I played Magic Arena “Free to Play” for 2 years and it’s been a complete slog

I’ve played many “free to play” games in the past, many “free to play” collectable card games in the past, and Magic Arena is the only one where I feel like the word “free” is less of a legitimate way to play, and more of a technically correct description.

Before Magic Arena came out, the only ‘legitimate’ way to play Magic: the Gathering online was through MTGO which, whist free to download and start playing, required you to drop $50, $75, $100 for even ‘budget’ decklists. This is still the case today, with the budget Blue White Fliers deck setting you back $49, although most of that is on the four copies of Hallowed Fountain. This isn’t to say that this kind of business model is a good or a bad thing necessarily. It’s just a fact that I, a uni-student by the time I started getting into playing CCGs online, was a lot more interested in the prospect of games, sold as “free to play” that I could realistically… you know… play for free. It was around this time Hearthstone, arguably the gunshot that set off an avalanche of free to play & exclusively online CCGs of the mid 2010’s, dropped. I played it to death and, despite never spending a penny on it, I rarely had to grind for more than a week or so to get enough packs and dust when new expansions came out. The option was always there to spend £30 and speed up the process (which is a separate and predatory issue that people like Jimquisition have discussed in depth over on his channel) but I never felt like I had to.

I liked the limited format Hearthstone offered at the time, and I could pretty regularly make my investment and then some back on runs, to the point where I could build up my collection pretty rapidly exclusively through playing The Arena. This also meant that, when I did have a series of rough runs, grinding the gold back up was never a chore because I had a variety of fun and competitive decks to climb the ladder on. I made it to platinum a couple of seasons and, whilst that’s not an unthinkable feat, I was pretty content with the balance between the difficulty of getting to higher ranks and the ease of getting the kinds of decks together that I could use to reach those higher ranks.

I found a remarkably similar experience with Riot’s recent offering of Legends of Runeterra. Within a week of the game’s launch I had a high tier deck in the regions I wanted (Shadow Isles and Ionia because I am an edgelord). Even when I took a month’s break from the game and game back to play with the first expansion, by the end of my first stream I had 80% of the cards I needed for the new deck I wanted (Shadow Isles and Bildgewater because I’m a Nautilus Fanboy edgelord) without having to buy a single wild-card. Much of the monetized product in LOR comes in the form of new boards, animated companions, and preconstructed intro-decks. Cosmetic microtransactions are still microtransactions, but there’s very little stopping you from playing LOR or HS at a competitive level whilst enjoying the product freely.

I’ve had a lot of fun playing these games, but they’ve never given me the same amount of enjoyment as the complexity of Magic. Drafting against real people in limited adds so many extra layers of skill and strategy over the simple “Pick The Best Out Of 3 Cards/Groups Of Cards” that HS and LOR offer. I’m much more invested in the characters and world of Magic, and singleton formats like EDH and Brawl are easily my favourite ways to play card games and is probably why I stopped playing Hearthstone after Mean Streets of Karazan rotated out of HS standard (rip Kazakus Priest). I’m so much more invested in the game that Magic offers over other CCGs, which is why it’s so frustrating that everything Magic comparatively excels at in terms of fun and design, it comparatively drops the ball at when it comes to delivering on a legitimately “free to play” model.

I’ve been playing Magic Arena pretty consistently for two years now, streaming at least twice a week, and playing in my down-time as well. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve drafted, nor how many packs I’ve opened and quests I’ve completed, and I regularly have to grind for hours and days for singular wild-cards to complete vital playsets, or to generate a quarter of the gold necessary to re-buy a draft after a bad run.

As an anecdote, this time last year I was training up two fellow streamers with special accounts given to us by WOTC for a charity event, each account coming preloaded with something like 40k gems to buy (supposedly) as many packs as we needed. Even with the equivalent of nearly half a real-world-grand’s worth of gems over both accounts neither account even came close to being able to put together even one of the two decks we were supposed to train with, nor did we generate enough reward packs during our training to finish our decks.

