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Magic: The Gathering Arena: The Kotaku Review

Magic: The Gathering Arena isn’t the same as ripping open Magic packs with your childhood best friend on a sunny park bench, but it is the next best thing. The digital card game, available on PC, smooths down the coarser aspects of paper Magic games, making for an easy landing pad for newbies and a great user experience for Magic veterans.

Released in open beta last September, Magic Arena is the second video game adaptation to recreate the 26-year-old paper-card game. The first was 2002’s Magic: The Gathering Online, which, to gamers outside its dedicated fanbase or spoiled by Hearthstone’s delightful user experience, may now look clunky and unfriendly. Magic Arena is slated for a full release sometime this year, but right now, it’s a fully playable game that’s widely been well-received by newbies, lapsed fans, and hardcore players alike.

Just like its paper-card predecessor, Magic Arena is—on its most basic level—a strategy game that has two players pit their Magic decks against each other. One loses when their health is depleted from 20 to 0 or when they attempt to draw a card after the entire deck has been played or milled. Card types include creatures, which can deal or block damage; sorceries, which cast spells; enchantments, which cast long-term spells; and more. To “cast” a card, players must have the requisite amount and color of mana, Magic’s name for resources.

Last week, three researchers published a paper arguing that Magic is so complex that it could stump a computer. It is; at its highest levels, it’s a game of poker-like odds crunching, cold-reading opponents, research, and big-variable calculations. Deck construction relies on balancing powerful cards against the need for coherent, interlocking mechanics. Luck plays its part, too. There’s a reason that hobby shops are still packed with players excitedly peeling apart packs at new Magic sets’ prerelease tournaments. The game has one of the highest skill ceilings out there with an enticingly low barrier to entry.

Magic Arena is pushing that barrier to entry right into the ground with its clear emphasis on accessibility, riding on the heels of Hearthstone’s success. I’ve played Magic casually since college and, over the last two years, started regularly attending tournaments in hobby shops. Magic Arena’s digital environment has been nurturing enough to help me start taking the game seriously. It offers a thorough gameplay tutorial —perhaps too thorough—complete with five educational games against a computer. Seasoned and intermediate players will find these games tiresome and the voice acting a little cutesy; beginners and lapsed players will find them essential.

Magic Arena streamlines tedious aspects of physical gameplay while lengthening the ones that inspire deeper strategy. For example, it helps to see opponents’ card layouts and create decks using the same card more than once. A more subtle feature is seeing each stage of combat made distinct. Arena separates each phase, making it possible to fathom subtle openings for instant spells or creature casting that even intermediate players may not have otherwise capitalized on. Assembling decks is seamless, too, and people who were intimidated by paper cards now have less to fear. Magic Arena automatically sorts and organizes cards by color, mana cost, card type, whatever, in a way that makes it easy for players to conceptualize potential strategies and combos.

Also in the category of user-friendliness, I love always being able to catch a game of Magic’s booster draft (where players assemble decks by taking one card out of a pack before passing it to the next person) and sealed deck (where players create decks using the contents of several new packs). Magic Arena has been a gateway for me to participate in these games without competing at a hobby shop and—I’ll say it—being the only woman in there. Typically, I played Magic with decks I’d hastily assembled with friends or official pre-constructed decks. Often enough, that’s fun, but if somebody shows up with their asshole goblin deck or their “mill all of my cards” deck, I don’t have a great time. Playing Limited—the name for those modes—whenever I want means constructing decks using the same card pool as my opponents and challenging myself to be as resourceful as possible. I prefer that to the Standard format’s tendency toward opportunistic mean-spiritedness. (Being the best in Standard, where players build decks with whatever recent cards they have in their collection, can mean hemorrhaging money on packs and single cards.)

Deck-building in Magic Arena
Image: Magic Arena

A lot of fans are calling for publisher Wizards of the Coast to add more formats to Magic Arena. Currently, the main modes are standard constructed, sealed deck, and booster draft, ranked or unranked. Wizards will, in time. For now, I’m having a hard time tiring of the formats currently offered, especially since the current Magic set is so much fun. That said, it would be nice to pair up with a teammate for a two-versus-two game, and as it stands, Magic Arena does not currently have a friends list (players must “direct challenge” each other at the same time).

