by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 19th November, 2018
Magic: the Gathering launched in 1993 and simply exploded in popularity because it turned out that people love playing collectible card games. We've seen many other games that tried to emulate Magic's massively popular mechanics but none managed to get even close to the popularity of the first collectible card game. And while the tabletop version of Magic: the Gathering continues to be quite popular to this day, Wizards of the Coast still struggle to launch a truly popular digital version of the legendary card game. Could they make a success with the latest attempt that is Magic the Gathering: Arena?
This analysis will try to answer that question. We will take a look and four important parts of each collectible card game, its gameplay and accessibility, it's target market and share compared to other big CCG titles, its economy (if a game is free-to-play, its economy has to offer enough resources for those who do not want to pay to get card packs), and its Twitch coverage and viewership. Let's begin with gameplay and accessibility.
Magic: the Gathering in its tabletop form is a tremendously complicated game. A bunch of rules dictating gameplay, chain events that need minutes to resolve, card counters, life counters, instants, and other spells, and turns made of multiple phases can sometimes confuse even those who played card games for many years.Magic: The Gathering - Wizards of the Coast
And let's not talk about the average duration of an MTG match. All of this makes the game pretty complicated for digital transformation as was seen in the previous attempt (Magic: the Gathering Online) but this time developers managed to automate almost every part of the game and to deliver a game that's relatively easy to understand and play.
The available tutorial explains pretty much everything and after it, new players can get to know the game by playing ladder matches against players of similar skill. The game does not go beyond its relatively simple tutorial but most card games fans will get a fairly good understanding of the main gameplay elements after a couple of hours spent with the game. When it comes to accessibility MTG Arena is an excellent card game and much better choice than the tabletop version of the game.
And it isn't boring to play. Deckbuilding is quite interesting and can be pretty challenging because of the sheer number of cards and editions included in the game and general gameplay is speedy enough in the digital version to enable dynamic matches that aren't tedious to play. Except if you play with or against control decks; in that case get ready for you or your opponent to go on a rope burning streak each turn.
MTG Arena automatizes most of the stuff that makes MTG so complicated in the first place. The game notifies you to place new lands, to play instants when you have them in your hand, each turn phase doesn't end before your confirmation meaning you simply cannot forget to do certain things like attack with your units, or play some cards, play lands, block with units, or damage your opponent, etc. This also makes the game surprisingly straightforward and easy to learn, which is great for new players.
One of the main problems the game had during the closed beta period was the lack of content when it comes to good decks. Deckbuilding is pretty complicated here because of many synergies, combos, cards that can work together, lots of different archetypes and the sheer number of cards available. Luckily, YouTube is filled with helpful videos offering dozens of competitive decks. Simply enter MTG Arena decks in search and you'll receive dozens of great tutorial videos that show a wide range of decks, many of which are pretty cheap to construct.
So, to recapitulate. MTG Arena is tremendously more accessible than the tabletop version of the game, it is easy to learn and fun to play. And new players can just visit YouTube and there they can check out many different deck options with most videos coming with decklists and extensive tutorials for playing said decks.
If a game is free to play most people want to play it without paying money, right? And when MTG Arena got announced many feared that the game will come with the economy system that greatly favors paying players, as MTG Online did. But Arena is in fact, pretty generous to those who don't want to pay for new card packs.
Look, you can earn up to 10,000 gold just by winning four times per day (which can be done in less than an hour of playtime each day) and by beating daily quests, which are pretty easy. This gives you enough resources to get 10 card packs each week. Next, you can earn three free packs each week just by winning games, which is easy to accomplish if you go for 4 daily wins. That makes up to 13 card packs each week, which is almost two packs per day. That is extremely generous when compared to Hearthstone and slightly less generous when compared to Gwent. Overall, 13 free packs per week is an excellent result and that amount of card packs per week should be enough for anyone to build a competitive deck.
But that's not all. Draft events in MTG Arena give you all cards you drafted. Draft costs 5,000 gold but you get to keep all drafted cards and can earn some cool prizes, which is great. Next, you earn additional cards for wins each day, and an average player can earn about a dozen cards on top of free packs and gold rewards. And finally, there is the Wildcard system, which is an amazing feature in MTG Arena that allows players to build some truly powerful decks. Wildcards are like joker cards that allow you to craft any card you need and they can be won by opening card packs. There are common, uncommon, rare, and mythic wildcards and you get new ones on a relatively regular basis. So, if you lack that one mythic card (or two, or three) to complete your powerful deck just use your wildcard and that's it! You don't have to buy new packs and to hope some of them will include that super powerful but also a super rare card. The Wildcard system is really outstanding and it enables casual players to build awesome decks. If you are careful when to use your rare and mythic Wildcards you can relatively easy construct competitive decks. Just find a deck that suits you on YouTube, open free packs for a week and then add missing cards by using your Wildcards.
When it comes to new card additions MTG Arena has lots of potential because Wizards of the Coasts announced that the digital version of the game will follow physical version when it comes to adding new sets meaning that digital version will be a complete experience that is in line with tabletop version. This is great for players because they can rest assured that their favorite digital card game will receive a regular stream of new content (tabletop version gets two new sets each year meaning that MTG Arena will also get two new card sets each year). So, when it comes to economy MTG Arena is pretty generous. You can earn more than 10 card packs for free each week and there are also free cards earned by winning and Wildcards that can be used to craft any card you want, which isn't available in other digital card games. Also, the game will receive new content on a regular basis because it follows the tabletop version schedule when it comes receiving new card sets.
