I've been playing MTG Arena religiously over the last month and change. In fact, I logged into Magic Online only once since the last Pro Tour, to compete in the MOCS Monthly event, where I promptly went 2-3, as I am wont to do, and then logged back out. I'm a big fan of the MTG Arena program, and I don't believe I will be playing Magic Online for anything other than Modern and Legacy from here on out.
The model behind MTG Arena is that you can pay as much or as little money as you want into the game, depending on what your goals are. If you just want to jam competitive tier one Constructed decks immediately without any wait, then you'll have to invest a decent amount initially into booster packs to gain the cards and wildcards you need to build the decks. If you don't mind grinding your way into a collection, then you don't have to invest much – or any – into the game, depending on how long you're willing for the process to take.
Personally, I'm more of the grind-it-out kind of guy. I'm sure someone with a strong understanding of psychology can explain why, but even if I have the money to spend on something I still find myself choosing to invest the time to grind for it instead of the money. I think part of it is the thrill of earning rewards and having those rewards actually matter is meaningful to me. I like the feel of gaining experience, prizes, and "leveling up" as it were. I'll be honest, I'm not sure I will enjoy MTG Arena quite as much when I've completed my collection and the rewards for quests and events lose value to me. Just yesterday I opened a Settle the Wreckage as a prize for wrecking a hapless opponent with a Stainsy Sultai Guilds of Ravnica draft deck, and I was pretty stoked about it. They did not check themselves, and my collection thusly Settle the Wrecked itself. That will slot nicely into my Jeskai Control strategy.
At any rate, I've now invested $35 into MTG Arena. I probably won't need to invest more until new sets come out, and even then, with my current rate of play there's a good chance I'll have built up enough of a store of wildcards to avoid having to invest too much. For what it's worth, I didn't even need to spend the full $35. A solid $20 of that was because I decided to spew all my gold opening packs and then ran out of currency to draft with. Mistakes were made. Punt count one.
Off that $35 investment, I have a fully functional Izzet Drakes and Jeskai Control deck, most of white-based aggro decks, and enough wildcards to build any other deck, even rare and mythic-intensive ones like Golgari or Boros Angels. I don't have the entirety of Standard, but I do have a pretty good chunk of the playable cards, after a bit over a month of playing on average a few hours a day. I'm writing this article to help players new to MTG Arena get the most bang from their buck and avoid wasting unnecessary money.
I've mentioned wildcards a bunch so far. For those who aren't familiar with Arena, wildcards are cards that can be converted into any card of the same rarity. So an uncommon wildcard could be converted into any uncommon in Standard, like an Adanto Vanguard, or Lava Coil, or Seal Away that gets added to your collection. Once you've turned it into an actual card, however, it is permanently that card. You don't get to reverse it back into a wildcard.
Buy the Welcome Bundle
While you can play MTG Arena without investing a cent into the program, I believe that spending $5 for the welcome bundle is a great investment. You get 2500 gems and 5 booster packs out of the deal, which is significantly beyond normal value. For reference, 1,600 gems costs $10 normally, and 6 booster packs costs 1,200 gems. The welcome bundle is about 4-5 times as much value as the cost, which I believe to be well worth it even if you're trying to avoid dumping any money into the program.
Gems and Gold
Gems are a currency you can buy from the store. Gold is something that you earn from quests and events. You can use gold or gems to enter most events, and certain events like drafts will also reward you with gems depending on how well you perform. 750 gems is equivalent to $5.00 in the store, and each gem is worth somewhere between 5-7 gold for a quick reference on the relative value between them. Each event has a slightly different ratio of gold vs. gems to enter.
I strongly recommend spending gold before gems when provided with the opportunity if you care about drafting. Competitive drafts require 1,500 gems to enter and this cannot be paid for with gold. If you wish to do competitive drafts and don't want to have to constantly spend money in the store to purchase gems, then gem preservation becomes an important aspect of playing MTG Arena.
It's really easy to get gold relative to gems. You get gold for completing quests and as a prize from most Constructed events, which also reward cards of increasing rarity based on your performance. Even if you never joined an event, you would accumulate gold just from joining the free to play queues and completing your daily quests. Gems on the other hand can only be earned as prizes from the competitive and non-competitive drafts. You can spend gems to enter pretty much any event but earning them is much harder.
