Yesterday was of course the ninth anniversary of the Tales of the Aggronaut blog… and Wizards of the Coast got me a present. Roughly halfway through the day I checked my mail and noticed that I got an email from WotC inviting me to the closed beta of Arena… their attempt at making a modern Magic the Gathering client. The truth is Hearthstone has been eating their lunch for several years now due to its extreme accessibility. It also does the dual whammy of giving both a nostalgia buzz for magic the gathering and collectible card games in general… while delivering a fatal blow of world of warcraft nostalgia at the same time. It’s a good game… and honestly lately I have been playing quite a bit of the warrior rush deck, but even that said… it is no Magic the Gathering. There is just something about this game that causes me to follow the community and buy cards… even though I don’t get to play that often.
The biggest problem for me is that I don’t really have a LGS or Local Gaming Store to be spending my time at. I live out in the burbs and the closest thing to me is on the opposite end of Tulsa from where I live… making it not exactly convenient to go to in the evenings and play cards. Where a game like Hearthstone or Arena comes in is it allows me to get that fix… without the need to actually get hands on other players. That said I am working on fostering a little community at work for lunch time gaming and am building up some balanced decks to sort of make an easy drop in and play environment. All of that said… it is just so much easier to get online at the end of a day and get my gaming fix rather than trying to coordinate with other human beings.
When you start up the Arena client you are given a handful of packs to start crafting your own decks with. This assortment essentially encompassed the last two blocks of play… Rivals of Ixalan, Ixalan, Hour of Devastation and Amonkhet. I got a handful of decent cards and could have probably crafted together a serviceable deck from them. I personally like these two blocks of play theme wise and together they give quite a bit of reasonable synergy. I believe the plan going forward is to largely limit Arena to standard sets by default… which seems a little if that were the case why Kaladesh and Aether Revolt are not included. It was my understanding that when the Kaladesh block cycles out the Amonkhet block will as well in Q4 2018. Quite frankly I struggle keeping these things in my head as to which sets are in and which sets are out because it doesn’t seem anywhere near as clear as it used to be. I apparently am not the only person to think this because there is literally a website called What is In Standard.
One thing that is going to be a challenge to get used to is that the pack structure is vastly different from live paper magic. When you open a pack you get a grand total of 8 cards instead of 15 cards… which I hope means they are going to charge a reduced price for the packs when the whole buying packs for money thing is eventually introduced. You get a single rare/mythic, two uncommons, and five commons. If you already have more than a play set of a card they replace it instead with a token as you can see underneath Samut in the above picture. These can then be spent to fill out missing holes in your collection trading a rare for a rare or a mythic for a mythic. At first I could not understand why I kept getting them since at this point in my head… I had only opened a handful of packs.
Also in your collection are a wide variety of deck archetypes built and ready to go. Personally I have been shifting back and forth between Golgari Exploration for which Green/Black has always been my preferred color set, and Legion of Dusk which similarly is heavy black and vampire themed enough to ignore the fact that I am using white mana. I love the exploration mechanic and when it compounds with cards that do stuff when any card explores. This means you can get some really big critters on the board that escalate rapidly. Ultimately in a perfect situation I want a foul orchard out on turn one, Wildgrowth Walker on turn two, and then some combination of creatures that explore like Seeker’s Squire or Ixalli’s Diviner to pump up the Walker and start my assault proper. What that works it is beautiful… when it doesn’t there seem to be enough alternate paths to victory to hang in for a very long time.
For the most part the client itself plays exactly like you would expect a magic client to play. It does a lot of things for you, like if you have no plays it goes ahead and skips to the next turn which is likely going to throw you off at first. There is a way to flip the client into a more granular level having you verify each and every trigger that happens… which would be important for more technical decks. I do feel like the timeout is maybe a little bit long given how many phases you have to get through… there have been times that matches have taken forever because the other player was just slow at evaluating their options… or potentially just doing something else at the same time. Unlike the Duels of the Planeswalkers clients I never felt like it was rushing me through things and causing me to lose card play opportunities. It seems to have some intelligence built into the client and stalls anytime it thinks you might have a play option, and so far it has not missed a time when I needed to play a card in response to something.
After each victory you are awarded a single random card, and there are various quests that you can be working on while playing matches. For example you can see in the bar that I am at 8 wins of 10 needed for my next pack of Rivals of Ixalan. The pack quests seem to come at 5 victories, 10 victories and 15 victories… and not sure if that trend continues on every 5 victories or if you are limited to 3 packs per week. Similarly there are quests that I had already completed like Kill 13 of your opponents creatures or cast 13 white or blue spells, each of those rewarding 250 gold. The in game pack purchasing mechanism allows you to buy a pack every 1000 gold, so essentially after doing four of these quests you can get some more cards. I am assuming this gold currency will also eventually be used for drafting which sadly is not in yet… but I believe they have talked about wanting that game play mode exists.
The only real thing you need to know is the fact that I set up my account around 6:30 last night and the next thing I knew… it was 9:30. The game is extremely good and brought back all of the right nostalgia beats for sitting around playing magic the gathering and trying to figure out how to dig yourself out of a card draw hole. There are times when things go extremely well… then there are other times like the above match when things go south really quickly. I just could not get the exploration cards I needed to power up my front line and managed to keep the other player long enough to get a recursive combo on the ground. As a result they manages to gain up 183 life before finally finishing me off in a single round. I could have conceded at any point, but I wanted to see how big they could manage to get their health pool. Even in a horrible loss condition… I was entertained. I look forward to seeing how this product evolves over time and I am likely going to start streaming it on occasion so you can laugh at me as I make obvious mistakes.