Last updated on April 6, 2021
Believe it or not, there are two official ways to play Magic: the Gathering on the internet right now: Magic Online and MTG Arena. Yes, this is strange, and yes it kind of doesn’t make sense, but I’m here to give you a little background about why this is the case and which application best suits your needs.
Maybe you’re a newer player and know you want to play Magic online, but don’t know where to invest your time and money. Or perhaps you’re a returning MTG player from a long time ago and you have very bad memories of MTGO and are wondering, “Is it any better than it used to be?”
Just so you know where I’m coming from, I’ve been playing Magic on and off for 25 years and have used both MTGA and Magic Online since their inception. I still remember sitting in my friend Erik’s basement doing Odyssey drafts together. Wow I’m old.
To add even more to my antiquated bona fides, I even still call Magic Online “MODO” (Magic Online with Digital Objects, the original title for MTGO).
But enough about my background – let’s discuss the difference between these two programs and which one I think you should choose to play Magic.
The bottom line: If you’re a newer player, MTG Arena is definitely the right program for you. If you’re an established player who loves and cherishes Commander, Modern, Legacy, Vintage Cube, or even Pioneer, then MTGO is a suitable, and de facto, choice.
A great deal of your experience with either game, and of course the most important driver in affordability, revolves around the economy of each. Both Magic Online and MTG Arena cater to different groups of people with different interests, so their economies are structured quite differently.
Needless to say, however, if you want to be competitive, and if you want to win, there is no way to avoid spending a decent amount of money on either program.
Magic Online’s economy revolves around event tickets, which are digital objects that cost 1 US Dollar each. An event may cost 15 tickets to enter, so you either have to pull out the old credit card to buy tickets for entry, or sell some excess packs or cards that you have left over from events.
Event tickets in your Magic Online collection
That’s right, you can sell cards and packs to other users on Magic Online. In reality, this involves trading them directly for event tickets. There are dozens of “bots” that you can utilize to dump items from your collection at a market price.
You actually own the “digital cards” on Magic Online, which is a stark difference from MTGA. This has a critical impact on the prices of the cards on the MTGO marketplace.
In fact, Standard sets are redeemable for a certain period of time, meaning that if you collect a complete set of digital cards, say one of each card in Core Set 2021, you can deduct the cards from your account and Wizards will mail you a corresponding box with a complete set of honest to gosh cardboard cards.
If this all sounds complicated, it very much is. And it’s an artifact of a business model that is now 20 years old. Enter MTG Arena.
It is initially free to play, though realistically you might want to at least spend money on the welcome bundle when you get started. You also get some very basic starter decks as part of the new player experience.
After that, you can play in the Standard, Historic, and Brawl queues for free, but if you want to play limited, you have to pony up. Just playing games will earn you XP and gold, which you can then use to either buy packs or enter events. Opening packs will get you cards and more wildcards, along with progressing your vault. Then you can turn the wildcards into whatever cards you want and build real decks.
This wildcard and crafting system means that MTG Arena has no trading. This is a key aspect of the entire economy.
Wow, wait that is complicated too! Unfortunately, that’s par for the course when it comes to systems designed by WotC. OK, but what’s the upshot?
MTGA is nominally free to play, but if you want to play a lot of different Standard decks, you’re going to have to put some money in. I personally only really play draft. But if your win rate at draft is high enough, you can realistically go infinite and not have to buy more gems. In fact, I haven’t had to in a long time. #nobigdeal
Suffice it to say, the more you want to play and/or the more different types of decks you want to have, then you’re more likely to need to take out your wallet. And if you want to buy cosmetics — a personalization option not available on Magic Online – Wizards will also happily take your money for that too.
Buying and Acquiring Decks
Though I might love limited more than anything (this is Draftsim, after all), I’ll be the first to admit that the reason the majority of people play Magic is to build decks and pit them against other people doing the same thing.
So let’s explore then — where is it cheaper to buy a deck? Where is it “easier”?
The Cost of a Deck
Let’s take a Standard deck, for example. We’ll grab a recent Sultai Ramp list by Toru Saito from a Redbull Untapped tournament.
Main Deck (60)
Heartless Act x2
Narset, Parter of Veils x4
Watery Grave x4
Aether Gust x2
Extinction Event x3
Casualties of War x2
Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath x4
Fabled Passage x4
Breeding Pool x4
Zagoth Triome x4
Agonizing Remorse x2
Overgrown Tomb x4
Shark Typhoon x3
Nissa, Who Shakes the World x3
Thought Erasure x2
Tamiyo, Collector of Tales
To get this deck on Magic Online, you’d have to buy all the cards (or rent them). According to MTG Goldfish, this deck would cost you 467.07 tickets. That means $468.07 in Good Old American Dollars. Whew. For what it’s worth, that’s still $60 less than paying full retail to buy the cards in paper.