Converting gems to gold is easy, as gems will enter you into any constructed event, and those events provide gold as a reward. Converting gold to gems is much more difficult. The non-competitive best-of-one drafts are the only events where this Conversion can occur. You can spend 5000 gold to enter this event and the rewards are gems and booster packs. This is also not particularly great value, as 5,000 gold vs. 750 gems to enter this event is the worst gold/gem ratio on MTG Arena.
The long and short of it is to treat gems as though they are a precious resource...which, when you think about it, makes a lot of sense based on how we treat gems in real life. We've abandoned the gold standard a long time ago, so take that as you will.
Bar none, the best way to build a collection on MTG Arena is to draft. You get to keep all the cards you draft, and while the bots that you are drafting against do like to rare draft, sometimes rares will slip through their value-hoarding hands that you can take to bolster your collection. Just the other day, I got a third pick Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants in pack two of an M19 draft, which was quite nice, both for my draft deck and for my collection.
I'm not going to mince words here. I rare draft at any and all available opportunities. Any time I see a rare that is constructed playable, I will snap it up, even if it's just going into my draft deck's sideboard. I'm not even above "uncommon drafting" which is taking playable uncommons so I don't have to burn an uncommon wildcard on them. And don't even get me started on "common drafting" ...
Once you've reached four copies of any given rare, you no longer need to keep rare drafting it. At that point, I believe the value of picking the card (slightly increasing your vault progress, which I will talk about later) is less at that point than the value of taking a card to improve your draft deck, which can lead to more wins and more prizes.
Drafting is also pretty good value compared to just cracking packs. For reference, to buy three packs of a set, it costs 600 gems or 3,000 gold. To enter a non-competitive best-of-one draft, it costs either 750 gems or 5,000 gold, and if you go 0-3 to get eliminated, you still earn 50 gems and 1 pack, plus you get to take part in the draft itself, where you can rare draft to your heart's content.
To make it a bit clearer: 750 gems gets you at worst, three packs of drafting + 1 pack to open, + 50 gems. In other words, at worst it's 700 gems for four packs. To just buy packs straight up from the store, it's 600 gems for three packs, which is actually worse value than just drafting and going 0-3.
The non-competitive drafts allow you to draft until you lose 3 times or win 7 times, playing best-of-one games. It requires 6 wins (850 gems + 1 booster pack) to earn more gems than the entry fee of 750, meaning that if you consistently win 6 or 7 matches, you can "go infinite" drafting and just keep drafting over and over for free.
More realistically, what will happen if you just want to draft all the time is that you will slowly bleed gems over the course of doing drafts, but over the time in which you lose out on gems, you will earn gold through quests and win rewards, which will give you enough gold to pay the 5,000 gold entry instead of the 750 gem entry, which can give you another draft and maybe allow you to chain that draft into even more drafts with the gem rewards.
Competitive drafts actually contain the best value for drafting, however they come with a much higher risk. Competitive drafts cost 1500 gems and let you play until you've lost two matches or won five matches. Competitive drafts, unlike their more casual counterpart, are best two-out-of-three matches where you do play sideboarded games.
Earning two wins is above the breakeven point on prizes. You get 800 gems and three packs, in addition to the three packs you use to draft with, meaning that when you factor in the 1500-gem entry fee, you've effectively spent 700 gems for six packs, which is well above the 1200 gems it would cost you to buy six packs from the store. Once you've hit three wins or more, you're earning pure value. Three wins is your 1500 gem entry back, plus four packs, and it only improves from there.
To put it into perspective, I currently have 4,000 gems and 36 packs of Guilds of Ravnica on my account because I've been mostly competing in Competitive Drafts and earning 5 wins with my decks. I haven't been opening these packs because I already own most of the set from drafting and I'm waiting for them to change the "fifth card problem" before I crack any more packs.
The Vault and the Fifth Card Problem
As you gain cards, from quest rewards, drafting, or opening packs, you begin to fill out your collection. Every time you open a card that you already have more than four copies of, it goes toward progress of opening the vault. The vault is not something that we can ever see until it becomes filled, and when the vault is finally full, you earn three uncommon, two rare and one mythic wildcard. The vault then resets to be filled up again.
