A Pro Player’s Perspective On Magic Arena

Owen Turtenwald was worried for Magic’s future when he saw the Arena announcement. Now that he’s played with Arena, what does he think of its present?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Magic: The Gathering Arena and now I’m proud to present to you my experience with the game.

I would like to mention that I’m not sponsored and what follows is solely my opinion as a lifelong competitive Magic tournament player. I’ve never played a single game of Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers, and when I heard about Arena for the first time, I’m almost ashamed to admit I wanted it to fail. I didn’t want a new dumbed-down version of Magic to replace Magic Online, which I love. I think if I had to rank activities I’ve spent the most time on in my life, #1 is sleeping and #2 is probably playing Magic Online.

I’m deeply invested in Magic Online as well. I have four of pretty much every card you’ve ever seen me cast in real life. I don’t sell cards and they are not provided to me in any capacity. I maintain a full collection which I use as a tool in my preparation for tournaments.

In my preparation for Worlds I got seven members of The Pantheon to all join the 6-2-2-2 Competitive Swiss Draft on Magic Online, and while drafting went smoothly, having to wait for all players to submit their decks before you can play caused some time to be wasted, and having to wait for all rounds to finish before I got to play again was also a time sink. I did a ton of Dominaria drafts already, but I wanted to simulate podded play to get perfect practice, and when it was over I reflected on a few things:

  • My teammates are amazing and I love them.
  • Getting in volume via League drafts with a small amount of perfect practice added was a great combination.
  • Magic Online is a terrible program.

Everyone says Magic Online has a ton of flaws and they’re not wrong. The thing I find amazing is, even with all its issues, it was still the best form of practice I’ve found yet and simultaneously my favorite leisurely activity. After a big event I like to just sit around relaxing with friends playing the Flashback Drafts or Cube. Sometimes I play Magic for my career and sometimes I play for fun.

There was a time when this style of Swiss Draft was the only form of Booster Draft offered on Magic Online and I played them for years. For years, if I was sat next to an inexperienced or disconnected drafter, every pick would take the maximum amount of time, and if I got paired against a slow thinker or someone who was playing multiple matches at once, my time was ravaged. Sometimes a booster draft can take over 30 minutes and a match can take up to an hour.

Recently I flew to Denver, Colorado for a Guilds of Ravnica Team Sealed GP to play with Reid Duke and William Jensen. We did poorly but I enjoyed my time in the city, since I got to see some friends who I rarely spend time with.

I spent Thursday at the home of Luis Scott-Vargas, relaxing and hanging out with some other gamers. In the middle of the day we’re all lounging on the couch and Huey opened his laptop and began to play Arena. In a nearby room Gaby Spartz was streaming Arena on Twitch, and as Huey played through a Guilds of Ravnica Competitive Draft, I was impressed beyond words. He played for two hours and during that time the sounds of my excitement were so loud they carried on to the stream.

“What?! Are you serious?!”

“This is amazing!”

“Did you just see that?”

When Gaby finished the stream she almost sounded concerned, asking what happened, and I had to sheepishly confess that I wasn’t even the one playing Arena and my excitement was only as a spectator.

That weekend I saw Cedric Phillips at GP Denver and spoke to him and wasted no time in requesting that I write a game review of Arena, even before I had played a game myself. I wanted to wait for a moment when I could dedicate all my time to it without distraction and try to recapture some of the magic I felt the first time I saw it.

I was pleased to learn that the username OwenTurtenwald had not been taken, so after making an account for free I was playing through a pre-game tutorial. This can’t be skipped, so despite my confidence in my own ability to learn as I went through the game, I played on, and if I had to guess, it took me twenty or 30 minutes to complete. There was a bunch of preconstructed decks to choose from and I immediately choose the “Dragon’s Fire” Mono-Red deck, since I assumed that would have the shortest game length of all and cause me to finish the tutorial faster. I had a ton of options with how to change my deck before I played the tutorial games; this included swapping out Meteor Golem for Field Creeper and redeeming some Uncommon Wild Cards for as many Charging Monstrosaurs as I could get. I wouldn’t spend too much time on any of this unless you’re new to Magic.

With that out of the way, the first thing I did was click a tab which changed my layout to only show Advanced Play Mode. A friend recommended to me the code PlayRavnica for three free packs and the $4.99 Welcome Bundle, which contains 2,500 Gems and five Standard-legal booster packs. Immediately I spent 1,500 Gems to join the Guilds of Ravnica Competitive Draft and I had a pack in front of me.

