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Arena Thoughts: Hits and Misses

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Hello!

I hope your day is going well. I took a deep dive into Arena and have been playing it for at least an hour a day for around 6 weeks or so now at the end of December, shortly after it entered open Beta. I’ve probably put in 100+ hours in tournaments, drafts, and casual play. I wanted to initiate a discussion with you, to see what you like, don’t like, and what you think of the product overall. I think that Arena has some great promise, but it also lacks a lot that I am looking for from a Magic product. (To be fair, it’s still in “Beta.” To be fair, you are still spending money on it too, so there’s that as well). So, let’s look and see!

Have you played it? Do you agree with my thoughts?

I thought it would be fun to look at things in an alternating back and forth from hit to miss, and then back again.

What do you think?

I started Arena by playing the tutorial and some casual games with the decks they handed you, then I purchased the intro discounted pack and went-a-drafting. That’s who I am.

For one of my first drafts, I played a ranked Core 19 draft, and I this was my first draft on Arena as well as C19, but it was months after it had been released, so I am sure that most of my foes had played with it multiple times. I first picked the uncommon Lightning Strike, then Lightning Mare, and grabbed the Pacifism variant in Luminous Bond for a solid aggro deck. I was rewarded with the Wrath of God variant Cleansing Nova. I then picked up three total burn spells (Shock and Electrify to add to the Strike), three Bonds total, the Hieromancer's Cage and the Nova as my removal suite, and then a lot of strong early bodies, with two Leonin Vanguard 1-drops and three of the two-mana Goblin Instigators who could immediately pump my Vanguards.

I went 6-0 and then went up against a nasty deck with Ajani and one of the Elder Dragons. They were both out. I had a way out, I had Lena, Selfless Champion as my top end go-wide dork, and I dropped her, and made a bunch of Soldiers, and then on the next turn I sacrificed her, gave my team indestructible, and then cast Cleansing Nova. My foe had the counter and thus the win, but it was nice that my janky aggro deck had a way out. I won the next game and made it to 7-1 and finished with the top prizes. Shoot, I just finished 7-2 in my most recent RA draft just two days before writing this article.

Anyway, I have played in Drafts, Sealed, Constructed, and casual play. How about yourself? So, what do I think?

Let’s start this thang off!

Hit: I really enjoy how you don’t have to finish a draft or tournament after you start it. You can just play as you have the time against others. You don’t have to budget hours to play a tournament, you can draft and build a deck. Head to work, grab a few games during lunch, maybe finish that day after work, or later in the week if you want. It’s a great feature of Arena; it’s one of my favorite.

Miss: When I am spending money (gems or gold that I often purchased with cash) on a booster, I want to get a full booster pack of cards. I don’t just want two uncommons and a handful of commons. I am looking for a full booster pack of cards. This is especially important when I own a small number of cards.

Hit: Wild cards are awesome. If you are not aware, you start with a small number of Wild Cards at each of the four commonalities. You can exchange them for one of any card of that rarity, so your Common Wild Card can traded for a Llanowar Elves or a Shock. It’s a great way to fine tune your collection. And as you open more and more packs, you’ll also net more WCs. You can use Wild Cards to exchange for very pricey cards, such as Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, or Assassin's Trophy. I like to use them sparingly for key deck-cards, like adding a fourth Merfolk lord (Merfolk Mistbinder) for the starter ug Merfolk deck. Wild Cards are awesome!

Miss: However, Wild Cards are limited. You don’t have that many. If you want to try out a new deck, and then don’t like it and you want to try another, you need Wilds. You can’t buy them from the store. You don’t have a real guarantee from packs. While you have a Wild Card counter that gives you an idea of how long until your next one via packs, there is no way to trade cards in. For example, if you could trade two mythics to the store for a mythic wild card or something similar at the other rarities, then you could move into a new deck. I have never used a mythic Wild Card and I just have 6.

Hit: I love that the cards are released on Arena prior to real life to give you a feel for them. I think that helped to strengthen my various Ravnica Allegiance reviews and Top Ten lists as I had experience with the cards already in large numbers.

Miss: If you don’t like Standard, you won’t like Arena. The only cards available are Standard. You don’t have sets that were released in real life during the era of Arena. Sets like Battlebond weren’t on Arena. Commander 2018? Nope. If you prefer non-Standard formats like Modern, Commander, just casually playing with everything you own, and more - that’s not an option. Every card, deck, and Constructed anything, is only in Standard. Now you might have the occasional Standard variant, like Pauper or Singleton for a week as an option. But it’s all Standard. We’re not sure what things will look like post-rotation. (The last rotation had everyone’s collection wiped, but that was in closed Beta and now we are open, and that’s not going to be an option anymore). I suspect that, much like MTGO, that will likely change over time as sets that were available at release are rotated out but you can use them for various formats. But as of right now, it’s Standard or Bust.

