The world’s biggest, most complicated card game has a new videogame release out today, almost a year to the day after its open beta started. But what on Earth is Magic: The Gathering Arena and why should you be excited?
With 25 years of history under its belt, it’s a fair assumption that you will have at least heard mention of Magic: The Gathering – also known as MTG or simply Magic – at some point of your life, but there’s a good chance you haven’t played it. The game has evolved significantly over its history too, moving from strength to strength, to the point where we are today. If you haven’t played in 20 years, the game is radically different to what you remember, and if you’ve never played before, it’s no exaggeration to say the game is intimidatingly large. There are more than 20,000 unique cards in the Magic back catalogue and the sheer scale of this can be pretty off-putting.
MTG Arena is the latest video game in the Magic franchise, and it exists for two reasons: to breathe some life into the game and to tackle the problems with its overbearing complexity. But before we get into that, let’s take a second to talk about what Magic actually is – the single best designed game system you can possibly imagine.
Wait, I’m new. What’s Magic: The Gathering?
Magic: The Gathering is a collectable card game (like Pokémon cards, but infinitely better). Similar to Pokémon, there’s more to this game than just slamming cards on the table and declaring yourself the champion. In Magic, you are a ‘planeswalker’ (a wizard) who can travel between the different planes (universes) of the multiverse. Each plane has its own quirks – Theros is based on Greek lore, whereas Kaladesh brings Indian vibes into the game, Innistrad brings you gothic horror, while Zendikar asks what life would be like if the planet were actually alive, sentient and angry.
Whichever plane you find yourself on, you will bump into other planeswalkers with whom you do battle. To do this, you cast spells (play cards) to defeat the opponent by starving them of resources, whether that’s their life total, cards or one of the other many ways you can win the game. Each card you play effectively adds its own rule to the game until that card is removed or destroyed.
To pay for these spells you must draw energy from the world around you by playing land cards. At its most basic, if you want to play a black spell, you have to use black lands. But black spells aren’t just black for the hell of it. Black means something very real and concrete within the bounds of Magic. Black means death and greed, it means power at any cost. On the other hand, white is all about life and honour, red is emotion, blue is control and green is nature. The idea is that all of nature can be boiled down into one or more of these colours, and it’s this identity running throughout the game which makes the game so robust.
Once you understand these basics, how you build your deck is entirely down to you, and with the extensive back catalogue of cards, there is a seemingly infinite number of permutation of how you can play and even express yourself through your cards. This infinite variation is both a blessing and a curse, however it can be difficult knowing which direction to go in if you only have a few dozen cards in a total pool of 20,000 – whether what you have is of value or if it’s just impossible to win with.
Solving the complexity
This is where MTG Arena comes in. Arena is the name of the new Magic client that takes this game and somehow makes it easy to dip in and out of for beginners and pros alike. Because it only offers the past two years’ worth of cards, it cuts the total card pool by about 95%. While some of the older cards will be added in future, we’re not there yet, making now the perfect time to jump in if you’re curious.
Fewer cards means fewer rules and a lot less of getting sidelined by things you’ve never heard of. This makes Arena a good starting point for anyone who wants to dip their toes in the water, and get a feel for the game. The best bit is that it’s entirely free to play. Yes, you can pay money to buy cards, but by no means is it essential. I’ve been playing since its Alpha build and although it has been monetised for over a year, I’ve spent maybe £5 on Arena and spent hundreds of hours playing it.
Wait, I’m not new. Why should I care about MTG Arena?
So what we have is a client that offers a good jumping-in point for new players, but also something for enfranchised players. The biggest pull for all players is that you get to play Magic without having to use MTG Online – the client which could learn a lesson or two in graphic design from a game of solitaire. Despite running the most intricately built card game in the world, MTG Online has the graphic appeal of Windows 95.
MTG Arena, fortunately, takes the Hearthstone-style visuals and combines it with the tried and tested gameplay that Magic offers. The result is a game that is fun to play, a joy to look at it doesn’t impact the wallet if you don’t want it to.
Sounds good, but how do I play?
Now, after about two years of alpha and beta testing, we have the upcoming full release of MTG Arena today on 26th September 2019. This coincides with the release of the new set of cards, Throne of Eldraine, which takes famous real-world fairy tales and Arthurian legends and puts them in a whole new light. If you’ve ever wanted to throw an army of gingerbread men against a beast with a curious affiliation to the English rose, this is the set for you.
If you’re a fan of card games, if you grew up playing Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh (Duel Masters), now is your chance to try the game that inspired them, but with modern graphics, luscious visuals, smooth gameplay and even the odd bit of voice acting. Best of all, you can do it all for free.
However, there are some caveats to how you can play. It should be noted that it doesn’t run on a Mac unless you use a Windows emulator or Boot Camp. A native MacOS build is in the works, although it doesn’t have a release date just yet.
Coming back to Hearthstone (which will amusingly annoy a lot of Magic players, but bear with me), one of the things that MTG Arena is sorely lacking is mobile play. There has been an upswell in players in the beta testing requesting mobile play, or at least a Switch client, but Wizards of the Coast have announced no plans to move to mobile. It’s a shame because offering the ability to play on the go would dramatically help bring in new players.