Currently Draft is only available against “bots,” which basically means a smart computer does its best to simulate what a real draft would look like. A lot of the feedback I’ve heard from the professional Magic community is that this is in no way representative of competitive play and I understand this concern. That said, there are a lot of advantages and hidden benefits which I did not see at first.

First, the draft is untimed. This may seem small, but I was in love with it the first time I saw it. How many times have you joined a draft and the first pick stumps you to the point you want to ask your friends? I’m very familiar with the frantic attempts to communicate full card names and preferences to Magic players in a timeframe of 60 seconds because you want to share the experience with your buddies and learn and improve as a player. I live in a house full of Magic players and it happens all the time where we try to coordinate dinner plans and we have to wait an extra fifteen minutes for one of the guys to complete a draft they just started. In Arena you could complete the first three picks of a draft, ask a friend for help, and not make your fourth pick until one hour later, or even stop in the middle of the draft to eat a meal, go to sleep, and return to the draft whenever you please.

The draft for me probably lasted five minutes and I had an excellent Izzet deck with two Legion Warboss and two Crackling Drake. Just like on Magic Online, as I drafted I could drag cards to my sideboard or maindeck, allowing me to build while I drafted. I was aware I was interacting with bots, but I still had to balance all the pick orders for each guild. I still very much felt the deckbuilding aspect of Magic. It almost felt like a weird form of Sealed and Draft mixed together.

The first thing I notice is the link to your deck builder is a deck box with art on it correlating to your first pick of the draft. I had a deck box labeled Izzet with Legion Warboss on it. It was cool.

It took me a little while to get used to the deck builder, and it’s functional but not ideal. I liked that the layout for my lands was a Mountain with a giant number “8” on it, rather than on Magic Online where it shows all your land individually and you have to lean in close and squint while using your finger to peck-count all the lands one by one.

Once I was in a game, the pace of play was brisk to say the least. The game began with me dragging Izzet Guildgate from my hand onto the battlefield and immediately it was my opponent’s main phase with 8 cards in hand. This is amazing. The game basically plays itself through the priorities in which neither player can take a legal game action, factoring in cards in hand. This also means that, in the default setting of gameplay, you can’t bluff. There’s even a switch in the bottom right of the screen labeled “PASS TURN,” and once you click it, it passes the turn to your opponent and the switch becomes unclicked. This button is sweet and I was glued to it; anything I can do to help make the gameplay faster and more engaging is a huge win. It can also be disabled to allow for “Full Control” mode, which functions exactly as Magic would in real life, I’ve never wanted to try it, since I prefer the smooth, fast, and fun gameplay of the default mode.

Priority is straightforward in Arena, since there’s one button and the labeling on it is constantly changing to represent the next phase you would enter if you agreed to end the current phase you’re in. If you don’t have your upkeep stop set, your turn begins in your precombat main phase – the button is labeled “COMBAT” since, if you’re ready, that’s the next phase. It will give you a prompt of “ALL ATTACK” or “NO ATTACK” and you can manually control the creatures from there, which is easy to grasp. Finally you’re in your second main phase and the button is labeled “END” and clicking that passes the turn. Three total stops on my turn didn’t compromise any of the strategy and I felt I was still playing full, deep games.

Arena was smart enough to automatically force me to discard my only remaining card when I had no plays facing a Disinformation Campaign. If that had happened on Magic Online, the game would not have progressed without me clicking on my final card to discard it, regardless of the fact that there is no legal alternative; it just wastes time. I’ve also noticed a change in recent card design which has me optimistic for the game: if you compare Roc Charger and Kinsbaile Balloonist, you’ll see Roc Charger can attack with any 2/2 ground creature and require zero additional clicks to continue, while if you attacked with only a Kinsbaile Balloonist, you would be obligated to target a creature with this ability, even if it was strategically correct for the Balloonist to target itself.

If you have an instant spell with the appropriate mana to cast it, each priority where you could cast it, you will be prompted. That means it’s going to ask you if you want to cast Sure Strike at the beginning of your opponent’s combat phase on Turn 2 if they cast a creature (this is easily avoided by using the Pass Turn button vigilantly), and if you have Sinister Sabotage, all priorities will be appropriately skipped until a spell is put on the stack and you have the mana available, when you will receive priority again. It can feel like the pace of play slows down a bit when you have one of these of cards in hand and it’s also a dead giveaway to the opponent when every time they cast a spell it resolves immediately until three mana is available and I take a 30 seconds priority in response. It adds another certain layer of strategy and complexity to the game. If you’re paying attention to how long your opponent takes for actions that are automatic and actions that are manual, you can pick up a read on them and try to deduce the contents of their hand.

