Magic: The Gathering Arena is bigger than ever…and going smaller! Yes, mobile is here. This is the Magic digital experience you’ve been waiting for. Play Brawl and Historic at home, Draft against players at the grocery store, challenge your friends while walking your dog.
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Reviewed on: iPhone 12, iPad Air 4th Gen
Also available for: PC
Developer: Wizards Digital Games Studio
Magic: The Gathering Arena has finally arrived on mobile devices. Although the game has been out on PC for some time now, the mobile release marks a huge milestone. Given how popular some other card games, especially Hearthstone, are on mobile platforms, there’s sure to be some comparisons between them. Rest assured, this is a great card game, albeit with a slightly less user-friendly introduction than something like Hearthstone.
I’m not going to bother reviewing the gameplay of MTG itself, as it’s a well-oiled machine. The game has been around since 1993, and Arena offers you several popular gameplay modes but is far from the true one-to-recreation of all things MTG.
The long-short of playing MTG is you’ll use land cards to make mana that you can use to cast spells, creatures, and other things. Your goal is to get your opponents life from 20 to 0, although there are some different fun ways to win within MTG.
If you’re jumping into MTG Arena as a new player or a returning veteran, you’ll be forced through some length tutorials. I don’t think they’re the best at explaining all of the mechanics within MTG, but they do a good enough job. Annoyingly, if you know how to play the game already, you’ll still have to play all of these tutorials.
Magic: The Gathering Arena looks fantastic on both iPhone and iPad, the two devices where I’ve been playing the game. There’s little to no changes from how the game plays and looks on PC. It does just feel like one cohesive game across multiple devices, where you can pick up and play wherever you like. This direct translation has led to some funny loading screen tips; however, once I saw a tip on my phone say I could “press space bar to pass priority.”
The basic cards in the game aren’t as lovely as Hearthstone, but there are shiny, alt art and other unique versions of cards you can earn to bring the battlefield to life. MTG Arena is very much about simulating the paper game, not creating a new digital extravaganza. That said, opening boosters is still exciting with a flourish of sounds, and a build reveals any rare cards. You don’t get that new card smell you do by buying physical cards, but you can’t help that one.
Unsurprisingly the iPad is the best way I’ve played the game. I’d put that version above the PC version as being able to place cards, or move them around in my virtual hand, with my actual hand, adds a more tactile feeling that adds a lot to a card game. The mobile version is let down slightly by the screen size. You’ll be doing a bit more of pressing and holding a card to bring up a larger version to read its details than you would on an iPad, but it’s a minor gripe.
Both versions suffer from one other slight annoyance that may make the game harder to get into for new players, and that’s organising blockers or multiple triggered abilities. When there are many creatures on the field, and you’re attempting to block them all, on my phone especially, it became a little confusing with zig-zagging lines designating who was blocking what creature of my opponents. The same is true for choosing the targets of an ability or cards triggering multiple times. Unfortunately, there’s no way around this, and if anything, it shows between the cracks of why other digital card cards don’t include blockers like MTG.
Blocking, in general, is also something that may turn off new players coming from something like Hearthstone. It’s always been one of MTG’s most confusing mechanics at times, and even playing with paper cards can lead to players leaning over a table to place 10+ blocking creatures on top of their target.
As a free to download game, you’ll quickly need to start spending money, unless you simply want to play bots. Drafting is the best use of your resources and one of my favourite ways to play MTG. You and a ‘table’ of 7 other players take turns picking a card from a pack and passing it down the table to draft a powerful deck from the cards available. This mode is also more accessible than Standard, where people bring their powerful custom made decks.
If you want to start putting together a deck for Standard, you’ll most likely end up chasing four copies of powerful cards to include in your deck. In the paper game, you can buy what you want from local or online stores — or hope to pull the card in a booster. In MTG Arena you earn Wildcards that let you redeem them for any card you already own. You earn these Wildcards by simply opening boosters. This means you only need to open the card you want once before you can use Wildcards to get the complete set of four for your deck. It’s an excellent system, but I do wish there was a way to speed up the process of getting the cards you want.
There’s new unlocks whenever a new card set to release, and you can earn a bunch of free stuff, including booster packs and cosmetic items, just by playing a lot and completing daily quests. There’s even more to unlock if you want to spend the money to unlock what is basically MTG Arena‘s battle pass equivalent. Of course, you’ll get more out of that the more you play, but it’s pretty decent value, especially for newer players.