There are a lot of reasons why Magic Arena fails to live up to being a legitimately free to play game. A lack of a universal crafting ‘currency’ which HS and LOR have means that pro’s accounts are often left lousy with common and uncommon wild cards whilst the majority of decklists use rares and mythics as their foundations. Another issue is that, whilst even top tier decks in other CCGs contain a range of cards from all rarities, Magic decks are much more reliant on strictly-better rares and mythics to compete. Compare an S-tier LOR deck like Midrange Frostbite to a high tier MTG deck like Mono-Red aggro (traditionally the go-to budget competitive archetype). Just under 50% of this LOR deck is made of commons, a quarter is comprised of rares (equivalent to MTG uncommons) and the last quarter or so of the deck is made up of epics and legendaries (equivalent to MTG rares and mythics). Now let’s consider MTG’s mono-red aggro at time of writing. Whilst obviously some deck variation will occur, you’ll probably need at least twenty rare wildcards and eight mythic wildcards to gather the necessary pieces together, well over half the deck (excluding sideboards). This issue is also rooted in how Magic as a game operates and how it was designed long before Arena was a thing. HS and LOR have smaller deck sizes, and a tighter limit on the amount of cards you can run in any list: thirty cards with a max of two duplicates (excluding legendries) and forty cards with a max of three duplicates respectively. Standard Magic decks often require a playset of four cards for most cards in a given list, so you end up needing to craft more cards at high rarities more often in a game with comparably far less generous rewards.

It also hurts more when your cards rotate out of standard. HS offers a kind of buy-back option in the form of disenchanting your cards for half their value in dust, dust which you can then spend on getting any of the new cards you want. Arena, on the other hand, has no such feature. Spent four wildcards on a playset of cards that you won’t be playing with in two months? Woof, tough luck buddy. Thankfully historic is an option for you, and recently there’s been a big surge in the effectiveness of more budget decklists doing well in historic events, but whereas you can often pick up cards for standard just through daily and weekly rewards, historic cards can only be gotten through crafting them, buying them, or by playing in events like Jumpstart drafts and crossing your fingers. This means that, when a host of new historic cards do get released, free to play players have to make the choice between trying to keep up with standard or investing in new pieces for historic, it’s very difficult to do both. Equally, events like Jumpstart are a kick in the teeth for free to play players as, without any form of gold and gem reward they’re effectively a waste of precious resources. If you mainly play brawl (as I do now that it’s no-longer just limited to Wednesdays for no good reason) the hit is four times softer as you’re probably not creating playsets of cards in the first place, and most one-ofs that you do end up losing can be easily replaced. Brawl is how I’d recommend most free-to-play players aim for and enjoy arena, both because of how tired standard has felt for the last few months, and also the lower resource barrier for entry. It’s so much easier to build budget decks that still perform well, with a much greater inclusion rate of commons and uncommon compared to standard. However, it is unfortunate that Arena’s monetization model presents such hurdles to free-to-play players that it’s better to just ignore some it’s most popular ways to play.

This isn’t to say that you can’t have fun playing Arena as it’s marketed, nor is it impossible to build a competitive standard deck. It is, however, a much more tedious time than other online-only CCGs. The incredibly high price point for playing limited formats, compared to other games is another example of how it’s technically possible to play arena for free, but a complete slog if you do. Excluding buying gems, if you complete every daily quests, all fifteen daily win rewards, and weekly win rewards, you’ll be able to draft with bots once every three or four days and humans once a week. This isn’t wildly different to Hearthstone’s Arena where it’s entirely possible to get the one hundred and fifty gold you need for an Arena draft in one day (one daily quest and thirty wins) or two days (two daily quests and fifteen wins across two days). However, the rewards of limited runs are where the two games differ and where Arena (Magic’s not Hearthstone. God that’s confusing) becomes a lot more grindy.

Your rewards in Hearthstone’s Arena are given out in packs, cards and gold. You’ll make your investment back on five or six wins and even if you don’t get that far you’ll still get a minimum of fifty gold from a zero win run which sets you up to easily get another shot the next day. Magic Arena, on the other hand, rewards you in gems which can only be earned through limited matches, special events, mastery rewards, or bought for real money. If you put down 5k gold on a quick draft and only get five wins, you can’t easily earn the hundred more gems you need to re-enter the draft without buying more. So it’s back to the three day grind with the one or two competitive decks you’ve been able to mostly build.

Again, this isn’t to say that it’s impossible to play Magic Arena as it’s advertised to us as a “Free to Play” game. It is, however, a comparably inhospitable game for free to play players if you want to do anything other than jam a fun brawl deck and occasionally draft as a treat. The additional pressure and temptation the game puts on you to just drop $50 and make all this grind go away is insidious even when compared to other games which use and promote microtransactions. If a game is being marketed as “free to play”, playing it freely should be viable and enjoyable, not riddled with frustration to the point where it feels less like an option, and more of a begrudging concession on Wizard’s part.

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