The Gathering Arena makes the greatest TCG in the world as snappy as Hearthstone

The Gathering Arena makes the greatest TCG in the world as snappy as Hearthstone ...

The reasons for why Hearthstone was successful are a slew of. Timing, platforms, and the community juggernaut that fueled it, but snappiness, the pure tactile sensation of dragging cards around the screen and making things happen at a pace, are the most significant. Magic: The Gathering Arena is a game that is still the greatest out there.

The release dates for MTG Arena cards will, eventually, be simultaneous with those for paper releases.

The problem is that authentic Magic was never created to be such a game. It is a game of reactions and counter-responses, attack phases, and rigidly defined times during which you can and cannot commit actions. It is an analogue game that, when brought into the digital world, has either turned out to be the massively awkward Magic Online or the dumbed down Duels of the Planeswalkers, without important subtleties that elevate it from bad to masterpiece.

Arenas' principal game designer Chris Clay explains that it's probably one of my most difficult assignments to guide you through this journey. It's a really tough UI problem, and thanks to some fantastic team effort, we've overcome large portions of it.

Duels of the Planeswalkers is a beautiful representation of Magic, but it never flowed as well as Hearthstone. My background before coming here was in MMOs and MOBAs and I'm really big on snappiness. In a MOBA, my primary focus is for them to do their job and then get out of the way.

Second, the Wizards want every current card, and every future one, while the game exists, to work within the system, no cutting mechanics that do not play nice, no fudging interactions. To do so, they have developed a game rules engine [GRE], the perfect Magic judge as Clay calls it, that they are teaching you.

The most difficult part of working with the GRE is its very stringent requirements. A card I like to point out is the Scrounging Bandar. In digital play, every [turn] you have to choose a creature to target, and you have to choose whether or not you will transfer counters. Part of the whole concept of authentic Magic is looking to the tabletop experience and seeing how people play cards like that.

[We] ensure that the rules are up to date on the backend, but in the client look for ways to sooth the play. For example, if there's no reason you have to target something with Scrounging Bandar, you can just dismiss it without targeting, which isn't technically rules accurate, but it's how people play Magic.

The complexities of Magic mean there are always other situations where you may want to do something in an unusual manner. For Scrounging Bandar, that would be aiming something, but then choosing not to use the ability, for example if the act of targeting would trigger a trigger in itself, the rules engine should recognize them: So if Jace has one of his illusions out, [which die when theyre targeted] then we're gonna make that happen.

Clay says making that change for one card would be quite straightforward. But when you consider a whole set of 250+ cards, with four new ones each year, and that Magic looks set to exist for another quarter of a century without breaking a sweat, you cannot simply code it once and forget about it.

Due to the sheer amount of possibilities available to a Magic player, the team is perfectly happy to have individual cards that can alter game states or reduce snappiness. With each passing week, Clay continues It's possible that certain cards will just slow things down and part of our goal is not to sabotage the speed and ease of play for 90% of the game.

Clay calls the GRE that runs all of this a top priority, with his teams game being one of the main uses for the project. They are also laying the foundation for Magic digital products for the foreseeable future, which means always anticipating the next card set.

Clay explains that each set is unique and exciting for us because of the challenge we faced and the reason I love working on this project.

The thing that is really exciting for me is how much just works with a new card file as it comes down, because so many of the systems we try to produce, we try not to one-off if we can. Trying to solve the problem for the future as well. More and more often were testing cards for the first time and it just works and its fun to play with right off the bat, which is beneficial for our sustainability.

Many, many moons ago, I was a technical artist and the objective of a technical artist is to get things working smoothly. With Ixalan, we had our first card set where the development of it began to flow smoothly. We still had a couple of hiccups but were really prepared for everything to go.

One of the immediate questions over MTG Arena is whether it can expand on its own or go backwards. Magic has a lot of available depth to investigate an advantage of the one-to-one nature of Magic Online over any other implementation, as gaming communities are accustomed to doing.

Standard is what we're really focusing on, [a format that only employs cards from the last couple of years]. You'll be surprised how much work you'll find if you've ever done on a card that's worked in the GRE and then in the Unity client. That's why we're so keen on Standard.

The game is set to release in beta soon, so please check back for the latest MTG Arena codes. After a series of failures over the years, and the still-needing belief that they might have made Hearthstone the same as the original, Wizards are determined to rectify things.