It started a couple of months ago. I couldn’t help but notice all these well-known pro players talking about MTG Arena.

Magic Online has been my absolute favorite way to pass time since its inception, and while the program had some problems, I loved it in spite of them. I eventually turned this hobby into my profession.

I was skeptical during my first go at Arena. I found it hard to believe that MTG Arena would be much better than Magic Online, especially without older formats to support. The whole process of learning the program, playing with obsolete decks, and Drafting against bots seemed strange to me. On Magic Online I can change my decks regularly, draft against human opponents, and change decks whenever I felt it necessary by buying and selling cards for tickets.

After Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica I happened to have a long gap between tournaments. I finally got back to playing the game for fun, instead of just prepping for the next tournament. It’s not that the prep isn’t fun, but it can be stressful. Playing casual Magic is how most of us got into this game, and underneath it all I think most of us still love it.

So I decided to try MTG Arena. I had some issues with it in the beginning. Maybe I was biased. This is the program that’s competing with the one I’ve loved for so many years. As days kept passing, I got more and more into MTG Arena, and now, when I wake up in the morning, I don’t open up Magic Online anymore. I’m checking my quests, firing up a Draft, and slowly grinding my account up. It’s everything I used to love about Magic Online. The slow gradual grind to have everything. Sure, you can of course buy into MTG Arena and buy a bunch of gems if you don’t enjoy the climb, but so far I’ve been loving it.

Some of the features of MTG Arena:

The Timing System

The timing system incentivizes players to play fast because the system allows you to gain “time outs” as long as you’re playing at a fast pace, and then on big turns if you need a minute or two to think, it allows for it by using the time outs. On Magic Online, one of the most frustrating aspects to me is when my opponents are multitasking and take 2-3 minutes per turn. It has completely ruined the experience for me at times, and it’s gotten to the point before where I would just concede out of a game in the early turns before it’s even been close to decided because I just don’t feel like playing against a slow opponent and I’d rather play another round. I think this timing system is a big upgrade for fast paced games.

Auto-Tapper

While on Magic Online you need to meticulously tap your lands for spells, MTG Arena has a feature that automatically taps lands for you. It seems to pay attention to what you may need mana for in your hand and on the battlefield. If you have one red mana and four Islands a Lightning Strike in your hand, and cast a Cancel, in my experiences, it will leave you with the untapped Mountain every time. When you don’t have a Lightning Strike, it may tap them any way it chooses. The auto-tapper is incredible. It makes the games faster, and it makes the game play more enjoyable by allowing you to play the game with minimal effort, and with a small number of clicks and flicks of the wrist with your mouse. It’s one of the best features of MTG Arena.

All that said, there’s some downside to the auto-tapper. On very rare occasions it can mess up how you want to tap. If you’re not paying attention, you may not tap your mana ideally. The occasions I’ve noticed this come up is when I plan on casting three spells in a single turn, and when I cast a draw spell and want to have specific mana open for the cards I may draw. If I want to rip that Lightning Strike to kill a creature off of my Divination, it may just tap my one Mountain and two of my four Islands. So in these instances, be careful. This also means I can’t really represent things. So if you want to represent a wider range, you may want to manually tap your lands in some spots. Some super savvy opponents may see you manually tapping your lands for the first time in a game though. Either way, the option is available for you to manually tap lands for your spells. It takes a little longer, but there’s no chess clock so you don’t need to worry about running behind against your opponent.

The Auto-Passer

I don’t know what the name is for this feature. It functions much like the F keys on Magic Online, and it simply automatically passes the turn and priority when you don’t have an action. This feature is one of the primary reasons the game play is much faster. Newer players have a tendency to not know fully how to operate the F keys on Magic Online, and in turn they lose time off the clock and spend more time than a more experienced Magic Online player making routine plays. I’ve talked to some people who have timed out in their first few experiences with Magic Online. With MTG Arena, the autopass function is built in.

The biggest upside is how much time is saved, which for casual gaming is extremely significant to the overall quality of experience, but if you want a truly competitive experience and give up no information you can go on full control mode. Simply click the control key and you will manually get to pass priorities back and forth.

The biggest downside (which could be an upside if you think about it) is that I often notice when my opponent has actions because of the auto-pass function of Arena. For instance, when I play against an opponent in Guilds of Ravnica Limited and they have a single Island in play and they keep having to pass priority back and forth instead of my creature instantly resolving, I know they have an Invert // Invent or Dazzling Lights in their hands. I can then effectively play the game around those cards. This isn’t something that would happen in a paper event, and while it’s part of the game we can learn to get used to, it’s a bit different from the paper experience. The upside of having this feature is well worth the downside in my opinion, similarly to how we love League play on Magic Online now in Booster Drafts. Despite not being paired in pod, it allows for us to get more games in as opposed to waiting for rounds to go up. This auto-passing cuts a few seconds off of every turn, saving a ton of time overall.

The Deckbuilder

While I heard some early complaints about the deck builder, I’ve never had an issue with it. Its default is to show you a list of cards on the right and whatever card pool you’re looking at in the center of the screen, whether its a Sealed deck pool, Draft pool, or your collection.

If you want to see the cards, you can click the “change deck layout” tab at the top of the deckbuilding screen. I myself have gotten very used to the default method of just reading the deck list on the right hand side while scrolling through the middle. I think the deck builder could use a little work potentially with sizing of the cards so that everything is more visible, but it’s totally fine as-is for me.

