Dale Yu: Review of Magic: The Gathering Arena of the Planeswalkers


Magic: The Gathering Arena of the Planeswalkers

  • Designers: Craig Van Ness, James D’Aloisio, Ethan Fleischer
  • Publisher:  Hasbro / Wizards of the Coast
  • Players: 2-5
  • Ages: 10+
  • Time: ~60 minutes
  • Times played: 3, with review copy provided by Hasbro – all 1v1 duels


Last year, while roaming the halls at Essen, one of the most buzzworthy games was at the Hasbro stand where they had booth art up for a new Magic:The Gathering game.  I was not able to get a tableside demo of the game in the limited time that it was available to be seen, but the glimpses I got made it look a lot like Heroscape.

Then, a few weeks ago, Hasbro contacted me to see if I’d be interested in trying out the new game.  I was thrilled to do so as I am a former M:tG player as well as a closet Heroscape fan – admittedly, I don’t own every expansion and piece like some of the other OGers, but I do have multiple base sets here so that we could build some pretty humongous games.   In any event, as soon as Magic: The Gathering Arena of the Planeswalkers (M:tG AotP) arrived, the boys and I broke it out to play.  It was pretty easy for us to get set up and started as about 80-90% of the game will be familiar to Heroscape players.  I will try to describe the game though from the standpoint of someone who has not played Heroscape before.

To start the game, first you must choose a Planeswalker.  There are 5 in the game, and each one corresponds to one of the 5 colors of mana in M:tG.  Once you choose your Planeswalker, you take all the matching color spell cards, army cards and figurines for your color.  The Planeswalker and Army cards are tall (taller than Tarot card), and include all sorts of information including HPs, Power, Toughness, Movement, Special Abilities, etc.  The bottom of the card also tells you the size of the army as well as the cost of that particular card.  Spell cards are traditional size and they look much more like regular M:tG cards, though there is no casting cost in the upper right corner.


The board is then built up.  The majority of the board is made up of thick cardboard map pieces which are split up into hex segments.  You build up the map following the diagrams for the chosen scenario in the rulebook.  There are a few plastic pieces that can be used to build higher terrain – but there are very few of these included in this base set.  Each player places their Planeswalker on a starting zone and places their Planeswalker card on the table in front of them.  All other figures and corresponding cards are off to the side.  Players shuffle their spell card decks and draw a hand of 3.  The game is ready to start.

a closer look at one of the cards

a closer look at one of the cards

The game ends when either you reach the victory condition as stated in the scenario setup OR when a pre-determined number of rounds has finished.  Whichever player has more points scored at that point is the winner.  Each round of the game follows the same pattern.

  • Draw a Spell Card
  • Choose an Army Card
  • Move your Figures
  • Attack (Optional)
  • Move the turn marker

Phase 1 – Draw a spell card – IF your Planeswalker is on the battlefield, draw a spell card from your deck and add it to your hand.  (Thus, if your Planeswalked has been destroyed, you may not draw NOR play spell cards…) You do not play the spell cards now, this comes later in the turn.  You may have up to 7 spell cards in your hand at the end of a turn. You may play up to 3 cards on a turn.  If you do not have any cards left in your draw pile, you simply do not draw.  There are two main types of cards: Sorcery cards do something immediately and then go to the discard pile while Enchantment cards are played onto army cards and modify them in some way.

Phase 2 – Choose an Army card – You may choose any one of your already activated Army cards to use this turn.  Simply follow the special abilities as printed on the big text box on your chosen Army card.  Next, you then have the option to summon up to two squads or heroes from your Reserve by playing cards.  They are placed within 5 clear sight spaces of your Planeswalker.

green army cards

green army cards

Phase 3 – Move your Figures – Move the figures that are represented on the Army Card that you chose in the previous phase.  Each can move a number of hexes up to the move number on the card. If you choose a squad of figures, they can move in any order.  You can move through hexes with friendly pieces in them, but you cannot move through a hex with an opponent’s figure on it nor can you end your movement on a hex with any other piece.  If you move up, you must use one movement point for each level up (and may not move up more levels than your height).  If you move down, you only use up one point regardless of the number of levels gone down.  If you move onto water, you turn stops at that point.  If you move next to an opponent’s figure (AT the same level), those two pieces become engaged.