I don’t fully understand how the clock system works but it’s phenomenal. The first time I had a tough decision I felt I had more than enough time, more than I would be allowed in a tournament setting, and as my time was running out there was a shot clock which showed me how much time I have remaining and that it was running out. A graphic appeared in the middle of the battlefield which looked like a fuse burning down across the screen (I nicknamed it “The Rope”) from right to left and I knew I had to make a play or face the penalty for timing out: pass turn. I started with a small hourglass in the corner of the screen labeled “0x” and as I progressed in my draft near the end I had “2x” so presumably I was being rewarded in some way for playing quickly and I had some time extensions if I had a really hard decision. I don’t know how long they are because I never used any.

A running joke for me is to hurl insults at the program as players sometimes do when issued a slow play warning. I might yell, “You’re giving me The Rope? I was thinking five seconds?! You gave my opponent way more time last turn!”

One additional reason the pace of play improved so dramatically is the addition of the Auto-Tapper. If you control Swamp and Mountain and drag Duress from your hand on to the battlefield, Arena will recognize to tap your Swamp and put Duress on the stack, saving you the inconvenience of manually producing black mana from the Swamp. If you control Overgrown Tomb, Swamp, and Mountain and you drag Duress from your hand onto the battlefield, it will tap Swamp here as well. It’s actually pretty good. You can highlight a card in hand and your lands light up as the Auto-Tapper is showing you which lands it would like to tap should you use it. My experience is the Auto-Tapper correctly predicts which lands I should tap for my spell 95%+ of the time, and in the early turns it’s closer to 100% since usually you just want to tap all your lands and play the biggest thing you can. This should not go unappreciated: if you tap all your land for a spell, the Auto-Tapper can be close to flawless. If you’re playing a monocolored deck with only basic lands, the Auto-Tapper is literally flawless.

I told myself I was going to be critical in this article, so I will reveal that I’ve been burned by the Auto-Tapper. I had Guildmages’ Forum, Mountain, and Plains and I dragged my Boros Challenger onto the battlefield Turn 3 and Arena decided it was best to tap Mountain and Plains as I watched on helplessly and passed the turn with a 2/3 on the battlefield and not the 3/4 I’d for. It was a learning moment that I should be sure to use the Guildmages’ Forum if I want its benefit, but still something that was unintuitive and negatively impacted my experience.

Watching Huey play on the couch and my experience playing Arena was very similar to what it looks like when you see people play Speed Chess. You could complete an entire game lasting until Turn 8 in under a minute. I looked at him stunned and said, “This is obscene.”

A few times I accidentally caught myself clicking F6 in an attempt to pass turn because that’s how I’ve done it for years on Magic Online. I’ve also caught myself attempting to play Arena and instinctively clicking the Magic Online icon on my computer.

One fun aspect of Arena is each battlefield you play on can change and they always have interactive features which happen when you click on them. One board had Gargoyles resting in all four corners and when you click on them they seem to become irritated. There’s also a scorpion which sometimes runs onto the screen and when you click it the scorpion scurries away quickly off the board. I personally leave it alone as it’s doing no harm and a distraction from the strategy of the game.

Revealed cards stay revealed – for instance, if you mulligan to six and pre-game you scry Nullhide Ferox to the bottom, it will be shown in its position in your library. I believe the same applies for Approach of the Second Sun. You can hover your cursor over your library and it will show the total number of cards remaining or you can click to reveal a spread of cards, just like it would appear if you manually counted them in real life, and if you search all the way to the bottom it will show you the Nullhide Ferox you put there at the beginning of the game.

This also applies to Surveil. I cast Deadly Visit and put both cards on top; the top card remains revealed, and if I choose to I can search my library to see the second card in its correct position also revealed. Revealed cards in hand also show as face-up; if you cast Duress and take a card, you no longer have to juggle a screenshot of their hand or a note you took with actual pen and paper. It’s like how a friend might just have an agreement with you to play with their cards face-up, but since it’s digital only the player who wants the hand revealed will see the cards displayed in a different way.