Drafting

Draft on MTG Arena is fast and efficient if you want it to be, but you can also take as long as you want on any given pick. There’s no time limit. I haven’t done it, but from what I understand you can stop in the middle of a Draft and go back to it—a neat feature if you want to ask friends or teammates about picks before you make them.

To have this feature, however, you have to Draft with bots. These bots have some sort of pick order algorithm. One of the things I think needs to be worked on in MTG Arena is this algorithm as the bots tend to underrate certain cards and overrate others. I noticed in my Drafts that Skyknight Legionnaire appears to go a little later than it would in normal Drafts, and Healer’s Hawk goes much later than it does in typical Drafts (probably its correct spot, if you ask me). This leads players to play Boros more often, while the bots take other guilds that are seen less often in the player pool because the bots don’t actually play. While this system is imperfect, it does create some value for other cards. For instance, Mephitic Vapors and Cosmotronic Wave are both cards I regularly main deck because of how often I play against Boros.

While I’ve gotten used to drafting with the bots, if there’s one improvement I want for MTG Arena it would simply be drafting with other players as opposed to bots to fully replicate the pick orders of actual competitors. The bots are by no means horrible, but it would be a much better testing experience for those of us who play competitively to have to read the Draft normally. Once I find out the bot undervalues white or overvalues black, it makes the experience too different from normal game play, so as of right now, I’ll likely stick to mostly Magic Online for testing Limited for big events, but I’ll likely start on MTG Arena to get a feel for the cards first, then transition when I want live drafters.

The Grind

Magic Online has caught some flack for being expensive, and MTG Arena makes an effort to reduce the costs of gameplay.

Personally, I created my account and opted to purchase the starter bundle. It’s $4.99 and comes with a fair amount of gems and packs. Gems and gold can be used to enter events.

Every day you get quests. They’re something like cast 20 blue spells or kill 20 creatures. Once you do these you get some amount of gold. This is backed up with win bonuses, giving you nominal amounts of gold or reward cards, up to fifteen a day. You also get weekly rewards of a few booster packs for wins.

So each day, I log on to MTG Arena and try to finish my goals. You can do this in Constructed or in Drafts. Drafts cost gold or gems, but you can just play Constructed games to earn the bonuses as well with no buy in. I prefer Limited as always, so I actually just Draft and play my matches until I’ve cleared my rewards. Usually that’s not enough for me and I continue playing past my goals, but if you want to maximize your return on each game just play enough to clear your rewards. You can have a couple of days worth of rewards stacked up so there’s not even a need to play every day to get all the rewards.

To play Constructed, MTG Arena arms you with a few pre-constructed decks immediately, and as you earn rewards they give you more. These starter decks include some chase (choice?) mythic rares as 1-ofs, which alleviates the pressure of getting four copies.

As you continue to grind you get more wild cards, which you can save up or spend as you wish.

As someone who loves Draft, I spend almost all of my time Drafting on Arena, but let’s say I want to finish off a daily quest and have to cast a few red spells or kill a few creatures. I’d just fire up with one of the precons, maybe I’d make a quick few upgrades, and play a couple of games. The decks are fun, and it’s not like you often play against all tier 1 Constructed decks. You usually play against someone who’s on equal footing. This reminds me of what I loved most about Magic from the get-go—enjoying Constructed as a way to do cool things without worrying too much about what my opponent is doing. Executing synergistic game plans, while also not caring too much about how often I win. If I had every card, I likely wouldn’t play Magic this way and I’m actually pretty happy every time I do play these games of Constructed with precons.

As far as Drafting goes, I don’t play competitive events yet. I maybe have done one, but I don’t really remember. I mostly focus on the cheaper Drafts as my gem bankroll can’t afford a huge swing. I prefer grinding lower stakes while I accumulate cards. This way I don’t have to make a big investment—just my initial five dollars—and all the while I Draft to win, but also rare draft when it’s low cost. For instance, if I don’t have four Steam Vents and I see that in a pack alongside a Sure Strike my Boros deck might use, I’ll take the Steam Vents because I can likely get another combat trick at some point. I’m not going to take the Steam Vents over a Truefire Captain though as I still want to keep winning so that I can keep drafting and winning booster packs to open.

As far as packs go, I open them immediately to inform my drafting. If I open my third or fourth Steam Vents, I’m much less likely to rare draft it in my Drafts because the fifth copy goes to filling “the vault.” The more copies I have of a specific card, the more often I’ll take a quality playable over it. This is why I don’t just automatically rare draft good Constructed rares, because if I Draft enough, win enough packs and open them, I’m likely to end up with more than four copies. So while I think rare drafting is correct if you’re trying to build a collection, you should still be evaluating how much a rare and a playable will ultimately help you with your goal of grinding your account up and accumulating enough cards.

Overall, I’ve spent a ton of time on MTG Arena recently. I play nearly every day, and I find myself having difficulty walking away and not clicking the “Play” or “Draft” button just one more time. If you weren’t sold on the product, I wanted to put my voice out there and let everyone know that I think MTG Arena is a quality product. Though it could improve in some areas, the play experience is exceptional and I think it will only continue to improve. If you haven’t started, I recommend you do today.