With a global pandemic on our hands and the need for social distancing, I thought now would be a good time to cover the different avenues for playing Magic. Of course we all know about sitting down with our friends and playing some in-person Magic with physical cards and you’ve likely heard of MTGO (Magic: The Gathering Online) and MTGA (Magic: The Gathering Arena). Today I’m just going to go over the pros and cons of each and let you decide which one is best for you.
Most of us were probably introduced to Magic through physical cards and even those who play mostly online also probably have a collection of physical cards. They allow us to sit down with our family, friends, roommates, or whoever and play a game on the kitchen table. You can also go down to your local game store (LGS) every now and then and find someone else looking to play, especially on Friday nights when those stores host Friday Night Magic events.
- You own physical cards which more or less retain their monetary value.
- You can play any format (other than Penny Dreadful, available only on MTGO).
- You don’t need an internet connection.
- You can acquire individual cards whenever you want to through trading and buying.
- A friend that already knows how to play probably introduced you to the game and at least taught you the basics.
- The good cards cost a lot of money which makes some formats unplayable (legacy and vintage).
- You must have at least a small social circle of people who play Magic or an LGS.
- You need to worry about protecting your cards.
- You need to have a physical organizational system to keep track of your cards and decks.
- If you want multiple decks that use the same card(s), you will need multiple copies or have to keep switching the cards around when you switch decks.
Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO)
Released in 2002, MTGO provides a way for players all over the world to play. All you have to do is download it from mtgo.com. The download is free and you have an indefinite free trial, but you will have to pay $10 to get access to everything that the game has to offer (however, you do get that $10 and more back in in-game value). The game uses its own currency know as tixs. You can buy more tixs at the cost of 1 dollar each. Tixs let you buy cards and enter events. Using the tix system, cards on MTGO are much cheaper than their paper counterparts. It should also be noted that there are a small handful of cards that are not available on MTGO, but they aren’t really relevant since you still have access to 99% of the cards Wizards has ever published in paper.
- You can play with anyone anywhere in the world at any time as long as you have an internet connection.
- Formats galore. Everything from standard to vintage and from draft to commander, even cube events can be found on MTGO, including budget formats like pauper.
- Cards are way cheaper than their paper counterparts. For example, building the modern deck Jund using today’s prices would cost between $1,100 and $1,300. On MTGO, it would cost about 600 tixs which is the equivalent of $600.
- You only need up to a playset of any card. All your decklists are on file and you can switch between them at any time without having to make changes to any deck. While you can do this in paper, you need to remember which cards go into which deck and remember to swap them around. On MTGO, the game does that for you.
- You need an internet connection and cannot play on mobile devices.
- The client is dated. There is no flashy animation, it has a bit of a learning curve, and there is no tutorial.
- You have to be good or it will end up costing you a lot more. The cards may be cheaper, but if you’re not very good you will have to keep buying tixs or rely on player points to enter events. Since you can win these things for doing well, it is possible to not have to spend any more than the initial $10 to unlock everything, but you need to win a good portion of the games you play in order to do that.
Magic: The Gathering Arena (MTGA)
The newest digital platform, Magic: The Gathering Arena, was announced in the spring or summer of 2017 if I remember correctly, about the same time as Amonkhet or Hour of Devastation were coming into standard. An open beta version would be available for players to test later that year about the time Ixalan came out. The game was made fully available for everyone to download almost 2 years later in September of 2019 and has become quite the phenomenon. Unlike MTGO, it has flashy animations to give it that video game feel and its card pool is limited to standard sets that date back to Ixalan, (although the game used to go back to Kaladesh for standard play, somehow they expect us to believe that 4 sets just disappeared from the code) however Wizards has announced that they plan to expand the card pool backwards to include older sets as well as keep up with standard, but the details on how they plan to do that and how far back they are willing to go have been extremely vague. MTGA can accommodate all types of budgets from free-to-play players to those rich enough that they can afford to spend thousands of dollars on booster packs and all the in-game fluff.
- FREE TO PLAY. It costs nothing to download and you don’t have to buy anything with real money if you can’t afford to, although you do have the option to. Win or lose, you can still earn gold, one of two in-game currencies, which you can use to buy packs or enter events to earn gems, the second in-game currency, and buy other stuff. I’ll also mention here that the equivalent of a booster box costs half as much in-game as in real life. If you buy two of these for each set, you can easily collect every card in that set and the wildcards that you get from opening all those packs can help you craft anything that you may be missing.
- The animation may be unnecessary, but it is cool to watch when you summon a powerful creature and its little avatar pops up for a few seconds or when you attack your opponent and you see the cards slam into each other or your opponent’s avatar with a satisfying wham!
- You can play against anyone anywhere in the world at any time as long as you have an internet connection.
- Ranked tiers. Players who are new to Magic can play in ranked tiers without having to face an opponent who has been playing for 15 years and probably has one of the best decks in the meta. Although the goal is to get into one of those decks eventually, you’re mostly playing against players who are around the same skill or deck level as you.
- Unlike MTGO, Arena has a tutorial and there are a few rewards you can earn for playing against a bot while you’re still getting the hang of everything and trying to acquire cards to have a decent standard deck for ranked play.
- You only need up to a playset of the cards you use. Like MTGO, your decklists are on file and you can switch between decks without having to make changes to them.
- Any rares or mythics you collect beyond a playset turn into gems.
Cons (Disclaimer: As the game is still evolving and expanding, some of these may be fixed in the future and some are already on their way to being fixed.)
- Opening packs is the only way to get cards. It’s not easy to get the cards you want. Unlike MTGO and paper, you cannot buy or trade individual cards whenever you want to. However, the game does have wildcards which can be used to craft cards of the corresponding rarity. These can be found in packs, but you also earn them by opening so many packs. This does seem like a great idea until you try to complete a rare land cycle. All throughout Ravnica and into War of the Spark I spent every rare wildcard I got on those friggin’ shock lands so my decks could have an optimized mana base.
- Format options are limited. Right now standard is the biggest format on arena and it seems Wizards wants to keep it that way; it is generating cash for them after all. But if they do that, then all that time you put into your collection is wasted once rotation hits and those cards can’t see play anywhere else. To remedy this, Wizards created the historic format where you can continue to use rotated cards but earn fewer rewards for playing. There are also special events that come up every so often. Some of these offer preconstructed decks and others are constructed but ban certain cards.
- You need internet connection and right now its only available on PC. However, it has been announced that MTGA will be coming to MacOS in June of 2020 and a mobile release is in the concept stage of development.
- The booster packs you buy in the store only contain 8 cards (1 rare or mythic, 2 uncommon and 5 common) while those used in the booster draft events contain the usual 15.
- Disconnect errors. These have plagued the game since its beta days and the programmers have fixed them when it gets bad, but they can still happen every now and then.
If you want to play Magic while we have a virus running around, you should look to the digital world. This doesn’t mean paper Magic is going anywhere. Once things get back to normal, we’ll all be able to get back to our LGS and friends to play face-to-face like to good old days, but until then, going online will allow you to keep up with the meta and practice your skills.