By far the biggest driver of this cost is acquiring 4 Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, which would cost you 288 tickets on MTGO. Once sets are not being drafted, the supply of mythics gets very scare in the client.
Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath | Illustration by Vincent Proce
OK, so how do we look at this same deck in Arena then? You have to add up the wildcards, which Goldfish also conveniently does for us. It requires the following wildcards:
- 6 Mythic
- 33 Rare
- 22 Uncommon
- 6 Common
Most regular Standard players seem to have little problem getting enough commons and uncommons for their decks. But the real problem here is 6 mythics and 33 rares, which is a significant number.
According to analysis like this, it looks like you might need to open around $150 worth of packs (if you buy gems in bulk) to get that many wildcards. So it’s potentially quite a bit cheaper to build the deck on MTGA, just be aware that this math is very approximate and depends on how you buy gems, what you open and when, and what play modes you play.
Of course, in either platform, if you draft to build your collection, you can reduce this cost significantly.
Aesthetics and Graphics
MTG Arena is the clear winner here if you care about this type of stuff. Mythic rares all have epic animations when they hit play, there are voiceovers for planeswalkers, and the cards look and feel so much more alive when you mouse over them or put them into play.
When you damage your opponent, your creatures and spells hit and shake them. And when they die, their head explodes. Cool.
Alternately, there are no “effects” for MTGO. Playing the cards feels just like playing with inanimate cardboard objects. And the sounds… honestly remind me of when I played the card game Hearts on Windows 95.
Ease and Efficiency of Use
MTG Arena is the clear winner here. While I will say it’s way too hard to find and choose game modes (“The Play Blade”), it’s been announced that’s going to be reworked. I’m very pleased with the rest of the program — it’s pretty intuitive to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing.
As for Magic Online, take a look at this and tell me if you know what to do:
The MTGO home screen
Yeah, it’s rough. And that “look and feel” carries through to the in-game UI too:
Recently some updates and improvements(?) have been made, but the system is still very outdated looking.
Playing the games involves a whole lot of clicking, virtually manipulating the digital pieces of cardboard like you would in real life. There’s also a chess clock incessantly counting down your time available to make a move until you run out (and lose). It’s very intimidating for newer players.
MTGA, on the other hand, has maybe three major innovations that drastically change what it feels like to play Magic the Gathering digitally.
The first is clicking and dragging – many actions are sped up by directly clicking and dragging lands and spells into the play area. This feature partially exists in Magic Online, but not to the same extent.
Secondly, the autotapper. This saves an incredible amount of time over the course of the game. When you click and drag a card onto the battlefield, your lands just tap for you in a (mostly) appropriate fashion without you having to either figure out which to tap or having to click on each one individually. It’s wonderful.
Finally, the auto-passing of priority. In Magic Online, the default seems to be to have a lot of “stops” where each player has to manually click “ok” to keep play progressing. In Arena, if a player has no valid moves to make, the game is just zoomed forward to the next point when a play can be made. Again, a huge time saver.
The end result of these changes is that the games go much, much faster. And the “rope” system in MTGA prevents stalling while not allowing 4-5 minute pauses like it can on MTGO.
If you play MTGA and are looking for ways to make your play experience even faster, check out our amazing article on tips and tricks for Arena.
Grinding and Events
Since the games individually go faster, I think MTG Arena is way better for getting in a lot of games. Sometimes that’s all you need to either try a bunch of deck ideas, learn a draft format, or practice your deck.
While yes, MTGO has a greater variety of events and formats going at one time, you inevitably have to wait in between rounds to play. If you finish 20 minutes early, you have to wait 20 minutes until your next match. I think many gamers today find that unconscionable.
Conversely, MTGA seems to be leaning toward an “on demand” big event structure. Both the Mythic Qualifying Weekend and MTG Arena Open allow you to play at your own speed. You can take breaks between rounds for as long as you want, just as long as you complete the requisite number of matches before the event ends.
And if you try to play a format on Magic Online that’s also on Arena… well you may just end up waiting for nothing.
Bugs and Issues
I wish I could definitively tell you that MTGA were a much more stable, dependable application than MTGO. But unfortunately that’s just not the case.
