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By: TheWolf, Shane Garvey
Dec 20 2018 1:00pm
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I'm back!

I took a break from writing for the site as, to be honest, I started to lose interest in competitive Magic, and writing tactics articles for Limited when I was not focused one hundred percent on it felt like a disservice to everyone. So, I took a break.

I have a confession to make. I have almost completely stopped playing on Magic Online (though at time of writing Vintage Cube is about to drop and most of my time will be spent doing that over the holidays). Not for any bad reasons; it is simply that the best of 1 format on Magic Arena suits my needs much better at this moment in hectic life. That's not to say I think Arena is better than MTGO - in fact, the reason for this article is to weigh the two and see which one comes out on top.

So let's throw the two programs into the ring together (and, for the hell of it, let's make it a steel cage match!) and see which one taps out to the other.

ROUND 1 - VISUALS

There is absolutely no denying that Magic Arena looks much better than Magic Online. The animations, card graphics and sounds on Arena are what you expect out of a modern-day electronic TCG, while for Magic Online, they are what you'd expect of a program made in the early 2000s. Compare the following two screenshots:

 

On the top, Magic Online. On the bottom, Magic Arena. I think it's safe to say that visually, Arena dumps all over MTGO. 

Arena 1 - MTGO 0

 

ROUND 2 - GAMEPLAY

If you want an experience that mirrors paper Magic as closely as possible, then Magic Online is your weapon of choice. While neither are an exact mirror of the paper game, MTGO does the best job of capturing it as closely as possible. While both programs offer best-of-3 matchups with sideboarding, what sets the two apart is the timers in both games. Magic Online's chess timer clock is less restrictive than Arena's; if you want to sit there and tank for five minutes on MTGO, you can do that; but if you want to do that on Arena you better hope you have enough time outs saved up.

In addition, by default, Arena passes the turn if you have no further plays (the equivalent of F8 on MTGO). You can enter full control mode to prevent this, but if you do it becomes quite tedious to play. However, if you don't, you are giving away valuable information to the opponent. It is easier to bluff on Magic Online than Arena, so these two factors combined mean this round goes to Magic Online.

Arena 1 - MTGO 1 

ROUND 3 - CARD POOL

This one is pretty easy. Magic Online is much older and has access to almost every card in Magic's history (I still don't know why Plague Rats isn't on the darn thing, though). Arena, being the new kid on the block, has access to... five sets. This one's not even close.

Arena 1 - MTGO 2 

ROUND 4 - FORMATS

The Standard format and drafts of the latest sets are available on both platforms (in fact, Arena keeps doing older set drafts like Dominaria while Magic Online doesn't). Arena also mixes things up a bit with special streamer formats, where a special stipulation exists, like being able to play spells for free or every spell having cascade. 

However, should you wish to play Modern, Legacy, Vintage, or Pauper, you only have one choice - Magic Online. (And when I say Pauper I mean real Pauper; I am aware Arena does Standard Pauper from time to time). You will even occasionally get flashback drafts of much older sets, and Cube Drafting (the best way to play Magic) also only exists on Magic Online. Even recently released sets, like Ultimate Masters, can only be played on Magic Online.

Will this ever change? No one except the developers know, and they aren't saying. But for now, if you want a variety of formats, Magic Online is your go to.

Arena 1 - MTGO 3 

ROUND 5 - COMPETITIVE PLAY

This one is a tricky one to judge. There is no doubt that Wizards of the Coast see Arena as the future of their competitive tournaments, as the announcement of the Mythic Championships on the program and the Magic Pro League and streaming contracts shows. However, if the average Joe wants to get their competitive juices flowing and play against challenging opponents, which program is best?

In my mind, the nod goes to Magic Online, but only just. The reason? Well, right now, there are a bunch of people finding Magic for the first time through Arena. Now most of these people play in the best of 1 games, but you do find them in the best of 3 matches as well. A lot of these folks are free to play players, with the free decks you get for completing quests. That is perfectly fine. But what if you, as a player, want a challenge? You've spent time and/or money building a top tier standard deck, and run up against a new player, crushing them like an insect. This isn't good for either of you.

Magic Online, however, attracts a different style of player. You have to pay real money to build decks (heck, you have to pay money just to create an account) and real money to enter events. This tends to attract more serious players. 

For the average player, I think Magic Online is better for a competitive challenge - at this point in time. All that could change when we find out what Arena is going to do to allow people to compete for Mythic Championships, though.

Arena 1 - MTGO 4 

ROUND 6 - EASE OF USE

If you've ever logged into Magic Online, you'll know that, for the first little period, it's a bit of a nightmare to navigate and use. It's fairly unintuitive, and I always here about people getting frustrated with the program until they get used to it.

On the flip side, Arena is a breeze to use - as a modern game should be. This round is easily in favour of Arena.

Arena 2 - MTGO 4  

ROUND 7 - DECK BUILDING

We'll talk about costs in a minute, but for this round I want to look at how easy it is to build the exact deck you want on either of the two programs. On Arena, if you see a spicy new deck that takes your fancy, you need to grind (or buy packs) to get enough Wildcards to build that deck. On Magic Online, you simply go to a website like MTGOTraders.com and buy the deck you want, and have one of their bots deliver it to you within a couple of minutes. Advantage: Magic Online.

Arena 2 - MTGO 5 

ROUND 8 - COST

The easy answer to which program wins out here is Arena, as it is free to play, but that's not the full answer. On Arena, you can buy packs of cards, and you can also pay money to get Gems, which let you enter events. In fact, you can spend money on Magic Online as well to do the same things (except buy event tickets instead of Gems). However, there is a major, major difference: the money you spend on Arena is gone forever. Let me explain.

