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5 Strengths and Weaknesses of Magic: The Gathering Arena (Online Play)

Jeremy casts spells in between his careers as a chemical analyst and campus manager.

What Is Magic: The Gathering Arena?

Magic's online Arena program provides an officially licensed and free-to-play MTG environment. I've spent many hours in Arena, having migrated from previous fan-made sites, and today we'll review where the program does and doesn't succeed.

Speaking of other sites, you'll hear me make several comparisons to alternative online community UnTap.com, hopefully letting you choose which would best suit you. Without further ado, here are five triumphs and missteps of Magic's Arena!

MTG Arena logo

MTG Arena logo

1. Free-to-Play

First and foremost, this game is free to download and play, enacting official Magic matches without having to buy and maintain physical sets of cards. That said, the most valuable resources in Arena (gems) generally have to be bought with real money, but that's a common mechanic in free-to-play titles, so it's mostly forgivable.

An angel arrives in MTG Arena

An angel arrives in MTG Arena

2. Strong Interface

For the most part, the Arena is simply a well-programmed environment. The graphics, music, and sound effects are impressive, and the game does what it can to quicken your matches by auto-tapping your resources—the AI is pretty smart, usually able to tell which lands you'll want to exhaust for a spell. Thankfully, you can manually perform each action as well, useful when the computer hasn't quite deciphered your strategy.

For contrast, compare to UnTap, where you'd have to manually perform each and every action, from drawing to tapping to attacking. Having the computer assist hastens games and prevents cheating (both purposeful and accidental).

The useful deck overview in MTG Arena

The useful deck overview in MTG Arena

3. Official Support

This might sound obvious, but Arena is the official online Magic community. This means it has the most attention from Wizards of the Coast and holds company-sponsored events and promotions.

Other sites like UnTap have a dedicated staff as well but don't provide the opportunity to play for real money or prizes (if you can enter the pro matches) like Arena.

Time is short with a full field

Time is short with a full field

4. Short Load Times, Useful Timer

Finding an opponent in the Arena is remarkably fast, usually taking less than half a minute, and in those brief moments, you'll see various tips from the Arena team. Some of these pointers are even useful to experienced players, especially ones related specifically to Arena (like the fact that staff names are highlighted in orange).

Additionally, the game initiates a timer when users are stalled pondering a potential play. This prevents opponents (and you) from overly thinking a move; if a choice hasn't been made when the timer runs out, the game defaults to declining the action. Additionally, if you perform three turns without having the timer appear, you get bonus time on your next turn, rewarding speedy players.

That said, the timer isn't perfect—I had a rare situation where a spell let me choose 10 targets (each of which I had to manually pick), and the timer didn't factor in the 20-ish seconds it took just to click and confirm them, so I ended up targeting some undesired permanents. But for the most part, it's a solid system that prevents opponents from leaving for who knows how long, an occasional annoyance on UnTap.

Deck-building in MTG Arena

Deck-building in MTG Arena

5. Steady Progression

In Arena, you'll have several opportunities to expand your cards (at least initially). Daily and weekly quests grant coins, cards, and boosters, and I appreciate that you can have three daily quests active at once, meaning you can step away from the game for a few days without missing much.

You'll also periodically level up as you play, acquiring more coins and cards, and you gain experience win or lose. There's also no daily limit on leveling up, so you can marathon as much experience as you like. That said, you'll cap out before long (at level 25 as of this writing), at which point these rewards unfortunately stop flowing.

Arena's beta logo

Arena's beta logo

1. Limited Player Interaction

True, you can challenge specific players with the duel function, but Arena doesn't offer a chat system; currently, we're limited to a few simple "emote" messages like "Hello!" and "Your Move!"

I understand the reasoning here; if you look at UnTap (or just about any online community), you'll often see chats turn ugly. Still, this limits your ability to interact with and befriend players. Additionally, multiplayer games aren't presently supported, so you'll be locked into 1v1.

Drafts require coins or gems to enter

Drafts require coins or gems to enter

2. Limited Formats/Cards

The game offers a few formats, like standard and treasure constructed, but it currently lacks fan favorites like commander. And while regular matches don't consume resources, some unique modes (like drafting) require a daunting amount of coins or gems to enter, restricting access to different styles.

Arena focuses on the current set, so anyone looking to utilize older cards in EDH will be disappointed. To be fair, programming every Magic card ever made wouldn't be easy, but here's one area where UnTap holds a major advantage—it can play any format and cards (even fan-made ones) right off the bat.

The MTG Arena Tutorial

The MTG Arena Tutorial

3. Unskippable Tutorial

Arena features a tutorial to guide rookies, but it's sadly unavoidable for veterans, which I'd wager constitute most players. The tutorial lasts five matches and does its job well enough, but it's essentially an hour wasted for seasoned players.

In all fairness, having a tutorial at all is nice for amateurs, and some of the opponents are pretty amusing, like the reckless goblin and amusingly dramatic merfolk. Yet the option to avoid it would help grizzled spellcasters jump right into the action. And unfortunately, once you're done with it, you'll find few other AIs because...

Planeswalker Vraska in MTG Arena

Planeswalker Vraska in MTG Arena

4. Few Computer Opponents

By few, I mean practically zero—in addition to the tutorial matches (where you're locked into a deck), you have an AI orb named "Sparky" you can duel. But this is more a deck-testing tool than a challenge, as Sparky is easily beaten even with your starting cards.

Sure, many players prefer PvP matches anyway, but having some advanced themed decks could help you determine what does and doesn't work against specific strategies. UnTap also lacks computer rivals, but if you look at games like the official online Pokemon TCG, you'll find numerous AI-controlled decks to face.

Gems in MTG Arena cost real money

Gems in MTG Arena cost real money

5. Slow Progression

As mentioned earlier, your rewards initially arrive slowly but surely, and the ability to maintain three active daily quests is great. But you'll soon hit max level, at which point you'll really only progress with quests.

Sadly, these recharge sluggishly; you'll soon max out on daily missions, leaving zero room to advance until the next day. Of course, weekly quests take even longer to refresh, frustrating since these are by far the best route for free-to-play users to collect cards (offering entire boosters rather than the individual cards of daily quests). I realize the team wants to entice players to regularly check in, but this discourages marathon runs.

If you only want to play for an hour or so each day, not so big an issue, but if you're like me and enjoy sporadic 2-5 hour sessions, it's a frustrating progression halt.

MTG Arena vs. UnTap

Despite some nitpicks, Arena is overall an impressive endeavor, and since it's free, there's no risk to trying it. If you're looking for commander, multiplayer, a wider card pool, or a browser-based game (no download needed), I'd recommend UnTap, but if you prefer 1v1 and superior aesthetics on an interface specifically designed for Magic, definitely go Arena.

Both are worthy sites that maintain unique advantages, and with ongoing updates, hopefully each will continue improving. But for now, as we eagerly await Arena's next expansion, vote for your gaming preferences and I'll see you at our next MTG review!

© 2019 Jeremy Gill