In many ways, the fact that MTG Arena exists is a great thing for Magic: The Gathering. On the face of it, it’s an excellent system for playing digital Magic, more streamlined, more accessible and far, far prettier (and therefore more enticing) than Magic Online.
Thanks to MTG Arena, it’s never been easier for a person to go from never having heard of Magic: The Gathering to playing their first match. You don’t even have to buy a deck or, heck, even find another player now. You can just download the client, and, after a brief tutorial that gives you the gist of how to play MTG, you’re able to jump into a game with one of the free basic starter decks.
As far as we know, MTG Arena has been hugely successful for Wizards of the Coast. We may not have exact figures, but Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner reported the game’s “strongest period since launch” a few months after the outset of the pandemic, and said that its March 2021 mobile launch “exceeded all expectations”. It seems fair to assume that Arena is still doing the numbers, even if it was a tabletop resurgence that made 2021 Magic: The Gathering’s best year ever.
So with all that being said, given MTG Arena’s unparalleled potential to get new players on board, and its financial success, why does MTG Arena feel so lacklustre? Why is it so riddled with problems? And why isn’t more being done to expand its array of features?
Now, I don’t want to focus here on Arena’s troubling economy. This is an issue worthy of dissection, especially after the MTG Arena economy stream in March made it pretty clear that things were not going to improve any time soon. But any free to play title is always going to be making some compromises between giving its players a good time and getting them to cough up cash. So to head off any ‘Wizards has to make money’ arguments, I want to turn my focus elsewhere.
Instead, I’m wondering about the missing features and quality of life issues that MTG Arena is filled with – problems and gaps that are unequivocally negative, and which it seems to me there’s no obvious excuse for.
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When Wizards announced it was fixing a recent bug, which made deck building an absolute pain for me, as cards seemed to swap to their rebalanced Historic iterations at random, causing decks to become invalid for no reason, my first instinct was one of elation. Finally! That was so annoying. But after a moment’s reflection, I saw this for the pretty sad state of affairs that it is. I shouldn’t be punching the air when Wizards announces it’s removing a nuisance that plagued me for several months; that should be the norm. In fact, it should have happened sooner.
It just goes to show that when it comes to MTG Arena, Wizards has set my expectations low, low, depths of the Mariana Trench low. Bugs are squashed painfully slowly, and seem to crop up with more regularity; menu UIs change often, but rarely feel like a major step up; and without fail, the launch of a new set means everything comes off the rails. It’s no wonder that any small improvement gets a reaction.
To be fair about that latter point, from my personal experience Wizards has always been good about refunding ruined drafts, or providing extra MTG Arena codes to apologise for shoddy Day One experiences. But this seems like papering over the cracks, when surely the company could afford some more cement?
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Then there’s the huge pile of features that are striking in their absence. For instance, there’s the lack of good social tools or chat functions beyond spammable emotes and a tacked on Friends List. If you want a game that lets you play Magic: The Gathering with pals, or maybe make new ones, Arena isn’t it. Of course, with any global chat function, there’ll be those that try to abuse the system, and use it for unpleasantness. But is the answer really to avoid social tools completely, instead of making an effort to moderate and ban accounts for bad behaviour?
What else do we need? Well, how about a spectator mode so people can watch ongoing games and learn from more skilled players? Or a single player experience that goes deeper than a handful of tutorials; proper quests that encourage creativity, beyond the boring and repetitive ‘cast 20 red spells’ missions that make the game feel so grindy; stats tracking; game logs; custom lobbies. The list goes on and on.
None of these suggestions are groundbreakingly radical features. Other titles have them, and MTG Arena players have been asking for them for months or years. Three years down the line, we might reasonably expect some or all of these elements to have been added to the game and to be looking excitingly forward at better things to come. But there’s no hint that any of these are even in the works.
Why not? If Arena is successful, has lots of players and is making lots of money, why is there not more being invested in developing this game?
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Instead, MTG Arena almost seems to be going backwards. We currently can’t even pick a default basic land type, a feature that I could’ve sworn was in the game’s beta. Animations, a unique visual aspect of MTG Arena only possible in digital Magic, peaked in 2019 with Thrones of Eldraine and since then seem to have been pared back. What new stuff have we had, really? Pets?
Explorer, a new format which marks the first step in a long journey of getting Pioneer onto MTG Arena, is the first truly great feature to come to the game in a long while, and its arrival is rightly celebrated. But with so many of the fundamentals not in place, it’s hard to be overly hopeful about Arena’s future.
If Wizards put more into Arena, by now it could be twice the game it is today. Maybe the path to Pioneer would be many miles behind us, and we’d now be on the yellow brick road skipping happily towards Commander. One can dream.