Nothing will ever replace the experience of exchanging part-time job money for a foil Magic card under glass at the hobby shop. That’s a sensory experience above all—well, almost all. Getting free stuff is a close second. Magic Arena, which is playable for free, is generous with its resources (gold and gems), for the most part. Players can use these to buy packs and participate in drafts. A 750-gem bundle for $5 lets you participate in a ranked draft that comes with three packs. That same bundle of gems can be exchanged for three packs (600 gems) or card sleeves (600 gems). Physical Magic packs go for about $4 each. It’s not a bad deal, and Magic Arena offers players packs and cards just for logging in, playing, or winning, but the truth is that playing Magic Arena and spending no money means being either uncompetitive or very, very good.

Is that an issue? Not for people who play a lot of Magic. Cards were the original loot boxes. Microtransactions come with the territory.

I invested $5 in Magic Arena’s Welcome Bundle, which included five packs and had enough gems for a sealed deck with six packs. After winning several draft games, I earned enough gems to play in another draft without investing more money. When I didn’t do as well, I had to buy in again. If you’re somebody who immediately wants the best cards for the strongest decks, and you want to competitively play in the game’s Standard mode, you’re going to have to buy a lot of packs, but it’s still cheaper than paper. The issue, of course, is that players can’t redeem paper cards they’d collected over the last 26 years in the game. In fact, few past sets are available at all—mostly ones from 2017 on. Reached for comment, publisher Wizards of the Coast said, “There is currently no plan to add the ability to transfer cards from paper to Arena, however, some physical Planeswalker Decks from stores have a code to redeem for that same deck in Arena and pre-release ‘Sealed’ play sets have a code for redemption in Arena.”

Outside of the game’s mechanics, Magic Arena has a lot of growing to do as it approaches its “full release.” Arena deserves more background art and better, more listenable music—both currently feel like afterthoughts. For a game that’s historically so loving of aesthetics, Magic’s new digital card game is a little sparse on the bells and whistles.

It’s impossible to predict what Magic Arena will mean for the paper card game’s future. That said, it’s easy to look around and see hype for the game snowballing alongside Arena’s release and the launch of Magic’s new esports league. For my part, Magic Arena’s pitch has finally gotten me hooked on a game I’ve been playing on and off for seven years. Its ease of play makes the average Magic game more of a ballet than a stop-and-start football match. As most of its clunkier aspects game melt away, the heart of a card game that has nearly three decades’ worth of staying power shines through.

Source: Kotaku.com

The New Magic: The Gathering Expansion Makes Every Match More Spectacular

Screenshot: Wizards of the Coast (YouTube)

War Of The Spark, Magic: The Gathering’s latest expansion, is available one week early in Magic: The Gathering Arena, the card game’s digital version. It’s already shaping up to be one of the more memorable climaxes in the game’s recent history.

Narratively, War Of The Spark couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune cultural moment. As the current chapters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones come to a close, Magic’s latest expansion plays with ideas from both. A team of powerful heroes called the Gatewatch battle Nicol Bolas, a powerful Elder Dragon who threatens the multiverse and has raised an undead army to assist him in his quest to become its most powerful being.

While other Magic expansions are themed around a particular magical plane of existence, War of the Spark focuses on the confrontation between the Gatewatch and Bolas, and as a result is full of powerful creatures, big spells, and climactic games that tend to go late. This showdown mentality also factors into the two major mechanics at play in the new set.

The first is called Amass, a spell effect that allows a player to summon a 1/1 zombie army token and then stack on more and more +1/+1 counters every additional time a card with Amass is used. This is Bolas’ army of the undead, and it synergizes with existing mechanics like Proliferate, which adds one to all sets of counters someone currently has in play. And because the zombie armies don’t cost black mana to play, they’re available to every deck type, even though Amass is most prevalent in blue, red, and black cards.

Efficiency, getting as much done with as little as possible, is a big virtue in Magic, and Amass leans into that by helping you create an army of creatures while also playing spells that provide other benefits. Aven Eternal is a 3-mana blue card that’s 2/2 with flying and has Amass 1. So in addition to getting you two creatures for the price of one, the second also has the potential to continue growing in power over the course of the game.

Another card, Contentious Plan, is a 2-mana blue card that proliferates and lets you draw a card. This gives it a lot of utility for such a cheap card once you’ve got a few different zombie armies in play.

War Of The Spark’s other focus is planeswalkers, the powerful characters who stand separate from the rest of the battlefield and provide more complex and often extremely powerful benefits. Traditionally, planeswalkers have been a rarified Magic mechanic, incentivizing players to build entire decks around one specific, very powerful planeswalker card. War of the Spark lowers the barrier to entry by adding weaker planeswalkers at lower rarities. Every booster pack in this set comes with at least one planeswalker, which results in decks where it’s not uncommon to be playing with two or three different planeswalkers at the same time.

