Hearthstone showing trading cards being played in a game.

Can Magic: The Gathering Arena Compete With Hearthstone?

How do the two online trading card games compare?

BY JARED JONES: Magic: the Gathering Arena, or MTGA, has been in open beta for a little while now. The Magic: The Gathering franchise was released in 1993 and it could be considered the king of trading card games, due to its longevity and worldwide prevalence.

The Magic franchise hasn’t been as successful online, as its various digital renditions haven’t quite reflected its real-world success. The franchise has had its own online platform, and a few small-scale incarnations on consoles and Steam, known as Duels of the Planeswalkers. However, these games failed to pick up any sort of notable traction.  Instead, it was Blizzard’s Hearthstone that took up the spotlight when it comes to online trading card games, standing out from its many competitors.

Wizards of the Coast have tried again with MTGA, which follows a similar free to play model as Hearthstone. Both games give players a digital collection of cards which can be used to construct a deck to play online with, or added to by opening booster packs.  Booster packs can be earned by winning games and completing quests, or you can be purchased with real-world money.

I’ve been a fan of Hearthstone and Magic for a long time now, and now that MTG has a reasonable digital counterpart to its physical format, both games have begun to compete in a more direct manner. Being a fan of both franchises, I feel it is appropriate for me to compare both digital trading card games, looking at their similarities along with their respective strengths and weaknesses.

Both games undoubtedly have their own strengths.  In terms of gameplay, MTGA is able to draw on the experience of a 25-year-old franchise, and so you can expect that, in terms of balance and core mechanics, they’ve got things down pretty well. Alternatively, Hearthstone has had over four years to refine their online experience, and so I’d say that platform wise, Hearthstone works better.

Gameplay is most likely the more important factor here.  Hearthstone’s random elements are discouraging for some players and are the source of the majority of the complaints levelled at the game.  This is primarily because cards have the capability to generate random cards, random creatures, target random enemies, and may even have their effects trigger randomly. This can be frustrating, to say the least.

While both games will have semi-random outcomes, (i.e, which card you draw next), Hearthstone hinges on it to the point that some professional Hearthstone players have commented that it can be difficult in top-tier play, with other members of the player base claiming that the gap between top and low-level play isn’t quite as large as you might think, due to the random elements.

Through personal experience, there is nothing more disheartening than being on the verge of victory, only to have it snatched away by a randomly generated victory condition that gives the opponent exactly what they needed. It left me surprisingly tense during many games that I closed in on, wondering whether my opponent could draw something out of nowhere and undo all my efforts to win.  It removes a lot of the skill required to play.

Interestingly, unlike MTGA, Hearthstone has a guaranteed mana/resource system, in which you are automatically given resources to play more expensive cards every turn. With MTGA, you are required to draw land cards to do so – and, being based on cards, that lends itself to some randomness too. Some games can be automatically lost, just because you were unfortunate enough to not draw any land cards in your opening hands.

This leads us to the mulligan systems. Hearthstone does this much better, although your opening hands are half the size of MTGA’s. Hearthstone enables you to swap out any unwanted cards in your opening hand and redraw more cards for each you switched out. MTGA requires you to mulligan your entire hand, and draw a new hand with one fewer card. This increases the likelihood of drawing a hand without a land card with each subsequent mulligan.  This can be alleviated (somewhat) by good deckbuilding, but even the most solidly built deck can sometimes be screwed over by bad luck – the phenomenon has even been colloquially labelled as ‘mana-screwed’.

Even taking these points into consideration, it would be hard to choose between MTG and Hearthstone.  For me, the main aspect that has tipped my preference to MTG is the limited gameplay mechanics of Hearthstone. Key limitations are:

  • Hearthstone does not allow you to play any abilities during your opponent’s turn
  • There is next to no interaction with your graveyard
  • Abilities only come from two types of cards – creatures or spells

In addition to these points, there are limited ways to protect the creatures that you have on the board. As opposed to MTGA where you have things like equipment that you can repeatedly attach to creatures as they enter and leave the board, enchantments that leave a permanent state on the board or give you access abilities that you can trigger at will, and even creatures can come along, augmented with their own spell-like abilities too.

Planeswalkers are a notable exception too – they’re a little like enchantments and creatures combined, where once they’re on the board, they can use multiple interesting abilities but have a health-based system that means they need to be protected from your opponent’s creatures.

Compared with Hearthstone, there are so many more levels of play with MTGA.  Hearthstone left me wishing for more flexibility.

I might sound somewhat unfair. Not all games have the same goals in mind, and I doubt Hearthstone came along with the intention of matching the depth and complexity of MTG. Hearthstone also undoubtedly has advantages of its own.

For instance, Hearthstone functions very well on mobile platforms as many of its matches are quick and easy to play on the go. MTGA, on the other hand, is only available on laptops and PCs – gaming on the go is out of the question. MTGA is based on the foundation of an old game system and as such, wasn’t designed from the ground up to be played like Hearthstone.

It is also not as difficult to hit the daily quest markers in Hearthstone, as opposed to MTGA’s significantly more demanding quests.  It is easier to dip in, play a few games, then carry on with your day.

Neither game is perfect.  MTGA is currently still in Beta and as such, there are features missing.  A major feature that I’m astounded was omitted from day one is a social function. There is literally no social function in the game at all. There is no friends list, no chat system, next to no profile customisation, there is no way to connect or communicate with other people at all. I’m amazed, honestly – it’s one of the most basic systems in multiplayer gaming today.  Hearthstone, on the other hand, had it down from the beginning, and now lets you play together, watch other player’s games, challenge them to the special tavern brawl events and even work together to complete special friends-only quests.

MTGA’s pacing can also be frustrating.  Due to the more interactive mechanical system, where players can play cards during their opponent’s turn and so on, it requires a verification from you every time your opponent makes a move or wants to continue to the next game phase. While it’s understandable that the game wants to give you time to act, it drags the game to a painful grind, especially if you or your opponent is inattentive. Their other iteration of MTG, Duels of the Planeswalkers, gave the ability to pause the timer to allow time to interject with a card.  While it made it possible to miss a chance to react, it let the game flow somewhat quicker.

Hearthstone on the other hand, simply has a turn timer that will go down no matter what the other player does. And if the other player repeatedly goes AFK and makes no moves, the timer will dramatically shorten so that an AFK player will not bring the game to a standstill. Of course, this system can be abused, but it’s nowhere near as slow as MTGA games can sometimes play out.

Again, MTGA is in open beta, so it’s by no means complete.  At the moment, it is carried by a well-tested mechanical system but lacks social functionality and it needs some quality of life tweaks to make it a little more approachable. There’s little to do beyond its base game, whereas Hearthstone has wacky tavern brawls that bend the rules, and some solid solo content as well. Still, I’m excited to see where MTGA goes, and of course, as new real-world card sets come out, so will they also in MTGA.

Which online trading card game you should choose will ultimately come down to preference.  Neither game is perfect, but each has their own strengths to make them equally viable options.  Existing fans of Magic: the Gathering will undoubtedly enjoy Arena’s take on the franchise, however, players who have no loyalty to Magic may be interested in Hearthstone’s refined gameplay and strong player base.  You can’t go wrong with either option.