The Vestiges of Arena

Posted: April 12, 2018


Magic: The Gathering is one of the oldest Trading Card games in existence. Thousands of unique cards, hundreds of distinctly different decks and archetypes, tournaments and high profile players are only a few of the things that make MTG the single most influential card game in the world. Wizards of the Coast have tried to translate their paper success into the digital world multiple times, but every time fell at least a little short of what they desired.

In 2014, Blizzard translated their WoW TCG, a WoWified version of Magic (which I personally enjoyed a great deal) into an incredibly successful digital card game - Hearthstone. Although never matched in success, Hearthstone paved the way for a plethora of more or less successful card games that have been released since: Shadowverse, Gwent, TES: Legends… Finally, the long expected new Valve title was revealed to be Artifact, a digital trading card game set in the Dota universe.

Being overshadowed by other great titles and more than partially due to WotC’s track record in digital version of their game, Magic: The Gathering Arena has flown under the radar of many people. I have Tolarian Academy to thank for putting it on my map. In September they released a video titled “How to screw up MTGA: A Guide”, which painted the game in a completely different picture than I’ve heard it talked about before. For the first time in my life I’ve become genuinely excited about an MTG digital product. I was accepted into beta pretty early on, and while I am truly excited about the game, there is a an inherent deadweight Arena is dragging behind it.

The Glistening Oil

Much like Karn brought the traces of glistening oil to Argentum, I feel MTGA is adopting a lot of unintuitive aspects of the paper and MTGO version of their game, ones I believe should be completely abandoned and reinvented during the transition onto a digital platform.

The UI

One of the goals of MTG: Arena was to recreate the tabletop experience on your computer screen, and I tip my hat to the developers, the game is amazing at that. Through the use of full control one can respond to each and every trigger they would normally be able to, or if one prefers a more comfortable and faster gameplay, take advantage of the automatic functionalities (which although sometimes a little unintuitive, work great when you get used to them).

That said, there are a few things I personally can’t fully endorse. The first and most important is the angled view. I understand that in order to recreate the tabletop experience, one would need to see the cards at an angle, but that is not a feature of the game, but rather a nuisance we need to endure as we can unfortunately not levitate above the table in real life. The angled view takes away a lot from the incredible art of Magic and makes worse use of the board space. While the animations such as flying and legendary entrances are a great boon, they do not make up for what the unnecessary angle takes away. I would be delighted with a feature that would allow us to change the angle of the camera to ortogonal.

The second thing that I feel absolutely should be changed is the default action of the “End Turn” button to what “Shift + Enter” currently does - pass the priority until end of turn unless the opponent casts something you can respond to. It’s not only because it would feel more intuitive, it also technically allows you to play using only a mouse without full-control mode enabled.

The Economy

A lot has been said about the MTGA economy, especially post-NDA, and I I think this problem originates from the same issue the UI does - vestiges of paper magic. For those who don’t know, Magic’s booster system is based around limited modes - draft and sealed, where players participate in a 3 booster draft, or a 6 booster sealed deck building respectively. Multiple cards are therefore intentionally designed as weaker version of others (to keep the slower limited format from relying too much on bombs and high-power rares) and never used in constructed play.

The current MTGA economy is based on boosters that take the same basic concept (1 rare/mythic, 2 UC and 5 commons) to build your collection. The issue here is, the vast majority of cards we receive are irrelevant and unplayable, and that is again, not a feature but a vestige of the physical game that not only doesn’t have to, but shouldn’t be translated to a digital format. Not only will draft/sealed packs be of a different format (defeating the purpose of the original MTG booster design), the current version offers no control over collection building whatsoever outside the wild cards, which are scarce to begin with. To add Insult to injury, unlike in other CCGs, playsets of cards are generally necessary in MTG.

Although the general perception of the player base is different, card acquisition rate in MTGA is pretty good. The issue is cards are distributed at random, leaving people completely at the mercy of RNG. If I take my own collection for example - I have acquired several mythics and rares through daily rewards and boosters, unfortunately in 3 weeks of daily completion of at least 15 (more often than not 20-30) victories, I have only opened one rare I needed in a booster.

Every other card was either for my secondary, tertiary or worse decks, or not playable at all. I’ve spent every wild card I have gotten so far on my main deck, and I am nowhere near completing it, much less its sideboard. This issue will be further exacerbated in the relationship between the F2P and paying players, as the former will have significant difficulties completing their main deck, and will be further disadvantaged relative to the latter. The difference should be in the quantity and diversity of the decks, not in the quality itself - something other CCGs tend do away with at least partially.

That leads players to frustration, resentment and eventual burn-out from the game. Instead of building their collection relatively evenly across all colors/archetypes from the ground up, we should be given more control over what we open (i.e. choice of 3 rares/mythics in a pack). Instead of speeding up the process on our 2nd, 3rd decks, help us build the first one at F2P and have us pay/grind for our 2nd and 3rd. Newer players that invest their first wildcards wrong can end up setting their progress back weeks or months, and that’s all without the addition of Kaladesh and potential other sets. I will not go into details, but the complete randomization of draft-intended packs should be dealt away with, and the vault should be immensely more rewarding or opened at a faster rate.

The entire concept of rarities loses most of its meaning when moving from packs designed for limited game mode to digital, where draft packs will already be different than normal ones. The reason why draft packs work in paper is the fact people can trade and purchase singletons - a feature missing in MTGA. it is illogical to then adopt a TCG card acquisition system with no means of trading.

The Manabase

The most frustrating part about Magic: The Gathering is acquiring the manabase. The multicolor lands are detrimental to the success of any multicolor deck, and unfortunately, they are generally expensive, rare and extremely unsatisfying to open in a pack, much less spending Wild Cards on them. I remember spending several hundred euros to purchase a suboptimal manabase for my EDH deck a few years back, and now in MTGA, it’s one of my greatest frustrations as well. All the lands I want are in a single edition (Ixalan), one that I need no other cards from. They are one of 5 different checklands, and they share a rare slot with dozens of other, unwanted cards. It’s understandable the dual lands are too powerful to be at a specific slot of a draft deck, but a digital game has no reason to not provide their players with full land collection and avoid the incredible frustration of mana/color screws and spending the so terribly sought after rare wild cards on lands.


The article might give away the feeling I dislike MTGA or even hate it, but that is not the case. While I have my worries about the transition to digital being flawed by the vestiges of MTGO and Paper Magic, I sincerely hope the developers take another look at these concepts and reevaluate them. MTGA is the first version of digital Magic I truly enjoy playing, and I honestly believe it holds a tremendous potential.

All in all, MTGA is a great experience I’d recommend to MTG and other card game veterans, but I would advise newer players to give it a couple months and wait for more features to be added to truly be able to enjoy MTGA for what it is, and not just for Magic itself.

To end the article on a more nerdy note, I hope the developers and Magic: The Gathering Arena, the players and the community manage to overcome this Phyrexian “corruption” on our beautiful artificial world, and unlike the Mirran Resistance, we persevere and deal away with the glistening oil before it’s too late. Break the circle of MTG digital games. Just this once, don’t let them all be one!


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