I remember the first time I played Magic: The Gathering in 1997. My school friends and I heard about a small shop in town that was authorized to sell it, set up in the entrance hall of an old house. The owner was a guy in his twenties called Pio (Pious in Portuguese). He sold us Fourth Edition starter decks, then invited us for a match. He had quite a few rarities from the Revised Edition in his deck. It was a slaughter and my first experience in a long history of terrible matchups.

Magic: The Gathering Arena is the latest iteration in a series of digital experiments with the quintessential collectible card game. I remember playing Shandalar by MicroProse at some point in the late 1990s. Later I also messed around with the unofficial Magic Workstation. I never tried Magic Online, but I did try Magic Duels for a few months. Since I could never afford the full experience of a paper MTG habit, I always hoped for a good and affordable digital surrogate. Arena fills that niche well.

A sling-shot fireball to the face sounds about right for a new player.

This is probably due to the fact that Wizards of the Coast learned some lessons after their partnership with Stainless Games from 2009 to 2015. After some outcry from fans, they decided to set up in-house developer Magic Digital Studio to create Arena. As such, it was designed, built and playtested with digital card gamers in mind, though in a way that would not compromise the unique core gameplay.

As it happens, the digital card gamer base is massively overrepresented by Hearthstone, which by March 2017 had 70 million registered players worldwide. It’s not incidental that Arena resembles it in several ways. Personally, I would much prefer that it didn’t, but it’s not too bad. The art direction will definitely need some work in the future, but for a beta version, it’s tolerable. What really matters is the core gameplay.

Pretty names; not so pretty matches.

My initial experiences, once I got my closed beta key in May, were mostly bad because of the matchmaking. I just wanted to try the starter decks but kept facing higher rank players who destroyed me. Trying my best to keep my composure, I lost many matches before giving up for a few weeks. I waited for the June update before I tried it again. I’d say that matchmaking has improved overall, but still has some way to go. It would be great if it could detect new players trying starter decks and match them against each other.

Sure, you can win with the starter decks, if you know what you’re doing, and if you get lucky. For a real fighting chance, though, you will need to build a proper deck or find a netdeck. You can either try your luck with the booster packs, or you can use the Wild Cards to craft the cards you need. Starting with a few free Wild Cards for each rarity type, you can collect more in packs. You can get them from duplicates in packs, but also by opening packs. Every six packs give you two Wild Cards, alternating between rarity types.

Best-of-three, round three. I lost, of course.

As of the latest update, there are six PvP modes. Two Constructed modes, Competitive Constructed and Quick Constructed, and two Draft modes, also Competitive and Quick. There is also a general Competitive Play and a Free Play. All of the Constructed and Draft modes demand gold or gems as an entry fee. These modes yield higher rewards. Free Play and Competitive Play have no entry fees and no rewards, but also impact on the ladder ranking, which isn’t quite transparent. As the player, you can only see it as tiers, either bronze, silver or gold.

Freemium economies are never perfect, even in a finished product. Arena’s economy is still finding its footing. The dailies can give players enough gold to buy a couple of packs, which can keep a new player going. However, even if I could afford to spend money on it, I wouldn’t do it right now. Grinding isn’t worth it either, as there will be an account wipe when Arena leaves beta. The economy will probably undergo other changes until then, so invest at your own risk.

Deck-building takes some getting used to.

The UI is serviceable for the most part. It’s not very intuitive, even as of the latest update, which added a tutorial. There’s not much in the way of keyboard support, even for a simple confirmation prompt. During the combat phase you want to be very careful with your choices, or mistakes will cost you matches. The use of Instant cards is still a bit muddy, and it can backfire awfully. It can also get kind of annoying when the opponent takes a long time to give you input, even just a confirmation.

MTG mechanics are constantly evolving, and reading cards is a must. If you’re on autopilot you will get a few surprises, even, or especially, when you think you’re winning. I’ve lost a match after being up by 19 points, and it was humbling. In that sense it’s MTG as we know it: unpredictable, intricate, and rule-heavy. Although it resembles Hearthstone with the attack cards pouncing on the opponent’s avatar, it’s still MTG at its core. It’s a thinking man’s card game; it’s not “deceptively simple.” Its complexity is what makes it great.

I did win this one. Whoop-de-doo.

While it will not retire Magic Online, as per the official FAQ, Arena will “integrate modern online services that will create a dynamic overall experience and also someday integrate with other aspects of your Magic life.” In other words, Wizards is in it for the long haul. Unlike the Stainless Games versions, Arena will be supported and improved in the long term, in order to take a chunk of that massive digital card gamer base. It definitely won’t become as popular as Hearthstone, but this is the card game that started it all, and it will always have its niche.

I definitely lost more matches than I won since I started playing in May. Since June I managed to build a variation of a Tier 1 deck and started losing less. In between land shortages and bricked hands, I was still having fun, even when I lost. I won’t grind or spend any money for now, but I look forward to a properly balanced version with accurate matchmaking. Arena certainly has the potential to become one of the best digital card games in the market, but it might be rather unwelcoming to new players.

Our preview of Magic: The Gathering Arena was conducted on PC through the ongoing Closed Beta program.

More About This Game

Richard Costa

Staff Writer

Ape meets keyboard. Hack for hire, recovering academic and RPG enthusiast who started gaming on MSX in the late 80s, then witnessed the glorious 90s on PC.