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MTG Arena’s differences from paper Magic: The Gathering are a confusing, exhausting muddle

Digital-only cards, exclusive sets and a lack of popular formats have made it hard for players to keep up.

MTG Arena always felt like a way to capture the wonders of paper Magic: The Gathering in a way that was more approachable, available no matter where you were and affordable. It’s no secret that MTG isn’t exactly cheap, but Arena being free-to-play - albeit with a fairly substandard in-game economy - means lots of people can enjoy a paper experience without the price tag.

While the app started off only offering the Standard format, as sets rotated out it birthed Historic - which a lot of people assumed would lead to it eventually adding in the likes of Pioneer, Modern and so on. Nobody was expecting it to be a thing that happened any time soon, but it was broadly understood that was what players wanted.

However, while we all waited for that, more and more disparities started appearing between paper MTG and Arena. You had Commander decks - which could, theoretically, be introduced into Historic without completely breaking things open - that were never added. You also had sets like Modern Horizons, which weren’t brought into the digital client either. Well, until recently.

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Jumpstart: Historic Horizons is a gargantuan set and new way to play the game that’s being added into MTG Arena later this week, after a short delay. Some of its 700-plus cards were already in MTG Arena, but 372 - many of which are from Modern Horizons 1 and 2 - are brand new to the app. This, you’d think, would be a huge win for players who love the older formats. But that’s not all this set is adding. As part of the new introductions, we’re also getting brand new digital-only cards - and that’s completely changed how MTG Arena should be viewed.

Digital-only cards have a big implication for MTG: Wizards of the Coast is not interested in maintaining parity with the paper version of the game anymore.

Digital-only cards are everywhere in other digital CCGs because it allows them to take advantage of players not having to do things directly, like searching through their deck or keeping track of a perpetual stat loss. It’s the main reason why you’d choose to play something like Eternal, Legends of Runeterra or Hearthstone over MTG Arena. In fact, people generally choose MTG Arena over those other games because they love the game, and likely because they like playing paper MTG without having to be next to someone.

Digital-only cards essentially have one big implication for Magic: The Gathering: basically, Wizards of the Coast is not interested in maintaining parity with the paper version of the game anymore.

Jumpstart: Historic Horizons includes cards from the paper Modern Horizons sets, as well as digital-only cards exclusive to MTG Arena. Image: Wizards of the Coast

This means a lot of things. For starters, people should no longer expect to see Modern, Legacy or Commander in MTG Arena anytime soon. It would make no sense to have those along with Historic if Historic is going to have these digital-only cards. Wizards has said it will maintain Standard as-is, but it’s hard not to have concerns about the whole thing for those who want things to stay the same.

Arena and paper MTG are now going in different directions.

The main thing is that Arena and paper MTG are now going in different directions. It’s not just the two games, either, as Magic Online still exists, and is still fairly expensive and deeply unfriendly to beginners too. This shift, while exciting in some ways, has raised an almost infinite number of questions about what we’re meant to expect.

MTG Arena is far from perfect, with no ability to play in multiplayer matches, one of the least generous economies in a digital CCG and a complete inability to get rid of cards you’re not going to use in favour of those you want to use. You can’t break down cards to craft new ones or trade at all, which means you’re stuck with whatever you get. It was still broadly expected that it and Magic Online would eventually be brought together, but it’s now clear that’s not going to be the case.

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That means that Wizards now has to maintain three versions of the game. While Magic Online and paper MTG match up, the former is horrifically hard to get into for newer players and frankly runs poorly a lot of the time. MTG Arena now has its own cards to deal with, so you’ll find cards there you can’t get elsewhere - and they have to be designed as well, which surely puts more pressure on the teams doing so.

Magic: The Gathering is a game that often sticks to tradition to a fault. While it’s nice to see that not being the case with MTG Arena, it also feels like a peculiar move. It suggests that Arena is viewed as its own thing now, and that we shouldn’t expect players from paper to always cross over with the app. It also makes things absurdly hard to keep track of.

There’s been nary a month that doesn’t have some kind of release or spoiler season this year for MTG, and that’s exhausting. Now that Arena is breaking away, it feels as though we’re on the precipice of even more forced hype. Players that love the game and usually pay attention to everything it’s doing simply don’t have the energy for it anymore.

There is, in fact, such a thing as too much of what you want. It almost feels like we now have to pick a side in Magic: The Gathering, instead of just enjoying the game we love.

Don't forget to check-out our list of MTG Arena codes, and nab yourself a bunch of free boosters and cosmetics.

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Jason Coles avatar

Jason Coles


Jason spends a lot of time shuffling, sleeving up cards and playing decks that are bad. It's for this reason that he loves card games, even if they don't always love him. His poison of choice is Magic: The Gathering, but he'll play anything really, as it doesn't pay to be picky.