MTG Arena mobile: how the card game plays on smartphones

MTG Arena mobile
(Image credit: Future)

Magic: The Gathering Arena has fully launched on smartphones after a short beta period, bringing the free-to-play digital version of the collectible card game to mobile on iOS and Android. 

The good news: it’s exactly the same game as the PC version of MTG: Arena, just adapted for much smaller phone screens. Your collection ports back and forth, meaning you can pick it up on your phone and play with the same cards on the desktop version, just like with other digital card games like Hearthstone.

Blizzard’s Warcraft-themed game may have beaten MTG to the mobile space years ago, but it's also digital-only and has far simpler rules. Magic: The Gathering debuted with physical card sets in 1993 with dozens of new sets since, and though it’s had several digital adaptations (including the very aged but very faithful Magic: The Gathering Online), MTG Arena has successfully streamlined the source gameplay into a popular digital format built for modern players.

MTG Arena vs MTG Online

MTG Arena has modern graphics, animations, and gets expansions at the same time as they launch in paper card form. It has some modes – standard, brawl, historic, and limited – but not some of the most popular ones like Commander, and you can't buy, sell, trade, or dismantle cards. MTG Online has every mode and an online marketplace, but its combat has zero animations and the interface looks straight out of the early 2000s. See this video by YouTube account Mountain Man Magic for a humorous rundown of the differences.

Thankfully, MTG Arena's streamlined play translates well to a smartphone. While there are adjustments to play on a much smaller screen with touch controls instead of a mouse, it’s all pretty intuitive and well-implemented: in our hands-on time with both Android and iOS versions, we’ve only tapped the wrong card or target once or twice.

Frankly, we were surprised, and delighted, to have the core gameplay transition so cleanly to mobile. Let’s dive into the big interface adjustments and quiet changes that make this complex game work on smartphones.

MTG on 6-inch OLED

There’s no getting around how much better it feels to use a mouse to control games that need a lot of precision, like real-time strategy, tabletop, or card games - and see everything happening on a big screen. Shrinking that down to a phone screen requires a little compromise, but it’s doable - and the core of games like MTG can be preserved.

MTG Arena already does a lot of work approximating a combat card game: when in a match, your cards in hand are fanned out on the bottom and a life counter above it, with your deck and discard pile on the left and phase indicator - where you’re at on the current turn - on the right. On top is a mirrored setup for your opponent’s hand, life, deck, and discard pile.

The MTG Arena mobile app setup is identical, just more compact. Admittedly, the cards are shrunk down so much that you might confuse similar-looking ones for each other, but you likely won’t lose track of creatures, enchantments, or other card types that linger on the battlefield. Your hand will be half-hidden at the bottom of the screen, and will need to be tapped to spread them out on the screen (hiding most of the playing field) to pick 

MTG Arena mobile

(Image credit: Future)

Controls have been adapted to touch: you’ll still need to tap-and-drag cards from your hand to the battlefield to play them, but there are other adjustments that make it easier to keep track of everything. 

For instance, you can long-press a card in play or at the top of either graveyard to see it in detail (as opposed to hovering your mouse cursor over a card in the desktop version), and you only have to tap whichever card you’re assigning to attack or block, or which creature(s) you’re targeting with a spell. You’ll still misstap here and there, but thanks to the cancel button, it won’t mean a loss.  

In short, the adapted controls and smaller scale won’t get in your way of winning – that’s all on your skill...and cards.

MTG Arena mobile

(Image credit: Future)

Unobstructed MTG Arena

That’s not to say all MTG Arena mobile experiences are equal: it was a bit easier to handle everything going on when playing on the nearly 6.8-inch display on the Asus ROG 5 compared to the 6.1-inch display on the iPhone 12 Pro. And yes, the former’s punch-hole was far less obstructing than the notch that still cuts into the screen on the leading Apple phone, but the MTG Arena’s developers were smart enough to keep the sides of the playing field clear.

There are some compromises when playing on a small screen: as previously noted, the art for each card can get very small after it’s played on the field, and while critical info like creature stats are thankfully very visible, you’ll have to long-press minions to get a proper look at them and their abilities. Given the plethora of creature, artifact, and enchantments with powerful text, you’ll be frequently long-pressing your opponent’s cards before you make your moves – or checking their graveyard for what spell just walloped your side of the board.

Graphically, top-tier phones will render cards with similar fidelity to their PC versions...just don’t be surprised by some slight jagged edges. We didn’t get a chance to check on lower-end and older phones, but given MTG Arena is a turn-based game, device performance won’t affect play success. 

But what about other phones? Would it help to play with something more precise and a stylus?

MTG Arena mobile

(Image credit: Future)

Not really. Touch controls are pretty good, and cards aren't crammed together so close that you'll need an accessory to pick them apart. The Moto G Stylus we used benefited more from the expansive screen real estate its colossal 6.8-inch display than its stylus – though we did notice its mid-range Snapdragon 678 chipset and 4GB of RAM led it to skip some frames in what felt like a networking slowdown.

In the end, playing MTG Arena on phones is a good experience, though given the complexity of the game itself – no matter what platform – it’ll be more difficult to follow what’s happening with more complex card interactions than simpler competitive card games like Hearthstone. But if you’re itching to play the digital version of the card game that started it all, MTG Arena’s mobile app is the way to go. It’s free to play – what are you waiting for?

David Lumb

David is now a mobile reporter at Cnet. Formerly Mobile Editor, US for TechRadar, he covered phones, tablets, and wearables. He still thinks the iPhone 4 is the best-looking smartphone ever made. He's most interested in technology, gaming and culture – and where they overlap and change our lives. His current beat explores how our on-the-go existence is affected by new gadgets, carrier coverage expansions, and corporate strategy shifts.