What is it? The first CCG's latest and possibly greatest videogame incarnation.
Expect to pay: Free-to-play
Developer: Wizards Digital Games Studio
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Reviewed on: Windows 10, Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM, Nvidia GTX 1060
Link: Official site (opens in new tab)
Some of the collectible card games inspired by Magic: The Gathering don't really capture that it's a wizard's duel, just like in The Sword in the Stone. Merlin plays caterpillar, Madam Mim plays chicken to eat the caterpillar, Merlin plays walrus to crush the chicken. It's an ancient game, which I guess goes back to Moses beating the Pharaoh's sorcerers with his "rod to serpent" control deck.
Though it's top dog among physical CCGs, previous attempts at bringing Magic onto screens have always been second-rate at best, and UI nightmares at worst. I have a soft spot for the 1997 version set on the plane of Shandalar (Sid Meier's final project with MicroProse), but no digital version of Magic has been able to really get the full experience off the table and onto screens.
Arena's the best yet.
For starters it's free-to-play and generous. There's a mastery tree you plonk orbs into as you level up like something from an action RPG, only instead of unlocking skills it's more cards. When you buy a booster pack, whether with cash or gold earned in-game, you earn wildcards which can be traded for any card of an equivalent rarity (replacing the typical dusting and crafting systems of other digital CCGs).
It is much more generous than tabletop Magic. You'll still need to drop money for whatever perfect deck's dominating the meta, or if you can't be bothered grinding daily quests for gold. But if you climbed out of the money hole of collecting Magic cards in a book full of plastic sleeves back in the day, this is a safe way of re-experiencing that without going broke.
If you're not coming to Magic from the table—if you're here via Hearthstone or the like—some of Magic's assumptions may seem strange. Despite the similarities (spending mana to play cards, faces with life points that have to be smacked away by summoned creatures, creatures on the edge of the board you click to see a cute animation), a few of the bumps Hearthstone smoothed over will catch your feet.
One is that rather than simply gaining mana every turn you have to play land cards, then tap them—tilting them at a slight angle rather than the regulation 90 degrees of the tabletop version, mercy me—for their colored mana. Forests give green mana, swamps give black, islands blue, etc. Most cards require at least one mana of an appropriate color, and some extra that can be any flavor.
Something about putting down land at the start of my turn and then tapping it turns a valve that releases high-grade uncut nostalgia right into my nasal mucosa. However, when I have one of those games where I don't draw enough land cards to do anything even though there's 24 in this deck of 60 (which happens often enough that conspiracy theorists are convinced the shuffling algorithm is broken), suddenly nostalgia dries up and I realize maybe simplifying this into "one more mana each turn" was actually a good idea.
The other thing that's always been a part of Magic is interrupts. Spells marked instant can be cast with leftover mana on an opponent's turn. At the table this promotes a snappy back and forth. In a videogame it can make for a stop-start experience where you have to click Next or Pass repeatedly just to let the game know you don't want to interrupt during this phase, and no, not the next one either (although pressing shift-enter lets you skip to the end). It also gives an opponent who is mad you've taken the lead lots of opportunities to drag things out.
The benefit of this system is the turnarounds it enables. Just like Merlin you can be faced with an elephant that's about to crush you and then turn into a mouse and frighten it away. It's a vital part of a game with a huge number of esoteric combos, which are fun when you interrupt them or when you pull one off.
When you play a card that gives bonus life when you summon something else, then follow it with a summon that gets powered up when you gain life, it feels like a tidy one-two jab. At the far end of the possibilities you're pulling off interactions that end with eight monsters on a board that was empty at the start of the turn, or dealing 42 damage in a single round.
There's a popular deck based around Nightpack Ambusher, which gives you a free wolf if you don't cast spells on your turn. The trick is combining it with a deck full of instants so you do your casting on your opponent's turn while your wolf army grows. The first time I saw this I was playing a vampire-heavy deck that bypassed those wolves to drain my opponent's life direct, and got them down to their last three points before the wolfpack overran me. I could have stopped them if I'd managed to play the card that resummons my dead defenders from the graveyard, but it was counterspelled at the last minute.
The first time that happened I was like Ron Burgundy in Anchorman when his dog eats all the cheese: Too impressed to even be mad. I've thoroughly enjoyed being beaten by similar combinations, such as one that revolved around using gates instead of land, followed by Gates Ablaze (which does x damage per gate) to clear my entire force, and Gatebreaker Ram (which gets +1/+1 per gate you control) to finish me off.
I wish Arena weren't missing some of its competitors' features, particularly a friends list so I don't have to type in someone's username to challenge them or find them on Discord first. And I'd like it to have a more distinct visual style, although that's tough when you've been so thoroughly ripped off by others. A handful of cards trigger gorgeous animations that create screen-filling storms, hurl screaming goblins through the air, or unearth the Doom Whisperer's face and clutching arms, which is too fun to be so uncommon.
Sometimes I get a couple of those frustrating stop-start matches in a row (to be fair, there's less than in Magic: The Gathering Online which paused even when you didn't have any instants), but Arena gives me plenty to think about during downtime. There's always another way to turn into a mouse and frighten that elephant, and even though I was only a kitchen-table Magic player it's reactivated cobwebbed parts of my brain.
If they rerelease Shandalar too the nostalgia overdose may kill me.