If you’re interested in playing Magic : The Gathering with other people, there are currently 3 primary flavors to choose from: tabletop (paper Magic), Magic Online (MTGO), and most recently, Magic Arena. Whether the latter appeals to you depends on several factors, so let’s start by describing what each genus of play offers:
Tabletop Magic (Paper Magic)
The original, this format certainly offers the most flexibility of game types. If you have the cards, you can play it: Commander, Modern, Cube Draft, Vintage, Standard, Pauper…it’s up to you. Playing any of these formats on paper requires one key element to constitute “playing Magic : The Gathering with other people”, an opponent. Many Magic enthusiasts find it difficult to carve out the time to go to the local card shop or comic store for scheduled events, or to get together with friends and agree that “Magic : The Gathering” is the game of the night, instead of “Kittens in a Blender”.
Magic Online (MTGO)
Now, if you still want some play flexibility, but are short on friends to play Magic with, MTGO may be for you. Magic Online offers most of the popular formats and has most of the cards. Originally released in 2002, Vintage Masters was added in 2014 to allow users to play some, but not all, of the cards going back to the very beginning of Magic : The Gathering. Play constructed matches against a friend, or play constructed or limited against random opponents.
Magic Arena (MTGA)
Magic Arena is unquestionably a response to the success of Blizzard’s Hearthstone online collectible card game. Most notably, the economy, quests, and what I like to call “exciter graphics”, which are purely aesthetic elements, like booster packs exploding and in-game animations that demonstrate the ferocity of some creature or massive carnage wrought by some spell.
Magic Arena consistently offers a few play modes, an introductory single-player tutorial (where you win some free cards), standard (the only constant constructed format, at the moment) and limited (varying sets, blocks) that are true to Magic form. One slight deviation is that, like Hearthstone, many play formats are single game (requiring no sideboarding) instead of matches. There is talk of a “standard +” when Ixalan, Rivals of Ixalan, Domanaria and Core Set 2019 rotate out of standard in the Fall of 2019. Occasionally, their are special events for things like pauper, singleton or momir. There are always random opponents waiting in MTGA, but don’t expect a lot of features for playing with your actual friends. There is a rudimentary tool for a direct challenge, but otherwise no buddy list, chat or other social features.
What Medium of Magic : The Gathering is right for you?
Now that we know the primary play formats of paper Magic, MTGO and MTGA, let’s look at the other considerations for what play location best suites you.
This is a big consideration for most players. Paper Magic and MTGO are trading card games, which means you can trade cards with other players. These cards have value (whether monetary or event tickets), they drive an economy where some older Paper Magic cards are pushing the $100k+ pricetag. Paper Magic cards are real, tangible, can be PSA-graded, boasted about to friends and sold on eBay to cover divorce proceedings (when your wife learns what your PSA 9 Beta Time Walk costs). In short, you own them until you sell them, trade them, lose them, or the government ceases them. MTGO, offers roughly the same experience, though most buying/selling is done with event tickets within MTGO. Also, in the doomsday scenario where MTGO ceases to exist, or there is a massive data loss, your collection is lost. MTG Arena, on the other hand, is a collectible card game. You can collect the cards, but you cannot trade them with other players, so MTGA has a closed economy. If you get a card in your account, it always comes from Wizards of the Coast, and will theoretically always be in your account. Cards are never acquired second hand from another player, so currently the only ways to acquire cards is by opening boosters (which includes drafting/sealed events), redeeming wildcards or winning cards as prizes.
Getting started, particularly if you want to be competitive, can be quite a financial undertaking with paper Magic and MTGO. In short, the primary economy is buying and trading. Card shops and comic stores offer competitive tournaments with varying prizes, but most competitive players understand they will have to buy booster packs or certain cards to remain competitive. This economy also exists in MTGO, where it is possible to win tournaments and gain prizes, but probably not sustainable to build your collection without some significant investment. This is certainly a major selling point for MTGA. Arena gets you started with some playable rares and lots of useful commons and uncommons, within the first couple of hours of play. No money spent. Daily quests and weekly quests/rewards allow you to win gold (which can be used to buy packs, aesthetics, or enter events) and 8 card booster packs (1 rare/mythic rare, 2 uncommons & 5 commons). Ranked drafts can be entered with gold, which reward gems as prizes. Gems are a higher value currency in MTGA and can be used to enter bigger events, buy booster packs, enter events and sometimes purchase exclusive aesthetics (which can only be purchased with gems). In short it’s possible, unless Wizards nerfs the prizes/quest rewards, to build a reasonable collection over time with a limited investment.
If you like playing standard constructed and limited events, MTGA is a perfect fit for you. If you primarily enjoy legacy, modern, 1v1 commander, etc. MTGO or paper Magic are better suited for your play. Lastly, if you are only interested in casual formats, like cube draft, vanguard, multiplayer commander, etc. paper Magic is really your best choice.
MTG Arena is free to play, so it’s basically no risk. If you don’t like it, you’ve only lost the time invested in trying it. Of all the ways to play officially licensed Magic : The Gathering, MTGA, in my opinion offers the most economical mix of casual and competitive play. Playing consistently will allow you to build a reasonable collection, save some gold/gems and earn wildcards to build tier 1 decks to play in constructed events. If you want to fast-track your competitive constructed play, you can also just buy booster packs. To me, this MTGA is not a pay-to-win environment, but it does offer a pay-to-win-quickly option.