Magic: The Gathering Arena review: Do you believe in magic?

The popular trading card game comes to PC with an intuitive online system for casual and hardcore players. How does it compare to real-world play? Our review.

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Magic: The Gathering is the legendary trading card game by which most other new games are measured. Ever since it debuted in 1993, it's been "the" go-to game when it comes to collecting, trading, and decimating our opponents. Having grown up with Magic myself (Mercadian Masques, represent) I've played it at nearly every stage in my life, though I spent most of my childhood swapping between that and the Pokémon Trading Card Game.

Unfortunately, I've never truly had any reliable way to enjoy the game beyond my adolescence with others now that I'm an adult because I can't find anyone to play with beyond my loved ones – and as we all know, we need varying opponents to keep things fresh. Outside of local card shops already rife with cliques and unwelcoming players or begrudging family members, who do you turn to when you just want to get a great game of Magic in?

Magic: The Gathering Arena is a fantastic alternative, it turns out, to real-life play with digitized versions of familiar cards. If you don't have anyone to play with and want to get in some Magic matches without having to purchase a new set of cards and decks, Arena is a great alternative.

Prodigal wizardry

Magic: The Gathering Arena is a digital playground where you can soak up as much Magic as you could possibly want. It's meant simply to act as a conduit for players looking for a way to take their game online, or at the very least, have fun with it in the virtual space. It accomplishes this task nicely.

With a selection of cards in-game taken from their real-life sets, such as the core Magic: The Gathering 2019 set, Dominaria, Guilds of Ravnica, Ixalan, and Rivals of Ixalan, it's just like purchasing a ton of decks and then hopping in line to play match after match with strangers. That's meant in the best way possible, of course.

Leveling the playing field

The beginning of the game takes you through the tutorial, and offers you a handful of starter decks to get you on your way to creating your own in no time. It's not an extremely simple game, and you may find yourself frustrated by losses early on (especially if you aren't a seasoned player) but it's well worth learning and putting the time in if you plan on getting better. Learning from the AI-controlled opponents and real players can only help you in the long run.

The streamlined setup lets you buy booster packs, individual cards, collections, and more in a neatly-arranged and attractive set of menus. There's an excellent and detailed tutorial that new players can complete before jumping right in, especially since newbie Magic players will need quite a bit of handholding before they can become anything resembling formidable opponents.

Of course, being that this is a free-to-play title, there are microtransactions to contend with – that's how you buy additional boosters and cards, after all. Luckily, you can earn coins to buy these with by completing goals such as playing X amount of mana or something similar. You can spend the coins on whatever you wish, be it spending time in other modes aside from Quick Play or more cards.

You'll earn enough coins per play for a new booster pack at the very least, so you won't really notice the free-to-play trappings much, and it's a very fair system. It's a little harder to earn Gems, however, which are required for buying multiple booster packs at a time or joining ranked Draft matches. If you spend enough time honing your craft, though, you'll earn them at a decent clip. This means you'll be waiting quite a bit for the more "important" and powerful cards you might need to hone your deck further, though, and the game is chock-full of what feel like expert-level players, so you might find yourself having difficulty progressing because of this. You'll just have to be patient. 

Making magic

The game takes all aspects of play and enhances them in ways you didn't even know you needed. It speeds things up in a great way, shuffling and drawing cards, tapping and uncapping, and taking care of things you'd normally keep track of for you so all you have to do is focus on strategy and how you're going to take down the other player.

There are even ways it attempts to bring the card game into the real world. You can actually purchase a deck you've built and happen to love in real life if you so choose. Most of all, there's hardly ever a shortage of players if you dive in for a taste of Magic during your lunch break or before heading out to work. This is the purpose it was meant to serve, and it does it exceedingly well.

Magic: The Gathering Arena is a fantastic effort when it comes to bringing the grandmaster of trading card games to the digital world, and while it's been done many times before, this finally feels like a great and modern way to translate the game into a modern hub for players who want to take their game online and conquer other players. It's certainly my favorite digital Magic game since 1998's Magic: The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers, and I surmise it may become your favorite, too. 

Senior Editor

Fueled by horror, rainbow-sugar-pixel-rushes, and video games, Brittany is a Senior Editor at Shacknews who thrives on surrealism and ultraviolence. Follow her on Twitter @MolotovCupcake and check out her portfolio for more. Like a fabulous shooter once said, get psyched!

Pros
  • Intuitive interface gets you right into the action.
  • Plenty of cards to choose from to create the perfect deck.
  • Wide variety of modes and people online to play them with.
Cons
  • Two forms of currencies – Gems do take longer to accrue.
From The Chatty
  • reply
    November 25, 2018 3:00 PM

    Brittany Vincent posted a new article, Magic: The Gathering Arena review: Do you believe in magic?

    • reply
      November 26, 2018 4:56 AM

      So... I tried this out for a couple hours and while it definitely benefits from being familiar and nostalgic, I didn't stick with it. The Deck Editor UI kinda... sucks? Like, I could figure out how to edit a deck, but not how to name it. How the fuck is naming a deck so hard?

      • reply
        November 26, 2018 7:54 AM

        The deck editor UI needs work, but I love the game. I've been waiting for this game since my friends discovered and--within a year!--abandoned MTG when we were in middle school.

        I suck at building decks. Always have. Sticking with premade decks is working for me, though.

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          November 26, 2018 8:05 AM

          Playing this game is my first time giving MTG a legitimate shot and I'm loving it. I'd like to play against you sometime David.

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          November 26, 2018 8:07 AM

          I think premades are a good idea for practice but if I were playing PVP and was facing off against someone with an identical deck, I feel like I would be losing purely to RNG.

          Some deck optimization is necessary for me to feel like I have any agency in my wins and losses. Which is why the deck builder needs to be efficient to use.

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        November 26, 2018 8:52 AM

        Deck editor UI sucks and the economy design is garbage. Everything else is well done but that's a no for me dawg.