I dragged my feet on installing MTG Arena. I avoided playing any of the closed beta of it, even though I was given an invite. When Arena first changed to an open beta, I also did not jump into it, even though I knew I would have to play it eventually. I just wanted to play Magic Online, where I knew I could test for upcoming events and knew how to navigate everything. I didn't want to bother with getting involved in something new, where I presumed I'd have to dump a lot of money into it for marginal enjoyment. I thought of playing Arena as a chore I would have to eventually do, and I dreaded the idea of having to build up a collection on a new program that didn't involve trading. I had seen people on social media discuss things they didn't like about Arena and I just assumed it was bad and a waste of time.
I was wrong. I was very wrong.
I started playing Arena toward the end of last week. I overheard players I trust and respect like Brad Nelson and Huey Jensen talking about enjoying Arena and I figured it would be irresponsible for me – someone as deeply entrenched in Magic as I am – and someone whose career it is to play and write about this game, to ignore playing MTG Arena for any longer. I may be stubborn and resistant to change, but even I have to draw the line somewhere.
Arena, quite frankly, is awesome and I feel embarrassed that I took this long to try it out. Arena is Wizards of the Coast finally putting together a beautiful digital product. I expected bugs, errors, things not working properly, lag, and so on and so forth. I have not experienced any of that even a single time, and I've dumped a lot of hours into the program in less than a week's time.
For years Magic players have complained about Magic Online and scoffed at the program's numerous flaws. I, myself, have been a part of that, even though I've played as much or more Magic Online than nearly anyone else over the last seven years of my life. I'm suggesting that everyone give Arena a try, because this is finally what we've been waiting for all these years. It's finally a sleek, smooth, functional product that looks nice, plays nice, and is fun. This is the future of digital Magic, and maybe the future of Magic in general. For the first time in many years, I actually have hope about the direction Magic is going, whereas before I mostly had a cynical, bleak outlook that eventually the amazing gameplay Magic offered wouldn't be enough to keep people away from newer, sleeker games.
I'm going to be blunt and personal here. I have not enjoyed Magic lately. In the last few months, I have only played Magic when at events or explicitly to test for those events, and I've only tested for events because I am part of a team and I feel an obligation to my team to contribute. Otherwise I wouldn't have played. I've had to force myself to test and the games have felt like a chore, whereas before I used to love the testing process. I have followed along with format trends and decklists and tournament results not out of interest, but because I also feel an obligation to write content that is valuable and useful. For once, Magic has felt like an actual job, not like a hobby and passion that I've been lucky enough to have success with.
If it were not for obligations, I would not have played a single game in the last few months and I am strongly considering not playing pro Magic anymore after this upcoming season. Things may change in a year's time, but right now I'm pretty much off the tournament scene and Grand Prix and Pro Tour grind.
The reason I'm saying this is because Arena has actually made me love Magic again. I've actively been excited to log in and play Arena, and I have logged in every single day for the past week to complete my quests and earn the prizes that come with them. As I write this article right now, I'm excited about my plans for what I'm going to do after I'm done with this article...which is to log into Arena and complete my quests to earn some gold and some new cards. Ask Shaheen Soorani if you ever run into him about my stance on gold. I'm a big fan of it. You could even say that I love it.
Arena has rekindled my love for Magic so much that I actually had the motivation to log into Magic Online and test Standard for Grand Prix New Jersey and the upcoming Pro Tour because of Arena. What kind of bizzaro world are we living in where playing casually on Arena has given me the desire to test competitively on Magic Online? How is this madness possible?
Turns out, I enjoyed playing my crappy budget Standard brews on Arena so much that I actually got excited about this Standard format and wanted to test with the powered-up version of these decks on Magic Online where I actually own all the cards. So I fired up Magic Online, and actually ran five Standard leagues in the last few days with updated versions of my Arena decks.
Going from MTG Arena back to Magic Online was jolting. I just wanted Magic Online to be Arena. That's a good thing.
