And a very warm welcome to 2019 one and all. May this year bring many exciting times and of course, many games being played.
But this article is not going to be about what a new year of games might bring us. No – instead I wanted to discuss something that has become a little bit of an obsession to me. So would say counter intuitive to some of the things I probably should be concentrating on, but still one of my favourite things about less year.
In the past, I have discussed digital board gaming and some of the means by which that can be facilitated. These tools have grown over the past year or so and I have certainly become more involved with some (see The Iron Throne for playing The Game Of Thrones LCG and Vassal from pretty much anything). But when I received a notification of a request for players to enter a Closed Beta for the biggest collectable card game of all time and one I have had a lot of personal history with, I immediately submitted my e-mail to apply. And thus I started playing Magic: The Gathering Arena.
Undoubtedly if you come from a gaming background, it is likely that you will have some fairly strident opinions in regards to whether it is one of the most important games of the past 30 years or if it is the work of devil himself. Obviously I am in the former camp having started playing at the time of the Ice Age release (back in 1995 – showing my age there), but I will not attempt to sway those of you who’s opinions may lie elsewhere. I have attempted this in the past and failed (see my attempts amongst a certain group to form a MtG league through OCTGN and the derision that ensued). However, as the game has now moved into Open Beta in September 2018 and is therefore reaching a wider audience, it seems relevant to highlight what in my opinion, may be the most important activity Wizards of the Coast have made in MtG’s most recent history.
MtG Arena is fully implemented version of the tabletop card game made for the PC. Compared to other virtual tabletop programs, it fully automates every process, such as combat damage and trigger effects – ensuring that you should never forget that activation (something I have done plenty of time during the tabletop game). Moreover it is completely free to download and play – which puts it on par with Hearthstone (for those of you unfamiliar, Hearthstone is a similar virtual CCG based around the World of Warcraft universe) and other similar turn based card games. It is pretty clear that MtG Arena is being set up as a direct competitor with Hearthstone, as WOTC are trying to ensure that it is streamed on Twitch and YouTube and involving internet celebrities such as Sean ‘Day9’ Plott in the publicity (indeed recent advertisements for MtG Arena feature Day9 and actor Danny Trejo in an Odd Couple style flatmate situation).
The concept is simple – you start MtG Arena and you are given an opportunity to play through a series of tutorial games introducing the basic rules of Magic and the colours against computer opponents. Yes this is tedious for the experienced player, but for my 11 year old son – he is immediately shown the concepts of the game in a real time fashion (visualising the concept of the spell stack and instant speed interactions is particularly useful). Once you are through these you are given a chance to play against human opponents with initially a basic set of decks, but with additional cards that unlock as you play more matches. You are also able to collect 8 card packs by achieving a certain criteria each week and are given Wildcards which let you choose certain cards to add to your collection.
The card set is the current Standard magic set (composing of the most recent Core set and the last three expansion blocks) – which is the basis for much of the competitive MtG scene. No sets older than this have been introduced – this very much remains the realm of WOTC other digital product Magic Online which is involves the purchase of those cards for in game currency. MtG Arena does have its own currency in gold and gems (which yes – can be topped up by in app purchasing), which can be used for buying card packs, but can also be used to enter events which mirror certain types of Magic (so far we have seen Draft, Sealed, Singleton and Pauper events – and some weird and wonderful creations by Magic streamers).
My own experiences have shown that this may be the closest to competitive Magic that I have been able to recreate over a digital format. If you want to enter the Constructed ranked environment, you will find the usual murderer’s row of top decks (good God I hate Carnage Tyrants). But if you have a daft idea for a deck, you can build it and see what the end result is by just hitting the Play button.
What MtG Arena provides is a marketer’s dream in promoting their product and one that is backed up with a solid game play engine. There were the usual warning around the death of ‘paper’ Magic, but these have gone unfounded, as retailers are reporting an uptake in people coming to their stores asking for the product. My son recently got his first Deckbuilder’s Toolkit for Christmas as a result of learning the game through Arena (I am still cross that his first pack had an Azor’s Gateway and I don’t have one).
There are of course quibbles with the game – it’s not Open Beta for nothing. I occasionally will just get kicked from a game for no real reason and it will record a game loss. That’s incredibly frustrating when you might be going through a competitive run (in these events 2 or 3 losses and your run is over). But if you consider that I normally do 5 events a week, I can count the number of times this has happened to me on my hands. The bots that they have built to simulate other players on a Draft also tend to be a bit janky – my earlier experiences tended to be to ride Blue and Black to victory (they never seemed to pick them – leaving stupidly good cards such as Disinformation Campaign lying around).
I feel I must also mention the Vault. Originally the Vault was a reward for getting open packs of cards and for duplicate cards over the basic 4 to which you are use. Every time it opened the game gave you a bundle of 1 Mythic, 2 Rare and 3 Uncommon Wildcards. Regrettably, the designers removed the card park, which gave you 3.3% progress towards the Vault opening. Considering that every fifth Common card you get (which is the most likely duplicate) gives you 0.1% progression, this has slowed down the progress somewhat. Since the Open Beta launched I have yet to unlock the Vault, despite doing it at least 4 times when closed. Furthermore, you cannot actually see the Vault progression without going into the game log files. One cannot help but feel that this is a retrograde step and makes the grind of progression more tedious.
Some people will be put off by the lack of older cards and game types. WOTC of announced a Standard Plus game type, that will allow for older sets that rotate out of Standard play (which happens at in Autumn each year). And based on the Closed Beta, they have the codes for the Kaladesh and Amonkhet sets available for use (whether or not that is a good thing, is open to interpretation – I was not a fan of Kaladesh at all). However, those players seeking Modern, Vintage or multiplayer games will not get what they want here. Whilst I would personally enjoy the opportunity to games of Commander (which is probably my favourite form of MtG), I cannot see how this could realistically be created for Arena based on the number of cards that you would want to produce a series of varied decks.
WOTC are clearly going all in with Arena. They have already committed to it as part of the competitive Magic Pro league, with their salaried 32 professionals expected to play match ups via Arena and part of their funding dependent upon streaming obligations. Furthermore, they are promising Invitational events by which regular Arena players can win the opportunity to play against these professionals – the next such event occurring at PAX East convention (taking place in Boston on 28-31 March 2019) with a substantial prize pool attached.
Obviously the competitive element will only be of interest to certain people. I am not arrogant enough to suggest that you are going to see me playing top level Magic anytime soon (or indeed ever). But it does send out an indication of how seriously the designers are taking Arena that they are making it such a crucial part of their organised play environmental. And moreover it got me thinking – would I want to try streaming some of my own Arena games? Would anyone even be interested? Would I be able to communicate my own passion for this game and product to others in a meaningful way?
That may be me letting my enthusiasm run away with me – I am aware it happens from time to time (my wife will look at another one of my half-finished gaming projects and roll her eyes at this comment). But I will absolutely back up what I have said earlier – this is a huge leap forward for WOTC. And yes – it may be motivated the product awareness and profit, but say that about any company. You get out of Arena as much as you want to put into it. And if you want to plunge head first into the madness, go for it. Or if you just want to easy way to be reintroduced to an old friend, its therefore you as well. Just give it a try.