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Magic: The Gathering enters the free-to-play Arena today

Play your cards right

I've always been a little terrified of Magic: The Gathering. Not the game itself, mind. The lifestyle. I've never been in the home of a Magic player where old cards weren't spilling from every drawer, scattered on every floor. In one, they had enough dud cards to make a beautiful tree collage right up the side of the living room wall. Beautifully horrifying, that. I'll stick with flooding our own flat with tiny plastic people, thank you very much.

Thankfully there's a new way to play without making a mess. Magic: The Gathering Arena, an entirely online way to play the ancient card game, has left beta and is free to download in its final(ish) form right now.

Oh, we're doing the 80s thing again? Fine, Magic. Fine. You've got Apollo Creed there, I'll let you have this one.

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Arena is, basically, the decades-old card game but on your PC, meaning your carefully honed skillset (or lack thereof) should transfer nicely from one to the other. Plus, it seems like newer card packs in the real world will come with codes to redeem in the digital arena. Quite nice, that. Spend some time brushing up with AI foes or strangers online, and work out a battle plan for the next time you face dastardly Kevin in the local geek shop.

Once downloaded, you'll instantly be dropped into a series of tutorials that show you the ropes (Without Carl Weathers' wizardly input, sadly). Arena then immediately tosses you five decks for keepsies and sets you loose into the world. Of course, you can always shell out for more, and there's the usual free-to-play assortment of colourful trinkets to dress up your cards, avatars and pets.

It's still a lot more generous than Valve's Artifact, which had the same basic model of buying packs while forcing an up-front payment and sported no real means of earning new cards. Oh, Artifact. How I dearly wanted us to get along.

Being the ur-CCG, Magic Arena is quite a bit more complex than more contemporary digital shufflers like Hearthstone. But Arena launches with a pre-existing audience of roughly everyone who's picked up a card pack in the last 26 years, plus everyone who's ever looked on with interest before deciding "Blimey, that's a commitment". I reckon it'll do just fine.

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