From the computer to the tabletop, this is all about games. Updated each week-end.
I received my beta invitation to Magic: the Gathering Arena (MTGA) in February of 2018 and have been playing on and off since then. With the Non-disclosure agreement (NDA) period ended, beta players are free to talk about their experiences. My review below is based on my findings and feelings from having played the game so far.
The game is in beta, so aspects are constantly changing. A feature I might wish for could be added tomorrow. A feature I might hate could be changed into something I love. Or vice versa. I started writing this review when they announced the end of the NDA period, and I’ve already made several changes.
This game is a long way from being done. The systems are in place and functional for basic play using constructed 60-card decks from a shallow pool of cards. As such, I won’t be criticising the game for missing features on the basis that this is the beta, and more features and cards are still to be added. However I will be noting that lack of features.
One quick note – all ‘screenshots’ here were made using the Windows snipping tool. If there is a screenshot button, I could not find it. March 25 edit: I have replaced all screensnips with snips of the game post the NDA lift – thanks to those who pointed out the issues with using older snips!
I’ve tried to look at Arena without making comparisons to other online offerings of Magic. Suffice to say that Arena will not be released into a vacuum. Other online card games exist, including other ways to play Magic online. Arena will doubtless be compared to these on release, but for now I want to focus on what is there in the beta version.
MTGA, like any game, is competing for your time against anything else you could be doing. It needs to be worth the time it is asking for.
Arena offers a single mode of play: Ixalan block constructed using 60-card decks, one game per match.
As the NDA lifts, the Amonkhet block cards are being added to the pool. This has the effect of doubling the number of cards available.
This will move Arena from a strange experience of block constructed to a stranger experience of half a standard. This should have the effect of mixing things up in terms of what decks you’ll see.
The sooner Arena moves to a full Standard experience the better.
The game itself opens easily enough, giving players a nice welcome screen, along with some menu options. Currently, and curiously, there is no ‘play’ option in the top menu. To play (there is only one play mode available right now) you click the A from the Magic Arena logo to go to ‘home’. I think it would be better to have a play option on the top menu.
Before you play though, you’ll need a deck. The user interface for this is good, but can feel clunky when you are clicking through cards 10 at a time, looking for the one you want. That’s with just Ixalan block included in the collection tab. More sets will make this view less and less desirable. Expect to spend more time mucking about with search parameters to try and save time looking for that one black card to add to your otherwise blue/white deck.
I’d like to see a spreadsheet-style view as an option here, to be honest. The graphics are nice, but practicality is nicer.
Four and no more
Cards in your collection are signalled by lights. They light up when the card is available or are otherwise dark. Each card has four lights, and you can never have more than four of a given card in your collection. The light stays gray until you have the card, blue once it’s in your collection. When you’re deck building the light turns from blue to green once you have added a card to your deck.
Building a new deck is easy. Simply click ‘new deck’ and you’ll be taken to your collection screen to start the process of deck building. Basic lands are added automatically to a deck. For example when you add a single blue card to an otherwise vacant deck, 24 Islands will appear. Add a single black card to go with it, and the mix changes to 12 Islands and 12 Swamps. It’s a nice feature, based around the assumption that every deck you build will be 60 cards.
There is no obvious space for sideboard cards at this time.
Your only option here is competitive constructed using the Standard format (except not really because half the cards are missing). As you can see from the snip below, there’s space for more modes of play.
However there has been no word on what these might be (draft? commander?) or when these might be added. The best of 3 option was blanked out when I entered the beta, and remains so.
As such, Ixalan block constructed remains the only play experience to date. The Ixalan/Amonkhet hybrid offers a welcome break.
Once you begin, the play area looks nice and shows what is what.
Card space is used intelligently. The focus is on the look of the cards, so you see the name and art clearly. If the card is a creature then you will also see it’s power and toughness. For cards with abilities, like haste or defender, you’ll see an icon. You can see the full text of any card my hovering the mouse over it.
Being Ixalan block, the board will either fill up quickly with creatures or else remain utterly empty – the sign of a control deck. There is no in between.
Here’s an inconvenient truth: I have conceded more than one game through sheer boredom.
