I started playing Magic: The Gathering in 1994. I was 11 years old and the game blew my mind. Since then, I’ve had an on-again, off-again affair with the game. Every few years, I buy some cards and come back to see what’s going on.
Over the years, publisher Wizards of the Coast has attempted to replicate the success of Magic in the digital space. It’s released dozens of titles over the year in an attempt to make a video game out of the world's most popular collectible card game. I haven’t liked any of them until now.
Magic: The Gathering Arena is the newest digital version of Magic. it's still in closed beta, but I've been playing it for a bit and I can finally tell you that this is the digital version of magic I’ve wanted for more than 15 years.
All the previous digital version of Magic—and I’ve tried them all—have, for one reason or another, sucked. Magic: The Gathering Online is a dull, clunky, and expensive. The various Dual of the Planeswalkers games simplified the games rules and didn’t let players build decks. Magic Duels also simplified the rules, was often borderline unplayable because of bugs, and let players build decks but hampered them with strange restrictions tabletop players didn’t have.
Arena borrows a lot from Hearthstone and that’s a good. The UI is snappy and responsive, the bugs don’t feel baked in ( Arena is still in beta), and it doesn’t cost a fortune. I built the decks I wanted and, to my shock, had more control over the game than any of the previous digital versions of Magic. For the first time, a video game felt like I was playing Magic at a local card store.
On the surface, it seems like Magic should be easy to turn into a video game, but the rules that seem simple can get complicated fast. Arena understands that and allows the rules to be as complex as they are in the original version, whereas previous video game versions of Magic felt like they were fighting it.
To explain, I need to dig into the nitty gritty of Magic’s rules a bit. Players use a resource called mana to cast spells in Magic, which they generate with land cards. When there are multiple types of land cards on the field, a player has to pick which ones they use carefully. Some versions of Dual of the Planeswalkers just auto-tapped the land, taking control away from the player, hampering their ability to play the game they wanted. Arena gives the player full control over land.
The other thing that never quite worked in the digital versions of Magic was timing and priority. When a spell can be played and how its effect activates is a complicated and important part of Magic. There are entire play styles—I’m looking at you blue control—that rely on interrupting another player's turn. Arena has a button dedicated to passing priority (a player’s right to cast a spell) and a button that allows players to slow the game way down and approve every little thing that happens in the game.
It may sound like a pain, but it works great and it’s all built on timers that are fair. Playing a deck built on harassing your opponent with counterspells and other interruption tactics was impossible in previous video game iterations of Magic. Now it’s a joy and my blue control deck was my favorite in Arena.
Arena is free to play and Wizards have modeled the economy after Hearthstone. Playing the game earns gold coins that players can use to purchase booster packs which contain eight cards—real packs of Magic cards contain 14. Sometimes those packs contain wildcards, which a player can cash in for whatever card they want. It all works better than I ever though video game Magic could.
Wizards will be sending out an additional 100,000 invites for the closed beta in the next few weeks I hope to see you in the digital tabletop.