MTG Arena is not the same game we're used to. Mythics and some rares have awesome animations when they hit the battlefield, such as my personal favorite Carnage Tyrant, which jumps out of the cardboard and screams in your opponent's face. Cards make sound effects when they hit play. Personally, I like Generous Stray's sad meow sound, but to each their own. Creatures crash into each other and into the opponent's face when they attack. Your opponent's planeswalker avatar explodes when they take lethal damage and you achieve victory. So does yours when you lose, but I'm personally unfamiliar with the concept of losing so I don't really understand this feature and I assume it's not meant for me.
If you've ever played Hearthstone, this will all sound familiar. MTG Arena looks and feels a lot like Hearthstone, but instead of Warcraft themes and gameplay, it's still Magic: The Gathering with instants, the stack and depth of strategy that we've come to love and cherish. I've heard several complaints that MTG Arena is just a Hearthstone knockoff, and my response is…So what? Who cares? I like Hearthstone, I think it's a sweet game, and I don't see any problem at all with copying a successful model from somewhere else and supplanting the gameplay with what I believe to be a better game: Magic.
I think competitive Magic players, as a general rule, tend to undervalue the role aesthetics play in our enjoyment. I honestly and sincerely do not believe I would have played Magic past my first year of play if it wasn't for the art, lore, flavor text and story. I've heard a number of Magic professionals say things to the extent of "I would still play the game if the cards were just text on cardboard with no art or flavor" and while that may be true for a small number of people, I highly doubt that's actually true for a large number of the people who make this claim.
While the art, flavor, and so forth just seem like background noise most of the time, I really do believe it has a huge subconscious influence on our enjoyment of Magic. I know I personally get really annoyed when the art on some of my cards doesn't load properly on Magic Online and I'm stuck with cards with blank art boxes. It actually tilts me and makes me enjoy the games less. I seriously do not believe that slamming Glorybringer and destroying your opponent with it would carry the same gravitas if instead you were slamming 3RR Rare Flying Creature with no art, flavor, a generic name, and just a bland Times New Roman text box.
People like Dragons, Ghosts, Spirits, Humans, Merfolk and big flashy spells like Cruel Ultimatum not just because of what they do or their mechanics, but because they are freaking cool. "There is always a greater power." One of my favorite cards is Obzedat, Ghost Council, and I love the Obzedeezy just as much because it's five badass dead ghosts with sweet art and flavor that plays into the Orzhov motifs as I do because of its gameplay. Phyrexian Arena has always been one of my favorite cards ever, and a large part of that is that the flavor text of "A drop of humanity for a sea of power" has always perfectly summed up the card for me. Would I have loved Squire if it wasn't for his greete strengthe? Nah, I wouldn't gesse so. For what it's worth, Squire is over 20 yeer of age now, so I'm starting to feel lied to and also very old.
Seeing people complain about MTG Arena because they claim the graphics and animations don't appeal to their sensibilities and they'd rather just see blocky pieces of cardboard on a flat screen that remain stationary – like what we have on Magic Online – just doesn't really make sense to me. Like I said before, this may be true for a small subset of people but I think most players are simply deluding themselves about how much the aesthetics of Magic affect their enjoyment of the game.
Now, I can understand disliking the animations and art if they are poorly done, and to be clear I expected exactly that when I first started with Arena, just judging by WotC's history with digital products in the past. I was very pleased to be mistaken. I think they are actually really impressive, it improves my enjoyment of the gameplay, and I think it is exactly what Magic needs to appeal to a broader market of players.
As for the gameplay itself, Arena allows you to play the game itself at exactly the same level of depth and strategy as Magic Online. This shocked me based on many of the complaints I had heard from people, which led me to believe you couldn't get the same strategic depth out of Arena. You can set stops in every phase if you want, respond to spells exactly how you normally would, stack abilities in the order you want to, and so forth.
I had figured that Arena would be watered-down Magic in terms of the gameplay itself, but that actually is not the case. Instead, it offers exactly the same fare, but with a ton of improvements as well.
