An Introduction to MTG Arena

This time last year, I was done with Magic. Having played for 20-some years, it became clear to me that financial barriers and reasons related to my mental health would never allow me to play the game at a higher tier (I would forever be the midcarder). In my work as a card alterist, I felt the same way.  I could see that my quality of work was significantly better than a lot of artists, but I knew I would never reach the heights of skill displayed by the best. For some people, understanding this and owning this can be fine and one can be content with mediocrity because there are other motivators to keep oneself engaged. For me, however, as a person who is consumed by the pursuit of excellence in the things that I do, I never felt like I had a place in the world of Magic. Like a lot of players, I made the decision to sell my collection, park my money in a different space and move on.

What I forgot is that I had applied to Beta test Arena, shortly before reaching this decision.

Flash forward to three months ago (early March of 2018) and I decided to have a play with Arena, mostly out of curiosity. In my infinite cynicism, I figured that it would just be a Wizards’ branded attempt to dethrone Hearthstone and that I probably wouldn’t much care for it but it would at least waste a spare evening here and there.

Within a week of first picking it up, I rekindled my Twitch channel (That Mr. Shy on Twitch) and organized a schedule. I was not only a Magic player again, but I was a content creator again – something I had missed dearly. From there came a Discord server, a Facebook community, and most recently, a YouTube channel (That Mr. Shy on Youtube). I had the joy of reconnecting with so many dear friends from the Magic community including the very editor of this site. Beyond all of this, I was finding happiness and fulfillment in this environment!

The question we have to ask at this point is “What causes such a dramatic U-turn in such a short space of time?”

The answer is a great game.

MrShy’s MTGA Primer

What is Magic Arena?

At its core, I feel like Arena is intended as a super-convenient way to get the full experience of playing Magic, but with a slight skew toward attracting newer players. Unlike MTGO, Arena has a fully animated GUI with lots of pretty effects and a detailed soundscape with individual animations and sound effects assigned to many of the popular cards. Arena also opts for a bolder, brighter, clearer and more legible approach to its interface.

Gone are the small square buttons of MTGO, replaced by large illuminated buttons with halos of animated light. The card pop-ups and renders are large and easy to read, the deck lists stack at the title bar of the card with the name and CMC clearly visible. In short, the game looks great – but it’s more than that. When you’re used to MTGO, this game feels more inviting and more engaging, but if you were coming from Duels of the Planeswalkers, I’m confident the game would feel more serious, like you’d graduated to the big leagues.

Now don’t get me wrong, in it’s current beta stage there is no level on which Arena can serve as a replacement for MTGO, and for a brand new player, I would still recommend tinkering with DotP first to get a grounding of basic Magic gameplay (or perhaps watching the primer on my YouTube channel!). Arena currently offers a best-of-one match system with no sideboards and the card pool includes all the current standard legal cards with the notable absence of the Kaladesh block. Arena also no banlist currently, and access is limited to invitation or application only. With this said, the obvious question would have to be:

Why Play Arena?

Well, first and foremost, everything I just told you about Arena is about to become completely false! Following on from a recent announcement from WotC Creative, we now know that, as of June 7th 2018 (less than a week away, as I write this), Kaladesh will be coming to Arena. This means that the full array of Standard cards will be at the tips of our mouse pointers. Further to this, the announcement states that games will switch to best-of-three and sideboards will be enabled. The announcement continues to explain that the Standard banlist will also be implemented. Finally, drafting will be being enabled on a fire-at-will basis (previously it was only available at weekends) and existing accounts will receive a slew of Kaladesh cards, including a whole bunch of staples as four-ofs. With all of this factored in, the implications are huge.

Arena now represents a “free to play” (more on my use of finger quotes later) method of testing standard, with a predicted metagame that will parallel Magic Online. These latest updates will also mean that players new to the game, or those of a more casual bent will have cheaper ways to dip their toes into Standard, before committing to heftier paper purchases. It’s very hard to see any downside, and if I’m honest, I feel like I have solid arguments against any of the nay-saying I’ve seen toward Arena. As with anything that challenges the establishment or is even slightly counter-conventional, resistance is both expected and natural, but when we break down what makes Arena different, I think you’ll agree that it’s worthy of our attention and possibly even our praise.

