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Arena: the New Competitive Testing Platform

Arena: the New Competitive Testing Platform

Robert Moss

Many Magic: the Gathering players find themselves asking the question “Is Arena actually an accessible means for tournament testing?”. For those who have qualified for the coming DreamHack Showdown or have aspirations of queueing for the coming Showdown in Anaheim, CA in early 2023, this same question may be on their minds. While the coming DreamHack Showdown is for the Pioneer format, those in the future still hold some mystery as to what their formats will be. To this point in the history of digital Magic playtesting, the standard option has been to utilize Magic: the Gathering Online (MTGO), also known as MODO (Magic Online with Digital Objects). Although this twenty year old program shows its age with arcane UI, it serves as the closest digital approximation to the true tabletop classic because of the wide card pool and the number of formats available to the user to play in. Coupled with this is a recent change in developer to Daybreak Games, the company behind EverQuest and other MMORPG titles, and waning numbers of players for formats like Standard on there. Altogether with these factors taken into consideration, it would seem as if few would continue to cite this as an ideal client for continued time investment, yet many still do despite Arena’s existence.

Arena is the latest digital client from Wizards of the Coast that allows for its users to play Magic with a much more user-friendly interface, on a number of different devices, and providing a similar variety of different ways to interact with the game of Magic. Since its premier in 2019, Wizards has promoted this client as the primary means by which to engage with the game outside of paper. With all recent major Magic events sponsored by Wizards featuring Arena play in some capacity, why would Magic players not value this client as a legitimate means for testing in various formats? The reasons largely come down to two reasons: the formats available on Arena and their “economy” relative to the paper equivalents of the cards.  

Between both Arena and MTGO, a wide variety of different ways to play Magic exist. Many of the Constructed and Casual means of playing the game in paper exist on MTGO. While Wizards has sponsored competitive Magic play using formats like Modern, Legacy, and Pioneer in the past, the most recent large-scale events have been focusing on Standard and Arena exclusive formats. The recent Magic World Championship XIII even had two days of Standard constructed play and the Arena exclusive format Explorer saw its emergence in the competitive Magic scene with day two being dedicated to just it. By comparison, MTGO has lacked the same player base for Standard that Arena has managed to garner. The free-to-play model of Arena versus the potential $20 or more to have access to a wide array of decks to play via the subscription services that exist to help serve the needs of those seeking a competitive environment for testing in addition to whatever costs one might invest into playing various leagues or queues on MTGO would obviously put things more into the newcomer’s corner. 

For a number of the established Magic personalities and grinders there is already a significant fiscal investment made into MTGO. Many have accounts with various subscription services that allow them to rent any deck that they choose for a nominal fee. In addition to this, players can immediately spend money on MTGO specific currency (tickets or TIX) in order to trade with a number of “store fronts” on the platform to acquire one-to-one recreations of the decks that they would play in paper. It is said anecdotally, but with MTGO the sentiment rings true: “the best card in Magic: the Gathering [Online] is the credit card”. Card acquisition in MTGO is an endeavor that can be done through meticulous play and careful spending with the winnings collected from paid leagues, drafts, or challenges on the platform. Additionally, should the deck fail the pilot or interest wane, then cards can be sold back to the digital fronts for tickets which, if you can manage to find the right vendors, can be turned into real dollars. Yet like the digital client itself, this process is arcane and can be frustrating for newer or not deeply invested players. 

When compared to the economy of MTGO, Arena seems far more spartan and to many entrenched players, this is its biggest downfall. Arena, much like many other modern games, focuses mostly on cosmetics and lootbox-esque openings of packs to generate revenue. Looking at it from this perspective, when compared to MTGO and its direct acquisition of cards, then it seems that in this regard that this point is in their favor. However, unlike MTGO where “going infinite” (the condition of having your MTGO events pay for themselves) is possible albeit with either great luck and skill some significant losses being sustained according to some authors, Arena has a significantly greater possibility of accomplishing this. With Arena, it is possible to never spend a single cent and effectively grind one’s way into any deck of their choosing by winning packs, coins, and possibly gems (the premium currency of Arena) through successful play. Admittedly, this does take considerable time and effort to grind to this point. It will likely take weeks to months to grind and work one’s way to a deck in the given Arena format of their choosing to get an ideal build, but what this endeavor provides that the MTGO process does not is the exposure to learning about deck building considerations over time, getting reps with a particular deck, and innovating with deck choices that others may not consider. In short, you become more seasoned across the entire process and it can be done without a single cent being spent.

