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Here’s my history with Magic: The Gathering: I played it compulsively about 20 years ago, until I ran into That Guy, who had narrowed the total focus of his life down to building intricate lawnmower decks that would destroy other players four to six at a time. I decided I’d met my match and focused my addictive tendencies elsewhere. The last cards I bought, I think, were from the Unglued set, although I think I still have my old green-red Saproling deck somewhere.

I’m only bringing this up to establish my bona fides. This is a preview from a returning player, rather than a current expert.

Thus, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I redeemed a beta code for Wizards of the Coast’s new free-to-play version of the card game, Arena. The idea, they explained via press releases and blog posts, was to convey the experience of the card game as closely as possible via a computer, complete with a collection element, regular tournaments, and much of the original art. This isn’t a new idea — Arena is the 15th video game based on Magic, and depending on how you count it, the third or the seventh to attempt to replicate the feel of the actual card game, rather than some other genre hung vaguely on the fiction — but Arena’s free-to-play business model sets it apart.

The simple, too-long-didn’t-read analysis of Magic: The Gathering – Arena is that it’s an online client and storefront for Magic, warts and all, as the game currently exists. You can pick it up and play for free against anonymous online opponents, and as long as you have the required tactical mind, patience, and high frustration threshold to enjoy Magic, this is likely a cheap method of entry. I could also see it as being an easy gateway into, or back into, the card game, since the way Arena can communicate information at a glance makes it easy to learn about all the new mechanics that have been introduced in the last few expansions. Even in this version, I can already feel the addiction kicking back in, which is a good sign for the game, but troubling for me.

Noticeable improvements

When I first got a beta code earlier this year, the game was in a much rougher state, and I found myself with no real idea how to play. I recently logged back in following the beta’s first big stress test, on July 20th, and the game’s come a long way. Arena is now streamlined, surprisingly responsive, and most crucially, begins with a short tutorial showing newcomers and returning players how Magic works in 2018.

There are still a lot of common abilities that are brand-new to me — scry, flash, lifelink, this thing where I earn “the city’s blessing,” legendary cards that have four different potential abilities — but most of it gets helpfully defined simply by right-clicking on a card. I don’t know how well I’d be doing if I had no Magic background whatsoever, but I found myself back up and running within a surprisingly short period of time, especially given how much trouble I had with earlier versions of the same client.

Magic is the same game at heart that it’s been for more than twenty years: players begin by drawing up to seven cards. Land cards are used to generate a resource called mana; mana is spent to fuel other cards, such as summoned creatures, enchantments, or spells that inflict direct damage. The object is to reduce your opponent’s health to zero, by breaking through their defenses one way or the other. Each player builds their deck ahead of time in order to construct or supplement an intended winning strategy, which is at least half of the game.

As the game has progressed through multiple expansions, rule clarifications, tournaments, and editions, a lot of new rules, cards, and special abilities have been introduced; one of the hardest things to grasp about Magic, in my experience, has always been the fact that just about any rule you care to name can be deliberately ignored or circumvented by using the right cards at the right time. (I always imagine it like being what you’d get if chess had certain edge cases where rooks could fly, bishops could teleport, or for a second, pawns were driving tanks.) Since the game is built around several thousand collectible cards, and almost every card has some additional unique ability to it one way or the other, it creates an endlessly manipulable, constantly surprising experience.

Arena is about as close to the actual game as it could be, with no particular fiction surrounding it. You can pick an avatar from a selection of the game’s established characters, such as Jaya Ballard, Liliana Vess, or Teferi (so is somebody actually going to cast Idris Elba as Teferi, or…?), but there’s no attempt to depict you as a newbie planeswalker or something, aside from some slight interactions with named characters during the tutorial. You’re just a player with a deck, up against other players with decks. You never see more of another player than a username and rank, and can only communicate via a few pre-programmed, non-verbal emotes. It’s an endless array of anonymous Magic opponents.

It’s strange that there doesn’t seem to be any attached social network, or the ability to rematch an opponent; no attempt has been made to attach even a bare-bones sort of social network to it. If the game features the ability to deliberately seek out and play games against your friends, there isn’t even a placeholder for it in the current build, and that’s a puzzling omission.

That being said, I was surprised by how fast and fluid Arena has become. You can jump in and be playing Magic against a human opponent within a minute or so of launching the client, you can use any of several included pre-constructed decks for free, and I never had to wait more than a few seconds for a game. There are occasional irritating, unpredictable moments of lag, typically when you’re trying to play a card that affects both players or multiple other cards, but it doesn’t detract from the overall experience.

Same flaws as the card game

What flaws there are with Arena are, fittingly, the same flaws you can identify with Magic: The Gathering. Unless you’re using some stripped-down race car engine of a deck, most games are won or lost in the first few hands, depending on which player managed to get the starting elements of one or more strategies. That opening hand can doom or save you, and a lot of the time, even when I win, I feel like it was only because my opponent got an opening hand full of nonsense. You can take a mulligan and re-draw your first cards, but every time you do, your hand gets one card smaller, which encourages you not to bother unless you’re seriously screwed over. Granted, there are practically zero penalties for losing, so there’s no reason not to just concede and hope for better luck next time, but that random element seems to end most games before they can even start.

Naturally, the other problem with Magic is that, naturally, it’s a collectible card game, so the players who can afford to burn more money on it also tend to have better cards, especially if they’re doing things like picking up entire unopened cases.

At time of writing, however, that isn’t quite as much of an issue with Arena. You get a lot of cards in your library just for logging on. As you achieve minor weekly quests, such as inflicting X amount of damage or casting X number of spells of a certain color, you earn in-game gold that can be spent on slowly acquiring more booster packs, which you can open to earn a handful of randomly-generated cards. You also receive a set number of “wildcards” of various rarities, which can be redeemed to purchase specific cards, and you seem to be able to get more by accomplishing some of the game’s weekly objectives.

If you want to throw real money at Arena, you can buy gems, which are spent to buy larger numbers of booster packs at once, but all you really get for your cash is immediacy and convenience. There are a couple of genuinely fun pre-constructed decks in the rotation, and the game throws cards and gold at you for every little random accomplishment, so I could see a lot of Arena players having a perfectly successful run with the game without ever sinking a real dollar into it.

On the other hand, once this turns into a full-fledged e-sport (I wonder what other highly competitive, tournament-friendly games are going to end up with new installments thanks to e-sports? are we going to see some kind of card-game gold rush? did anyone ever make a video game out of Lunch Money?), I can see a lot of people with impulse-control problems sinking a lot of money into gems in order to “grind” for the next big killer deck.

Which is probably its entire planned business model, come to think.

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