To be clear, it takes a lot of excess cards to fill the vault and gaining six wildcards from opening the vault is a pretty small reward compared to how long it takes you to open it. This phenomenon, where opening the fifth copy of a card is nearly worthless, has been dubbed the "fifth card problem" and is something that Wizards of the Coast has discussed that they will be working on fixing in the future. Judging by how good MTG Arena is and how they've fixed previous complaints in the past, I genuinely believe they will find a solution for this problem in due time. At any rate, I am not cracking extra packs until this gets resolved. I'm holding out for that sick marginal value!
Mythics count the most toward opening the vault, followed by rares, then uncommons, then commons, so when I draft I will always select the highest rarity card in situations where I'm just picking random cards that won't make my deck. Since you are drafting against bots, hate drafting has no relevance. Give me those 14th pick Street Riots all day, baby! Let's fill this vault.
There are two different constructed events you can join. There is the regular constructed event, which costs 500 gold or 90 gems to enter. You play game ones only with your deck and play until you either win seven matches or lose three. It takes four wins to break even in this event, and the prizes are very flat. The value in playing these events are pretty low, all things considered.
The other constructed event is the Competitive Constructed, which costs 1000 gold or 190 gems to enter. You play full three-game matches with your deck and play until you've won five matches or lost two. It takes only two wins to break even in this event, making it quite a good value event. The prizes in this event are also not quite as flat, meaning that five wins will double your initial gold entry and give you three cards, which are guaranteed to be rares or mythics.
For full disclosure, making the breakeven point at two wins is still good value for WotC, even though it may not seem that way. It might seem like "hey, you get two losses and you only need two wins to break even, so with a 50/50 win rate you'll break even half the time" but that's not quite true, because you need to earn the two wins before the two losses to break even. It's not just that you break even at going 2-2, it's that you have to be 2-1 first before you can go 2-2 to break even, meaning that with a purely 50/50 win rate, you would lose more than you win playing these events. Regardless, that doesn't Diminish the value of the events. You also gain quest gold and cards as you win games and matches, which means that you will always gain value just from playing games on MTG Arena.
I believe that Competitive Constructed is the best value of any event on MTG Arena, followed closely by the Competitive Drafts. These events also mimic real Magic play, allowing you to play best-of-three games instead of the default best of one that other play types utilize on MTG Arena.
One thing to note is that a lot of these game modes don't show up on MTG Arena unless you've clicked the tab toward the top right of the screen that toggles between Arena Play Modes and All Play Modes. I'm not sure why that exists, but you won't see some of the event types unless you've toggled it to All Play Modes.
Quests are the easiest way to get ahead on MTG Arena. Quests range between rewarding 750 or 500 gold, depending on the difficulty, and every day you also get daily win bonuses, up to 15 game wins, that reward another 750 gold worth of value, plus some random cards that can be anything from commons to mythics. Also, each week, you can earn a booster pack for every five game wins, up to three booster packs total.
Quests and the gold you win from them are the reason you can play Arena indefinitely and increase your collection without having to ever invest a dime. Even if you lose more than you win, you can just complete your quests every day and still get gold and cards from it. You can also just join free-to-play queues and play ladder games against other people in those queues that will increase your rank. Those cost nothing to join and they still work toward completion of your quests, meaning that it doesn't actually take a good win percentage to progress through MTG Arena, as long as you're willing to invest the time to complete your quests.
The daily win bonuses reset every single day, but quests will last for three days before you reach the maximum number of current quests. As a result, I would recommend playing at least once every three days to make sure you clear out your quests and get the rewards. It will likely take between 30 minutes and two hours to complete your quests, depending on the difficulty of them, and whether you are prepared for them by having the kinds of decks that best complete them. Some quests require you to cast cards of certain colors, meaning that you might need to own more than one deck, or do a draft in those colors to be able to completely those quests.
If you don't follow any other advice from this article, at least follow the advice of completing quests. Not only are the best value from the game, and the only way to get ahead that doesn't involve having above a 50% win rate, they are also a lot of fun to complete and a huge part of the appeal for me to play MTG Arena.
