Magic: The Gathering is a stalwart force in the world of collectible card games. It’s been available for nearly 30 years, and it’s remained the standard for which other similar games have been measured against ever since. The excitement of coming away from a match having bested your opponent throughout fantastical duels that include Prodigal Sorcerers and Squallmongers still has yet to be matched, even in an age where games like Hearthstone and Gwent pop up seemingly every five minutes.
While I’ll always prefer to play any card game (like the Pokémon trading card game) with physical cards, Magic: The Gathering Arena was one of the first digital iterations in which I truly felt I wasn’t just swapping around images and wasting my time. As such, it remains an excellent digital alternative to hoarding my piles of cards and trying to teach my friends how to play to no avail.
It’s been about a year since I played the initial Magic: The Gathering Arena, and I praised it as a “digital playground where you can soak up as much as you want.” I haven’t had much time to play it between then and now, making the improvements between my initial brush with the game feel even more drastic upon my return. It’s still very much the best way to experience a game of Magic with friends (or NPCs), only with changes for the better and numerous more cards, including the newly-released Throne of Eldraine, which joins the rotation, including Ixalan, Rivals of Ixalan, Dominaria, and Core Set 2019 as part of the game’s Standard rotation of cards to enjoy.
Arena is still very much Magic 101, and you’ll get from it exactly what you put in. There have been what feel like several graphical improvements and enhancements, however, and things that keep the aesthetic feeling fresh despite the number of similarly-styled games on the market. It’s exciting to watch your cards come to life on the battlefield, with a flourish of fiery brimstone as monsters come roaring out from the cards you play. These flourishes are part of what make the game still feel so great, even when newcomer titles try to steal the show with their flashy looks.
You’re going to want to have some modicum of knowledge of the game before you jump in, though. Arena has a quick and dirty tutorial you can play through to get you up to speed, and you’ve got to play through at least five matches before you’re allowed online. And while there’s a bot you can practice against to bone up on your skills, the game does assume you know at least a little about what you’re doing. Luckily, it does a great job of offering tooltips and assistance later on in the game where you need it the most.
Despite being a free-to-play game, Arena has somehow managed to remain generous with booster packs and how it approaches pushing them. While you’ll still be expected to spend a bit of cash if you want to build the same kind of decks that you consistently run into, you don’t necessarily have to shell out cash if you don’t want to. You still have plenty of cards to enjoy without having to turn this game into yet another cash grab where it’s all about buying new cards to succeed.
You can still earn plenty of coins to purchase booster packs, too. So if you do want to play into the micro transaction aspect of the game you can, but it’s in no way a requirement unless you want to seriously compete on a more professional level. Then, I could see that becoming a problem. Gems, which you must use for buying a few boosters at a time, are still similarly difficult to acquire unless you want to sink enough time in.
While the game is still missing some of the niceties that make it simple to play online such as a refined friends list, some of the free-to-play concerns I had the first time around, and similarly challenging matches, overall Magic: The Gathering Arena has more than proven itself. It’s an even better, more refined adventure than what I originally played back in September 2018, provingt that, like your talent as a card game player, time will do fantastic things to your skills and overall presentation.
Playing Arena again, a year later, as a serious competitor when it comes to online card games, feels like slipping into a comfortable, snuggly blanket of familiarity. Hearthstone? I don’t know her. Now that I’ve well and truly fallen in love with this digital version of one of the most addictive card games of all time again, one problem remains: how do I get all the physical cards I own into the game without buying them all?
Disclaimer: Some in-game currency was provided by the publisher.