, team play, and more.
Should you download it?
Yes. If you’ve ever been curious about Magic the Gathering but unwilling to fork over time, money, and a trip to the games shop, then you should download Arena. Maybe you used to play as a kid or are recently tired of Hearthstone. No matter where you fit into a use case, the free to play option, low system requirements, and high fun factor make this download a no-brainer.