The other concern for competitive players are the formats available on each client. While MTGO has many of the major formats played across the world in paper events, Arena is limited to just three major constructed formats: Explorer, Historic, and Standard. Again, Wizards cites Commander (among the easily defined constructed formats) as the most popular way to play. A number of content creators use tools like Spelltable to help them bring paper Commander play across digital spaces and with a number of specialty sets not being moved over to MTGO, this makes it harder to envision it as a true replication of Magic. Arena, by comparison, is much more capable of remaining faithful to the game with only one format that is mirrored to the paper equivalent of the game. However, the contention with any discussion of Arena are its digital only formats. Explorer, as the newest of these digital only formats, is the latest subject of this scrutiny especially with players knowing that this will be the format that will eventuallybecome Pioneer on the client. Competitive players will cite the lack of all Pioneer legal sets not being available on Arena as the chief reason to dismiss it as a reliable means of competitive testing. While this can certainly limit a deck from being competitive with their paper counterparts, in practice the differences are minimal. Take the following four decks for instance:

 

Between the four decks here, two of which being among the most represented in the Pioneer format, there are only nine cards that are not on Arena. One of the more significant losses for - Explorer version of Mono Green Devotion is the lack of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. Yet, the deck thrives online and players innovate in spite of this and Arena devs intend on backfilling the missing sets from Pioneer onto the platform over time, albeit undefined time currently. This combined with the continued support that this client is set to receive from Wizards over the coming years pushes Arena more and more into the competitive scene and legitimates it as a means for players to test and hone their skills. 

A Weekend Warrior Wins Their Battles

A Weekend Warrior Wins Their Battles

 

Robert Moss


To me, Magic has always been a great hobby. After receiving and splitting the Oath of Zendikar duel decks with a friend from an annual group gift exchange in December of 2016, playing it has been a part of my regular routine. A form of escapism. A break from monotony. Be it theory crafting decks while doing hall or lunch duties during work or the familiar voice of SaffronOlive going “Opponent…passing…” while prepping dinner for the night, it has become a break from normalcy. And when the normalcy is truly broken by the end of the work grind, the hobby becomes something more. A drive. A passion. A means by which to push myself beyond those traditional goalposts that work creates. A means by which a mild mannered history teacher becomes a warrior in a different kind of battlefield.  Weekends of Magic competition bring out a fire and the weekend warrior sets off. 

Admittedly, with the second Dreamhack Regional Championship Qualifier beginning for me, I was a little more excited than I had been for the previous return of competitive play or in my earlier forays into that world pre-Pandemic. After a number of close calls at Pioneer RCQs across lower Appalachia with several Top 8s and one second place finish in North Carolina, I felt more confident about my ability to play tight lines and pick ideal decks and tech for my competitions. With my regular grinding crew we set off on an early morning trek to a LGS not far outside of Atlanta to begin our battle in a race for the Anaheim invitation. If the previous season of tournament grinding had taught me anything, it was this:

  1. Much like in traditional warfare, it helps to associate and ally yourself with gifted minds within your field to help you perceive your strategies in different ways and help your achieve your ends,

  2. Much like in war, there are many battles and a single loss should not signal your wholesale defeat.


Our small ensemble made its way into the store and with the hour we had before the tournament officially began we made small efforts at trying to gauge the field and fine tune our decks and drill matches before we entered the true field of battle. To this end, my car mates who both represent our LGS Tapstart Games, rendered two fantastic services to me that would serve me well today. In practicing against Leonard, he actively pushed me to move beyond my apprehension to mulligan “okay” hands in post-board games. A middling seven or mediocre six can get you to win, but a five card hand of silver bullets can be even more potent than either despite the inherent risk. My thanks to Nolan for helping me make last minute sideboard and mainboard tech adjustments and pushing me to not overanalyze deck choice, despite playing a similar build for a while. It’s Noon. The judge calls for the first round and beckons us to check our pairings and find our tables. The battle begins.


I find my table, I dig out my playmat and deck box from my bag, I unfurl the mat and begin to shuffle as my opponent does the same. I’m confident in my deck choice. While some of the numbers might be shaky and a concession to not having the ability to buy or borrow the cards from people, I am sure that if I just avoid the nightmare matchups, I should not be too badly punished for those choices. 

