Magic: The Gathering is one the oldest and strongest trading card games. The idea is simple: you collect cards packed with beautiful artwork and arcane-looking rules and text and assemble them into a deck. Then you pit that deck against other people, taking turns to drain their life to zero, force them to use their entire deck or fulfill a few other niche-win conditions.
Within that broad description is a world of creativity and fun. Cards are divided into one of five colors, each with its own philosophy (e.g., green is focused on aggressive growth while blue is focused on control), and decks can be made of any combination of these colors. Cards are divided into numerous types, including creatures that stay on the board, “instants” that can be used on an opponent’s turn and “planeswalkers” with unique powers that can flip the game on its head.
The game is exceptionally well-designed. Mid-to-high-tier players often build decks with synergy between cards that allows them to cascade effects, making the game’s rules take on a life of their own. There’s nothing like casting a spell that makes you gain life when you draw a card while you already have a card out that strengthens your creatures when you gain life and a second card that doubles that strengthening and brings a new card onto the field when a creature gets strengthened and so on.
Magic does have some valid criticisms. The most relevant to us today is that it’s expensive. As a trading-card game, its entire business is built on players buying more cards. While it’s pricey enough to go the fun route—buying booster packs with random cards, hoping to get the ones you want—the after-market can be astonishingly expensive, with the infamous Black Lotus card running you [upwards of $100,000][https://wealthygorilla.com/most-expensive-magic-the-gathering-cards/]. This isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. The top professional Magic players are all [six-figure earners][https://magic.wizards.com/en/events/coverage/top-players/statistics/top-200-money-leaders] from prize pools alone. As a result, Magic can drift into the dreaded pay-to-win space where those with the money to buy powerful cards (which are often more expensive) can trounce more advanced players who lack the cash to build strong decks.
This quality scares newbies away from the game and chases away long-time fans who’d rather have the money from selling their collection than the frustration of losing to people with the funds to buy such a collection on a whim.
In 2018, Wizards of the Coast, the game’s publisher, released an online version of the game, Magic: The Gathering Arena. Fans could be forgiven for assuming that the company would, like the entirety of the mobile market, including notorious publishers like EA and Ubisoft, load the game with microtransactions and double down on the pay-to-win problem.
Imagine their surprise when Wizards went in the opposite direction, creating an online card game that somehow avoided both the microtransaction plague and the pay-to-win pit into which the original game had fallen.
Rewarding Players for Playing
Unlike offline Magic, you can become a successful, effective contender in Magic Arena without spending a dime. This is largely because Arena is built around a core premise: rewarding the players for playing the game.
When you first start the game, it prompts you with a few simple tutorials before nudging you toward “color challenges,” a set of five predesigned matches that function like puzzles and teach you the core philosophy and fun mechanics of each of the game’s five colors. At the end of these, you’re rewarded with a single-color deck for the color of the challenge, and that’s your deck now.
Not only can you use it in real matches in its prebuilt form, the cards from that deck are now in your digital collection. Each of these decks can be easily earned in thirty minutes of play, and they aren’t the last ones you can get. By completing daily challenges (usually in the form of using certain color spells, an easy task if you’re playing the game), you can unlock more decks that add cards to your collection.
Prebuilt decks aren’t the only option available. Playing the game rewards you with experience and gold, which can be used to buy booster packs that would run you $4–$5 at a card shop. It doesn’t take a long time either. Two to four matches can give you enough gold to get more packs or net you enough experience points to gain a new level and get a pack for free.
The strongest anti-pay-to-win mechanic is the “wildcard” system. One of the problems of the booster pack approach is that it allows the wealthy to dominate offline Magic. It’s difficult to luck into finding the right card you need for your deck, and buying the card separately can be pricey. To counter this, Arena gives you wildcards that are separated into each of the game’s rarities (common, uncommon, rare and mythic rare) and can be redeemed for any card of that rarity.
How do you earn wildcards? The same way you earn anything else: playing the game. Wildcards can be rewards for wins, for leveling up or for completing easy daily quests. They’re also always given as rewards for opening a certain amount of packs, alleviating the frustration of opening pack after pack of nothing that vibes with your style. This means that as long as you’re playing the game, you can get any card you want.
This isn’t to say there aren’t microtransactions that affect gameplay. Players can purchase “gems” that can also be exchanged for packs or season passes that increase rewards for leveling up. But it doesn’t make sense to spend money on gems given the ease of earning gold by playing the game. More often, real money can be spent on cosmetics and special effects that don’t influence gameplay. Trying to win by buying boatloads of gems to get more packs drifts into the realm of absurdity.
The result is that Magic: The Gathering Arena focuses on rewarding players for actually playing the game, leveling the playing field, thereby undercutting both the pay-to-win trend and the microtransactions that plague the online gaming world.
Even if it’s not a game you enjoy, you have to tip your hat to that level of respect for players.