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Magic: The Gathering Arena is intuitive and addictive, our first impressions

The same “one more round” appeal as a high-end strategy game

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Grzegorz Rutkowski/Wizards of the Coast
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

I did not expect to be infatuated with Magic: The Gathering Arena, the newest iteration of the classic collectible card game for Windows PC. But, after only a single afternoon spent exploring the closed beta, I’ve found myself feeling those familiar cravings for one more round of play.

Arena has that same addictive vibe as a good game of Civilization, and I’m already looking forward to the next incremental update. Not only does it evoke the tactile nature of the original card game, it tastefully enhances the experience and dramatically speeds up play. Overall, this game shows incredible promise.

Magic: The Gathering Arena is not a dumbed-down version of the legendary CCG. This is 100 percent genuine Magic, with card sets that parallel the current tournament-legal blocks of cards available at your friendly local game shop. When the game is complete you’ll need to buy the majority of your cards from blind packs in order to build up your collection. But, unlike the physical card game, the plan is for booster packs to also come with so-called wild cards that will allow you to exchange them in order to add a specific card to your collection.

To begin, I grabbed my favorite real-world deck — a red/black one that I built from scratch with the recent Rivals of Ixalan release — and started searching for those specific cards in the pre-baked collection I’d been given access to as part of the closed beta. After turning in a few wild cards, I had that exact same deck replicated on my PC. From there it was a single button press to enter a standard, ranked match (the only currently available game type and mode) and start playing.

Using the search field, I was able to quickly find all the cards I’m familiar playing at my local Friday Night Magic events. A filter system let me sort through cards by color, type and even mana cost to quickly fill the gaps.
Wizards of the Coast

Obviously Magic: The Gathering Arena is a completely different play experience than can be found in the bevy of simpler digital CCGs that have become popular in recent years. But Wizards of the Coast’s internal development team has clearly taken inspiration from games like Gwent and The Elder Scrolls: Legends. Their playfields are stylish, but not over-the-top, sort of like what would happen if Hearthstone put on a suit and tie and got a day job.

Likewise, the ambient soundscape is additive, with a tinkling of sound here and there. Dinosaurs growl and pirates fire pistols when they come into play, but there’s nothing distracting about it.

The nicest feature by far is the phase indicator at the bottom of the screen. There are multiple parts to each player’s turn in Magic, and those phases are the rails on which the entire game system runs. Certain cards can only be used during a certain phase, certain cards break certain phase rules, that sort of thing. The user interface clearly shows you which phase you’re in at any given moment, and highlights the cards in your hand and on the table that are eligible to be played at any given moment.

By default the phase indicator just lets you move cards around as you will, skipping certain portions of each turn in an effort to speed up play.

Note the golden arc at the bottom of the screen. That’s the phase indicator. Each of the pips on the arc can be toggled to prompt players to stop, which will require a positive confirmation via button press in the lower right corner of the screen before you can move to the next phase of the turn. Cards are shortened on the table, an accomodation to the screen aspect ratio. But hover over them and they’ll expand to full size. Note that this is an older image. As of today the beta has a new coat of paint.
Wizards of the Coast

Alternately, you can toggle a “stop” on certain phases in your turn, which will act as a brake so that you don’t go too fast and miss a step. It’s particularly handy if you’ve got a strategy up your sleeve that requires multiple cards to be played over multiple phases of your turn, or if you’re a less experienced player like I am. But by default the game trusts you to know what you’re doing and won’t slow you down unless you ask it to.

The entire system is fluid, intelligent and a lot of fun. It respects the player’s intelligence while also respecting the source material itself with high-quality art and appropriate animations.

Today Wizards of the Coast is making a new, major update to the beta. That includes a complete inventory and experience wipe, as well as a graphics upgrade. It will also add more cards to the game, including Amonkhet and Hour of Devsatation. There’s also 10 starting decks available, so new players can get into the action even faster. The full deck lists were recently published online.

There’s another 100,000 invites to the closed beta going out over the next few weeks. You can toss your hat into the ring here.

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