Round one is against known former SCG grinder Alex Hon. He wins the die roll. Turn one Lair of the Hydra, cast Llanowar Elf, pass. It’s one of the nightmare matchups right out of the gate. While I know streamers like MisplacedGinger and Kannister do not really bemoan the Mono Green Karn matchup against Rakdos much anymore, it is one that I had only had exposure to losing against at my LGS and in Explorer ranked queues with my slightly different take of Rakdos Midrange on Arena. I am easily trounced in game one. Sideboarding. “Okay, this is easy. Your sideboard is full of Green hate and Greasefang hate.” “This might be a bad pairing for round one, but it can turn around here.” These are the thoughts I tell myself as I bring in Epic Downfall, Noxious Grasp, Lifebane Zombie, and Extinction Event and take out a smattering of one-ofs. “Leave in Lili because she can take out their resources.” “Keep in Kalitas to stop the Trolls and Cavaliers.” More internalized banter to calm the nerves. Game two starts with a fairly mediocre seven; a couple removal spells, Bloodtithe Harvester, creature lands, a shock, and a pathway. “It’s slow, but it can get me there.” Then I hear Leonard’s advice like Obi-Wan speaking to Luke. I mulligan into Thoughtseize, Lifebane Zombie, Sorin, Bloodtithe Harvester, and lands. Goodnight to the brooding prince of Innistrad, I keep. I slaughter. Onto game three where I do not follow the same advice that made me trample over Alex in game two. I lose pretty miserably after two Cavaliers get cast fairly early on and I only see a Bloodtithe Harvester and a Fable of the Mirror-Breaker on the field. The skirmish puts me on the back foot at the beginning of the day with plenty of time left to ruminate on my lines after the exchange of “good game” and before the call of round two pairings. 

Round two begins. I settled at a table not too far from where I began against a familiar face from the previous RCQ season. While he was not a known grinder like my previous opponent, I had seen him enough to know what deck he was running in Pioneer: Dredgeless Dredge. Our first game is won on the back of Graveyard Trespasser taking out his key graveyard creatures. I sideboard in Leyline of the Void and Hidetsugu Consumes All, take out my planeswalkers and graveyard dependent pieces, call it a day. I mulligan into my Leyline, but he takes it out with an Assassin’s Trophy and runs away with the game after I cannot keep a Graveyard Trespasser on board. We go into game three with just eight minutes left on the clock. I take game three on the back of a hand of double Trespasser and Leyline of the Void after we go into turns. Another tense match, but I soldier on quickly to my next round.

I start round three with a little bit more peace of mind that knowing that I am not staying at the lower tables. My opponent is on the play. Turn one Den of the Bugbear, cast Phoenix Chick, swing, go. It could be traditional Mono Red Aggro or Atarka Red, regardless I need to be as careful with my life total as I can. I play a Blightstep Pathway and pass. The Thoughtseize I hold will stay there in my hand. Turn two play Stomping Ground, cast Kari Zev, swing, and pass. It is Atarka Red. If there was one matchup I was woefully under prepared for, it was this. Todd Anderson and other streamers that have played the deck say that it is a good matchup into Rakdos Midrange. I manage to fight through my opponents creatures and swing through for lethal while one one life in game one. I was surprised to survive that game as I did, but with sideboarding I know that keeping some Thoughtseize in for Hazoret, the Fervent or Experimental Frenzy. I bring in Invoke Despair and Hidetsugu Consumes All and hope for the best. Game two begins with a hand of one Den of the Bugbear, a Swamp, a Hive of the Eye Tyrant and a glut of removal. The game follows a similar path to game one, but I win on one life after casting a turn seven Invoke Despair with a Graveyard Trespasser on board and three creatures and four lands on theirs. The turning point of the battle is approaching. The end is in sight. I will come out of this on the other side. 

I very quickly discover that my round 4 opponent is playing Abzan Greasefang, too quickly. Despite my efforts to drag the game on, I get hit with a Skysovereign, Consul Flagship on turns four and five. The game is over quickly. Games two and three are won entirely on the back of Leyline of the Void and Graveyard Trespasser dense hands. An abysmal matchup is won; the insurmountable of Leyline of the Void with three Graveyard Trespassers

I’m riding the high that comes with beating an abysmal matchup for your deck. I should be able to draw into the top eight with no issue. The judge calls and our pairings are posted. I’m paired down. A 3-1 versus a 2-2. If he plays it out and wins, then he goes onto the top eight. We’re told to go into the Stream Room for this match. I have to play it out and I’m on camera. I managed to catch a bit of his match versus Alex in the prior round. He’s on UW Control. So we set off to the room and our match, lay out our mats, and after navigating some technical difficulties we began. This matchup is favored for Rakdos Midrange, so I was not entirely terrified to play against it. A well-timed Thoughtseize on turn one and threats galore win me game one easily. Sideboarding for this matchup is fairly easy, depending on the opponents build of the deck. I take out my set of Fatal Push and bring in my Noxious Grasp, Reckoner Bankbuster for additional card advantage, and Invoke Despair. In versions of control that lean more heavily on Dream Trawler, like the variants on Arena, I prefer running some number of Angrath’s Rampage in the side to deal with those. Game two begins and ends quickly though as my opponent floods out. I land a turn five Sorin the Mirthless and run away with the game from there. My Sorin ultimate for a thirteen point loss of life seals the fate of my opponent and secures my position in the top eight.