When it comes to potential market, MTG Arena has incredible potential. All of those Magic: the Gathering fans can play this one for free and have some fun playing against other players online, or building decks, or exploring new strategies without having to pay money, money they already spend on buying card packs for the tabletop version of the game.
Then you have competitive card game players. MTG Arena is made for competitive play and the game should host a number of competitive tournaments once the open beta ends. This will surely lead many competitive digital card game players to start playing MTG Arena. Next, we have the MTG Online, which saw a massive loss in popularity after the release of Arena, especially after Arena entered open beta. We should expect that most MTG Online players to leave the game and switch to Arena in the coming months. The biggest issue is the fact they cannot transfer their card collections to the new game, and that could make many players postpone their switch but ultimately they will switch to Arena because the game already has a decent player base.
Next, everyone who desires for something more complex than shiny Hearthstone gameplay will definitely check this one. Also, Hearthstone became gradually less and less suited for free-to-play players in recent years so you can expect many of those to switch to Arena because it is, at the moment, super generous to free players and it is much better than Hearthstone, which at this point cannot be enjoyed fully without paying for card packs. We also have many players who check out every new card game on the market and those who got disappointed with Gwent and The Elder Scrolls Legends (which is practically dead at the moment) and you can expect many of those players to keep playing MTG Arena. Overall, MTG Arena could become super popular and the game has all requirements to indeed become the most popular digital card game out there aside from Hearthstone. The only problem it can face is the upcoming release of Artifact.
Unlike MTG Online, MTG Arena is built from the ground up to be streamable and interesting to watch. And that strategy was definitely worth it because Arena is now much more popular than MTG Online and the game is actually fun to watch thanks to its pretty visuals, the automation of most parts of the game that allow players to take short turns and keep games fast-paced and dynamic, and the fact that this latest digital version of the game finally achieved to bring all good sides of Magic to the front while keeping boring stuff and things that kept players from trying the game (like long matches, loooong turns, overtly complex gameplay system, and the high cost of card packs) in the background.
At the moment of this writing (Sunday afternoon) the game is the 13th most popular title on Twitch sporting a bit over 21,000 viewers mostly thanks to the stream of Grand Prix Atlanta which has 12,000 viewers. On a regular day, MTG Arena can gather around 10,000 viewers and that's great for a card game. Sure, Hearthstone has much more viewers on average but that one is by far the most popular card game out there. Further, the game has a decent number of good and interesting streamers to watch. Professor Nox, Kripparian (who still streams Hearthstone most of the time but also plays MTG Arena about one day per week), TidesOfTime, TruedawnFM, CovertGoBlue, Merchant, day9, FilthyRobot, and LegenVD are all great streamers and each of them hosts excellent streams.
Some of the aforementioned streamers are great for beginners because they are very analytical and explain each move in detail and some of them regularly build new decks and play them during streams. If you are into MTG Arena but don't really know how to play the game or if you simply want to watch an interesting and exciting card game just visit MTG Arena Twitch channel and you will surely find at least a couple of cool streamers each day of the week. MTG Arena is made for streaming platforms and the game is pretty popular on Twitch. This ensures regular flow on new players and a solid coverage of the game on the most popular streaming platform in the world.
At the moment it seems MTG Arena is indeed one of the most popular digital card games out there. There are lots of players and lots of potential players who will surely jump in once the game goes out of the open beta state. The coverage on Twitch is amazing, with average viewer numbers going above 10,000. This a is a huge number for a card game that ensures lots of random people will check out the game because it is always near the top of the browse page on Twitch. And, the most important thing, the game is fun to watch and simply made for streaming.
The economy is great and catered towards the free-to-play audience. You can earn lots of gold and get more than 10 card packs each week just by winning 4 games each day, which translates to about one, one and a half playtime per day. This is achievable even for casual players who don't want to spend more than a couple of hours on an online game each day.
And there are Wildcards that enable players to craft literally any card they need, which makes deck building much easier and affordable. You don't have to buy dozens of packs just to get that one super powerful card the whole deck is based on; just use one mythic Wildcard and craft it right away. The game is also pretty easy to learn and the way Arena automatizes all of the complex elements that make Magic the Gathering one of the most complex card games out there is amazing. Developers really did an excellent job at creating a system that makes the game straightforward to play while keeping all of the elements of tabletop version of the game intact. Further, Arena will host professional tournaments once the game goes live and that should make many professional card players to keep playing the game.
There are a couple of things that can hurt the game and that could limit its reach. The most important one is the lack of any console or mobile version of MTG Arena. If Wizards of the Coast really want to maximize Arena's reach and to get a truly large player base they should start thinking about releasing a mobile version of the game. Luckily they have plenty of time to do that because the game is still in open beta.
Another thing that could hurt the game is the inevitable release of Artifact, the card game from Valve that should create massive trembles on the digital card game market. But we shouldn't come up with conclusions before Artifact gets released. Also, Artifact won't be a free game and the average length of Artifact match is about 45 minutes which isn't ideal for streaming, so we should see will Artifact even become a huge title in the card games market.
Right now the answer to the question asked in the title is yes, Magic the Gathering Arena will become a popular collectible card game. In fact, it is already pretty popular and with time, it will only become bigger. So if you aren't played it yet be sure to check it out because the game is great and it could easily become your next online card addiction.