It's a good sign that our biggest Magic: The Gathering Arena concerns are cosmetic

This week, Wizards of the Coast gave us a first look at Magic: The Gathering Arena, MTG's response to games like Hearthstone and Elder Scrolls: Legends. It's intended to turn the tabletop card game into another competitor in the digital sphere, allowing the client to be accessed on everything from PC to tablet to phone.

While Magic: The Gathering Online has been around for over 15 years, allowing players to enjoy their favorite card game on their PC, the program has regularly been criticized for its buggy software and outdated UI. Wizards of the Coast’s new Digital Game Studio is aiming the change all that.

There are a lot of promising things going on in MTG Arena,  though my first impressions are laced with a few concerns, as well.

The sights and sounds

Most of my concerns are cosmetic ones, which I think is a hugely promising sign, but considering that’s most of what we have to go on at this time—and a large portion of the digital card game experience—they are definitely worth addressing.

As something of a Magic purist, the tapped cards being tilted ever-so-slightly (as opposed to the traditional 90 degrees) is... well, tilting, frankly. This is the kind of visual adjustment that would cause confusion in the paper game. Are those cards tapped, or were they just bumped?

While the cards also gray out when they're tapped, and a large 'tap' symbol is present, this almost makes them more difficult to read, especially without text or casting cost or type line present. With the art being the most defining characteristic of a Magic card, I’m not sure dimming tapped cards on the battlefield is the best option.

Though the two share many things, Hearthstone is dissimilar from Magic in that it has only one type of card on the board at any give time: minions. Magic, on the other hand, has artifacts, enchantments, creatures, planeswalkers, and legendary variations of each. Being able to assess the board state at a glance is imperative and shouldn't require squinting or straining.

Furthermore, while Hearthstone can get away with lacking text boxes, I’m not sure the same can be said of Magic. Hearthstone cards are typically limited to two or three lines of short text. Magic cards, not so much.

To say there’s a lot happening on the battlefield in MTG Arena might be an understatement. In the lower left you have a wind effect blowing sand across the ground, an effect which also covers your cards at times. You have mana zig-zagging from left to right. You have arrows going from a card effect to the player to the cancel or submit buttons. The screen shakes and animations happen as the result of cards being cast. A lot of these are done well in similar games, and some of them are done well here. Currently, however, I worry it’s a little overwhelming.

Another thing you’ll notice are the unique sound effects. These were omnipresent throughout the entire demo. While sound effects in digital card games can and have been done wonderfully, these also felt overdone.

A click here, a fwipp there, a machine gun-like barrage of mana being used up. The game assaults the senses to the point of not even knowing where specific effects are coming from as they happen, with sounds often times even overlapping one another.

It would be nice to find a middle ground where I feel as though I don’t have to adjust the sounds in the client on my own for them to be enjoyable. I love the idea of planeswalkers, and even legendary creatures, having their own unique dialogue options. But with the amount of creatures in Magic, I wonder if adding voice lines or effects to every card is realistic.

Is this Magic?

Presentation aside, the big question with a game like Magic being presented in a Hearthstone-like format is whether the complexity of MTG will decrease. Magic’s rules engine is significantly more complex than games that were designed with a digital interface in mind. Despite that fact, Chris Cao, MTG Arena’s executive producer, assures us that MTG Arena will be a complete Magic experience, containing all the things we've grown to love about the game.

Unlike something like Magic Duels, we’re told this will not be a watered down version of Magic. That's great news and we will ideally get everything that makes MTG the strategic powerhouse that it is. That being said, it’s worth noting that MTG Arena seems to be primarily focused on new sets and their respective formats, specifically Standard and Limited. This means that formats such as Modern, Cube Draft, or Legacy will remain within the realm of Magic: The Gathering Online, at least for the foreseeable future.

All-in-all this was a promising display, and if the delivery matches the ambition, I think we’re in for a rewarding Magic experience—given a few sensory tweaks.