Beginner’s Guide for Magic: the Gathering Arena

Let guest writer Jesse Cramer be your Demonic Tutor in the fantastic world of MTG: Arena.

If you’ve shied away from Magic: the Gathering because physical card games aren’t for you, it’s time to rethink your hesitation. This beginner’s guide for Magic: the Gathering Arena will give you every detail about playing the world’s most iconic collectible card game on your PC.

If you’ve played or seen Hearthstone, then Magic: the Gathering Arena will feel familiar. This killer new game—released in September 2019—allows you to sling Magic spells with the touch of a button. While currently only available on PC, there are rapid plans to get Arena ported to Mac, iOS, Android, and even video game consoles in the near future.

Magic: the Gathering…that card game?

Before Pokemon or Yu-gi-oh, Magic: the Gathering was blazing the trail of collectible card games (CCGs). Created by Richard Garfield in 1993, MTG pits two (or more) players against one another in a magical duel.

Players can buy cards from game stores and build decks—or libraries—of cards to play the actual game. Some cards provide mana (an in-game energy resource), while other cards use that mana to cast magical spells. Some spells are one-time use (e.g. Fireball—just like Dungeons & Dragons!), while others summon permanent creatures that stay on the game board to attack and defend.

Fireball · Magic 2012 (M12) #131 · Scryfall Magic: The Gathering ...
Strategic gamers love MTG for detailed possibility trees and resource planning. It’s a combination of poker and chess. Skill matters, but you’re also at the mercy of whatever card happens to be on top of your deck. Every game move provides new information to assist with future planning, but the amount of hidden information keeps each game fresh and different.
Casual gamers are frequently drawn to Magic for its beautiful artwork and creative world-building. Recent card sets have been designed to tell the myths of ancient Greece (Theros), to put you in the middle of political battles across a city-planet (Ravnica), and have even used the worn-out trope of vampire conquistadors exploring a dinosaur-infested island (Ixalan). Magic is just cool.
The game contains five different colors of mana, each of which have their own strengths and weaknesses within the game.
Green, for example, specializes in growth and gigantic creatures. That’s exciting, until you realize that green’s love of life means that it doesn’t have an effective way of removing an opponent’s creatures.
Black is the Machiavellian color, doing whatever it takes to win. Black uses its own life as a resource and will sacrifice its own creatures for a chance to win.
Red is the color of fire and fury, using fast attacks at the cost of potentially flaming out. Can you burn your opponent before they put up their defenses?
Blue is the color of analysis and wisdom. In Magic’s history, blue has often been the clear-cut most powerful color (much to the game designers’ chagrin). But blue hamstrings itself with “analysis paralysis.” While an opponent is attacking with vicious monsters, the poor blue mage might still be engineering his foundation.
White is the color of order and justice and organized attack. But its affinity for toeing the line means that it doesn’t get effective ways of bending the rules.
Where would you put the civilizations on the *Magic the Gathering ...
Bending the rules? That’s right. Perhaps the coolest aspect of Magic: the Gathering is the rule design. The game has a large set of universal codified rules, but the most important rule is: the text on an individual card always overrules the game’s larger ruleset. Wait—what?!
For example, a simple universal rule of Magic is that when a player goes to zero life, they lose the game. Easy rule. Makes sense. No life, you lose.
But take a look at the card Triskaidekaphobia (literally, fear of the number 13). That card—from the gothic-horror world of Innistrad—says, “If any player has exactly 13 life, they lose the game.” Yikes! 13 really is unlucky!
Magic: the Gathering is full of these amazing game pieces. The art is creative. The worlds are fanciful. And the strategy is deep. How do you build the spider’s web to get your opponent to unsuspectingly end up exactly at 13 life points?!
That’s Magic: the Gathering, in general. But what’s special about Magic: the Gathering Arena?

Life before Magic: the Gathering Arena

Up until September 2019, Magic players had two predominant ways of playing. They could buy physical cards, build physical card decks, and play on tabletop. Or they could play digitally via MTG Online, an official software offered by Magic studio Wizards of the Coast.

But both methods have their issues. While physical play is socially beneficial, it’s both expensive ($500-$1000 for competitive decks) and tough to coordinate. And now we have to consider COVID-19. In-person Magic is on a permanent hiatus.

MTG Online is also expensive. And it has separate logistical issues. Since its inception, MTGO has been plagued with software glitches and awkward user interfaces. There’s an interesting digital economy for MTG Online, but it’s reminiscent of cryptocurrency. Pay lots of money for a digital product that might appreciate or might lose all its worth.

Magic: the Gathering Arena addresses both of those issues as part of the most comprehensive digital offering in Magic: the Gathering’s storied history.

Your first steps on Magic: the Gathering Arena

Magic Arena is free to download and largely free to play. It utilizes a “freemium” economy, where the user can play for a limited time each day for free, and then choose to pay-to-play thereafter.

The biggest downside, as of this writing, is that Arena is only available for PC computers. Thankfully, there are plans to release Arena on Mac, iOS and Android, and video game consoles (likely in that order).

