It is no surprise that Wizards are pushing Arena (MTGA) over Magic Online (MTGO), with the microtransaction model and flashy graphics being favoured over a more tournament friendly interface. At first glance, it would seem as though MTGO would be the superior platform for tournament play, although a lot of that comes from the existing infrastructure: MTGA is running its’ first ever Mythic Championship Qualifier this weekend and it could be the final nail in MTGO’s coffin.
If you have plans of reaching the upper echelons of competitive Magic, there is no doubt that MTGA will be part of it - after all, Wizards are pushing the platform at every juncture. Regardless of whether you prefer MTGA or MTGO, you should create an account on Arena sooner rather than later and start grinding your way to a collection, or it can be quite the expensive venture.
So, how does Arena actually compare to MTGO?
Pro: MTGA makes you a better loser
For me, the greatest benefit of MTG Arena has been the different mindset with which I approach competitive games. To truly see the difference, all we need to do is compare the MTGA experience to that of MTGO.
If you are a competitive player, you will be aiming to grind your way to a qualifier invite - this can be done on MTGO via the rather complicated MOCS system, or on MTGA via the simpler MCQ system.
The classic way to grind MTGO is to play as many leagues as you can each evening (likely 1-2 if you have a 9-5 job). Since these leagues have an entry fee, you are likely to concentrate more and play more deliberately than you would a friendly: after all, you want to keep a high win rate so you can ‘go infinite’. What this means is that losing a particularly long game can lead to huge frustration as you simmer over that one poor decision whilst you wait for your next round to be paired. Before you know it, you’ve gone 2-3 and you’ve wasted 2 hours of your life achieving effectively nothing.
Arena, however, allows for you to spam games. Games are faster-paced and shorter in length, especially if you’re playing an aggro deck in best of one (BO1). You load up your 18 Mountain deck, you frantically double click every card you can play, you tank for 10 seconds on that one crucial point and 2 minutes later you have your pip. Whilst on MTGO you play 5 matches in an hour, you just completed 25 games on Arena. Not only is it more gratifying to rank up quickly, but you have no time to think about your mistakes - you’re already in turn 2 of your next game! And to top it all off, if you do lose, you just slam the Play button to go again.
I’ve had plenty of leagues on MTGO where I’ve had to sweat it for that 3rd win to break even on a league and I’ve been left tired and disappointed with the result. On Arena, however, even 5 game losing streaks are quick to get over as you just play more games.
Arena has taught me that losing a game doesn’t matter, there are always more games to be played just around the corner. I have adapted this mindset to tabletop Magic and I can see a clear difference where I care a lot less about my losses than I used to: for example, I took losing my win and in for day 2 at PT Madrid much harder than I took the 5th loss in MC Cleveland.
Con: MTGA makes you too good a loser
Whilst being able to care less about hard losses is great, it is also a dangerous process to simply port into your games. You need to be mindful of what tournament you are playing and what the stakes are: whilst losing a ladder game, or a MTGA draft game, can be immediately replaced, losing a match at a GP is not so trivial.
I’ve noticed that due to the fast pace of MTGA and my ability to chain games endlessly, I often will stop thinking and just play for the sake of playing, which leads to keeping hands I would never keep in a ‘real’ game or misclicking because I am half-watching Netflix on the side. I’ve been somewhat fortunate that I don’t think this has clouded my judgment in tabletop games, but I have also started to pause on my first opening hand of the day and ensuring I am focused and ready to play a game that matters, rather than hit the Keep button because ‘I have lands and spells, so why not?’
Pro: Card economy is pretty simple
MTGA has a much easier to manage card economy than MTGO, mostly because you don’t need to worry about fluctuating prices. There are a few steps you can follow to maximise your collection and make sure you can play whatever you want with little investment:
- Wins beyond the 5th award at most 50 gold. If you are strapped for time, you should try to win 4 games daily to maximise gold-per-game. As a direct follow-up, if you are not constrained by time, you should collect your 15 wins daily to maximise payout.
- If any of your daily quests award 500 coins, re-roll them. You have a chance to hit a 750 instead, which is basically free gold.
- Avoid using gold to ranked draft whatever the latest set is, you should try to draft non-current sets to maximise your chance of collecting older cards without spending wildcards.
- Save your gems for new sets: you both get to draft more of the new exciting cards (as you have more stored gems) and you get to open more new cards quickly, which helps with your wildcard management.
- As soon as a new set is available, use about 70-80% of your common and uncommon wildcards to craft cards you are planning to pick highly - you always have a lot of surplus (un)common wildcards and you won’t need many for older cards, since you’re using your gold to draft old sets and get cards that way - this method allows you to turn new drafted cards into vault progress quickly and thus turn a large amount of (un)common wildcards into rare/mythic wildcards
- Avoid crafting latest set rares if you can! You will be drafting a lot of the set, so only craft if you really need to finish a deck right now
- Rare draft! You should be able to cobble together a decent/good draft deck even if you waste a couple of picks: if you see a rare or mythic you need for your collection, just take it
- Lastly - if neither of these cards will make your deck, take the one with the highest rarity (again, filling vault quicker means more good wildcards quicker)
Con: Card availability for tournaments can be an issue
You need to strike a balance between time you are willing to invest in grinding (both ladder and collection) against money you are willing to spend. I am currently about 20-25 WAR drafts into the format on Arena and I have a reasonable percentage of the set, including most commons/uncommons due to the above plan. I am also reasonably well stocked in non-rare wildcards, to the extent that I think I can build any deck I want on a whim, so long as it doesn’t need any new rares.
