Magic: The Gathering Arena brings the legendary collectible card game to Android. Developed in-house by Wizards of the Coast, the free-to-play digital card game initially debuted on Windows in 2019. The Android version is now in early access and does a nearly perfect job of recreating the classic card game experience.
If you have somehow never heard of Magic: The Gathering, it’s a collectible card game from, Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons. Players battle with cards depicting spells and monsters, but the full rules might be a little too complicated to get into here. Fortunately, Magic: The Gathering Arena provides a reasonably in-depth tutorial covering the basic rules and gameplay.
I say “reasonably in-depth” because it does leave a few things out. For example, if you don’t know what it means to “mill” your deck, you might be surprised when it comes up. Still, there are tooltips to explain these terms, and the benefit of a digital card game is it knows the rules even if the player does not. I bring this up because I think it makes Arena an excellent option for someone new to the game. Also, unlike the physical card game, starter decks are free. So, there is no real downside to trying it out if you are curious about Magic: The Gathering but don’t want to spend any money right out of the gate.
Speaking of the decks, Magic: The Gathering Arena provides players with five for free. That’s one for each element/color: white, black, blue, green, and red. However, you cannot edit your decks’ content until completing its corresponding color challenge. You also need to complete at least one Color Challenge to unlock PvP and at least four to access the Draft game modes.
Each Color Challenge pits you against each of the other colors in sequence. They end with a PvP match using the deck you have just unlocked. In a way, it acts as an extension of the tutorial, with the online battle serving as the final exam. Each level of a Color Challenge adds new cards to your deck to showcase the different mechanics each color is associated with. Black, for example, contains a lot of direct attack spells and creatures that get stronger the more damage they deal. White, meanwhile, has a lot of options for healing and buffing.
Oddly, Color Challenges don’t seem to shuffle the deck at all. The player and their AI opponent always draw the same cards in the same order. Presumably, this is to help with the learning process. However, it can make things a little frustrating if you are stuck on a challenge. The third White Challenge, for example, proved particularly tough because the AI throws down many powerful creatures and the game limits the player’s ability to counter.
Apart from the color challenges, there are several multiplayer modes. Most are direct simulations of the card game without any special rules or gimmicks. It’s just a matter of whether you want to compete in various kinds of ranked matches or prefer a more casual, less competitive experience. The exceptions are the two versions of Draft, which deserve mention. Premier Draft is a mini tournament where eight players draft cards one at a time from a shared pool. Winning players earn in-game rewards, but three losses, and you’re out. Quick Draft is the same thing but against bots.
They’re interesting modes, but it costs a lot of in-game currency to play. And this is as good a time as any to say that there is a small pay-to-win element here. Players can earn booster packs for actions made in-game. They can also purchase packs for real money or Arena’s premium currency. On the other hand, it is no worse than playing Magic: The Gathering IRL. You could even argue it’s fairer since at least here you can’t just buy rare cards on eBay.
Room for Improvement
One area that the developer will hopefully improve upon before full release is the menus. The primary gameplay interface is a straightforward click and drag system. Everything else is a confusing warren of menus and submenus. The main menu is atrociously busy, with most of the important options crowded out by ads shilling microtransactions. Deck management isn’t much better. The text is too small, the cards are difficult to sort through, and the whole layout is just confusing. I could see it working on a larger screen, but the system the developers went with is just a nightmare on mobile. The menus as a whole are in dire need of an overhaul between now and the full release.
The game could also do with a better PvP matchmaking system. Some of us need time to learn the ropes or shake the rust off before getting thrown up against veteran players. Expanded single-player content might also have been nice to have. The tutorial even features a brief storyline that I wouldn’t mind seeing expanded into a full campaign. Wizards of the Coast more than 20 years of concepts to draw from, so I’m sure they could think of something.
Still, the Android port of Magic: The Gathering Arena has few serious problems in need of fixing before the full release. Magic fans will find that everything they like about their favorite card game survived the jump to Android. Meanwhile, newcomers will find Arena to be a great introduction to Magic: The Gathering.
Is it Hardcore?
Magic: The Gathering Arena could do with expanded single-player content, a streamlined menu, and other quality of life improvements. But even in early access, it’s fun, easy to get into, and will appeal to old and new fans alike.