Blue Illusionist Jace, founding member of the Gatewatch, is back, this time with a mechanic where the player who uses him automatically wins if it’s their turn and they have no cards left to draw. But there are other planeswalkers like Narset, Parter of Veils, a blue uncommon that prevents opponents from drawing more than one card per turn. Or Ral, Storm Conduit, a blue-red rare who lets you play duplicates of spells and deals damage to the opponent every time you do.

Since there are multiple planeswalkers for every occasion, it means every deck needs a Plan B, C, or even D. There aren’t a ton of cards that facilitate quick, aggressive rush play in War Of The Spark, which means games have time to develop. There’s a big emphasis on being able to close out with big showstoppers like Finale of Devastation, a green sorcery that lets players search their deck for their strongest creature and buff it by a huge amount if they have enough extra mana to spare. And with green planeswalker Nissa, who doubles the mana you get from tapping forests, that’s often the case.

In addition to being a lot of fun so far, especially for people like me who enjoy more chess-like matches that don’t turn completely on someone just happening to get the right card early on, War Of The Spark also highlights some of the major benefits of Arena being digital. While I still prefer to play face-to-face with other people and hear the sound of cards snapping as they’re played from a human hand, there’s a lot of complicated stuff going on in War Of The Spark.

In addition to keeping track of multiple zombie armies with multiple plus-one counters, there are often lots of planeswalkers to manage in addition to the normal minutiae of creature and land management. Many times while playing over the weekend, I was relieved to be able to rely on the game to automatically be doing my upkeep for me rather than have to keep track of it all by myself, or negotiate mental lapses out loud with someone sitting across from me.

I’ve played Magic off and on for decades, but always mostly for fun. War Of The Spark offers a ton of tools for crafting high-stakes plays, exactly the kind I’m looking for as a chronically lapsed player. Even though Arena hasn’t fully launched yet, it already helps a lot by helping keep so much of the busy work involved in the game from upstaging the grand strategies and high spectacle.

Source: Kotaku.com

Magic: The Gathering’s Next Expansion Will Radically Alter The Game

Screenshot: Magic: The Gathering (YouTube)

Wizards of the Coast is pulling out all the stops for Magic: The Gathering’s April 25 expansion, Ravnica: War of the Spark. The latest is a beautifully animated cinematic lore trailer that launched at PAX East over the weekend. In it, a brooding, sinister take on Linkin Park’s “In The End” plays while Planeswalker Liliana Vess turns her army against Nicol Bolas, an Elder Dragon and one of the game’s most popular characters. As Wizards of the Coast gears up to rejuvenate the series with some ambitious and controversial moves, the trailer nods at one of the expansion’s most surprising features: War of the Spark features the game’s largest collection of Planeswalker cards to date.

Where Planeswalkers were previously some of the rarest, most powerful cards in the game, providing powerful ongoing effects and abilities, the War of the Spark expansion will include a mind-boggling total of 36 Planeswalkers. On top of that, one will be included in each and every pack. That’s a substantial change. Since Planeswalker cards debuted in 2007, each one printed was of the mythic rare variety (the first ones printed were just rare, since mythic rares didn’t exist back then). Since your chances of opening a single mythic rare in a pack are, on average, 1 in 8, and since not all mythic rares in a set are Planeswalkers, you can see why opening a single one used to be such a big deal—and why a future of opening one in every War of the Spark pack is causing such a stir.

One Magic player on Reddit found the idea of introducing that much power in a single set so crazy that they wondered if Wizards of the Coast might be jumping the shark. Looking at some of the Planeswalkers in a recent video, the MTG streamer Joey Moss said War of the Spark has the potential to become “the most chaotic set there is.” Meanwhile, the pro Magic player and streamer Kacem “Noxious” Khilaji said he expects to see a slew of cheap spells to deal with Planeswalkers in the next set. When the powerful spell Dovin’s Veto was revealed earlier this week, he even mused that this set might favor creature-type cards in addition to Planeswalker cards, as spells like Dovin’s Veto would make it more difficult for opponents to play their Planeswalkers.

Still, with much of the upcoming set yet to be revealed, it’s possible that new spells and Planeswalkers will interact in ways that counter one another and keep things on an even keel. In any case, it’ll be an exciting time to see how players react to these inevitably substantial changes.

Source: Kotaku.com