After a nice walk and dinner break with my car mates, it is time to deal with the matter of the top eight matches. At the end of round five with a 4-1 record, I am securely in third place. The higher seed. No matter what, I will be on the play. My deck needs the advantage of aggression and hand disruption over whomever my opponent is. I see who the sixth place seat is and the dread sets in: Alex Hon, again. I know Mono Green is abysmal, but I overcame two bad matchups in swiss, I can do it again. Game one of quarterfinals comes and goes quickly. Being on the play with hand disruption and a mulligan to five on his part made sure of the quick game there. I sideboard the exact same way that I did in the first round and pray for a good seven. My hand in game two is nothing but hand hate in the form of two Thoughtseize and green hate with Epic Downfall and Noxious Grasp and my two different creature lands. I keep and see a Lifebane Zombie and a Fable of the Mirror-Breaker in my next couple turns. The game is mine and now we are into the semifinals!

The person who I am playing against in the semifinals used to play at the LGS I go to while he was in undergrad. He shows up in that LGS’ Messenger group and he’s talked about his success on and off that day. I know what he is running and his general lines. Unfortunately, it is the mirror match. In paper, I have next to no experience with the mirror, but on Arena I am intimately aware of this matchup. While my paper list differs in some significant ways, I should be able to nab this matchup as long as I have hand hate and can avoid opposing two for ones. Game one goes quickly. Well timed Thoughseizes into Graveyard Trespassers and an unanswered Fable of the Mirror-Breaker seal the deal and get me the early advantage. As a seasoned Modern player that played Mardu and Jund mirrors in their heyday, I am well aware of the traditional adage of sideboarding out Thoughtseize or other one for one hand disruption for more effective threats. However, despite this traditional logic, I stick with decisions in sideboarding that I have come to make thanks to significant Arena play. I keep in three Thoughtseize and take out the Abrade and bring it Reckoner Bankbuster and Invoke Despair. I partially attribute this choice to getting them signed by Sol Maka after my success against Alex Hon in quarterfinals. I begin game two with a Thoughtseize and removal after my opponent mulligans, a potentially game crush decision against any deck with hand disruption. An eventual topdecked Invoke Despair while the opponent has an empty board and seals my position in the finals. No matter what, I am going to Anaheim. These moments before my final match are my Christmas Truce, the momentary peace before the conflict begins anew. 

It is me versus actual professional Magic personality, Sol Maka. He has spent a large chunk of the day on this store’s stream, but now more than ever the nerves set in for me about playing tight. I may have an invite, but this is online forever. I need to play well not only for myself, but for anyone that can possibly see this in the future as an example of what this matchup looks like. Rakdos Cat versus Rakdos Midrange. We begin. Game one of this matchup can be difficult, especially if the opponent can manage to work around a Graveyard Trespasser and stick a Mayhem Devil on the field. A Thoughtseize on my part deals with the Mayhem Devil threat in game one, but a Shrapnel Blast blows me away and on the defense going into game two. I bring in Leyline of the Void and Hidetsugu Consumes All as possible hosers and take out some of the one-ofs. A turn zero Leyline helps me make the game go long, but it does not do enough to bring me the win while drawing poorly throughout the whole game. Sol gets his invite and his tournament win. While I may not have won the war, this weekend warrior won their battle and goes on to fight another day. 

 

Overall, I was happy with the deck today and the choices made in sideboarding and construction. Throughout the day Liliana of the Veil proved to be the weakest card and made me feel secure in only running one in the deck. While it may feel good in midrange and control matches where you can play removal to take out other, smaller threats and leave them only with their most vital one to take out with its edict effect downtick, its plus effect to discard feels very bad in a format full of graveyard synergies especially when Rakdos has so few effects currently to generate meaningful card advantage. When The Brothers’ War comes out and Phyrexian Dragon Engine becomes a legal card, then Liliana may have more utility. Until then, she is not as phenomenal as many imagined her to be during Dominaria United’s spoiler season. Similarly, the mainboard Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet felt great and like a fantastic means of having additional games against aggro decks that move towards increasingly more midrange gameplans in post-sideboard games. A number of streamers and other metagame analysts sing the praises of multiple copies of Sheoldred, the Apocalypse which is certainly warranted, but having the one-of version of it and Sorin the Mirthless to generate card advantage of generate an evasive, lifelinking body felt good in the matchups where they showed up together. Each is individually powerful, but together they put enough pressure and inevitably on the opponent where they must be answered.


Neely Morrison Standard Tournament

Fired off with a great deal of success! Thanks to everyone who came out this weekend and participated in the first standard tournament in a long time! The top prize, a Collector Box of Kaldheim, was split between the top four!