With that said, the user interface for playing is fine. Not great, just fine. One thing I find is if I tune out for a few seconds I find it easy to lose track of whose turn it is. Whether it’s your turn or your opponent’s the button showing the phase is the same colour. I feel this could be avoided through a simple colour change during an opponent’s turn. Or I could pay attention.
One thing is I have never lost due to an unclear interface. If you have options, those options are clear. They have done a great job making it easy to use activated and triggered abilities, and to respond to your opponent doing the same. The language around any options that appear on your screen is clear too. (If you’re not sure why I’m saying this, don’t worry, it just means you never played Magic Online, where unclear wording and poor logic have caused much angst over the years).
If you win, you’ll be rewarded with some coins towards your next pack of Magic. Win or lose, any progress you have made towards completing your quests will be made clear too. Win enough games and you’ll go up a level. Lose and you remain where you are. There are no in-built rewards for activity alone, except for those quests.
Short fuse, will lose
There is a timer in the game. Take too long to make a decision and a sparking fuse will gradually run down. This doesn’t quite work as you might expect. In one game (only one, mind you) my opponent sat on the end of his fuse for much of the game, before letting it run down. It was several minutes after that before the game ended. So your fuse is not an instant lose function, there is some leeway.
Wild about wildcards
The one feature I love about this game is the wildcards. They are a necessary balancing feature of a game that allows no trading and has a hard limit on how many of a given card you can hold in your collection.
If you open a pack, cards that you already have four of simply don’t appear. Instead of receiving the card you gain some credit towards the opening of a treasure chest, which grants a bunch of wildcards.
I like this feature, as having a MtGO account with 20+ copies of draft chaff I will never use and which are more trouble than they are worth to even be given away was never to my taste. This limit keeps collections from overflowing with unwanted chaff.
You can open wildcards in packs, receive them for winning a game, or else get them from treasure chests. There are four wildcards, each corresponding to one of Magic’s card rarities: common, uncommon, rare, and mythic.
If you open multiple packs at once, the game just shows you the rares and mythics you opened, including any wildcards.
Each wildcard can be exchanged for any one card of that rarity. There’s no going back, so choose carefully! I’d always rather have a mythic wildcard than a random mythic, as this provides so many more options.
When deckbuilding, you can click the wildcard symbol to see cards you don’t yet own in gray. Drag one of those into your deck and you’ll be asked if you want to exchange a wildcard for that card. Click yes and the new card will be in both your collection and your deck. It’s that simple.
As mentioned, when you open a new pack of cards, any cards where you have 4 already are not shown at all. Each one contributes towards your next treasure chest opening. Open a chest, and you’ll receive still more wildcards:
Another point on wildcards is that they are tagged to a rarity, not to a set. Open a rare wildcard in an Ixalan pack, you can use that wildcard to grab a Rivals of Ixalan rare, or one from Hour of Devastation.
This may mean that when a new set is released into the game, some players immediately have all the new cards they need, simply by trading in their stack of wildcards for what they want. It’s a way of buying singles in a game that has no trading.
Wildcards are my favourite feature of the game so far.
March 24 edit: Since I wrote the above Wildcards have been changed so that could can no longer receive mythic wildcards except through opening packs. This is… not a great move. Having mythic wildcards available via treasure chests means that you are going to get the mythic you want if you keep opening packs, since your cards over 4 will eventually provide you with credit for a treasure chest, guaranteeing you that mythic via the wildcard you get.
For me this was important in a game with no trading. Removing this will not get people opening virtual packs more often, it will drive them away from the game. Opening packs to get a specific mythic was and always will be a fool’s errand. Making that a feature of the game is sheer idiocy.
A quest in time
Quests remain shallow and while not exactly pointless, with only one play mode available, your games can swing from playing someone with a well-tuned deck to playing someone clearly trying to finish their ‘cast 12 blue or white spells’ quest of the day.
Each quest you complete earns you 200 or 300 coins, and 1,000 coins gets you a new pack of cards. You can complete a maximum of 3 quests in a day. The first time you log in, or of you log in after a long break, you can choose three quests. After that it’s one new quest per day.