I disliked how a card with jump-start in my graveyard would occupy a space near and around my hand but not clearly in my hand or my graveyard. My first experience was with Direct Current; I dragged it from the bottom right of the screen, where I was reminded I had it, to the battlefield and the process of confirming which card I wanted to discard was quick and painless. The Direct Current went on the stack, I saw little lightning bolts sizzle around the Izzet guild symbol, and it traveled from the stack to a small grey square next to my library – the Exile Zone. It’s exactly what you would imagine an exile zone would look like, a little black hole that sucks the card out of this universe and it only appeared when it was relevant to the game. You can also click the grey card-shaped game zone and see what’s in your exile, just like a normal game but it doesn’t occupy important space and detract from the any of the important elements of the battlefield.

The first time I cast Doom Whisperer I saw an animation of the Nightmare Demon leaping off the card art in a horrifying mess of an angry skull and evil arms.

Nightveil Predator’s hexproof was represented by what looked like a wizard’s spell hovering over it as protection, and it was literally floating slightly above the battlefield while creatures without flying were stuck to the ground. I cast Rubblebelt Boar and heard a loud snorting sound as if there was a boar in my living room; the same is true for birds sounds from Healer’s Hawk and insects with Dimir Spybug. At first I thought the animations and sound effects would stand in the way of my focus, but honestly they created a Magic gaming experience which I did not believe was possible. The cards had life of their own. The first time I saw Arclight Pheonix cast, the giant red bird flew down onto the battlefield breathing fireballs and letting out a scream. It was awesome. I had fun casting it.

Surveil and scry were both easy to understand and resolve. In the past Magic Online has had the issue of overusing YES/NO for their prompts, but with scry I could drag the card to the bottom of my library or with Surveil I would drag the card from my library to my graveyard. It’s such an intuitive action and I liked the interactive nature. I played the Magic Online Championship Series the next day and all day I was trying to drag cards from my hand to the battlefield or from my library to my graveyard. I noticed in Arena, when someone would surveil, there would be a Dimir guild symbol mysteriously floating around the top of their library as they made a decision. The same happened when I successfully used Mentor: I saw the Boros guild symbol stamped on my creature for a brief moment.

I had a wonderful game with Goblin Locksmith, since the artwork depicts a goblin using his fist to smash through a locked door. I was giving first class beatdowns, getting through damage every turn, and I really loved the sight of my Goblin in a fighting stance attacking my opponent each turn in small increments, just like my Goblin would in a boxing match dancing around the ring/board. When it dealt the final points of damage, the visual was of my fighting Goblin pounding away for the win and my opponent’s planeswalker avatar exploding. They succeeded in making Magic fun.

At one point I had been playing for a few hours, deeply entrenched in what was happening in front of me, and I leaned forward to destroy a small insect that had crawled on my laptop’s screen, only to realize it was an animation in the game of an insect slowly crossing the board. I laughed to myself and told Shahar Shenhar, who immediately responded “I did that too!”

There’s very little I like about combat. I wish the cards would become fully tapped when attacking and that creatures that block were more clearly displayed. Multiple times I would see creatures explode and die and I would have to play Sherlock Holmes and check the graveyards to figure out which creatures blocked and where. I had issues with Legion Warboss and Wojek Bodyguard which slowed me down and caused extra clicks in combat, since they both have combat rules associated with them. I was fully prepared to click “ALL ATTACK,” which was replaced by “1 ATTACKER” thanks to Legion Warboss forcing my Goblin to attack alone, and I misclicked through a crucial combat. I did like how clicking on a creature while putting it into combat produced the sound of a sword being unsheathed, and when blockers are declared, there’s the sound of metal banging against what sounded like shields. Our creatures were battling like Orcs and Elves probably do in a Lord of the Rings movie (I’ve never watched one, so I don’t know).

Turning on stops is seamless. It only came up once in two days of play where I wanted to cast a spell in my opponent’s upkeep and it was clearly displayed. Near my opponent’s avatar is a graphic showing what phase they’re in and what order they happen. Clicking the upkeep stop will cause you to receive priority during the next upkeep phase of your choice, and the nice thing about this feature is it will automatically disable afterwards, which lets you enter in and out of upkeep phases without being stuck waiting in one with no actions.

My second draft, I played Dimir, and I felt that the nature of drafting with bots would cause the metagame of humans to gravitate towards the popular guilds, so I assumed I would play against Boros more than the other decks. I maindecked two Mephitic Vapors and promptly went 0-2, losing to Izzet and Dimir, drawing them multiple times and they were horrendous. I still won 2 packs.

