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Side Quest – #5

– By Aecium

Magic: The Gathering – three powerful words that transport me to a simpler time. One where most of my concerns revolved around what homework was due the next day, how many days until summer break and how long it would take me to save up allowance and birthday money to buy more packs of Magic cards.

I started playing Magic after a friend introduced me to the game in 1994 when Revised Edition was the newest release. I had never played anything like it. Magic gives you the chance to be a creature-summoning, lighting-wheelding, magic-slinging, death-spreading, counter-spell-casting mage. It was amazing! To be fair, you can do or be all those things in many role playing games, and I had. But Magic boiled it down to just the fast action packed spell-casting battles, which in my opinion were one of the best parts of any role playing game. Magic made it so that now all you needed was a deck and someone else with a deck to challenge.

When I was in high school, the first place I looked for someone to challenge was a gaming store called Wonderess Realms. They sold games of all kinds but Magic seemed to be the mainstay for them. They had a small back room, that smelled of unwashed nerd and stale Cool Ranch Doritos, with several tables, a soda vending machine, an arcade game and the best pinball game ever: Star Trek: The Next Generation. I dropped many quarters into that game in between Magic games. But the main reason to be in the back room of Wonderess Realms was to meet up with friends, open new packs, build and improve decks and play against whomever else happen to be there. I can still remember the feel of the glossy plastic wrapped booster packs and the crinkling sound they made as I carefully opened them. Many hours were whiled away playing in that back room. But really anywhere that was protected from the elements and had a flat surface was fair game – high school lunchroom, mess hall at camp, or just a picnic table on a calm day. It was rare back then to find me without a deck on hand, ready to accept the challenge of a fellow mage at any time.

Somewhere between the years 1998 – 2000, amidst homework, getting a job, preparing for and starting college and life just generally getting more complicated, I stopped playing Magic. It was not an abrupt thing at all, it just sort of faded from being an everyday activity to every now and again. and then not at all. Oh, every once in awhile I would come across my cards and all those fond memories would come rushing back, but finding people to play with was hard. For most of my friends, Magic had also faded from their everyday life. Still, now and again a few of us would go out and buy a starter deck of the newest expansion and a few booster packs and play for a bit, but keeping up with all the new expansions and rules changes proved too difficult.

Magic had truly become just a game I used to play.

That is until the end of September 2018, when the open beta for Magic: The Gathering Arena on the PC was announced. Sure, there had been other attempts at digital versions of the game, like Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers in 2002 and Magic: The Gathering Online in 2009, which were the only two I ever tried playing. But they were both riddled with bad interfaces and lacked polished features which prevented them from ever really rekindling my interest.

But Magic: The Gathering Arena is leagues ahead of its predecessors. That’s not to say that it is perfect. It is worth keeping in mind that it’s still in beta and has some bugs, and some of the interface interactions are still clunky and a bit frustrating. However, the game is definitely playable and they are making changes and improvements all the time. Up until recently you could not play against your friends; it was all just random players that you would get matched with, and the matchmaking and ranking system had no meaning. You could win four games in a row and a progress bar would fill up, seemingly randomly, then lose one game and all your progress would drain out of it.

After a recent update, you can now play your friends. This is a major and much needed feature. Having the ability to play against your friends is great for more than just the fun of playing. No more hoping your deck plays out just right. Being able to play with a friend means you can have them “play nice”, maybe not attack at all, giving you time to practice and get the cards you need to try out that new combo. Or… maybe it’s time to go toe to toe with the friend who taught you everything you know about Magic, and possibly even prove that the student has become the master.

Another improvement is with the ranked ladder system. The solid progress bar has been replaced with a segmented bar so that you can now easily see your progress. It fills one segment per win or empties one per loss, making it easy to see your progress. And more importantly, you can see how many more wins you need to rank up.

Even though the beta still has a few bugs and some of the features could be made smoother (finding newly acquired cards and adding a friends list being the ones that jump to mind), the game is very playable. So much so that it has not just rekindled my passion for Magic, it has set it ablaze.

Magic: The Gathering Arena has removed the main barriers to playing. I can always find someone to play with at the press of a button. I can play with my friends no matter how far away they live. The game client knows all the rules and won’t let me or the other player do something wrong. And best of all, you can play for free! That’s right free! When you first start out you get some prebuilt decks and you earn more decks just by playing. You also earn booster packs, single cards and gold (one of the in-game currencies) used to buy more boosters. You can also spend real world money to get cards faster or buy gems (another in-game currency), which are harder to earn than gold. You can enter constructed tournaments with gold or gems but you can only use gems if you want to play draft tournaments.

Paying to get more cards is not a must. So far I have only spent US$5 on a beta only deal. The rest of the cards I have earned through playing. The game has quests you can do each day to earn gold, which you can complete without winning a single game. The majority of the daily quests will be something like “Cast 30 blue or red spells” or “Attack with 25 creatures” and so on. There are weekly quests that you can earn gold, a single card, or packs for winning but the bulk of your gold will be earned by completing the quests that don’t require winning.
At the time of this writing I have ranked up to Mythic, the highest level in the constructed ladder. I was able to build the decks that got me there only spending US$5 and earning the rest my cards by playing. The majority of what I have spent is time, and I don’t mind that at all. I’m really enjoying the game and the journey very much.

Magic: The Gathering Arena has enchanted me with nostalgia, sung the most perfect siren’s song, and has summoned out of its fallen predecessors an online version of Magic that has me once again under its spell!


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