Magic the Gathering Arena: Closed Beta Thoughts
I have played Magic: the Gathering on and off since 1997, but I didn’t really get into the more technical aspect of tournaments or standard-meta decks until much later. Over the last few expansions, I decided I was done because the game simply continues to get more expensive. With a limited income, I do not feel it’s financially viable to play MTG on a full-time basis, building new decks, investing in Planeswalkers and Dual Lands like I used to. It’s still easily the best CCG to get into until you really want to be competitive. Sure, there are decks you can play and win with under 50 bucks, but the cost will easily rise above the 100 dollar mark for a solid deck. The price of admission is pretty high, and only gets worse the deeper you go (Legacy, Vintage, what have you).
I missed MTG though. I love the high that you get when stomping someone’s pride and joy deck into bits and pieces, or when you counter someone’s game-winning combo, securing a victory. There’s a great deal of joy to be had there. The only real MTG option online worth anything is MTGO, and that’s a cesspool worthy of its own piece. Magic the Gathering Arena is an online arena for MTG fans with a very easy-to-grasp visual style, reminiscent of Hearthstone. That’s a major complaint I’ve seen: The layout is similar to Hearthstone! You know what it’s also similar to? MTG. Wizards didn’t shake up the layout of the battlefield any, they just made sure it’s familiar to both new and old players, and that Hearthstone design of the screen just makes sense. It’s true and faithful to the actual CCG, with timers that are more in-line with tournaments rules, which gives players of all skill levels time to figure out their strategy.
MTG is potentially a very expensive card game to get into, and that leads me to my major concern about this game. It comes built-in with 10 decks, each representing two color-combinations in the game (Red/White, Green/Black, et cetera);some complimentary, some not. These decks are solid, the themes make sense, and they’re great for most new players and returning players alike. You can purchase packs of boosters for 1000 gold, gain booster packs for winning x amount of matches a week, and gain gold for completing quests. The potential to gain packs just by playing exists. These aren’t “elite” packs, they’re standard MTG packs with standard amounts of each rarity in them (4 commons, 3 uncommons, 1 Rare). You don’t get basic lands in packs, because you have as many as you need. Once the game is live, there will surely be the real-life money option, but I’m concerned about what the price point will be. These are digital cards, so one would think the booster packs would be cheaper than real-life booster packs, but we’ll just have to see.
This game takes place in the current standard format for Magic the Gathering. What that means is that there are only certain blocks (sets) of cards that are available to acquire in the game. A block used to be three sets but has been reduced to two. The current packs players will see are “Ixalan Block” (Rivals of Ixalan, Ixalan), “Amonkhet Block” (Hour of Devastation, Amonkhet), and the “Kaladesh Block” (Aether Revolt, Kaladesh). Not counting for potentially banned cards, that brings 1,371 potential cards in this current iteration of Magic the Gathering Arena. As always I have questions such as: What happens when these sets cycle out of the standard rotation? Will we see Extended Format become an option? Or will these cards disappear forever? You can also build decks from 1-5 colors if you want, and the game will juggle your basic lands based on how many colors you have. But the stock decks come with several dual lands and options for more mana (creatures, artifacts, et cetera), so spending some time in your collection is key. I appreciate that you don’t have to take cards “out” of a deck to use them elsewhere. If I wanted, I could have “Commune with Dinosaurs” in every single deck (as long as every single deck had a splash of Green). But you can build whatever deck you desire, as long as you have the cards for it.
What surprised me about this Closed Beta is that the game has no tutorial feature, no index for all the important keywords (and MTG has a “lot” of them). That will likely be included in the full release of the game, but I have a feeling this was aimed primarily at people who already understand how Magic works. While there is no tutorial, the game comes with a series of pre-built decks. These are all decks you would likely see at Friday Night Magic or while hanging out with your friends. They’re all two-colored decks, but there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from making a mono-colored/three-colored deck. I’ve seen a few Grixis decks built around Nicol Bolas since his newest Planeswalker card is in the Standard Meta.
