So I’ve gotten back on a Magic kick lately. I was invited into the Magic Arena Beta a little while back, and initially the game had very little to offer. However, the game is quickly adding features, and seems to at least be attempting to improve from version to version.
For those unfamiliar, Magic Arena is a digital version of Magic: The Gathering in the vein of Hearthstone. In the past, there was Duels of the Planeswalkers and Magic Duels — both have been abandoned in pursuit of Magic Arena. This leaves Magic Online is a strange place, but we can get to that later.
First off, the game is constantly updating, wiping collections, and experimenting with different economies. Currently, you can play matches to win gold, 1000 pieces of which will get you one pack of any set post-Kaladesh block. Not really too exciting to be honest, and my own collection has been quite small.
So you can grind wins in the main game mode – ranked constructed. You are given daily quests, just like Hearthstone, that ask you to cast 20 blue spells or some equivalent. Hitting these milestones will get you gold. In addition, each week you are able to get straight-up packs from certain benchmarks of wins (5, 15, etc.).
It’s not the quickest way to build up a collection. Because many Standard decks rely on playsets of rares (Standard is the only constructed format available), you can be playing with a suboptimal deck for some time, especially when trying to get the basic lands needed to get a solid mana base for one or two decks.
However, the grindy feeling is partially offset by the single game set-up. Traditional Magic matches are best 2 of 3, with sideboarding allowed after each game. In Magic Arena, the sideboard is never touched. You simply play a single game against one opponent before re-queuing.
This does make the game feel incredibly quick. On top of that, the interface and flow of the game is also streamlined. In comparison to MTGO’s ponderous step-by-step passing of priority, Magic Arena gives up some of the control for simply moving things along. There are nice big buttons notifying you to move to the next phase. Further, there is a timer to make players make a decision.
The speed of the set-up skews the metagame ever so slightly to more active or aggressive decks. Some combo decks, like New Perspectives Combo, are simply unplayable as the player would run out of time before killing the opponent. Personally, I’m all for making the game pick up the pace. Hearthstone did appeal to me with its quickness in getting players to trade their turns back and forth without a whole lot of downtime. MTGO can have an opponent sit for 30 minutes while they time out – lest you concede simply to save your own time.
In addition to the speed of the games making up some of the grind, the economy gives players “wild cards” of differing rarities which can be used to specifically generate a card of that rarity. This mechanic is very similar to Hearthstone’s dust, except Arena has completely forgone the dust mechanic in favor of the “vault.” The vault builds up based on duplicates you attain (any copies of a card over 4) and then rewards you with a treasure chest of goodies.
The interface of the game has done a decent job in distilling the somewhat complicated Magic turn into simple steps. Just hop onto MTGO to see how to make the interface difficult and clunky to follow. Following Hearthstone’s slick presentation, Arena attempts to make it clear and intuitive for players to navigate their turns. As a Magic veteran, I am not personally in need of these systems, but it is nice to see they are making efforts to court to those who might play on phones or tablets, for instance.
The metagame is another interesting development in the beta. While paper Magic’s Standard includes Kaladesh through Dominaria, Arena does not have Kaladesh and only recently added Dominaria. Therefore the metagame decks are slight variations in a non-Kaladesh world that make the builds a little unique.
The game certainly needs to work on the economy engine, but I think the deckbuilding might need to be a little cleaned up as well. While I was able to find the cards I needed to build the deck, I had to wade through pages sorting through what I opened in my initial pack haul. I’d actually like to see MTGO’s deckbuilding interface used here — I like to see the deck laid out by mana cost in piles of 4-of’s. This might just be my familiarity with the concept from paper magic, but I can’t be alone in that assessment.
I have not yet been able to try out the draft format, but hope to do that soon. I’ve heard that it currently is the best way to build up a collection instead of grinding packs. Simply rare draft and then play out your matches for whatever reward you get. Rinse and repeat. In addition, you can draft a ton of duplicates (for vault purposes) since the draft pods are one human player against a bunch of computers that are not drafting optimally.
Overall, I’ve been slightly surprised at some of the design choices (draft, interface) and disappointed by others (economy). I realize this is the beta, and therefore hope remains in Wizards correcting the errors. However, rumors are that this system is being pushed hard to officially release. “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad” and all that.