Rares, however, are a real problem. Every microtransaction model has a choke point of resources, which requires planning, time and/or money to get around. I am using MTGA as a platform to test decks for MCQs, both tabletop and online, and so I’ve had to spend almost all my available rare wildcards to craft these decks. For example, if I wanted to play Jeskai Planeswalkers at the MCQ, I would be unable to build the deck as I don’t own enough copies of Sarkhan the Masterless nor do I own enough rare wildcards to craft them.
Perhaps this was poor planning, perhaps I should have spent more time getting a few more drafts in; but the reality is that I may have a card availability issue for this important tournament, which I cannot solve without adding considerable time and/or money. Make sure you plan accordingly.
Pro: Smoother interface
Before you dismiss this point based on the often baffling mana tapper AI, just consider how much better the game looks on Arena compared to MTGO. You don’t have to click each land, you don’t have to use awkward keyboard shortcuts (oops, accidentally F6 the turn…) and you don’t have to endure the pain of casting a spell through a Signet (no one in the history of MTGO has successfully cast their spell first time!).
What you do get is a smooth drag-and-drop with appropriate graphics, automatic trigger stacking and damage assignment (if you wish) as well as a faster experience when dealing with turn passing.
You do have a few issues, notably attempting to play Nexus of Fate (you can’t set a permanent stop on your end step, even with a trigger), the lack of/terrible bluffing (auto-passing when you have Negate mana up, telling your opponent you don’t have it) and blocking (trying to set up double/triple blocks with 5+ creatures is not at all visually appealing, and can sometimes be extremely confusing).
Con: Standard only
Whilst this could change, it seems very unlikely that Modern will come to Arena any time soon. As a Modern enthusiast, this means I can’t just get rid of MTGO for good, as I still need a tool to test online for Modern (/Legacy?) tournaments. MTGO making it so easy to buy/sell decks means you can realistically test a different deck each evening, with no problems whatsoever.
Perhaps one day I can witness Jace, the Mind Sculptor giving me some sass on Arena…
Con: MTGA leads to faster burnout
This is arguable the largest downside to the new platform, and the leading argument towards sticking to MTGO. In general, MTGO has a limited amount of time for you to spend on it when you load it up - the introduction of ManaTraders in particular has led to players wanting to complete their leagues to not waste money. With few exceptions, you’re going to set yourself 1-2 leagues, or 1 tournament, and you’ll play until that event ends - when it does, you’re done for the day.
MTGA, however, has no such limit. You load it up and you draft, then you might draft again, then you play a quick match which leads to another and another and suddenly you’ve been playing for 4 hours and have no idea where your evening went. The Arena model is addictive in nature, and it’s very hard for you to just choose to stop when you could play just one more match, right?
This, together with wanting to hit a certain goal (usually Mythic) in an allotted time frame, means you have to play more and more games. This in turn leads to a spiral of play more games > lose more games > play more games to make up the ranks you lost > lose more games, etc, which leads to frustration, disappointment and burnout.
The grind is real and you will not survive it if you don’t take care of yourself. You have to accept that sometimes you won’t hit mythic and your time is better spent doing something else relaxing to take your mind off the grind. As a personal example, my aim was to hit mythic each season so hitting mythic the season after would be easier, yet I spent the better part last season barely loading Arena as I simply wasn’t enjoying it.
But in the end, who actually wore it better?
It may be controversial, but I think MTGA did.
The sleeker graphics and better gameplay together with a faster environment gives MTGA the edge over MTGO’s old graphics and clunky experience. Most of the qualms players have with MTGA are being addressed (it is still on a beta version after all) and the game becomes a better experience week in, week out.
The greatest lesson Arena has taught me is that there is a limit to how much you can invest into your aims before it becomes detrimental. I am quite competitive by nature, and I hate losing - don’t we all? Two seasons ago, I had a lot of fun climbing ladder in RIX limited (I’m one of very few that actually likes that format) and carelessly climbing BO1 games with Esper Acuity. Carelessly is the key word there - I wasn’t trying to hit mythic, and I didn’t care if I didn’t. I had some spare time between drafting and bedtime, so I played a few games with a deck I enjoyed, and happened to win with.
Magic, above all else, is a game. You need to find the decks/formats you truly enjoy and play those. For me, it was the RIX limited format and the Acuity nonsense that made me enjoy myself. Perhaps this approach will make you enjoy the game a bit more too!
About Joao Choca:
Joao started playing competitive Magic in England in 2007 and has been a Grand Prix grinder since then. Joao has retained Bronze status since induction and has been rewarded for his consistent results with a win in Grand Prix Turin 2018. He enjoys thinking outside the box and is one of the more creative team members when it comes to fresh ideas. His approach is one of gradual improvement and he is constantly looking for flaws to fix in his game. His aim is to achieve Silver and stay on the Pro Tour circuit.