MTG Arena: UX Redesigned and Fancy Free

MTGO or Magic: The Gathering Online is a game that charitably looks like something designed and released in the late ‘90s resembling a souped up two player MS Solitaire game. In actuality it was a game designed and launched in ‘02 which still resembled a souped up multiplayer solitaire with cards that had significantly better art. So what was the appeal? It brought a from the ground up re-creation of the most popular CCG in the world, a title it holds even to this day with over 20 million players worldwide. The company who pitched the idea was Leaping Lizards Software who produced a basic demo that would convince WoTC to hire them for the project, one which they had been mulling over doing themselves anyway. There was a period of beta and load testing prior to the games release in ‘02 but once it was out they were solidly on their way to bringing a paper CCG to the digital space. It went well although at this time you have to remember that we weren’t quite at the point where we were comfortable paying the same price for “fake” online stuff as we were the real, physical thing we could hold in our hands. How things change, huh? In spite of the stir things proceeded well and the game was for all intents and purposes a hit with fans. Ultimately regardless of the criticisms of the game itself it’s 16 year lifespan speaks volumes about the singular popularity of the game itself, many people owning massive physical and digital collections in spite of their equivalent costs. The myriad free knockoffs of MTGO didn’t ever really manage to put a dent in it’s momentum either, even though it wasn’t cheaper it was still the best way to play MTG from the comfort of your own home. Unfortunately in mid-2003 a Version 2 update rolled out with rather catastrophic results that made the game so unstable and unplayable that they were forced to actually shut it down for nearly two months to fix it. From its inception the game was from time to time an unwieldy monster that never seemed to go more than a couple years without some disaster befalling it, usually around major version updates or that time Brian Kibler go so angry after being dropped while being 7-0 in a major event that he decided to drag the entire game into the alley and put two into its head. And honestly, who can blame him?

Kibler Tweet

There’s no need to go through the entire history of MTGO so I won’t and if I’m honest it was never really my thing. I loved feel of the paper magic home games we’d played for years, lunchroom and after school groups in addition to the occasional meetups at our local game stores. Over the years I had tried to get into MTGO especially after a lot of our group lost interest or time and I found myself still wanting to play but not really looking forward to working my way back into a new group at my game store. 10-12 years after the original launch of the platform the look of it just didn’t appeal to me which was something I thought I could get over, I’m not that shallow of a gamer, am I? If I’m still willing to play with actual cardboard a game that looks like virtual cardboard shouldn’t be a huge leap. Unfortunately I didn’t stick with and instead saw some potential in the ‘09-10 release of Stainless Games’  Duels of the Planeswalkers series of games that featured a slick animated interface that looked like what we all wished MTGO would get overhauled to. They were solid games but unfortunately like MTGO before it the DoTP games were designed in such a way as to not in any way upset the economies of their two already established money making projects. Instead DoTP was marketed as a way for non-fans or non-hardcore fans of the game to still enjoy it in a more relaxed and streamlined format. By all means not a bad goal as WoTC was smartly on the lookout for any way they could continue expanding their already impressive player-base in a market which was now crowded with other popular CCGs. This approach also meant that players like me who owned large physical collections but didn’t find much time to actually play with them and didn’t want to invest additional money into the aging platform that looked older than it really was were left with only a training wheels version of the game to enjoy. MTGO delivered the incredible mechanical depth of the physical game and DoTP delivered the visual potential of its world renown story art.

A middle ground would still be nearly a decade away.

At least it almost was until Magic Duels arrived on the scene, a faint glimmer of hope that ended up being a slightly more robust version of DoTP. Plus, planeswalker cards! It was flashier, it had a much more fun story mode to play through which rewarded you with a significant amount of cards to be able to build a good collection but it suffered from all the same mechanical shortfalls that it’s predecessors did. The shocking part of the life of Magic Duels was that two short years after it’s release it was announced that support for the game would be ending with Amonkhet. Understandably the community who had invested their time into that game was frustrated and confused, especially those who had invested money into it as well. While that was another in a long line of unpopular decisions by WoTC it seemed obvious to everyone there was something big coming. Overshadowed by the question of why they released Duels at all if a new platform was coming to be the digital platform for MTG going forward.


It wouldn’t be too long before we got our answer.


Enter MTG: Arena


The announcement of MTG: Arena was a familiar sensation as visually it looked like it promised everything its predecessors didn’t and at least as far as the announcement stated it was mechanically identical to the paper game. It was what I could only assume was something too good to be true, so what was the catch? There was only one way to find out, as soon as the closed beta signups were open I put my name down and waited patiently for my number to be called. While I waited I eagerly prowled the internet for more concrete information on what the game would eventually become, more than just the initial groomed press release. About a month and a half ago I finally got the email that let me into the closed beta and I was desperate to see what it was all about. First thing I noticed was the UI very closely resembled the DoTP style of games immediately making me hesitant about what I was going to find within in spite of the claims made by the developers. Being a beta they kindly started you off with a pile of packs from the Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan sets, 10 packs of each, so you had a variety of cards to build your starting decks with. As I opened packs I was greeted by these odd looking cards with colors representing the various rarities. These are a new mechanic being introduced in Arena called Wildcards. These wildcards immediately addressed one of the largest question marks I’d had about how WoTC would handle the free to play architecture of this game. Inherently free-to-play games end up being frustrating because of your inability to acquire those last few pieces of a given collection. The random nature of pack opening is supposed to keep you spending money until you get those erstwhile one-offs. If you aren’t coming at the game with a wallet suffering from too-much-money-itis that can be a soul crushing situation to be in.

