I used to be invited early to beta tests for new games. I invested a couple of times in somewhat top of the line gaming laptop computers, so I had the specs that game designers coveted. Test the game in the highest resolution with the highest FPS, and really put it through the paces. Since all of those computers have met with tragic ends after only months of use, I’ve gotten smarter and gone with a budget laptop that will allow me to do the bare minimum as far as gaming goes and is more focused on work. I can get a better gaming desktop for cheaper and I won’t be carrying that everywhere I go, so less of a chance of it falling down the stairs or being run over.
Still, with the recent push to mobile gaming, for many games specs aren’t as important. Either that, or it is later in the beta invites for MTG: Arena. Because, somewhat surprising, I received a closed beta invite to the game sometime last week. I do know that they were attempting to do a stress test on their servers, so maybe they just did a flood of invites. Whatever the reason, and for better or worse, I’m in the game.
Regular readers of the page know that one of my saying that has become cliche is that I say “It’s….” followed by some game as explanation for why something is good or bad. I almost always follow it up with some explanation, but at this point I feel like it is expected, so at the risk of being hack writer guy, I’ll start there. MTG: Arena is good because, well, it’s Magic the Gathering. Sort of. That’s not to say that there are elements of the game missing.
Everything that makes Magic unique among card games and separates it from Hearthstone, the main digital card competitor, is there. I worried when I first saw the game that they were trying to make it too much like Hearthstone. They did…sort of. More on that later. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve grown accustomed to Hearthstone. I wouldn’t say that I enjoy it (not all of the time), but it can be a fun diversion.
It’s just that Magic is different and it always has been. One of the things that I don’t like about Hearthstone is that there is no interaction between players, really. You interact with your opponent’s minions and occasionally throw a fireball or pyroblast at their face, but you can’t interact or interrupt their turn other than secret cards and those aren’t targeted.
I’m here to report that the turn structure is still there. There are still two main phases, a combat phase that allows you to choose attackers and defenders, and an upkeep and cleanup. Those last two aren’t defined by the game. They happen automatically. Through it all, the game still has instant spells that you can cast at any time, even during your opponents turn.
I saw someone on Twitter say that the game is barely Duels 2.0. Maybe it is because I never played that particular game other than against the AI, but I don’t have that same impression. Sure, Arena is similar in many ways to Duels, but Arena feels meatier. It felt more like playing Magic the Gathering than Duels ever did. That’s what I like about it and that’s what will keep me playing. It’s not perfect, though, not by any stretch.
I mentioned earlier that when I first saw screenshots for the game, I worried that they were taking too many cues from Hearthstone. Once, during a conversation with Chris, I even confused him by calling it MTG: The Hearthstone Update. It’s virtually impossible to get into digital card games without being compared to Hearthstone in some form or fashion, even for a 25 year old game like Magic. Hearthstone is just king of the hill of digital card games.
They definitely took clues from Hearthstone. There is an emote system that is set up almost exactly like Hearthstone’s. The backgrounds, while not yet interactive, have a similar feel and vibe to the tables that Hearthstone has. Aesthetically, my brain couldn’t figure out if I was playing Magic or Hearthstone because the look of the games is so similar.
Additionally, the cards have animations and sounds. I understand that they need to separate this property from the more serious MTGO and that they’re trying to grab some money from players who only play Hearthstone. It’s a strange dynamic that MtG players will often cross over into Hearthstone, but there has yet to be many prominent Hearthstone players who have become competitive MtG players. So, I get it. They just seem to be trying a little bit too hard to emulate what they think makes Hearthstone different instead of highlighting what Magic does well.
Right now, the only mode that is offered is Standard. That’s it. I get that it is going to take them time to program all of the interactions of older cards and who knows how long something like that can take. However, there’s no draft mode, which is odd. There’s no commander and I don’t even see any indication that they’re going to update with the new Brawl mode that is being introduced with Dominaria. Come to think of it, I didn’t even see any mention of Dominaria in the game, either. Maybe I overlooked it. I will look again when I play.
First, if they want this to be viable as a Magic product, it has to update with or very close to new set releases. Nobody is going to play last year’s standard when this year’s standard will be available in paper and on MTGO. Secondly, as a fan of limited and eternal formats, standard only is not going to keep me entertained or engaged for very long. They could find themselves with another dead digital property on their hands.
This mish mash of Magic and Hearthstone is a little bit too much Hearthstone and not quite enough Magic the Gathering for me right now. As I said, I enjoy Hearthstone, but I don’t want it in my Magic. Those aren’t two great tastes that taste great together. Once upon a time, Chris and I experimented with a Hearthstone “rules” Magic the Gathering where you play from a mana deck each turn. It was supposed to remove mana flood and screw, which are two things that we (and many players) hate about the game. It did, but it wasn’t Magic, so we haven’t done it since.
Perhaps it will take some time and since it is closed beta, they aren’t at a finished product yet. Maybe with more games, more cards, more opponents the game will grow on me and it will become part of my regular rotation. After all, it took several years and many hundreds of games before I accepted Hearthstone as part of my daily gaming routine. MtG: Arena might just be on that trajectory.
I did say to Chris that this game seems to be their answer to Hearthstone. When I downloaded the client in anticipation of my beta invite, it was very small. So, not only have they made it look and feel like Hearthstone, they have optimized it for mobile. So, I suppose that this parting statement sums up my feelings about the game. Again, to Chris, “If they do port it to mobile, I’d probably play it over Hearthstone.”