I love trading card games, but it’s been a while since I’ve found one that I can really sink my teeth into. I enjoyed digital card game Hearthstone for a while, but fell off its latest expansion fast. A while back I tried to return to my childhood go-to, the Pokémon Trading Card Game, but so much had changed from when the game first released that I gave up trying to wrap my head around its rules.
After a while, I asked some friends for recommendations, and they all said the same thing: Magic: The Gathering. MTG is a trading card game I’ve been avoiding practically my whole life - I still remember my older brothers playing with the game and biking over to the comic book store to grab packs when I was five.
Despite the fact I’m far older now, and Magic: The Gathering is still going strong, I still felt intimidated by the legacy that MTG has, with decades worth of cards and the rules and lore attached to them. While a lot of the older cards and expansions have been phased out of Standard play as part of the format's rotation, there’s still a lot to take in - especially when it comes to how to build a Magic: The Gathering deck - and I shied away from trying the game for the longest time as a result. But with Magic: The Gathering Arena’s release on PC, it was easier than ever to give it another shot.
So I took the plunge, downloaded Arena, and got to playing. How well did I fare? Pretty well, actually!
Arena begins with a relatively meaty tutorial, where you play a few rounds of the TCG as a Navi-like fairy takes you through a beginner's guide to Magic: The Gathering. It’s a great introduction to the rules of the game, but I’m sad to say that I didn’t retain much of the information. Through no fault of the game’s own; it’s just a lot to take in at once!
However, I did learn that I can apply logic from other trading card games to a lot of MTG’s mechanics, and understand the basics of the card game. Lands are like the Pokémon TCG’s energy cards - except instead of attaching them to a unit, you place them on the field and tap them each turn, like a resource pool. There are trap cards, which work the same as they do in Yu-Gi-Oh! - except it’s not very satisfying to yell out about someone activating it.
For most people, this won’t come as much of a shock. After all, Magic: The Gathering was the first modern trading card game, and the TCGs that followed it predictably borrowed elements from the grandfather of the genre. But the turn-to-turn gameplay of MTG seems so complex when watching from afar that it becomes intimidating. Remembering when to play cards, the art of attacking and defending, and when to pull spell cards seemed a lot more difficult than other TCGs I’ve played.
After completing Arena’s tutorial, you get five starter packs. That’s where I got confused. What am I supposed to do with these? And what do the different Magic: The Gathering mana colours mean? The tutorial didn’t really go into that. So I looked up what each element means online, and well… I understood a little better, but decided to just choose the Blue starter deck and see how it went.
Thankfully, Arena doesn’t throw you right into the thick of it with online opponents. First, you have to beat a bot, Sparky, a few times. This is nice, because you can learn the ropes without getting pummelled by higher-level players.
Sparky isn’t much of a threat - I was able to defeat her without much of a problem. During the matches, I was able to learn that my Blue deck, called Azure Skies, was an aggressive Flying deck. It makes sense, given the name! As I played, I was able to upgrade my account mastery and unlock even more cards for the Blue deck. It’s a pretty nice way to help with progression because sometimes playing with starter decks feels extremely limiting.
After a few rounds with the bot, I hit level three, which opened up all sorts of overwhelming options to me. Ranked drafts? Events? All of these required the premium currency of gems to try out, and I wasn’t confident enough to spend money to potentially lose immediately.
Instead, I just tried out a standard match against another human player. And of course, the player thoroughly kicked my ass with a solid Red deck. Ah, yes, I really am a MTG newbie after all.
I went back to Sparky with my tail between my legs and decided to give the other colour decks a try. Sparky was nice; even when she won or lost, or when I was taking too long, she’d still encourage me. Unlike that evil SatanicTaco I fought earlier.
I spent the majority of my first 10 hours in Arena playing against Sparky, trying out each of the decks in turn and raising my account mastery level to unlock more cards. Eventually, levelling-up enough gave me some more decks, in the form of dual-colour decks. Each colour on its own had severe weaknesses, but these could be covered with a deck that contained more than one mana colour.
Playing these decks was a bit harder, as you needed to pay attention to which lands you were putting out there and the costs. But it was a good idea for Arena to not introduce them right away - it took me a while to unlock my first dual deck, and by then I had a better understanding of each mana colour.
I’m grateful for that. So many trading card games have a ‘trial by fire’ teaching method - you get the very basics, then you’re thrown to the wolves in matches against other people. By allowing bot matches and also having them provide account experience, I was able to learn at my own pace and understand the nuance that goes into the various MTG cards and combos.
Of course, I had to try a few more matches against actual players before the end. I signed up for an event that forced you to make a deck out of only common cards. I managed to win one match - although it was because my opponent disconnected.
I did have an actual heated match against someone, and that was the most fun with MTG Arena since I got started. We both created White/Black decks out of only common cards for the event, and you could tell we were both going for the same idea. I had a very terrible starting hand, but I was able to hang on by a thread with healing combos for long enough to almost make a comeback. Unfortunately, my opponent had the foresight to add a card to their deck that I didn’t - a skeleton they could resurrect. Eventually, they used the skeleton as a shield for my strongest attacks until they pulled a card to decimate my creature field, opening me up to the final blow.
I may not have won, but the match itself was exhilarating. That thrill is what will keep me coming back to the game. I might not have all the mechanics down, and I’m still misreading what some spells do, but Magic: The Gathering Arena has this way of teaching you without discouraging you. After all, whether it’s 10 hours or 100, Sparky will always be there for me.