This article was originally published on Medium in August of 2020:

Making moves in Magic: The Gathering Arena

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In September of 2019, Wizards of the Coast officially released Magic: The Gathering Arena, its long anticipated digital adaptation of the popular trading card game. Originally debuting in 1993, Magic: The Gathering was the first of its kind and quickly became a huge success. Today, the card game is enjoyed by millions of players around the world. And with the release of Magic Arena, a game of Magic is just a keyboard away.

The Problem

The Magic Arena development team was tasked with a monumental task: how do you translate a game originally designed for the tabletop to the digital space? A typical game of Magic is played by two people, face-to-face, each with their own deck of creatures and spells. Despite having over 2000 rules and a catalog of more than 19,000 unique cards, the game can flow smoothly when played in real life. But, when you put a screen between the two players, they are no longer communicating with each other and instead rely on a computer to do the talking for them. Suddenly, interactions that would have previously been resolved with a quick nod now feel clunky and unintuitive. While the developers of Magic Arena have been mostly successful with the design of the game, I wanted to explore these interactions that continue to frustrate new and old players alike.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated in any capacity with Wizards of the Coast, the developers of Magic Arena.

The Goals

While doing my research, I made some goals that would align my own visions with what Wizards of the Coast would want for the future of Magic: The Gathering:

  1. Make the game easy to play for new and returning players.
  2. Maintain the depth that experienced players expect from the game.
  3. Create, and build upon, an experience similar to that of playing the game in real life.

To narrow down the scope of this article, I’ve chosen to focus on an aspect of the game that touches all three of these goals: decision making. Magic: The Gathering is one of the most complex games ever made and a large part of that is due to the number of choices that players are allowed to have. So does Magic Arena make it easy for the player to make decisions? How do those choices made in the digital card game compare to the choices made in the physical card game?

The Insights

At its very core, Magic is a game about decisions. What cards should I keep? What spell should I cast? Which creature should I attack with? There are a lot of decisions to be made and each choice can be the difference between winning and losing. So why does Arena make it so hard to make some of these decisions?

Which button do I press?

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