Hit: The UI is very nice. It’s simple, plays quickly, and lets you move on with the game. Everything works really well. Once you have learned stuff, you can easily make changes to when you want it to stop or not, and it’s pretty smart when it comes to auto-using mana, so you rarely have to tap your mana itself. Good job!

Miss: When you get a duplicate rare or mythic after getting four, you get a wild card of that type. I like that. There is a tension at lower commonalities though. You want more than 4 of one common (Persistent Petitioners), but most of them aren’t ones you need more than 4 of. Ever. I don’t enjoy that when I get uncommons or commons, that they don’t turn into wilds cards. I have way too many of some of these cards and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Hit: It’s easier to make a deck in Arena than MTGO. Just hit the plus button, review your collection, and then you can double click to add them or drag them over, your choice. Deck-building is very easy.

Miss: I really, really hate that I only have a small number of Limited options at a time. For example, as of writing this article all of my draft options are….Ravnica Allegiance. Sealed? RA too! That’s just irritating. For example, My entire time I’ve been playing this game since late 2018 I’ve never had a chance to crack Dominaria packs in sealed or draft. I really don’t like being forced into one (or two) sets for all of my Limited playing desires. Let me have more options from anything in Standard, like Dominaria or Rivals of Ixalan. Let me expand my collection via drafting.

In unrelated news, I really don’t like Guilds or RA for drafting. You are trying to force 8 drafters into five archetypes. Someone winds up drafting Selesnya or Rakdos with no real competition while others are fighting tooth and nail on their Azorius or Izzet staples. I have never enjoyed a five-guild only draft structure. I don’t like how it drafts.

Hit: If you have ever said to yourself that you want to play a tournament without worrying about the length of time or a Best of 3 with its hour of commitment per round, and you just wanted a quick Best of 1, then Arena is your oyster. Limited? Constructed? There are multiple formats where you are going to be running just Best of 1 and then moving on. There are traditional BO3 options available should you want the classic BO3. But if you just want to do a quick BO1, and then head home, you will have a lot of options.

Miss: If you have never said to yourself that you want to play a tournament without worrying about Best of 3, just Best of 1, then Arena may not before you. Not every format has BO3 as an option. For example, Core 19 was only offered for two weeks in January on BO1. While I can do BO1 or BO3 in Ravnica Allegiance right now, it’s not as prolific elsewhere. If you don’t just want to do a quick BO1, but instead relish the challenge of Best of 3 and sideboard play, then this may not be your oyster.

Hit: You don’t need to shell out a ton of cash to play competitively. You get gold by completing quests, such as casting a lot of cards or dropping things. You get it for free and have some daily and weekly quests. For example, you’ll get a booster pack every five wins until you got your third pack, and then it holds off until the next week. This allows you to play the game early and easily, and spend gold for tournament entries including drafts and such with product. The amount you spend for gold (which you accumulate via playing) vs gems (which you buy) is noticeable. But we never had ”Work for your MTG Collection and Gaming” rather than anything else.

Miss: The normal richness of a draft where you draft sideboard cards in the draft is no longer something you need to worry about in a Best of 1 format. Plus, you don’t have to worry about being hated out. I would normally pick up useful sideboard cards like “Destroy Target Creature with Flying” or “Destroy Target Enchantment or Artifact” effects in case I needed them in later games. Now, unless you want to waste a maindeck spot on them, you can’t rely on them. That means that a traditional weakness like Pacifism variants that could normally be answered by adding in removal or bounce effects to counter them are much, much stronger, so the nature of the format shifts a bit.

Hit: Super secretly, the Best of One matches will give you two hands and then the AI selects the best one, so you are much less likely to get a bad starting hand in Best of One. The biggest fear is that you get a land-light or land-flood hand and then lose without the chance to do anything. But that happens less. It still happens. Yesterday I had a six-land hand in Ranked Best of One Draft. That had to be mulliganed. I am also more aggressive with my mulligans. Just today I mulliganed a two land hand that had two CIP tapped lands in my colors that had just one 2-drop and then some solid 4-drops in my Azorius control build. Nope. I easily won that game with my 3 land and scry 4th land hand.

Miss: I don’t like that after drafting a deck, I have to move cards out of my deck because the UI assumes that I somehow want to play every single card that I drafted. It’s too easy to miss a card you didn’t mean to play in your maindeck, and then you find yourself drawing it.

