Magic: The Gathering is the world’s oldest and longest running collectible card game, with countless players all over the world. This success and accompanying popularity has carried over into Magic: The Gathering Arena, the newest digital version of the iconic game.
In a market that some might say has become oversaturated, Arena has staked its claim as a force to be reckoned with. The transition from physical to virtual brings with it a large number of changes to how the game is played at all stages of the experience, from collecting and deck-building to the gameplay itself. Let's take a look at five of the best aspects of Magic: The Gathering Arena - and five of the worst.
10 Worst: Microtransactions
Magic: The Gathering Arena is free to play but this means it suffers from the bane of all free to play games: microtransactions. The game needs to make money somehow, after all, and Arena offers a wide variety of options for players who are willing to spend some of their hard earned dollars. These range from cosmetic changes, such as card backs and avatars, to tangible benefits, like bulk purchasing packs of cards. However, players cannot buy these things directly, and must instead purchase gems in order to obtain them. While such microtransactions are by no means surprising in this sort of game, it's still an annoying reminder of this particular trend in the gaming industry.
9 Best: Regular Updates
While Arena is relatively new on the scene compared to other digital CCG titans like Hearthstone, it's already getting routine updates and expansions to keep pace with the release of card sets for the physical version of the game. Most recently, all of the cards included in the War of the Spark expansion were introduced into the game to coincide with their in regular Magic.
This has held true for all card sets since the Ixalan block, with the new cards being integrated into the game’s mechanics seamlessly. When it comes to keeping players hooked with regular fresh content, Arena is more than capable of delivering.
8 Worst: No People
One of the best aspects of Magic: The Gathering's paper version is the social element. You're not just playing a numbers game - you're playing a people game, one where you get to laugh and joke and have fun with friends who share your enthusiasm. Arena, unfortunately, doesn't have that.
The most interaction you can muster comes in the form of limited emotes that aren't even accompanied by voice lines. Granted, this is partly due to necessity (digital card games tend not to have fully developed social features, allowing them to skirt the uglier parts of online interactions), but the absence of that human element is still felt.
7 Best: No People!
On the other hand, dealing with other people can be grueling sometimes. We all have an inner introvert that wants nothing more than to completely sever all ties to civilization and just live in the woods like a hermit sometimes. Magic: The Gathering Arena may lose the social element of paper Magic, but in doing so it strips away everything from the game that isn't the purest form of play. There are no tells to read, no banter to exchange - just you and the cards and nothing else.
6 Worst: Wildcard Grinding
Another way that Arena differs from paper Magic is how players obtain new cards. While you can still get them from card packs, you can’t spend money for specific cards the way you can for the physical versions. Arena introduces a Wildcard mechanic, where players can earn Wildcards of different rarities from opening packs (and occasionally from the packs themselves), then redeem those Wildcards for any card of the same rarity.
However, the rate at which these Wildcards are gained make it very difficult to build up a collection just from playing the game, meaning that players either need to dedicate lot of play time to Arena, or spend real money to speed up the process. This can be especially frustrating for players who don’t want to spend their cash on digital cards (or those who can’t).
5 Best: Accessible Deck Building
On the other hand, the Wildcard mechanic does balance the playing field somewhat. Whereas two cards of the same rarity might have dramatically different prices for their paper versions, in Arena they have the exact same cost – one Wildcard of that rarity. This means that players can obtain cards in Arena that they might not be able to afford if they were playing the physical version.
In turn, this leads to a much more accessible deck building experience, where players are not necessarily limited in what cards they can obtain due to their personal finances. While the Wildcards are still hard to come by, it's definitely possible for players to craft a solid deck without spending a dime.
4 Worst: Limited Modes
Another reason why Magic: The Gathering is so popular is because of the wide variety of formats it can be played in, from Standard to Commander to Two-Headed Giant and more. Unfortunately, Arena doesn’t quite capture the same variety as the only two modes of play available are 1v1 best of one, and 1v1 best of three. There is no four player free for all, no Two-Headed Giant, no Planechase, nothing besides the two modes listed above. Arena is still being developed, though, so here’s to hoping it eventually captures all of the exciting and sometimes maddening ways to play the game.
3 Best: Exciting Events
While it may not have the widest variety of regular play modes, Magic: The Gathering Arena does routinely offer special events, where players can play with adjusted rulesets and win special rewards. These events range from the usual draft and sealed limited formats that are also played with paper Magic to games like Momir's Madness that could only be played digitally.
Most recently, Arena has released a draft event with the added rule that each player may play cards from their hand without paying their mana cost. The range and diversity of these online events are a perfect complement to the regular gameplay of Arena.
2 Worst: Small Card Packs
For players used to opening paper Magic card packs, Magic: The Gathering Arena's card packs will come as a bit of a disappointment. Instead of 14 cards, each Arena pack has only eight – five common cards, two uncommon cards, and one rare or mythic rare card. Given that you can have four copies of any given card in a deck and that there are well over a hundred cards in each expansion, this can mean that building a large collection is a slower process, especially for free players. While this is likely a design choice driven by the shift to a digital game, it can still be a little disappointing.
1 Best: Streamlined Gameplay
Magic is, to put it lightly, a complicated game. Each turn has phases and steps, passing priority, state-based actions, and more rules than there are seconds in a century (that's slightly exaggerated – but only slightly). When playing the paper version, it's up to players and sometimes the judges to catch anything that shouldn’t be happening. Magic: The Gathering Arena, however, benefits greatly from being a digital game as the entire process of playing is streamlined and organized in a way that’s much easier to understand. The user interface is intuitive and clearly marked with actions you can and can't take, with the game automatically skipping through parts of your turn when it knows there isn’t anything more you can do. Overall, the experience of playing Magic: The Gathering Arena is excellent and whether you're a new player or a seasoned veteran, you're certain to enjoy it.