So what makes Arena different, MrShy?

Well, the main thing we need to look at here is the economy system since I think that is where Arena really makes its mark, and to an extent, defies convention. I am going to do my best here to explain something that might seem a little abstract to anyone who hasn’t played Arena.

Challenges are added daily and pay out in coins.

Coins: Coins are one of Arena’s two currencies. Coins can be earned by completing daily challenges (cast a certain number of this type of spell, play a certain number of creatures, etc), by winning matches and even just by logging in. Coins can be used to pay for event entry, or to buy packs from the store.

Gems: Gems are the second currency on Arena, which are bought using real world money. The prices scale so the more you buy, the more you save. If you’re willing to spend $59.99, the conversion works out that a pack costs about $1. Gems can be used for all the same functions as coins, but at much reduced rates, for example, a draft costs 5000 coins or 750 gems meaning that a draft in MTGA costs roughly $4.89 in real world money. A bargain, I think you’ll agree!

Wildcards: Wildcards are a really clever mechanic in MTGA. Sometimes when you open a pack, in the place of a certain card, you’ll receive a wildcard of the same rarity (common, uncommon, rare, or mythic). These can be exchanged for any card in the game of that rarity on a one-for-one basis. Its worth noting that if you don’t own a card, you have to check an option in the card viewer to reveal unowned cards. This can catch out new players. For my first few days, I was under the impression that I had to open my first copy of a card and could only exchange wildcards for copies two through four!

The Vault: Magic Arena also has a vault system in which players are periodically rewarded with a mythic wildcard, two rare wildcards, and two uncommon wildcards. The vault progresses as a percentage based on certain conditions, and when it reaches 100%, you can activate it to receive the reward. Progression towards vault unlocking is achieved by opening packs and bonus progression is awarded if a player opens copies of a card beyond their fourth.

So that’s all? A cool economy is all that’s different?

Well, not quite. Arena also offers a very clever way of levelling the playing field which very much places the quality of experience in the hands of the player. Unlike games like Hearthstone, or even Magic Online, there are no ways to trade or transfer cards in Arena, neither internally nor externally. Clearly, it’s safe to assume that some people would consider this a negative, possibly even a deal-breaker, but it has a subtle effect on the game which offers huge positive implications.

With no trading, there is no secondary market. This means that players never fall victim to being priced out of a certain deck. Chase rares and mythics are equally available to all players through the wildcard system. The only choice the player need make is how they wish to obtain wildcards. Players can grind for them by earning daily rewards for coins, turning coins into packs, and turning packs into vault progression (hopefully opening a few desirable cards or wildcards along the way) until the player has the deck they want. If the player prefers a speedier approach, they can buy gems with real world money to expedite this process, but that is all that paying into Arena actually offers – satisfaction to ones impatience.

With this considered, it’s impossible to brand Arena a “pay to win” game. Doing so would only serve to display ignorance to the nuanced difference of how Arena operates its economy. Instead it’s worth looking at Arena as a “pay to be lazy” game at worst. If you wish to make content, or if you don’t have the patience to grind, you’ll probably prefer to invest money so that you can build higher tier decks from the start. However, if you have the time and patience and the experience of playing Magic is more important to you than being able to own the best cards, you lose absolutely nothing by progressing slowly. For me as a content creator, it makes sense to set a budget and pay in because it allows me to brew interesting decks to show to my viewers but your mileage may vary.

Even with this said, before I properly understood the economy (incidentally, before gems were even an option) I was grinding away for maybe a week at the most before I could have built a higher tiered deck if I wanted. The “slow” way is really not what any of us could consider a hard grind. This is actually where I think Arena shows its genius. Magic players are well conditioned to grinding and to small, incremental rewards. For any of us who have had a shot at the competitive scene or have played any of WotC’s other digital properties, Arena will never make you feel like you want to give up.

