Arena has completely changed my mind about Magic: The Gathering

I’m really excited about Magic: The Gathering and I never thought I would be, never ever. When a friend once snootily told me HearthStone was a simplified version of Magic and eww how could I play it, I thought it was all I ever needed to know about it. Did I want to play a complicated game with snooty people? No I did not. But now I’m hooked. I play Magic pretty much every day, even when I’m supposed to be working, and it’s all because of Arena.

Arena is the quite-new free-to-play online game which came out properly in 2019. OK so what? But what’s special about this online card game is the role it plays alongside an existing physical card game. One isn’t out to cannibalise another because obviously that would be stupid. Instead, they serve each other.

Arena plays a crucial role for someone like me still learning the game (and it has played a crucial role for everyone stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic unable to get out and play Magic face-to-face). It plays the role of an expert sitting with me telling me what I can and can’t do, someone who highlights my options while also keeping track of all the dizzying numbers and buffs and abilities in play. It means I never have to refer to the manual, as it were. All I have to think about is strategy.

Strengthening this bond is the ability to import decks from real-life into Arena, meaning you have an incentive to physically own them. Pre-built decks come with a code you redeem in Arena’s store and it’s very satisfying seeing the cards woosh into the game as if pulled in from real-life. Arena also breathes life into them with animations and sound effects, and the more you come across certain cards in Arena, the more you’ll build up a sort of relationship with them, so that when you look through your physical deck again, you’ll know the cards within in a different way.

Think about this a bit. Think about the cards you use all the time in HearthStone or another game: you must have your favourites or those you hate. Imagine having the opportunity to own them in real-life: would you want to? I bet you would and that’s what’s going on here: you can touch and feel them, you can take them with you, you can own them. It’s a remarkable dual-existence I don’t think any other card game has, with both elements mutually benefitting the other.

But it’s this notion of decks that Arena has really surprised me with. My understanding before Magic, based on playing other card games like Gwent and HearthStone, was decks are the things you have to spend time – quite a lot of time – building. I don’t think I have ever typically had more than a few because of the time-investment required. It puts me off. But Magic does things a bit differently. Yes you have the ability to build your own decks exactly how you like them but Arena also just gives you them, and rather a lot of them too. Right now I have 19 and I’ve only been playing for a month.

These aren’t just half-built or quickly rushed decks, they’re well thought out collections built around a few key ideas with lots of combination potential. And Magic just gave them to me. I was given decks for completing tutorials, one for each colour, which are Magic’s different themes for playing the game, and I am rewarded with them every so often for levelling up (the game has a battle pass and it seems to work really well).

The decks that really stood out, though, were given while playing the timed Jumpstart and Flash Forward events. In Jumpstart’s case, you pay a small in-game fee (which you will have more than enough free money for) to play. The game then asks you a couple of questions about the kind of deck you’d like before building it on the spot for you. You then play with it for as long as you like, earning rewards the more wins you can string together with it, before opting to “resign” and do it all over again with a new deck. The decks you really like you can one-click save to your collection too. My favourite was the Tree-Hugging Hippies deck it built for me, based around green cards and blue. The decks in Flash Forward are even more exciting, except you can’t save them because they’re a glimpse at future cards coming to the game.

What I love about all of this is there’s no downtime to trying a radically different build to one you’re familiar with. You simply select another deck that looks or sounds cool and then set about figuring out how to use it. It’s like picking another puzzle to figure out each time. It’s a masterstroke because not only does it make the hidden complexities of Magic accessible, it showcases them, and it allows you to drink in all the decades of thought and design that have gone into this game and actually enjoy them. I’ve seen combos, heck I’ve created combos, that have made my brain melt. Sometimes I very nearly look like someone who knows what they’re doing.

That snootiness I thought I heard way back when I was playing HearthStone: not only does it not exist in my experience of Magic so far, it feels like the opposite. Far from holding its cards close to its chest, Arena can’t seem to stop chucking them at me, like it’s more concerned with showing off to newcomers than keeping its secrets hidden from them. And I’m OK with that. In fact, I’m delighted by it. I literally cannot wait to figure a scrumptious new deck of cards out, which is why I’m going to end there so I can.