A comprehensive guide of what you need to know to start out in the digital collectible card game
While I did have collectible cards as a kid, I never got to play a trading card game against anyone. I’m happy to report that after 22 years, that has changed. When I started dating my current partner, he introduced me to Magic: The Gathering – frequently abbreviated to MTG or Magic – through its digital platform Arena. While we also got to play with his Black-Green print decks soon after, I really got into playing Arena in late 2018 for many reasons discussed below.
Here are 8 amazing things I learned as a beginner in MTG Arena, in no particular order, which you definitely need to know before you start to play!
1. The Magic plotline is extremely well-developed.
Initially, the card game as we know it was not story-driven when its initial 9.9 million print run of 295 different illustrated collectible cards was released by Wizards of the Coast company in August 1993. Since more cards meant increased ability to manipulate the game in your favor, the collectible-card format of MTG inspired many other similar card games looking to sell many packs, examples of which are Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon.
Magic soon outstripped these imitators with its deep mythological foundation and its complex story line. The game started out as Five Magics, a card game created by mathematician Richard Garfield in 1982 where the character role-played as a planeswalker who could travel between worlds. The same story was actualized in Magic where each card set expansion would build on the existing world or add new ones.
The history of Magic covers almost over 25,000 years of multiverse lore. The background of the game is also elaborated on in companion books and novels, which describe the first major plot event as the Elder Dragon War in which Nicol Bolas wins. Nicol Bolas subsequently tries to conquer other planes, while Yawgmoth controls the Phyrexia plane for evil ends and is fought by the planeswalker Urza. Many other side stories follow other planeswalkers like Urza, Ajani, and Niv-Mizzet as they deal with the fracturing of the different planes of the universe and the plans for domination set in motion by Nicol Bolas. All these events are expounded on through the card expansions which represent the characters, objects, and settings in the Magic multiverse.
A set of card expansions would be called a block, just like the Ixalan block exploring that world had two card sets: Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan. I started playing Arena while those sets were still current, with over 25 blocks of card sets between that and the very first Ice Age block. I got to go through the sets Dominaria, Guilds of Ravnica, Ravnica Allegiance and War of the Spark which followed. Each of these card sets built into different storylines and focused on different characters, some new and some existent from the beginning of the plot of Magic.
I would say that no card game has lore as complex as Magic’s, or as interesting. I never got as absorbed by Hearthstone as I have been with Arena, which I personally think is the superior game, hands-down.
2. The basic rules are very intuitive in Arena.
Players select a deck of 60 to start a game, and upon beginning, are given a random hand of 7 cards, which they can keep or “mulligan,” meaning that they can get a new hand with the requirement of discarding one card for every new hand taken.
The person who begins the game is randomly selected. They put down a land card to start, giving them the equivalent “mana” resources to play other cards. Cards can be spells, objects or creatures with different mana values that are seen on the top right of the card. For example, the Skymarch Bloodletter was a 3-to-cast card because it required 2 mana of any color and 1 black mana. I needed to put my 3 lands down before I could play the card.
Spells like Instants dissipate after they are used, while creatures remain on the battlefield to defend your player character and attack your opponent. Players take turns one after the other. The game ends when one player’s life total goes from 20 to zero, or when they draw a card after their available deck has been exhausted, either by regular play or by “milling” where the opponent exiles or force-discards their cards.
3. The functionalities of Arena to ease gameplay are impressive.
I realized when playing paper MTG that Arena is a breeze in-game. From the start of play, composing a deck of your choice is easier because the library is search-optimized, allowing you to sort by type, color, ability, name and so on. In real life, you rifle through the cards, which are not categorized unless you’re that kind of person. Other functions I found convenient were:
- While playing the game, lands untap automatically, as opposed to you having to turn the land cards 90 degrees clockwise on the tabletop every time they are tapped. In my first few turns on tabletop, I always forgot to untap my lands!
- Mana is counted out for you, so castable cards are automatically highlighted by a blue glow around their border which turns yellow-orange when you are about to cast. Other cards that can be cast from the graveyard are also highlighted by special colors, such as a blue-purple electricity effect for Radical Idea if I’m not mistaken.
- The sequence of turns is flashed on the lower right of the screen, making it easier for me to know when I can execute certain plays such as with sorcery cards, which cannot be cast during attack. Arena is where I learned combat tricks, such as using Instant spells after the opponent has blocked to target my attackers or their blockers. It was a bit of a nightmare for me to strategize in tabletop, because I wasn’t quite sure at what point I could jump in, and I did make a few errors here and there. Don’t worry, you’ll pick it up!
- The “stack” or sequence of cards being cast back and forth is conveniently arranged so that the spells that come into play or are “resolved” in reverse sequence, from last played to first played. This is a breeze in Arena, but I must say that you may also have fun figuring out the stack while playing tabletop which is really one of the skills that shows your mastery of the game.
- Emblems and special effects are indicated to the left of each players’ side of the battlefield. Most emblems I have seen are granted by planeswalker powers, although some are on creature cards. For example, Skymarcher Aspirant has the Ascend ability which requires the “city’s blessing” to gain flying. The ability is triggered once you have 10 or more permanents, and the blessing will appear as a permanent square marker depicting a city.
