Gamers have been taking on the role of planeswalkers of the multiverse and battling in Magic: The Gathering matches since the mid 1990s. A lot has changed since the strategy card game hit the scene and quickly skyrocketed in popularity, but the quality and thrill of one versus one Magic match ups is still as alive as ever. In the age of digital card games like Hearthstone, Sol Forge, and even Gwent; Wizards of the Coast is aiming to secure its place in the digital realm with Magic Arena.
Magic Arena is the not the first time that MtG has gone digital, but this may be the game's best adaptation yet. Magic: The Gathering Online has been around for years and provides a fantastic place for competitive players to draft, build, and play the card game; but the MTGO interface, user experience, and (most importantly of all) economy all feel incredibly outdated to most players who aren't already accustomed to that ecosystem. There have also been a few watered down version of Magic with pre-built decks and very limited card pools that were released on iOS device and consoles in recent years, but these didn't offer a robust enough experience to capture what makes the game so special. Magic Arena launches somewhere in between the prior two approaches and delivers an experience that has plenty to offer veterans, as well as a friendly gateway into the multiverse for newbies.
For those who are unfamiliar with the game, Magic: The Gathering is a collectible competitive strategy card game. Players each build a deck (based on different limitations for various formats) and then wage battle. There are a few paths to victory, but the most common is reducing the opponent's life total from 20 to 0. That's the addictive core gameplay loop and Magic Arena manages to bring it to PCs beautifully.
The game's user interface and tutorials are going to feel very familiar to anyone who has played Hearthstone's recent sets or other modern digital card games. The animations and sound effects may feel like a given for modern gamers, but they are a huge step up from the bland MTGO structure that many longtime players have grown used to.
After a lengthy open beta, Magic Arena officially launched in late September with full support for every card in Standard, plus a few older sets that recently rotated out of Standard format. The game's client releases new Standard-legal sets digitally on the same timeline that they release in paper. This means that Arena is able to offer competitive events and help players train for tournaments with the same cards they would be using on MTGO or in paper Magic at a physical location. There is no support for formats like Modern, Pioneer, or Legacy (though there is a Arena Historic format) at this point, which is one of the reason many competitive players will still spend a lot of time in MTGO instead of Arena.
The game's economy functions a lot like Hearthstone's and other contemporary games. Players have daily quests that they can complete to earn an in-game currency called Gold. They can also spend real world dollars to purchase Gems, a second currency. Most events can be entered with either a Gold or Gem entry fees, though the occasional event might require one or the other specifically. Events offer additional cards and more in-game currency as prizes, which makes for a very addictive gameplay loop similar to ripping open booster packs at a game store.
One the biggest selling points of Magic Arena is that gamers can play as much as they want without ever spending real world money (though there's plenty of motivation to do that). Gamers are able to play for fun in constructed matches or Ranked constructed matches without any entry fee. Yes, in-game currency is needed to play in a tournament, but players don't need to be in a tournament just to get a few matches in and complete their quests for the day.
The game also includes a Mastery Pass that can be purchased for each new set and operates a lot like a Battle Pass in Fortnite and other similar games. The Mastery Pass basically unlocks a second set of rewards that players can get for earning experience and leveling up throughout a set's lifetime. The rewards are a mix of cosmetic items and card packs. Although the game's economy doesn't allow for trading or buying specific cards, players are able to earn Wildcards that can be traded in for specific cards of the corresponding rarity.
The real success of Magic Arena is its ability to appeal to players at every level of skill. There is a Ranked ladder to climb for both Constructed and Limited and pro players can spend hours a day grinding through these and trying to earn invites to professional level events. Alternatively, casual players can log in a few times a week, complete some quests and open a few packs without worrying about the metagame or constantly being matched against players who are on another level in terms of skill.
The main downsides of Magic Arena are mostly things that impact the competitive scene. The lack of Legacy formats is understandable for a brand new game, but its absence will continue to drive some players back to MTGO. The game also uses bots to allow for drafts without time limits or the need to wait for seven other players, but obviously the introduction of bots changes the way a format plays out (note: The bots are only used for the drafting portion. Matches are still played against real players). Until Magic Arena is able to offer bot-free drafting, many players just won't take drafting on Arena seriously.
Overall, Magic Arena is easily the most accessible and user-friendly version of the classic strategy card game. As the platform grows, makes improvements, and adds additional sets over time, it is sure to continue to be one of the main ways that gamers experience Magic: The Gathering at both the casual and competitive levels.
Magic Arena is available now on PC.