From time to time there are special events on MTG Arena. These events are, unquestionably, very cool and a blast to play it. However, they are horrible value. For example, right now there is a singleton event on Arena that costs 500 gold or 100 gems to enter. You play until you win five games or lose two games, and you don't break even until you've hit four wins and earning five wins is only 600 gold and 2 random cards worth of value, which is barely more than the entry fee for the best possible finish.
I like playing these events because they are fun, and a great way to play some casual Magic that is different than the normal formats we are used to. However, you have to have an absurdly high win percentage to not lose gold from playing them. I treat them as spewing my gold to have some fun, but if you're looking to strictly maximize the value out of MTG Arena, I would avoid them.
Moving from Cards I Own to Actual Standard Decks
As you first start playing MTG Arena, you earn a number of starter decks. At first, upon completing the tutorial, you get five decks, all mono-colored decks for each color. During each subsequent day, you get a special quest in addition to the normal quest that rewards a new deck upon completion of the quest. There are 10 more decks, one for each two-color pair. I found this exploration and new deck earning to be quite fun, and I enjoyed combining cards from the decks as well as cards that I had drafted to make constructed decks that resembled the kinds of decks that one would make at the kitchen table back in middle school out of the pile of rubber-banded cards that you owned.
At some point, however, I wanted to start playing with actual constructed decks that were part of the real Standard metagame. Building a real tier one Standard deck involves spending wildcards, and once you spend them you can't get them back, so it takes some commitment to do.
One common complaint that I've seen people make is that they blew all their wildcards building some Constructed deck, and then they end up hating that deck, and then they can't build anything else because they are out of wildcards and it sours the MTG Arena experience for them. Unless they are willing to dump a lot of money into the program to get another deck or unless they enjoy drafting a lot, they are stuck for a while.
I think that if you're someone who loves always playing the same archetype, then you should just go for building that archetype. The Shaheen Soorani's of the world can burn all their wildcards building Jeskai Control and be happy playing it indefinitely, and I would recommend doing that if you're that kind of person. This likewise applies to Golgari for the Willy Edels of the world, and so on and so forth.
If you're someone like me that enjoys shifting between decks from time to time and enjoys different styles of decks in different formats for various reasons, then the two decks I think are the best to build are Izzet Drakes and some form of white aggressive deck, either mono-white aggro or Boros Aggro.
Izzet Drakes is a really cheap deck to build. Enigma Drake comes in an intro deck, and the deck only plays four Mythics total, four Arclight Phoenix. The mana base soaks up seven rares in Steam Vents and Sulfur Falls, as there is a Sulfur Falls in that Enigma Drake reward deck. The rest of the deck is mostly commons and uncommons, including the sideboard. Cards like sideboard Ral, Izzet Viceroy are unnecessary Mythics, and of questionable value anyway (I don't even know if this card is worth playing in fully powered Drakes). This deck is cheap to build, powerful, and I consider it fun to play. It becomes even significantly easier to build if you choose to draft a lot of Guilds of Ravnica, as a lot of the cards in the deck, like Lava Coil, Crackling Drake, Goblin Electromancer, Radical Idea, Nivical Mizzet and others can be picked up in packs.
White or Boros Aggro is very similar in that a lot of the cards from the deck can be found squarely in a Guilds of Ravnica draft pack. It also doesn't require a whole lot of rares or mythics. I also like that the mana base from both Boros and Izzet help transition later to playing a deck like Jeskai Control, which is likely the best deck in Standard.
Ultimately, I think MTG Arena is a lot of fun and the journey to building a collection and completing my quests has been a blast so far. Gameplay on MTG Arena is phenomenal. It's fast, fun, and intuitive. There are flaws to the program for sure, such as the fifth card problem, the deckbuilder needing improvements, and some random minor gripes, but overall it's a beautiful, well-running program.
I don't think there is a wrong way to play MTG Arena. As long as you're having fun, then you're doing it right. However, if you're anything like me, and don't want to invest a lot of money into it, but also want to have fun building up along the way, then hopefully this article helps provide some help for getting the most value out of the program.
Drafting is the best way to accumulate a collection and the competitive events are the best value. And by far the most important thing you can do is to just do your quests every day. They are both fun and value. What more could you want?
In the immortal words of one of my favorite metal bands: "The quest is never-ending, but you keep on growing, paradise is at hand." These quests are never ending, and my collection does keep growing. Paradise, indeed.
- Brian Braun-Duin