Hit: I enjoy the “Play Until You Get a Certain # of Losses, and then Get Prizes Equal to Your Wins,” tournament structure. I think it’s easy to understand. In real life, if you went to a tournament you might need to finish 5-1 or 6-0 to get some prizes. Here, you’ll always get something. It’s also understandable, and easy to follow. If I finish with the top prizes, I’ll say I won the tournament to myself. But that’s language I would normally lean away from.

Miss: My communication options are limited to just hitting buttons with five options that are: “Hello”, “Nice”, “Good Game”, ”Thinking”, and “Oops.” I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d prefer a more realistic set of communication options with the person sitting across from me. I don’t even have the classic “Good Luck and Have Fun” as an option. While I’d like to have a typing interface, at the very least, give me a lot more options!

Hit: They recently added a Direct Challenge mode where you can challenge someone to a specific game.

Miss: Despite the DC mode, I have no ability to add friends, or to talk with them. Unlike MTGO or real life gaming, this is no real social aspect to Arena. Also, that mode doesn’t give the person you challenged a pop-up or a sound. They have to challenge you back in order to play, so you will need to arrange it elsewhere and then play. You are also forced to play Best of One in DC mode, you can’t choose Best of Three.

Hit: The game features a lot of little sound effects, planeswalkers talking, visual cues when you drop a mythic rare on the table, and more. It has a fun, appealing, and visceral element to it that’s nice.

Miss: I can’t trade, sell, or move cards that I don’t like. I can’t buy cards I do. Wild Cards are great, but they aren’t the solution for collection management on their own.

Miss: I am not a fan of playing against player-Constructed Standard powered decks like Bant Nexus or Mono-Red when I am just looking for a casual game or two and am not using anything other than the pre-constructed starter deck on the casual play setting (not the ranked one). That’s just silly.

Miss: The UI and options for exchanging a Wild Card into a specific card is hard to use and takes too long. I’d hate to imagine it after another year of cards in Arena. They need a faster way of swapping from one to another.

Miss: I don’t like how my rankings are reset after a season. I get why the monthly season exists (to reward you with packs for your ranking that season). But I don’t like how my investment and success over the course of a month isn’t something that stays with me. I would like a system that keeps pushing my rank up from bronze to a lot higher while also retaining the Season concept but with a different name. Or give my success something like unique avatars or something to use that I can show off how sick I am in Limited play or how sucky I am in Constructed. I’m a weird MTG player. I am a Limited savant and a Constructed idiot.

Neither: Unlike MTGO, there is no time clock that will force a loss. That’s good because you won’t lose a game due to being cheesed out. That’s bad because there really isn’t major motivator for forcing your foe to play timely, and I’ve played against people that are taking a very, long time to play. I consider this a neutral change.

And there we go!

Overall, here are my quick summative thoughts:

Arena does some things very well. I think the daily quests for gold work to give you options for card collection and tournament entries work well. I think the ability to enter a tournament and then play as you have time works well. If you enter a Best of One tournament, then you could be over with just an hour or two total play, spread out as you want. The behind-the-scenes ability to have two opening hands can help smooth over issues there. The UI is great, and everything from tapping lands to managing turns to the fun little sounds and images from mythic cards is done very well. The wild cards give you options for targeted card collection.

However, as of right now, the game has a lot of issues, including the inability to trade, sell, or buy cards, or to pick up wild cards. There are only limited options available for tournaments. If you prefer a more typical best of three matchup, then you can’t participate in some events. The game is not Magic as it’s traditional core, it’s not a Collectable Card Game. It’s a Redeemable Card Game. As a new player, I can’t give you some useful commons and uncommons or cards I have spare to help you get started. The normal tools for collection management aren’t here. The game lacks any social infrastructure, and you are just playing against mindless people as a result.

The game is just in Beta, so there should be more changes and updates. I can’t imagine that some of these issues will remain. For example, I doubt that the direct challenge option will remain so hard to use, or lack the ability to choose a Best of 3 matchup. As of right now, the game is pretty and has a good UI, but that’s about it. It lacks depth. I am playing a lot of Arena right now because it’s new and fun. But I doubt I’ll still be playing it in in a few months time unless the game becomes more detailed and gains options like more drafts and Limited options. (Which is a big killer for me as I love Limited play so much). I can’t see myself cracking these tiny packs day after day, week after week, month after month. I can’t see myself playing this into May or June without additional collection management options. If you are expecting me to pay for it, then I want to get the expected return of value for it.

So, what do you think? Have you tried it out? Do you agree with my assessment? Anything you disagree with? Think it’s worse? Better? Anything I missed here? Let me know!