Thanks to the folks at Hasbro, Quiet Speculation, via yours truly, got a chance to test an exclusive demo of the new digital offering from Wizards of the Coast – Magic: The Gathering Arena!
After a quick intro from Nate Price, the Arena Community Manager, I got to pick between the Dinosaur deck and the Pirate deck (both of which had been featured on Twitch prior to the event) and selected Pirates. At first glance, you would never guess that this is only the alpha release of the game, because the graphics and music are simply amazing.
Visual display is one of the main focuses of Arena. Developers chose to simplify the cards on the battlefield to the bare minimum needed to understand the board state and put the emphasis on the art. A key addition is that “bomb” spells (most often rares and mythics) get a fancy animation when they are played. This feature will adapt to the metagame and will not be restricted to any specific rarity: if an uncommon sees major play, it can get its own animation added (I personally suggested Walk the Plank). Another “wow” factor I experienced during the demo: planeswalker cards are displayed with full art!!
Arena is facing a tough ordeal in trying to balance visual simplicity with Magic's complex gameplay. It is difficult to include all the relevant information on a card at a glance. The development team manages to do so by replacing text boxes with icons – not just for menace, trample, raid, etc. – but also the concepts of triggered and activated abilities as well as an animation for flying creatures.
The gameplay feels great and intuitive. Some improvement is needed, though: the various steps of the attack phase (confirmed using duplicate clicks) as well as target selections for spells and abilities (cards move around once selected, which can lead to confusion) can and will be updated. To tackle these and other issues, the team at Wizards of the Coast's new Digital Games Studio is now moving Arena to a closed beta. It will be beta testers’ feedback that will drive the debugging, additional features and further developments of Arena.
One of the main gameplay aspects I was curious about was the handling of mana resources. I was delighted to learn that Arena features a “smart” mana engine! Players have essentially two ways to play spells: you can do it the usual way and tap the lands of your choice, or you drag and drop a card from your hand. In this case, the game will automatically select lands to be tapped based on the mana cost but will try and optimize which lands to tap taking into account the cards you have left. There is also a "full control" mode, equivalent to a Magic Online setup for which you make every mana decision and stop at every step of every phase.
After the demo, I got the chance to chat with Elaine Chase, VP of Global Brand Strategy & Marketing at Wizards of the Coast. She made clear that Wizards wants this new platform to be the state of the art of digital CCGs: “We invented the concept of the TCG, we had the first digital CCG, and developing Arena is the most natural, logical step. We want to provide players with the most authentic and entertaining experience, and this is done by enhancing the visual aspect of the game.”
Of course, I had to ask the most obvious question. Is Arena a replacement for Magic Online or an answer to the competition? Turns out it is a bit of both. Digital Games Studio wants to provide a new tool, across all platforms (Arena is being developed on the Unity engine), to give players more choices when it comes to playing Magic. The constantly growing streaming community was also a factor in the decision to create Arena, and I can see why: if I were to browse the Twitch page for Arena, it would definitely be more visually appealing than its Magic Online counterpart – there is a lot going on the screen, but it always gives a feeling that something is going on, as opposed to MTGO's black and grey background.
Fear not, though. Magic Online is not going anywhere, as Wizards is fully aware of its value to the community of Magic players, what with Leagues, Draft and MOCS as well as the pros looking to test for the Pro Tour. On that topic, Chase and I also discussed the fact that MTGO provides a rare opportunity to qualify for the Pro Tour to folks who do not necessarily have a way to get to a PPTQ/PTQ – this is another huge factor in and of itself to maintain the program as the premier destination for competitive online play. Still, in the months ahead, with the help from all players, beginners to pros, Wizards fully hopes to make Arena one of the tools players can use to improve from FNM grinder to Pro Tour regular.
If you are looking to sign up for the MTG Arena closed beta, you can follow this link. Quiet Speculation has promo codes for priority signups that we will be giving away soon!