Since Magic: The Gathering Arena’s announcement in July — alongside the announcement that Magic Duels wouldn’t receive any more updates — players have been wondering what Wizards of the Coast’s newest digital incarnation of Magic would be like.
Today, WotC pulled aside the curtain on the first game of its new digital initiative, in an hour-long stream that showed off gameplay and gave the impression of a game that’s quicker and more accessible than Duels was while still retaining the feel of Magic: The Gathering.
First things first: Arena is still Magic: The Gathering. Seven cards in hand, 20 life, creatures, sorceries, lands, all that jazz. The underlying game is exactly what you’d expect.
So what makes Arena a proper replacement, or improvement upon, Duels? While it has nothing to do with gameplay, I think the first thing that should be noted was the PR rollout and actual presence of a Twitch stream. Host Jimmy Wong, Community Manager Nate Price, and Executive Producer Chris Cao oversaw the ceremony, along with a pair of prominent streamers brought in to test one another’s skills in a pair of games. It was a better initial impression than anything Duels ever did, which got a kind of “stealth launch” back in 2015.
As for the game itself, the matches play a fair bit more quickly than Arena’s did. Part of this might be because two experienced players were at the helm, but it’s unquestionable that WotC realized how plodding Duels was and made some changes to ensure Arena would be more appealing to modern video gamers.
While Cao boasted that the entirety of Magic rules were in Arena, it wasn’t until the second game that we saw a real situation involving timing. When one player had some reaction-based cards at her disposal, she enabled “Full Control Mode,” which then slowed the pace so that she could react to every one of her opponent’s moves. Up to that point, there was no “ticking timer” after every move like Duels had.
Another example of Arena’s improved pace how the game would make an “educated guess” as to what lands you wanted to tap while casting a spell, so you didn’t have to select them individually. You could still select them manually if you wanted full control over what got tapped. Between games, Wong brought up the pace of the game with Cao and Price, which was unquestionably a planned talking point.
Cards with summoning sickness or special abilities, like Trample or First Strike, also had clear indicators on their frames. On the aesthetic front, exceptionally rare and powerful cards had animations that accompanied them into play and planeswalkers had voice lines for when they entered play or activated abilities. The game was played on what was called the “Dragon Hatchery board,” which leads one to think others will be offered.
Just as Hearthstone copied many of its core concepts from Magic and other CCGs, Arena is taking some of its cues from the world’s #1 online CCG. It’s a smart road to take, and one that seems much better thought-out than Duels’ seemingly more stubborn “People will play us because we’re Magic and we don’t need to change anything” approach.
But Arena is still Magic: The Gathering and carries with it a certain weight and maturity. There were no over-the-top animations, pop-culture references, or crazy random elements in the games we saw. If that sort of thing turns you off from Hearthstone, Arena might suit you better.
Cao reconfirmed that the game would be free-to-play and that you would be able to earn booster packs without paying but said that he wasn’t ready to talk about “all of the business details yet.” The game was built in Unity, so, while the beta is currently only being offered on PC, other platforms are very much under consideration. That beta will have constructed, ranked, and ladder play, with plans to add draft and sealed formats in the future.
Speaking of the beta, you can get into it by signing up on the Arena website. You can also read the announcement from Wizards of the Coast VP of Game Development Jeffrey Steefel here. During the stream, Cao repeatedly stated that he wants Arena to be an “authentic” Magic: The Gathering experience. It seems clear that the dev team is willing to at least bend a little bit to ensure it’s also a good online experience, too.