Additionally, the animations are great on every level from the levitating cards indicating flying creatures, to the explosive effects every time a planeswalker is played. The special sound effects for various cards also add to an immersive experience in the MTG multiverse.
4. Arena is essentially free-to-play.
I say essentially because Arena follows a freemium format. You can purchase gems to buy additional cards, sleeves, character styles, and other paid add-ons. Regardless, the game allows you to earn gold, cards, and packs via daily wins and quests. These quests can also be refreshed, so you can roll the dice and hope that the replacement quest nets you a much better reward.
Since I’ve been able to stockpile coins, I’ve never felt a need to buy anything other than the welcome bundle, which cost me $5. It was a pretty good deal in which I got 2500 gems and 5 packs. In comparison, the same amount of money would get me a 750-gem bundle. That number of gems allows participation in a ranked draft with three packs included, or card sleeves or three packs at 600 gems with 150 gems left over.
In terms of physical cards, one physical pack would cost you four dollars, and assembling a whole deck could take huge amounts of time, effort and cash. Moreover, card prices vary at shops and on auctions depending on demand—the most expensive and sought-after card, the Black Lotus, recently sold for 166 thousand US dollars.
Look at it any way you want—but when starting out in Arena, the welcome bundle would be the most cost-efficient way to boost your play, since you get many gems that you can use to purchase packs for your card collection or to join play formats with entry fees. Currently, the only things that can be purchased with gold are 1 pack for 1,000 gold; the avatars Huatli and Angrath for 3,000 gold each; and a Liliana/Yoshitaka Amano sleeve pack for 4,000 gold.
Another good investment for those looking to get serious about playing Arena would be the Mastery Pass, which is 3,400 gems or worth $20. The Pass provides extra rewards for Arena aside from those which can be gained from regular play. Channel Fireball, a great resource on all things Magic, provided analysis of how the returns of the Pass are huge for regular players. I haven’t opted into the Pass as I would consider myself a casual, thus I’ve only reached mastery level 13 so far.
The Pass gives gems, packs, gold and Mastery Orbs which can unlock additional cosmetic rewards such as alternate art or sleeves. The gift trail may be a thrilling temptation for those that are going to play every day. If the Pass is not important enough to spend cash on, I recommend just playing for free and accumulating the currency you earn along the way. Don’t forget the free store codes to redeem some extra swag!
5. The card sets and possible strategies are continually expanding.
At the start, you will be playing with basic decks and a tutorial with a spark blob, appropriately named Sparky. As you progress in-game, MTG will provide other standard decks of one or two colors. You will be able to get cards from quests, or from rewarded or purchased packs. Special cards include wild cards in different rarities for players to use in redeeming cards they would otherwise have to purchase. In my experience, Rare wildcards are the easiest to run out of since you will need them to redeem a lot of strategic cards.
limitless card combos
I always thought long and hard about how to spend my wildcards. My very first purchase using a Mythic Rare wildcard was to redeem a Rekindling Phoenix, which if annihilated would generate a 1/1 Totem token. That token would be replaced by a resurrected Rekindling Phoenix on my next turn, and the ability to fearlessly block was pivotal for my Red-White deck. Another important purchase was Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca, which rounded out my Blue-Green merfolk deck with its power to tap merfolk for certain abilities.
It truly is a challenge to assemble cards representing your play style with so many differently-powered options. Now that certain Core Set 2019 cards are about to be phased out for the Core Set 2020, I also feel regret at having to give up my favorite playing cards. Regardless, the fact that over 20 thousand cards have been added to Magic over the years is what makes it the “most computationally complex game known in the literature.” The many possible strategies combined with the extremely large range of abilities of cards make predictions almost impossible as the game is mathematically non-computable.
What contributes to the complexity is the synergy in your card choices across different colors and card sets. I personally find the white Ajani’s Welcome, which gives you 1 life when a creature enters play, an important enchantment to match with white cards such as Ajani’s Pridemate which adds a +1/+1 counter every time you gain life. Later on, I realized that the Pridemate would work well with black creatures that gave me life such as Epicure of Blood. Other combos can be devastating, such as in the case of the game-breaking infinite combo of Marauding Raptor and Polyraptor.
three Game formats
There are generally three formats for Arena card games, called Constructed, Limited, and Exploration. Constructed involves at least 60 cards with players using up to four of the same card from their own collection. Limited involves deck creation using packs that they have to buy before entering the game. Both of these formats have a Ranked version which allows you to fight across 6 tiers from bronze to mythic with four levels per tier, and a corresponding reward at the end of the season.
Wizards of the Coast tests out different rule sets in other Exploration special events, such as the recurring Singleton play format which allows only one copy of a card per deck. Cards from different sets can be featured, which allows people to play cards from previous blocks that have already been phased out in normal rotation.
five magic colors
Aside from formats, the color of cards chosen also determine various playing styles as well. This is because each color has certain mechanics unique to it which determine its offensive and defensive qualities. For example, the color white boasts of many creatures and spells which have life gain, ally-boosting, or other protective abilities. Blue has many counterspells and other tricky things like observing and controlling an opponent’s hand or library. Black can affect opponents with status-deteriorating conditions and can destroy creatures, while red has more offensive creatures with higher stats. Lastly, green emphasizes powerful creatures with effects that boost each other.