Individual quests usually encourage players to log on every day to make some progress. I haven’t found this the case with MTGA quests. There’s not enough to them; they are repetitive; and gaining them takes too long versus the reward.
I hope quests are re-vamped before release.
Quests are always personal; there is no mechanism in the game yet which allows players to team up (call it a clan, guild, whatever) in order to reach larger goals for bigger rewards. There’s no indication of any plans for this type of feature either.
Smooth or sticky?
There’s a social tab at the top of the screen, which allows you to add to a friends list. Communication is so truncated as to be almost absent though. You can’t say anything other than a handful of stock phrases such as ‘hello!’, ‘oops!’ and ‘good game’. If you’re me, you’ll often use them in that order.
This lack of interaction with other players is another strike against player engagement – there’s no feeling of having anyone to engage with. There’s nothing to do with these friends, so why have them?
Features to help bring players together – including features to make it worthwhile for players to come together – would be a useful addition to the game prior to release.
Right now the game isn’t particularly sticky. I never felt the need or desire to play daily, and after the first week my play time reduced dramatically and I went back to other games.
I can’t feel any draft
Probably the biggest missing feature to be commented on to date is the lack of drafting. It’s not going to be as simple as ‘turning drafting on’ either. Basic things to support drafting are not evident.
There’s no sideboard function. How will wildcards work in a draft? Presumably there will be draft packs, or draft sets that remain wildcard free. Wildcards are not compatible with a good draft experience – in my opinion.
How then will the game keep your draft pool separate from the rest of your collection? After the draft what will happen to those cards you drafted where you already have 4 in your collection? Presumably after the draft these will turn into treasure chest credit. Already I’m presuming a lot in terms of what will happen for drafts.
It may be that packs don’t feature in drafts, but we’ll be able to by a ‘draft pass’ or something similar, where the pass will be good for whatever draft you want to enter, and the drafting process will be wildcard free.
All I can say for now is that drafts aren’t in the game. There’s no sign of features or unused options that would enable the function of drafting either.
A standard collection
The announced release of Amonkhet took me by surprise. I had not expected to see it implemented at all. I assumed the game’s release would not come until after the next Standard rotation, and that we would see a ‘full’ Standard available on the game’s release.
Now we will find out by October one of the great unanswered questions of MTGA: if the game is focused on Standard, what happens to cards that have left that format? There is no word to date.
Another question is what will happen to those cards currently banned in the Standard format. Can I use Ramunap Ruins in a deck, if it’s just Ixalan and Amonkhet blocks rather than Standard? If the card is banned there is no way to use it at all, as there is currently only one way to play. Perhaps all banned cards will be replaced with wildcards, or there will be an option to trade in a banned card for a wildcard of the same rarity. I don’t known, and again there are no unused options on the screen to give clues here.
Post the next beta wipe, we may see more features added, and be able to answer some of the unanswered questions above. Previously new beta players started with a collection of cards and a bunch of packs to open to add randomly to this.
Next time, players will be starting off with 10 decks and fewer packs. What will newer players receive to start with once the game goes live? No idea. A few preconstructed decks, some packs, and a draft pass would be nice. With no trading it’s not like people will open multiple new accounts to take advantage of any starting bonus, since there’s no way to combine this across accounts. Anything that helps build an initial level of player engagement would be good.
MTGA is still being built, albeit on a solid base. What is has works, and works well. The issue is that what is has is so little, barely a slice of the game.
It may seem unfair to rate the game with this little content, but that’s all we have to go on right now. I cannot with any confidence say that drafting will be smoothly implemented and seamlessly integrated into the current set up. If you didn’t know what drafting was, you would never guess it was a feature of Magic by the way MTGA’s user interface is laid out. There is no evidence available to come to any conclusion.
It’s too soon to come to a verdict on this game. The beta continues, the NDA is lifted, and the card pool has just been doubled.
A set of tools for streamers is being released, and who knows, they might even put in a screenshot button for me!
Magic: the Gathering Arena looks good and plays well, but currently lacks the depth and features necessary for any long term player engagement.