Playing on Arena is intuitive. You drag cards from your hand to the battlefield to cast them. It asks you modes of cards by popping up options and choosing targets is simple and easy. Arena is also fast. It is so much faster than Magic Online that going back to playing Magic Online after playing Arena felt bad. Arena auto-taps lands to cast your spells, automatically puts effects on the stack and automatically progresses you through phases if you don't have things to do. If you have a way to respond to your own spells, like League Guildmage, Arena gives you a chance to respond to them automatically without having to hold buttons at exactly the right moments like you do on Magic Online. When you go to combat, it asks if you want to attack with all your creatures, and if you want to block you just drag your blockers to their attackers and Arena lines it all up.
If it's the first turn of the game and I don't have a play to make after I play my land, Arena passes the turn automatically for me. My opponent can then play their land and have it also pass back automatically. If for my second turn I play a land and cast a haste creature Arena automatically progresses to combat and offers for me to attack with it and then passes the turn after I choose to do so. Gameplay is fast, cuts out the dead time and I don't have to click through a million phases every turn. It's wonderful. It's light years ahead of Magic Online.
The thing is, you also don't have to use these features if you don't want to. If you dislike that Arena doesn't let you bluff combat tricks because it is automatically passing through phases, you can set stops in phases or even better, hit Shift + Control which gives you full control of gameplay until you turn it back off. Arena shows you which lands they will autotap to pay for any spell you select, and if you don't like how they plan to tap your lands, you can manually do it instead. You're not locked into using Arena's innovative new features, but I personally love them and use them all and in the majority of situations they simply speed up gameplay with no downsides.
Yeah, I lose some bluff equity along the way by allowing Arena to automatically pass through phases when I don't have spells to cast. I also show my hand when it does stop the game because a savvy opponent can ascertain that it means I do have the pump spell or removal spell, but frankly, I don't care. Games are fast-paced and fun. I can play three games in the time it takes to play one game on Magic Online, and the wait time for getting into games is usually about five seconds and has been a maximum of 30 seconds for me, compared with sometimes five minutes or more on Magic Online.
Arena isn't exactly the same as we're used to. You draft against bots. Picks in draft aren't timed. As soon as you make a pick, the next pack appears, meaning you don't have to wait for slow drafters to power through a draft, or you have 10 minutes to think about a tough pick if you want to. You can pause a draft regardless of where you are at and come back whenever you want. Draft matches are interesting because everyone's decks are way better than normal, since the bots are predictable drafters and don't do things like hate draft. It's a way different dynamic than normal drafts, but still fun in its own way. It's like halfway between a normal draft and block constructed.
Arena's default game modes are one-game matches, which is more like Hearthstone than Magic. I've heard people malign the one-game matches, but I actually kind of like them and you can play normal three-game matches if you want to, it just involves joining different events or queues. Arena offers new gameplay options, but if you're a purist, you can still just play almost exactly the same way as you would on Magic Online.
In many regards, Arena is not the same kind of Magic that we're used to. It's not like Magic Online or even paper Magic. To many, that's a negative, but I don't see it the same way. Arena isn't the same...
It's better. Change isn't always negative. I don't care that it offers gameplay modes that aren't exactly the same as Magic Online. Arena can be different than paper or Magic Online and still be a great game. It doesn't have to perfectly replicate paper to be worthwhile. It doesn't have to be exactly the same game to usher in a new era of digital Magic. I'm glad that it's different and that we can actually be excited about the future of Magic once more instead of constantly worrying that new decades and new technologies and societal advancements may one day mean the end of paper Magic and that there won't be a viable digital replacement when that day comes.
If I'm playing one-game matches at Grand Prix events three years from now, I'm totally fine with it. I don't care about nostalgia or clinging to the past or maintaining the status quo. I don't think Magic was better when mana burn existed or damage went on the stack, and I think the only way Magic will thrive and grow in the future is if we allow changes to happen with open arms instead of just clinging to the past and the way things used to be. I just want to play the best product and the best gameplay, regardless of what it resembles. Is Arena the best product or best gameplay we can get? Nah, probably not, but it's quite a bit better than what we have now and I welcome it with open arms.
- Brian Braun-Duin