There is no way to get the money you sink into Arena back. You can't trade cards with people, and you can't sell the cards to stores like you can on Magic Online. If you are a limited player like myself, the cards you draft get added to your collection and then... just sit there. With Magic Online, if you buy a deck and then get sick of it, you can sell it back to bots or stores like MTGOTraders.com and get some of your money back. In fact, you can sometimes make money doing this: I've had a number of times where I bought into a deck, only for that deck to do well at the next big tournament and have the prices of the cards spike, allowing me to sell it off for more than I paid for it. 

With limited, after you pay your entry fee, you'll sometimes be able to pick up high-value cards which you can sell back. A classic example happened to me: when Vintage Masters launched, I paid my 25 ticket ($25) entry fee and managed to get a Black Lotus first pick of the second pack. After the draft, I sold it when the price was at its height and got 270 tickets for it ($270). This simply isn't possible on Arena.

This is an extremely important consideration to take into account. However, I'm going to give this round to Arena, simply because there is a way to play without spending any money at all.

Arena 3 - MTGO 5

 

ROUND 9 - THE FUTURE

I think there is no doubt that the future looks bright for Arena, and a little less bright for Magic Online, so I'll give this round to Arena as well - but make sure to read my conclusions below.

Arena 4 - MTGO 5 

CONCLUSIONS

So where does that leave us? Based on the nine categories above, MTGO comes out slightly in front. But what about Magic Online's future?

Since the arrival of Arena and the announcement of the new Mythic Championship structure - which will take place in paper and on Arena - many people have speculated that Magic Online is being killed off. And while I can't refute those claims, I can say that, if it is indeed being killed off, it won't happen any time soon.

Take a look at Arena. Right now, it's all about Standard and Limited, and that's what the developers are focusing on. We are also supposedly going to get a "Standard Plus" format when rotation happens next September, allowing us to use the cards that rotate out of Standard. But what about Modern, Legacy and Vintage? There is no way I can see the cards pools for those formats being added to Arena any time soon. The development time to do that would be rather large; not only do the cards and rules have to be programmed in, but the animations and sounds developed as well. They then need to be tested for bugs and to make sure all the interactions are working correctly. That's a lot of work. I could potentially see Modern coming to Arena in maybe 4-5 years time; I could also see things like Vintage Cube being added in the short term. But I can't see Arena replacing Magic Online for those formats any time soon.

What I think will likely happen is that Arena will become the default, go-to program to draft and play Standard, while Magic Online will continue for the older formats. I don't think Magic Online is going anywhere yet, which is fantastic for those of us with collections. Ten years time? That might be a different story, but for now, play on both platforms with confidence.

5 Comments

MTGATracker by pcjr at Thu, 12/20/2018 - 17:14
pcjr's picture

MTGO doesn't support integration with 3rd party tools to use while playing. I just started using mtgatracker. Its kind of cool to see a list of all the cards still left in my deck in the order of likelihood to draw (for both limited and constructed). And, while drafting, makes it easy to see which of the last few picks I still need for my collection. There are many other features.

MTGO game play is tedious compared to MTGA. Sometimes I want the control, but for the formats offerred, its seldom.

I see transitioning from MTGA to MTGO to be a big change for anyone who's gotten used to Arena's model and style of play. And, since by definition, the most serious of competitive play will be happening on Arena, I think you scored this one (competitive play) wrong.

Arena constantly offers new (sometimes wacky) formats on a weekly basis. MTGO is not nearly as flexible. Sure, it supports all the "supported" paper formats, but little more.

You could mention that MTGO supports real tournaments. There's no such thing as a swiss tournament in MTGA (at this time).

For those who still have MTGO collections, my sympathies. Hopefully there will still be support (and players) to keep MTGO going for a few more years. It was awesome while it lasted.

The competitive play one, as by TheWolf at Thu, 12/20/2018 - 18:27
TheWolf's picture

The competitive play one, as mentioned, was tricky. Right now, for the average player who wants a challenge, the points go to MTGO. We just don't know enough about how Arena will handle tournaments and events yet.

I agree wholeheartedly with by MichelleWong at Fri, 12/21/2018 - 11:37
MichelleWong's picture

I agree wholeheartedly with PCJR, I like MTGO because of the formats it supports, it will linger on for a good while for that reason. But enjoy it whilst it lasts.

The writing is on the wall.

The writing was on the wall 8 by Paul Leicht at Sun, 12/23/2018 - 01:06
Paul Leicht's picture

The writing was on the wall 8 years ago and then again 4 years ago and again 2 years ago. I do not believe the graffiti. Nor the artists that make it.

Nice article. Just one thing by stsung at Sun, 12/23/2018 - 07:16
stsung's picture

Nice article.

Just one thing I can comment on now. There is competitive and competitive. In one way there are players that are looking let's say for the challenge and want to play some cutthroat games against opponents that are playing well and are trying to win the game (since the money is on the line). I can't really say how much that happens on Arena because I haven't encountered that kind of games there yet while on MODO I can get them anytime. The other things is tournaments. Both platforms will offer competitive events that will seed to PT. Arena might be taking over in the near future for limited and Standard. Still what will be better? It will depend on what you play, they might be more focus on Arena but it won't change anything about the events on MODO.

I won't comment with my thoughts yet about the overall topic, I might write an article later though summing that up. A lot has changed since November last year when the game was first available for some lucky players. I come back to MODO all the time but I can't deny that Arena is finally in the a state that I can accept even though I don't particularly like it.