The point is there’s still a metagame of decks and there’s risk involved in attempting to exploit that. This draft was awesome, since Pack 1 I danced around and tried to stay open for as long as possible until I opened Doom Whisperer Pack 2 and it was clear I should switch colors to Dimir. In the end I had a lack of removal and a lack of playables, and I felt this draft could have easily happened at a Pro Tour. Building to my deck’s strengths while trying to find a substitute for overall card quality and lack of removal is a situation we’re all familiar with, and learning how that applies to a brand new format is a great learning moment.

During one of my games I looked away to my phone on my opponent’s turn, and when I looked back my avatars head exploded and I lost the game. To my knowledge there is no written receipt of the game log anywhere and no way to watch your own previous round replays, so I just had no idea what happened; it was probably Inescapable Blaze.

There’s no chat log, which is a huge improvement since I can’t count how many times my opponent has cursed me out on Magic Online. You get a few preset phrases like “Good Game” and “Oops.” Here’s an interaction I had with someone on Magic Online last weekas I tested Izzet Arclight so I could have the best list possible for my article. Just to reiterate this point, I was playing games such that I could provide a better experience for the readers of my article, and this is the type of harassment I faced unprovoked.

1:07 PM _______: garbage deck btw

1:07 PM _______: LOL

1:07 PM _______: grats idiot

After some research, Arena has many supported formats, which include Standard, Sealed Deck, Booster Draft, Pauper, Singleton, and Momir Basic. I don’t know anything about this, but it looks like there’s a way you can play which mimics Shandalar in that you start with a small collection and through free-play you can grind out daily quests and slowly get more cards to improve your deck. I’ve seen Wizards employees Tweeting their decks and it looks awesome.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about how Arena isn’t like real Magic because it has an algorithm which draws two different opening hands and gives you the superior hand before offering you the chance to keep or mulligan, but this only applies to Quick Drafts, which have one-game matches. Competitive Drafts still function just like a real game of Magic once you’re in a match against a human.

I personally had some issues learning the controls and it took a lot of self-control to not include all the concerns I had in this article, but once I took a step back, I realized that nobody will ever know all the controls to a brand-new video game on their first try. The more time I spend playing, the more proficient I am with the program, which feels good.

I was worried when Arena came out that the changes made would hurt the strategy and overall integrity of the game, cheapening the game I love, and many pros who I spoke to feel the same way. That said, the more I played, the more my concerns melted away. People were resistant to the change from Swiss Drafts to League Drafts because they felt playing outside of your pod would ruin the competitive integrity of a Booster Draft, but once you realize how much downtime is eliminated, you’d be a fool to go back to the ways of the past.

I’d like to include a quote from reigning World Champion Javier Dominguez about his experience at a recent Grand Prix where he practiced exclusively on Arena:

“I’m loving Magic Arena. I didn’t think I would like it—I kinda thought I wasn’t the target of the program—but I tried it and found it was really cool. I think I prepared the most for this GP by playing on Magic Arena. I just played a lot of Arena these two weeks. The games are fast, and there’s something that keeps me wanting to play. It feels like I’m playing a video game but at the same time I’m also playing Magic. So Arena lets me to prepare for a tournament and have a video game experience.”

In my preparation for Pro Tour Atlanta I’m doing a mix of Arena Drafts andC on Magic Online, and I couldn’t be happier. I actually feel a little like I should have started my Arena play sooner, and on Day 1 of PT testing it’s far superior to do five Arena drafts (even with the bots) than it is to do five Magic Online drafts. I feel the structure of five wins or two losses means I play more total games with the cards, and as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, the pace of play is exceptional. You’re playing draft games where both players work under the constraints of a shot-clock. Arena is the most efficient way of learning the cards I’ve ever seen.

So I’ve written about 5,000 words on what happened when I saw Arena and played, it but now it’s time for me to make it official for the people who scroll to the very bottom of the article just to know what I think of it.

It’s amazing.

“It’s obscene.”

It’s the best thing since sliced bread and will revolutionize Magic and possibly even begin a “Magic Boom” which will have Magic exploding in popularity soon. I saw a tweet from the Arena account saying they’ve already had 100,000,000 games played. On top of that it hasn’t even been fully released yet; I had this amazing positive experience with a game that was in Open Beta. It looks to appeal to all types of players who have differing levels of commitment to the game, from people who want to play a video game for fun to World Champions and Hall of Fame players who want to practice for the purpose of playing in a legitimate competitive tournament environment.

I’ve heard many stories from friends who have friends who usually play Magic sometimes for fun, about one draft every two years, and they downloaded Arena and stayed up until 2am playing the game. They can’t get enough. When I watched Huey play for the first time, I almost cried tears of joy, it was so beautiful.

I love it.