MTGO has had the reputation throughout the years of being a bug-ridden mess, and it certainly has been at times. It’s been a lot more stable the past couple of years, but there are still major issues. And bugs take forever to get addressed. In fact, when they’re fixed in a matter of weeks, they take a victory lap:
And while MTGO has the massive advantage of being able to run a number of different live events in different formats, sometimes the events just crash and no one is home to support them.
Beyond the incessant whining about the shuffler “bug”, there are also plenty of legitimate problems with MTG Arena. I even just sometimes get a random “Unity error” with an exclamation mark and the MTGA logo every couple weeks. Typically I’m able to log back in on time, but it’s scary!
Usually when a major update hits, you are just about guaranteed to get a huge bug, such as the infamous “black screen error,” that affects a large number of players. But hey, at least MTGA’s hotfixes only take a couple days to come out…
If you’re looking for better competition — and I know that not everyone is — then the place to go is Magic Online. By its nature, the program has attracted and retained the old guard of experienced Magic players. It is swimming with plenty of people who have played on the Pro Tour, long before it was ever a Players Tour, or a Mythic-whatever.
Before you yell at me and say, “hey what about the Mythic ladder on MTGA?”, yes the player skill there is also quite good in both limited and constructed. But if you’re looking for overall player quality in a random queue, MTGO is where it’s at. I’ve really seen this disparity in action in Traditional Draft, for example.
And it can’t be ignored that MTGO has events that qualify you directly for the Players Tour/Set Championship/PT du jour. And although the competition is self-selecting, the average skill level of the players is quite high.
The Pro Opinion
Though I’ve tried to capture the general consensus I’ve gotten from the Magic community at large, pros are still somewhat divided on the MTGA vs. MTGO debate. Or, to put it another way, the still-persistent issues with MTGA make it so that you can argue in favor of MTGO and at least not look crazy:
But if you look into Mike’s reasoning, the two main issues he raises with MTGA — the economy and the tournament structures — are still fixable. I’m pretty confident that MTG Arena is something WotC is looking to iteratively improve upon, whereas MTGO has more or less been hung out to dry.
Where to Start
All right, so I’ve convinced you to go one way or the other. Now what?
You’re in luck, because this past year I’ve been having a ton of guides written for Draftsim geared towards newer MTGA players. You can find all those guides and tutorials right here.
Other than getting up to speed with the guides, you should also download Arena Tutor:
It’s a sweet (free) app we’ve developed to help you track your games and give you AI recommendations while you play MTGA. It’s also incredibly easy to use and you’ll love it, trust me.
Download the client, set up account, and try it out. You’ll get what’s called a “basic account,” which is actually pretty cool because it includes 2 of every common and 1 of every uncommon in Standard.
Be forewarned, if you want to play the “full version” of MTGO, you have to pay $9.99 to “get access to all the features.” As a new player, you only have access to events you can play in with “new player points.” But if you try it out and hate the client, there’s no commitment.
When you upgrade, you get another package of 2 commons and 1 uncommon of every card in Standard and 100 “Play Points” – which are actually worth $10 in play value.
The reality is that if you want to play real formats and events, you have to pay that upgrade cost. So I’m going to say that MTGO actually costs $9.99.
As I mentioned earlier, if you want to get started playing constructed right away without trading or buying cards, sign up for Cardhoarder’s loan program. It changes MTGO from being a “pay to play” model to a subscription model.
Into the Future…
Let’s face it, Magic Online can’t be part of Wizards of the Coast’s long term strategy. It’s an old, bloated app built on an outdated platform. Non-MTGers are shocked when they see its old “Excel Simulator” style user interface.
And what company wants to maintain two software applications that, in the end, do exactly the same thing: play Magic? Remember Duels of the Planeswalkers?
I think, in the medium term, you’re fine to start using Magic Online, as long as you don’t view it as a long term investment.
But I don’t think Magic Online will be around 10 years from now. Five years? I don’t know. I think Wizards would rid themselves of this technological albatross if they could, but the cost and complexity of moving the entire legacy — in both senses of the word — card pool is just too high. So for now they’re happy to have separate playgrounds for different player types and keep MTGO on life support.
Giant Albatross | Illustration by David A. Cherry
But as you are seeing with the advent of the upcoming Pioneer Masters, the plans are to get as many play modes as possible into MTG Arena, even at the expense of existing Magic Online formats.
So maybe dump that MODO stock while you still can…
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