The wildcards here solve that problem in an extremely customer first sort of way by being blank in all but their given rarity. These cards can be redeemed for any card from the various sets of an equivalent rarity. They can even be used to acquire cards that you have failed to find at all! I didn’t know the last point until a couple weeks in and still, before that I was utterly blown away at how consumer focused this move was to address one of if not the biggest complaint in any collectible free-to-play game, the ability to target a select few draws to get cards that have eluded you due to nothing but random chance. The cards can be drawn from packs randomly or from the vault which yet another mechanic WoTC added to ensure that any duplicates you get beyond the maximum of 4 are not just wasted draws. Once you have a set of four of any given card additional draws of that card with count for a certain percentage towards a vault opening. Once you earn a vault you can crack it for a stack of these wildcards ranging all the way up towards Mythic rarity. The chest shown below keeps track of your vault progress. The various rarity of cards gives you a different percentage from the commons up to mythics.


There is a real money store in this game in order to purchase gold coins you can use to purchase an open packs which is something we all knew was coming given the games free-to-play nature but I was honestly floored at how flexible WoTC was being right from the outset with rewarding player engagement. On top of these features there are daily quests and rewards you can get to build your gold bank without using real money and thus far I have to say it’s a generous system that I can find little fault with. The packs are 1,000gp per and it seems like the daily quests range anywhere from 200-600gp in rewards which I think is fair and gives players a fairly regular influx of packs. There are also daily win goals that award single cards as well as gold and weekly win thresholds that award a free pack. All in all this has instantly looked to be one of the fairest implementations of free-to-play mechanics I have seen to date, easily up there with the work Digital Extreme is doing with Warframe. Naturally the real money store isn’t open so I can’t say much about what the exchange rates are for real money to gold but I wouldn’t imagine they’d be too far out of line with the standard. Although with how conscientious they’ve been about their implementation thus far perhaps they’ll scale the prices down a bit so as to make a profit but not break the banks of their players who want to spend at lower volumes. Either way, at this point I am more than willing to see where it is they go with Arena, first impressions are crucial and for me they knocked it out of the freaking park.


I’ll finish out here with a few shots of the UI and the game board itself as well as a few mechanical things but if I’m perfectly honest it’s beautiful and pretty much what you would expect, it is digital MTG finally brought to the modern age. Alright, let’s do this… then I gotta run… Magic to play!


Once you log in this is the home screen you’ll be greeted to which has quick glimpses at your daily and weekly quests on the bottom and their requirements. In the upper right you’ll see your balance of gold, gems and your progress towards your next vault. The card icon next to the gold if you hover over it will show you how many wildcards of various rarities you have just waiting to be used. In the upper left you have tabs for Decks, Packs and the Store.


The deck screen comes loaded with a selection of pre-constructed decks that you are free to tweak and change at your leisure but it gives newbies a basis to just jump into the game and get playing. On the bottom you’ll see an edit deck button followed by Import, Export, Clone and, Delete. Full control over how you handle organizing your decks and a Collection button in the bottom right if you just want to peruse the cards you own or the ones you don’t to see what you’re still searching for.


Double clicking on a deck of your choice will open a screen where you can tweak it to your hearts content. At the beginning of your card list you’ll see your available wildcards that you can use to gain additional copies of cards you need to fill out your lists. Up top you’ll see options to customize what cards you see at a given time, this deck is Green/Red so it defaults to showing those colors as well as artifacts. The blue diamonds above the cards show how many copies of that card you own right now. The panel on the right shows the current deck list, right above which it shows a graph with your mana curve for quick reference. As you add cards to a blank decklist it will automatically populate the land you need for the deck but you can also customize that if you want.


The Packs page shows you unopened packs you have waiting, I’m planning to do a video where I’ll show opening some of these and how it works with the vault so I won’t waste a lot of time on it here besides showing it off. The account wipe that happened for this stage of the beta reset our collections so we’re back to basics, it also added Hour of Devastation and Amonkhet which should make the meta that much more interesting! I also won’t bother with the Store Page at the moment as most of it is non-functional, suffice it to say right now you can go there and exchange 1,000gp for a single pack of any of these sets when you have it. Pretty straight forward.


I’m gonna jump in and grab a screenshot of the play area for you but this is what it looks when you’re choosing what format to play. Currently we only have a Best of One Constructed format to play around in but assuming they plan for this to be the next MTGO I think we can safely assume we’ll see many of our favorite formats come into the game. Fingers crossed! For this game I’ve chosen an unmodified R/W Boros Assault deck, let’s jump in!


Opening hand, not too bad so I think I’ll forgo the mulligan this round.


Decent start, just waiting for all of my opponents shoes to drop.


Fairly even at this point but I can feel the tide turning with that Angel he just dropped which locked away the one I had on the field. Sadly from here the game went slightly down hill as he played a planeswalker that turned the slight tide into a tidal wave. Either way, fun game and I’m excited to get in there and start tweaking decks so I can win some games!

Hopefully this all has given you a little insight into what MTG: Arena may turn out to be because I have to say that right now I am extremely excited for its future and cannot wait until we hit an open beta or full release when the majority of magic players can get their hands on it! So far WoTC I think you’ve given us exactly what we’ve wanted all these years and I couldn’t be happier.


Thanks everyone who stayed with me till the end here, I’ll be sure to post updates when I get some video content put together over the weekend, till then have a great day and I’ll talk to you soon!


  • Non-Washable

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