As each year passes, the differently-colored card sets available are continually expanding with the plot, which is why you can never get bored in exploring all your options. You can search deck arrangements if you’re stumped for how to execute certain plays, or if you want inspiration. It took me more than a couple of months to find the perfect strategy and create the deck from scratch, so don’t feel rushed and take your time.
6. The diverse art and flavor text contribute to the lore.
Amazing artists work with Wizards of the Coast to produce immaculately drawn and colored fantasy art accompanying each Magic card, which is highly appreciated by the community. I’ve been taking more note of the wonderful depictions such as Johannes Voss’s Gift of Orzhova, an Enchantment featuring brilliantly-colored wings. My recent obsession has been the Unhinged land cards, which were depicted in work by John Avon:
I really love full-art basic lands, since I feel that the space on the card is maximized by the removal of the accompanying text box that doesn’t really contain flavor text, to begin with.
When the card isn’t a basic land, I feel the flavor text adds to the realism and the lore of Magic. Oftentimes the text describes the part of the multiverse where the card was introduced. Sometimes, it describes mechanics of the card through witty barbs or contains a quote from an associated character. A funny example is from Cannon Fodder, a 4-to-cast Artifact:
Step 1: Find your cousin.
Step 2: Get your cousin in the cannon.
Step 3: Find another cousin.
Flavor text can be extremely sentimental, and that adds to my attachment for the game. Some life advice that’s particularly resounding for me is on the Sorcery card Live Fast which states: “When you have the chance, take it. Laugh, sing, dance. Don’t allow the night to end.” Matching this is another Sorcery spell, Die Young, which reads: “When the time comes, let go. Nothing lasts forever.” It really makes you think about not only the game but life in general.
7. The media associated with Magic is expanding.
Due to the huge impact Magic has made, media has loved to depict the lives of many of the game’s players. A great documentary by Vice, entitled MTG: Into the World’s Most Played Trading Card Game, goes into the lives of people from different ages playing in different circuits such as vintage Magic card formats. Another documentary, Enter the Battlefield, looks at competitive players in the MTG Pro Tour.
Animation did not spare Magic either. South Park did an episode featuring the game, entitled “Cock Magic”:
In the many official and fanmade Youtube channels, be prepared for the vocabulary of lingo which describes several things in the game. A couple of basic terms include mana screw or when you have no lands generating mana, and mana flood or when the opposite occurs and you have too many lands. If you don’t understand something, don’t hesitate to search available community resources! Wizards of the Coast runs a website and Youtube channel for news and updates, as does Channel Fireball. The Reddit boards are at /r/MagicArena and many other social media groups exist for Magic on Twitch, Facebook, and Twitter.
Before I forget, another Magic game available aside from Arena is the still downloadable 2002 MTG Online, which first made the 26-year-old playing card came available via the Internet. Unfortunately, MTG Online saw a sharp decline in popularity after the release of Arena and may not be a subsisting project for much longer.
Exciting news may eclipse this loss for the gaming community, as Joe and Anthony Russo, the brothers responsible for Avengers: Endgame, are going to be making an MTG animated series for Netflix along with Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro’s Allspark animation company. I’m extremely excited to see more investment into media that ties up with Arena, especially from such well-reknowned producers.
8. The Magic community is amazingly supportive.
Since the inception of Arena, the game has been downloaded over 30 million times and is played millions of times every day in eleven different languages. If you add to the number and download Arena too, you will be sure to add to your skill before playing MTG in print, which is often done during weekly Friday Night Magic tournaments in over six thousand stores worldwide. Less casual and more professional playing can be seen during competitive tournaments such as the Grand Prix and the Magic World Championship. Magic has various channels on Youtube streaming and commenting on tournament matches, such as the 2019 Mythic Championship:
Another thing that makes the Magic community so great is the sense of community. While there may be bigots, as there are everywhere, the people of Magic truly support the expansion of the game to reach women, different genders and races. One notable group is the Lady Planeswalker Society, founded to create an alternative space for women and other individuals outside the male-dominated Magic scene. Wizards of the Coast followed suit, taking up a more inclusive approach to women and people of color in their card designs and game development teams. Game designers have even included gay, nonbinary, and transgender characters on cards. On forums and Magic social media channels, inclusivity of all gamers is ensured by banning players for personal and online harassment, bullying, or bigoted behavior.
I highly encourage you to try dipping your toes into the world of Magic, and the Arena platform is one of the best ways to start. It will teach you the basic rules and put at your fingertips all the knowledge you need to organize cards into a synergized strategy. You’ll get to practice with others and find out how to beat multiple tactics from other players. Maybe you’ll get comfortable with joining an online or physical Magic community, and maybe not, but Arena really will deliver on the essential Magic experience.