So, you’ve downloaded the game. What’s next?

Perhaps the largest barrier to entry in Magic is its complexity. Individual cards contain many pieces of important game information. The game-board can have dozens of cards on it at once. Each player has a life total, hidden cards in their hand, a graveyard of used cards, etc. There’s so much information!

Magic: the Gathering Arena does an outstanding job of reducing this complexity and shortening the learning curve for new players. Not only is the user interface easy to learn, but Arena provides new players with an excellent tutorial to help along the way. You should definitely play the tutorial!

Even if you’ve never played Magic: the Gathering, you’ll find MTG Arena exciting right from the start.

You’ll start your account with five pre-constructed decks (one of each color) and three booster packs of 15 random cards each. While these decks and boosters are likely too weak to win major tournaments, they’re exactly what you need to get started in the lower level queues and daily quests.

As you play and win more, you’ll advance through the game’s mastery levels. You’ll start out at Bronze, but eventually work up through Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, and Mythic. At each level-up, you’ll be matched with more challenging opponents—other people who have leveled-up like you.

The MTG Arena Economy

There are two types of currency on MTG Arena that you’ll need to understand: gold and gems. For clarity—these are not resources used in the game of Magic. Rather, they are used to enter Arena tournaments, buy digital cards, or unlock cool user profile avatars.

You can acquire gold through winning games, winning tournaments, or successfully completing daily “quests.” Gems, meanwhile, are earned via events and tournaments or from the game’s store—i.e. buying gems with real-life money.

Note: when you download MTG Arena, you’ll be offered a bunch of gems for only $4.99. This is the best deal on in-game currency that you’ll ever get, so I recommend you take advantage of it.

Every day, you’ll have the option to play in a limited number of free games and free quests. Despite being free, these games and quests reward you with usable gold and gems. In this way, MTG Arena can be 100% free to play. You knock out your free events each day, collect the winnings, but never contribute an additional dollar. Beyond these free events, you can spend your gems and gold to continue playing.

As you continue playing, you’ll have the opportunity to open packs of (digital) cards. These cards can be used to assemble more diverse and more competitive decks. Those decks—ideally—can be used to win more games and earn more prizes. You’ll improve at the game and your deck will improve.

The cards that you acquire will largely be random, except for when you earn wild cards. Wild cards can be exchanged for specific cards of your choosing, including those of higher rarities. That’s right—the cards in Magic have various rarities. In general, common cards are less powerful. Rare cards tend to be more powerful.

If you want to build an A-plus deck, it’ll take some time to acquire the gems, gold, and wild cards needed to assemble your all-powerful card set.

MTG Arena Gameplay

Unlike tabletop play or the old MTG Online interface, Magic: the Gathering Arena has a fun animated interface.

When your dragon attacks in MTG Arena, it actually breathes fire. When your goblin dies, it squeals on its way to the graveyard. The game designers have taken the card game and brought the fantasy aspects to life.

The user interface also makes it easy to understand the game state. You can zoom in on specific cards to re-read their statistics. You can easily tell how many cards your opponent has, or how many cards you have left in your library. Despite the game’s complexity, Arena is easy to use and understand.

But then there’s another huge question: are all games of Magic: the Gathering the same? Answer: huge no! The easiest metaphor is to think of traditional playing cards. With the same set of clubs, hearts, diamonds, and spades, you can play poker or Go Fish or War. MTG also has many different formats.

The most popular formats on MTG Arena are Standard, Historic, Draft, Singleton, and Brawl. Each format has a slightly different requirement for how players build their decks.

Singleton, for example, limits players to one copy of any given card—normally, the limit is four copies in a single deck. Standard only utilizes cards printed in the past 1-2 years, so the format is constantly changing as new cards are created and old cards rotate out.

Brawl is a cool one—you choose a single powerful creature to act as your leader, and all other cards have to share a card color with that leader. These decks are often very creative and thematic—e.g. my crafty Merfolk deck against your raging Goblins deck.

But perhaps the most strategic format is draft. A group of eight players form a draft. They take turns selecting a single card from a random booster pack, then pass the rest of the pack onto the next player. Each player makes 45 draft picks, which forms their card pool for the actual gameplay.

Half the fun is drafting the cards—before the gameplay even begins. Each player is building their deck in real-time and reading hidden signals about what colors their drafting neighbors might be selecting. And since drafts start with random booster packs, no two drafts are ever the same.

Start playing Magic: the Gathering Arena today!

Magic: the Gathering is a timeless game. Arena now provides a world-class interface for new and experienced players alike. It’s free to download and can be completely free to play. Unlike expensive video games, your net worth is not a barrier to entry.

Have fun and good luck!

Lucky Clover (Throne of Eldraine) - Gatherer - Magic: The Gathering

One response to “Beginner’s Guide for Magic: the Gathering Arena”

  1. […] players. Check out the thriving fanbases online or get your feet wet by learning the ropes of Magic: The Gathering Arena, an online version of the […]

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