The gameplay is traditional Magic the Gathering: Both players have 60 cards (Minimum) decks and 20 life. The goal is to take the other player to zero through spells/attacks/effects. Each phase of the game (Beginning, Untap, Upkeep, Draw, Main, Combat, Post-Combat Main, Ending) are all here, and you have several time-outs, in the event you need even more time. Whenever a player casts a spell/plays an ability, if there’s even a chance you can respond, the game will allow you time to determine if you want to make a play. Everything works exactly as it does in the physical card game, so there are zero surprises. That’s what I love about this. It takes a lot of the stuff that I worry about out of the game, so I can focus just on strategy and winning. If I have the opportunity to counter or play a creature in response to my opponent making a move, time was stopped while I considered that option. When you’re in your last seconds, a handy meter will come on screen and wear down. You can even see the phases on the screen in your part of the UI, complete with tool-tips.
However, there is something new you might see in your booster packs and in your card collection. As of right now, there’s no “disenchant” or “craft” system, for which I’m eternally grateful. I hate those, they add such a crazy grind to games that I simply do not have time for. What you receive instead are “Wild Cards” for Common (Silver), Uncommon (Blue), Rare (Gold), and Mythic Rare (Red). When you’re crafting a deck, in the very easy-to-use deck-building UI, if you have at least one copy of a card, you can drag that card back into your deck another time (past what you already own) and it will prompt you to trade a Wild Card for it. I love this, so I can store those up for decks I become very passionate over and might need just a few extra copies of something. The starter decks give you most of the current collection in the Closed Beta, but there are very powerful cards that lie just out of wait. Once you have at least one of them, you can make clones using Wild Cards, if you really want. They drop pretty frequently in your booster packs, in lieu of regular cards. This is ultimately a very handy feature because I don’t know anyone who would want to wait around for three more copies of “Huatli, Radiant Champion” to make their White/Green deck shine.
As far as the community experience goes, there’s not a lot of interaction between players in-game. You have emotes for “dialogue”, but that’s about it. I will say there has never been a moment where I waited for more than a minute to play a match. There are only “Ranked” matches too, so everything matters and are for “points”. You start off as an initiate/unranked, and winning fills a bar to the next level, or next star. Just because someone is Silver and you are Bronze, doesn’t mean a lot if you ask me. There are so many factors to take account for, whether they have a stock deck or not, whether you do, and just because they have a deck stacked with Rares/Mythic rares, does not mean they’re a better player than you. Don’t ever be discouraged by the rank of someone. They might just be a one-trick-pony, playing some nonsense that gets over on people who aren’t ready for it. I don’t really play this to interact with my opponents though. I’m not here for idle chit-chat. I want to play the match, and that’s exactly what I get.
In Response To . . . : Cautiously Optimistic:
I love Magic, and this version of it feels like it’s marketed to people like me: A lapsed Magic the Gathering player who misses the game. Someone who probably doesn’t have the time to make it to FNM every week, and probably doesn’t financially have the capacity to be serious, but wants to play the game in a serious way. It also caters to someone who streams frequently and is interested in the esports aspect of games. If Magic the Gathering Arena is monetized in a fair and balanced way, it could really make a huge splash in the CCG scene of esports. Hearthstone doesn’t have too many serious challengers right now, and MTG is still a very strong game.
Monetization is my major concern though. The reason I got out of the game is that it’s simply too expensive to stay relevant. If that happens here, I won’t stick around. I think esports is a smart move for Magic too, allowing more players to get into the game and play at a professional level with a more reasonable price of entry. It’s a game based entirely on skill, and while there are always going to be “strong decks” or “top 8 decks”, I think this could be the freshening up that Magic the Gathering needs. It could breathe some new life into the pro scene, and an esports league/tournament scene for MTG could really shake things up. But if I can be competitive without ruining my wallet? Consider me on board. When I learned to play Magic, I was taught you either 1. Play what you want for fun, or 2. Play what gets you wins. In MTGA, I feel like maybe I can finally do both. It’s broadened my horizons on the game and has allowed me to play a game I’ve loved since childhood once again.
Editor’s Note: There will be a wipe at the end of the Closed Beta. In addition, a code was provided for this review.
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