Okay, I’m sold – where do I sign up!?

Access to the closed beta is only available through invitation or by signing up and waiting patiently to receive a key. Most players I’ve spoken to recently have said that it’s taking around four to six weeks from application to receive a key so my advice would be if you want to sign up, do so now! The link to the sign up form is:

Getting in early would definitely be advisable since the shift to full standard is coming and making some headway toward a great standard deck will be great fun over the coming weeks. As I hinted earlier, I predict that the Arena meta-game will very closely reflect Magic Online by the time it settles so it’s probably smart to be prepared to turn four of your first mythic wildcards into copies of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria!

In addition to free access to the beta (and the game itself upon release), if you’re a content creator, you can also join the Wizards Content Creator Program to receive additional rewards and benefits as a thanks from WotC for helping spread the word about their product. WotC has also released a pack of overlays and stream graphics for content creators to use if they wish. It’s clear that WotC are very excited to bring us this product and if you’re anything like me, I think you’ll agree that it’s clear why.

Beginner Tips

So, lets assume I’ve struck a chord with you, that you like what you’re reading in this article and you want to dive into the fray with me and the other Arena beta testers. Where do you start? My advice would be to put together either a mono red aggro deck with Hazoret at the top (something similar to what I show in my primer video, but maybe less built on the fly and a little more considered), or start by looking at one of the decks that doesn’t change too much with the addition of Kaladesh cards – something like UG Merfolk or the God-Pharaoh’s Gift decks (which just need to add Bomat Courier and Walking Ballista to be basically the same as their standard counterparts). The advantage of all of these decks is that they contain a lower density of rares so you won’t have to grind too much to build them and they can win enough games, even in the current (slightly weird) meta to feel rewarding. Also, remember I mentioned that when Kaladesh drops we get a bunch of format staples as four-ofs? Well, Bomat Courier and Walking Ballista are amongst the cards that players will receive playsets of, so the alterations to the deck will be completely free!

From there, I would also advise taking advantage of how cheap it is to draft on Arena. Whenever Dominaria draft is offered, I always make sure I dive in to take advantage of a very cheap way to practice the limited format. Every draft is keep what you open, so they can also offer a great way to bolster your collection with format staples. You even receive vault progression if you collect copies beyond your fourth of a card through drafting.

You may be tempted to dive straight in and build one of the UW control decks, which are currently dominating standard – however I would advise caution. This is a great idea on paper but you will have to grind a relatively long way (by Arena’s standards) to afford all of the rares and mythics that those decks play and you will be playing a HUGE number of mirrors. For me, even though Gift has a terrible matchup against UW, I’m having much more fun not grinding out control mirrors that way. You’ll also lose some of the value of Kaladesh arriving, since the only card that’s particularly essential to those decks that you’ll receive is Fumigate.

The Bottom Line

Arena has been a tough pill to swallow for a large part of the invested establishment. From the start, arguments that it wasn’t a true representation of any Magic format and that it was just a cash cow to draw in casuals have been firing around the Twitterpshere, Reddit and Facebook. I think it’s obvious that if given a fair and level-headed evaluation, though, that this is empirically false. Arena is a game in beta. It is still far from complete and even once the June 7th changes take place, the game will still be in development but it’s clear to see the direction Arena intends to take.

It is an attractive, easy to understand entrance to the game for outsiders and an indispensable practice tool for experienced players. Arena represents a new age in Magic where players can actually enjoyably receive an almost complete (eternal formats notwithstanding) Magic experience on little to no budget at all. It is fair and balanced (although myself and some players do think the randomization needs work) and is a great way to grow the community.

I’m excited for Arena and what it brings. I hope we’ll meet on the battlefield and be able to enjoy the game together. In the meantime, please do head over to my stream on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (8:30-10:30 GMT) or my YouTube channel if you’re curious about the game and want to see more. I’ll also be appearing on the Podcast soon to chat to Corey and Darrel about the game, so be sure to tune in for that!

Thanks for reading

CKL Arena Correspondent