Wednesday, January 9, 2019

magic: arena is great because magic sucks

I genuinely love Magic: Arena. I played for less than a week before I earned the cards for mono-blue tempo, a deck that either wins or loses in about three minutes. Then, I press play and I’m immediately in another game. I had a game where, on turn two, my opponent tried to Lightning Strike my 1/1 with Curious Obsession, I responded with Dive Down, and they conceded. This, to me, is the ideal game of Magic.

Magic: Arena is more than just a digital implementation of Magic (which is what Magic: Online was). It is a large number of improvements to Magic. Years ago, I redefined the literary art form of the essay with the unfathomably great “why magic sucks.” To recap: the mana variance sucks, it’s expensive, there’s a conflict between its status as a collectable and as a game, and it’s old. Arena notably succeeds at tackling the first three issues, and makes a decent stab at the last one.
Arena is a free-to-play that doesn’t feel like a game that’s constantly trying to rip me off via microtransactions. Maybe it’s because I had a decent winrate in my early drafts, but I found it pretty easy to chain drafts together; I think I spent $5 or $10 on gems when I did poorly in a few drafts in a row, which is a more than reasonable price for the entertainment I got out of the product. Unlike paper or MODO which expect you to spend around $4 a pack, Arena gives newer players cards pretty readily. There are five starting decks, it’s easy to unlock new ones with daily quests, and playing games rewards players rather than charging them (one of my main gripes with MODO five years ago).

In a move that proved extremely unpopular with people who spend over an hour a day on Reddit, Magic: Arena generates two opening hands for players in best-of-one matches and invisibly chooses the hand with the more average land-to-spell ratio. This would be impossible (or at least extremely awkward and time-consuming) in real-life games, in addition to being wildly unpopular with “serious players,” but it in an online format where the games are quick, it makes Magic dramatically more fun. Instead of roughly 25% of games being decided by one player or the other not being able to play their spells, players interact with each other meaningfully far more often. As generally opposed as I am to interacting with Magic players (see the blog’s tagline), this seemingly-hacky solution makes Arena games literally more enjoyable than they would be on paper or on MODO, even if the interfaces were exactly the same.

As far as the game being expensive and collectable, Arena’s solution genuinely shocks me: it has no economy. It has no option to trade. Because players get “wild cards” on a predictable basis, there’s no mythic that’s a ton more important than another mythic; for a constructed deck, one just saves up enough wildcards for it and cashes them in. I was in a draft where I opened a mythic that wasn’t in my colors and instinctively went to raredraft it (since that’s what Magic has taught me to do). Then I realized that in Arena, unless I was specifically trying to build a constructed deck using that one specific mythic, I really did not have to give a shit. I took the common that went in my deck, because Magic is a game and I was selecting the game pieces to use. When I was trying to build that mono-u tempo deck, I just kept doing drafts and random games until I had earned the packs to get the wild cards I needed. Easy.

(This isn’t to say that building any deck in Arena is trivial; making ones with lots of rares and mythics seems like it would take a ton of time and/or money investment into the game. But games like Arena have to have some sort of progression, so I don’t think that’s unreasonable.)

Magic being old and out of ideas isn’t something that Arena addresses directly, since the cards are still the same that the paper game uses. But it’s fortunate that it exists in an era where Dominaria is around. I guess Dominaria drafts were just pulled and replaced with Guilds, but Dominaria is an absolutely delightful set, one that deserves its own Kill Review going into what makes it so much better than other recent sets.

Magic has a lot of baggage built up in its rules as a necessary part of having so many cards, and Arena does a great job ignoring all of it while still delivering accurate Magic gameplay. I’ve only had to hold ctrl for “full control” once instead of having Arena do all the busywork of land-tapping for me; I can remember one time it tapped my lands wrong, and I expected Charnel Troll to let me respond to its upkeep trigger by default, which it did not. That’s about the biggest flaws I can find with the ways Arena streamlines the game, which for me, means it’s doing a pretty good job.

One reason Magic sucks that wasn’t in the old essay, simply because I’m so used to it, is how slow it goes. It’s only when an app does all the busywork for me, without substituting its own busywork like MODO, that it’s truly obvious how much of our time spent playing Magic is spent physically manipulating cards, adjusting life totals, making sure your opponent isn’t cheating, etc. It’s only after playing Arena, which zips through games even when they get fairly complex, that I think about how tedious it is to play Magic in real life, requiring a couple minutes of shuffling before every game, and a lot of physical manipulation for untapping/spellcasting/attacking when boards get more cluttered.

Occasionally, I’ll want to play Cube on Magic Online. Sometimes I play one or two, then spent the next few days complaining about Magic Online. Since starting playing Arena, I’ve had next to no desire to ever touch that piece of shit again. I think Arena might have even somewhat spoiled me on wanting to play paper Magic; it’s that slick of a program. All the complaints I have about it are incredibly minor. It’s wonderful.


Unknown said...

A small note, but more balanced land/spell ratio is only one of the factors used in determining which of the two opening hands to show you. We don't know what the other factors may be and how they're weighted.

Post a Comment