Digitized popular card game is fast-paced and fun

Platform: Microsoft Windows
Genre: Digital collectible card games
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Developer: Magic Digital Studio
Mode: Multiplayer

By Gieson Cacho | The Mercury News (TNS)

Despite pioneering the trading card game on paper, Wizards of the Coast has had a rough go of it in the digital space. “Magic: The Gathering Online” hasn’t had wild success mainly because of stability issues and accessibility. “Magic Duels” was better but it didn’t seem to take full advantage of the medium or capture the exact feel of the game.

“Magic: The Gathering Arena” is Wizards of the Coast latest attempt at creating a digital counterpart of its popular card game. This time around, the publisher built an in-house team made up of developers from Blizzard, Bioware and other triple-A studios. It has taken a cue from “Hearthstone” and streamlined the gameplay to make it fast-paced and fun.

The result is an accessible version of the game, one that will be familiar to fans and approachable to newcomers. Personally, I always had trouble with “Magic.” The rules for phases and upkeep were onerous to me. After reading the tiny instruction booklet, I was confused about when to tap and untap lands and how minions attacked and defeated each other but the way “Arena” takes players through turns and teaches them the game, “Magic” suddenly becomes understandable.

Then again, perhaps my experience playing “Hearthstone” makes Wizards of the Coasts’ classic card game easier to play. It’s likely a little bit of both. The design of “Arena” smooths out some of the cumbersome aspects of “Magic.” First off, the lands tap and untap by themselves, giving players one less complication to worry about. The order of actions in a turn are laid out in front of players’ avatars with the idea of playing one land, throwing down minions and attacking opponents seamlessly ingrained in the turn. It flows nicely.

Aside from that, “Arena” highlights what makes “Magic” different from other card games. Defenders have more agency when they’re being attacked. In general, a player uses minions to attack an opponent’s avatar. When that happens, the defender can choose which minions block and they can introduce Instants, which are one-shot spells that can bolster a defender or vaporize a foe.

Players don’t have to worry about counting out mana before using cards because the game already does it, and similar to “Hearthstone,” the computer lets player know what cards they can and can’t use.

Other quality-of-life designs include readable symbols on each card so players know what they do. Other minions have an aura of color denoting haste or a special dusty effect that signifies trample. As the Wizards of the Coast team builds out the card base, it’s also introducing special flourishes for some Mythic Rare cards such as Hazoret the Fervent. The god literally jumps out of the card and throws a trident at foes.

As far as formats go, players can expect a Constructed mode, a Limited mode and an Exploration mode, which employs different and revolving rule sets. Think of this as the Tavern Brawl in “Hearthstone.” Constructed is self-explanatory: Players create decks using at least 40 cards with no more than four of the same card. The Limited Mode is particularly interesting because players have to buy into it and they draft cards from booster packs. Depending on the format, they can get six sealed packs and make a deck out of that or they can do a booster draft where they pick cards from a pack and pass it on to another player. What’s great about these modes is that players get to keep the cards they draft.

The Exploration Mode is a way for Wizards of the Coast to test out different rule sets. Some days it will feature Singleton, in which one copy of a card is allowed per deck.

The game has two types of currency gold and gems. Gold is earned by daily wins and doing quests. Meanwhile, gems are the paid currency. In Limited Mode, players can earn both currencies and prizes, and if they’re really good, they can go infinite. That’s a collectible trading card term for players who can keep playing Limited without putting any money into the game. They are so good that the prizes they earn from winning pays for the entry fee. That’s harder than it sounds with a player needing six to seven wins to go infinite.

Similar to “Hearthstone,” “Arena” won’t have cards available for trading. There is no auction house or way to sell cards. Players will keep all the cards they get from packs, and sometimes they’ll get something called wildcards. These are cards that let players choose whatever card they want from the equivalent rarity. It’s a way for players to get some desirable cards without having to open dozens of packs. Although I appreciate that element, I wish there were a way to get those cards via the dust mechanic in “Hearthstone.” It’s a better way for players to extract value from their collection while clearing the clutter of extra cards.

The other major element that gives “Arena” some legs is that Wizards of the Coast plans to support the game with the same expansions that the paper card gets. Jeffrey Steefel, vice president of digital game development, said they are planning to release both simultaneously.

“It’ll be in lockstep with standard,” he said. “It’ll come out the exact same time.”

Additionally, the two digital and paper formats will essentially have the same content though the teams behind them will have to do some give and take. One format won’t have primacy over another, said Steefel, and the two will have to work together to get the essence of the cards to work. For example, Chaos Confetti, a card that you have to rip into pieces and throw from five feet, would obviously have to be reworked in the digital space to add fairness. Also don’t expect cards that would work in “Arena” using computer-assisted randomness to carry over to the card game.

At the moment, “Arena” is in a closed beta on PC. The team is focused on that platform, but they hint the game may come out on other operating systems.