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First Look At Magic The Gathering Arena – Closed Beta

MTGA thumb

I received some exciting news a few days ago: Wizards of the Coast has dropped the NDA on the Magic The Gathering Arena Beta, so I can finally share some screens and opinions with you.

I’ve been playing Magic the Gathering for about 17 years now and I’ve tested almost all of their digital products from Shandalar to MTG Duels and MTG Online and I hated to see how the presentation of their videogames always felt a few steps behind the competition.

It’s understandable that Magic is a more difficult game to encode, as the rules are much more complicated than any other virtual Collectible Card Game (CCG) offerings, mainly because it uses what we call “the stack”: a place where each ability and spell gets added to and which allows any player to react to it whereas games like Hearthstone only allow you to play spells and creatures in your own turn.

MTGA stack

The stack. friend or foe?

This does make Magic a more interesting game to play though, and it certainly allows for a lot of effects and cardtypes that do not even exist in other games. Added to this is Magic having the largest library of existing cards in existance, with well over 15.000 unique cards!

For this Closed Beta however, we are limited to playing with the most recent sets (each set has around 200-300 cards) and they will keep adding new cards as they come out. I just hope they will also go back in time and add the older cards as well.

To help you get started, they also premade a few decks to show off the tribal synergies of certain creature types or keywords (abilities) from these latest sets

MTGA preset decks

Look: no deck limit!

And it looks like we’ll never be limited in how many deck slots we can add (unlike some other CCG’s that make you pay for this) The presentation of this interface is very clean and you’ll even be able to import decks from other players (if they’ve shared it online) or export your own so others can test your list of 75 cards.

The only game mode that is currently playable is “standard”: a format in which you build your own 60 card (minimum) deck to play against other online opponents. Normally you’d be able to swap in a few cards from your sideboard as well (A sideboard can contain up to 15 cards which usually are great against a certain opposing deck). Magic is usually played as a “best two out of three games” but for now we are only able to play a single game. –> I’m 100% sure this will be added and tested at a later stage

What would be amazing is if they add in drafts and sealed deck: instead of making your own deck out of a collection of cards, you can play a game of “limited”, in which you do not yet know which cards you’ll get. The first Limited gametype is “Sealed”: you open 6 boosters and make a 40 card deck out of it. The Second Limited gametype is “Draft”: Players each open a 15 card booster pack, take out on card and pass it to the player next to them. This process gets repeated until all 3 boosters are drafted and you can build a 40 card deck out of it.

Personally I’m in love with drafting Magic The Gathering, as the unknown element is what makes it so addictive. You’re always happy to open a powerful card or to draft a deck with some amazing synergies. It’s not only the most fun you can have with MTG, but also the most profitable for Wizards of the Coast as you’ll have to buy your booster packs to be able to play. Though I do hape they do away with the added entry prize that they charged on Magic the gathering online.

Speaking of Booster Packs, they added a really neat feature this time:

MTGA wildcard

“Wild thing! You make my heart sing!”

When you open a booster pack you will each time (though this may change in the final release) get a Wildcard. Magic the Gathering has 4 rarities: Common, Uncommon, Rare and Mythic and an equal amount of different Wildcard. You can exchance a Wildcard for any card of that rarity so it will be a lot easier for you to create that specific deck you had in mind.

On Magic the Gathering online you had no choice but to either be lucky to open the cards you needed, or you needed to buy/trade them (which is dependant on the online economy). This system being present leads me to believe that there will never be a trading or ‘shop’ system in which you can buy cards from other players, but I applaud it if they stick with this as some cards could go for some really wild prices…

Just like in other digital CCG’s you will also be able to earn gold by completing quests. This gold can then be exchanged for boosters. It’s something I’ve always missed in MTG Online and the main reason I check back almost daily on MTG Duels: every day you earn new quests and it’s just too tempting to play a few games every other day just to earn your precious gold.

MTGA Quests

Quest: welcome to addiction!

But enough about that and let’s move on to the meat of the game: how does it play? Well, let me show you a short video I made just yesterday:

As you can see, they really streamlined how cards are played. You mana is used intelligently (minimizing the amount of time you have to spend on it) and attacking with all creates is perfectly smooth. On MTG Online, you had to use a lot of Function keys (F1, F2 etc) to efficiently use your time (because it uses a chess-like timer and if it runs out, you lose) but MTG Arena really makes all of this easy. It’s seems the team has learned a lot from MTG Duels and also from other CCG’s and the game has never been more fun to play (digitally at least)

It also looks leaps and bounds better than the most played digital offering at the moment: Magic the gathering online, which currently still looks like this:

MTGO gameplay

Functional, but not aesthetically pleasing…

Compared to the newer interface:

gameplay MTGA

much better!

It’s made in Unity and that means this could very well be ported to other platforms as well. Not just the big boy consoles like Xbox One, PS4 and Nintendo Switch, but also to the mobile devices like phones and tablets. The port to mobile platforms is the essential step in overtaking the current giant in the business: Hearthstone (whith over 70 million registered players)

What about the looks though, seems a few steps behind Hearthstone in visual flair, right? Yes, but that’s because MTG can have such huge boardstates. there is no limit to the amount of creatures you can have in play while games like Fable Fortune & hearthstone limit you to 6-9 units on the board. And that’s not even taking into account other permanent types like Enchantments, Artifacts and Planeswalkers.

That’s a good enough explanation why the base board looks a bit empty and why the size of the cards looks rather small (and they scale with the amount of cards in play) but it could still used some touches to add to the charm. I’m thinking a board that’s interactive (clickable background with some animations), more visual effects and sound effects (which is only reserved to a few cards at the moment). What would really be an awesome addition, in my opinion, is if they let you chat with your opponents (though they should allow muting) so you can come closer to the social aspect that the paper version offers.

As for performance: I noticed more lag than when I was playing MTG Online, so I really hope they invest in better servers as the number of players increases. A multiplayer game like this stands and falls by its online performance and while I can forgive a few hiccups in the closed beta: those issues should all be tackled before the final release.

Until then, I hope they keep improving on the product, but what is playable today is already a step up from Magic The Gathering online when it comes to its looks and ease of access. The only way is up. I’m excited for the future of digital Magic again!

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Robby Bisschop
Belgian, male, born in 1987
I love videogames (mostly RPGs), anime, movies and Magic The Gathering.
About the author

Robby Bisschop

Belgian, male, born in 1987 I love videogames (mostly RPGs), anime, movies and Magic The Gathering.