Magic Arena put to the test: King of card games

Author: Maurice Weber
Date: 2019-09-27 20:16:00
Hearthstone finds its strongest rival to date in Magic Arena - and if you like your card games above all deep and demanding, Arena is clearly the better choice.

The first and best trading card game

Magic: The Gathering invented the whole trading card principle in the first place and has since refined it into an art form. Basically, two players compete against each other and hit creatures and spells on the table in rounds in order to burn the other's life points to zero. But you have so much more options than most of the competition! Magic dares to have significantly more complex cards, more synergies and more card types than many other games. For example the planeswalkers, powerful magicians whom we call as a second player at our side and who can use one of several skills every round.

Above all, however, many cards allow us to react directly to the opponent's moves - such as countering his decisive spell or weakening his most important creature after he has already decided to attack. This gives the game a completely different strategic tension than Hearthstone, for example, where we only watch on the opposing turn. We must always weigh up how our enemy might still drive us into the parade, predict his next steps and have the right answers ready. Or at least bluff that we have them ready!

And because there are significantly fewer random effects, our strategic skills only become all the more important. The other side of the coin: Arena never feels as fast as Hearthstone, because the opponent can always take a moment to react. But thanks to the clever interface design, the complex gameplay is still much more fluid on the screen than fans would have thought possible a few years ago. Magic Arena is both entertaining and challenging - an impressive feat!

Paradise for deck builders

The deck building is also a pure joy, because the complex set of rules allows a lot of completely individual strategies and paths to victory. Magic cards come in five suits, each with their own strengths. Red deals massive damage, blue defends itself with counter-spells. But every color has surprising alternative strategies up its sleeve. Blue can also play aggressively and poke at the opponent with small, unblockable or flying creatures, while it counteracts all of its larger threats or whirls them back into the hand.

On top of that, the colors can be freely combined. This opens up an enormous variety of decks. And the developers manage to balance them amazingly well: Since the start of the beta, Arena has offered a diverse metagame almost across the board, in which a very clear top deck never emerged and a whole range of very different top strategies were always possible. And if you don't feel like a tough ranked list competition, you can let off steam in the normal game and experiment with unusual decks around your favorite cards.

The perfect introduction to Magic

With all of this, Magic Arena also manages to get newbies into the game quickly. A quick tutorial will teach you the basics and you will earn a squad of 15 starter decks in a short time. They can by no means keep up with the leaders in the ranking, but they are still fun and are well suited to getting to know the basics of the game and the five colors.

You can first try it out against AI opponents until you feel fit for online enemies. Then fair matchmaking ensures that you only play against other beginners at the beginning and continue to get opponents on your level as soon as you start to tinker your own decks.

How fair is the business model?

You can earn new cards via the classic trading card Free2Play model: Victories and daily quests throw gold, which you then put into random card packages. Magic Arena feels fundamentally very fair here, you earn almost one booster per day on average. The crafting system has advantages and disadvantages: Boosters occasionally discard so-called wild cards, which you can convert into any card of the same rarity. This is great at first, but you are not allowed to freely dismantle cards as in Hearthstone in order to then craft new cards with the raw material. This actually makes it quite easy to create a dream deck at first - but you have to be a little more careful, because once you have used up your wild cards, you can no longer recycle it.

The practical side effect of all of this is that booster packs can no longer contain cards, of which we already have a maximum of four. There is also a fairly fair Battle Pass and sometimes completely overpriced cosmetic items such as alternative map styles, but both of which can easily be ignored. The only worrying thing is that Wizards sometimes announces very questionable decisions and only then takes them back after community outcry. Finally, cards for the new historical game mode (more on that in a moment) should cost twice as many wild cards. Such crazy ideas have never made it into the game, in practice Magic Arena remains just as fair or unfair as other online trading card games.

Only after the game modes

But what is this historical game mode? Basically the Wild mode from Hearthstone: Magic Arena also uses two separate core modes. In Standard we play the cards from the most recent sets, but the oldest cards rotate out every year. They can then only be played in historical mode. This system has been established in printed Magic for years (that's why Hearthstone came up with the idea) and, on the one hand, should ensure that the standard remains manageable for newbies and balanced for the developers - on the other hand, of course, it should also encourage people to buy new cards. Indeed, it does both!

Apart from these classic multiplayer modes, Arena lags behind Hearthstone when it comes to modes. On the one hand, apart from botmatches, it doesn't offer any single-player content like the adventures of its big competitor. On the other hand, there are regular events, and some with their own funny game modes, but Hearthstone's weekly tavern brawls offer something more. Arena is also wasting potential by not making some of its more original modes permanently available. In »Brawl« we build decks with a legendary creature or a planeswalker of our choice as leader and can therefore use them to create clever synergies. But this mode has only existed once in the beta so far, it is still missing for the release - it should be delivered in November, but even then only once a week instead of permanently.

Arena and Hearthstone are on par when it comes to drafts: every game offers modes in which we have to play with randomly obtained cards instead of a pre-made deck and make the most of them. Arena has an advantage for this in the very classic multiplayer. Instead of normal duels, you can also compete in matches of up to three rounds. For this you bring a side deck of 15 cards and both players can swap cards from their main deck between each round. That adds another interesting nuance as everyone tries to counter each other's deck. So you can say: In terms of content diversity, Arena loses against Hearthstone, especially in the single player area. But in terms of depth, strategy, and card design, Magic Arena is the best game of its kind.