Phase 4 – Attack – Any Planeswalker, hero or squad on your chosen army card can attack in this phase as long as they have a clear line of sight to a target within their range.  If you are engaged with another figure, you may only attack that engaged opponent regardless of who else is in your range/LOS.  Each figure on your card can attack in any order.  You essentially announce which figure is attacking who, take a number of battle dice equal to that figure’s power number, and then calculate any modifiers (based on height advantage, special abilities on the army card, special abilities from enchantment or sorcery cards, or from glyphs found on the map) and take extra battle dice based on those calculations.  The defender likewise calculates his dice total using his toughness rating from his card plus any modifiers.  The attacker wants crossed swords while the defender wants shields.  If there are more defensive shields than attacking swords, the attack fails.  If there are more crossed swords, then the defender takes one hit for each unblocked sword.  A damage marker is placed on that figure’s base/card.  If this number exceeds the life total for that figure, it is destroyed.

Battle Dice!

Battle Dice!

red army cards

red army cards

Phase 5 – Move the turn marker – in the margin of the rulebook page with the scenario is a turn track.  Move the marker to the next space.

If a player has achieved the victory condition for the scenario at the end of a turn, that player wins.  Otherwise, at the end of the final turn, a score is calculated based on the rules of the scenario.  This generally involves having the most valuable pieces either left alive or found on certain spaces of the board.

My thoughts on the game

To start – it’s Heroscape with a few changes – mostly the new cards/spells (which is the bit that Magic: the Gathering obviously brings to the party) and the loss of order markers.  Initiative is decided at the start of the game, and turn order simply rotates around the board.   All of the starting scenarios have you bring a “pre-made 500 point army” which is essentially all the pieces in your chosen color.

I like the simplified setup of this came compared to Heroscape proper.  While you certainly don’t have the same level of customization, simply slipping the 6 different cardboard terrain pieces together and then fussing with only 4 plastic pieces at most makes mapbuilding about a 30 second job.  As great as the huge Heroscape maps looked, there are definitely times when I don’t want to spend 30 minutes just getting ready to play!

The only plastic pieces in the box for terrain

The only plastic pieces in the box for terrain

The pieces are fairly nice.  The 5 Planeswalker pieces are each painted, and they’re pretty sharp. The other basic army pieces are molded plastic with a base color matching their Planeswalker – but they’re functional enough.  I’ve never been a miniature guy, so they’re good enough for me – but I’m sure that there are some folks out there that have already painted these up to look nicer.  In short, for a non-miniature gamer, the components are perfect for me.  Enough chrome to catch your eye, but otherwise they are functional and sturdy.

the 5 planeswalkers

the 5 planeswalkers

pieces in the box

pieces in the box

The flow of the game is pretty quick – on each turn, you choose a single card and then move and attack with it.  Later in the game, you may need to spend a bit of time strategizing about which card is the best one to activate, but early in the game, you can usually just pick one and go.  The attributes on the army cards is easy to read, and the battle system is fairly straightforward.  If you haven’t played any sort of miniature game before, the LOS rules are quite specific at times – i.e. needing to have specific line of sight from a target point on your figure to a hit zone on the other – but we’re pretty good just using a left over BBQ skewer to decide if there is line of site or not.

The rules are OK.  There are a lot of things to know in the game, and going through the rules was made easier for me because I already knew how to play Heroscape.  For someone who is completely new to the system, you might need a read or two through the rules prior to your first game to make sure you get all the fine details.  My biggest gripe with the rules though are the placement of the scenarios and the turn track…  WTF were they thinking when they put the turn track actually within the rule book?  If I have a question in the game, now I have to move the marker off the rulebook, pick up the rules, read them, and then hopefully remember where it was in the first place!  I would have much preferred the scenarios to have been placed on a separate 4-page foldout piece so that I could still refer to the rulebook while keeping track of the game.

some of the "plain" plastic figures

some of the “plain” plastic figures

So – my apologies to those who haven’t played Heroscape before, but I think it’s worthwhile to compare M:tG AotP to its predecessor.  M:tG AotP is a shorter length game, both in setup and actual playing time.  This is a huge point for M:tG AotP in my book.  While I used to love 3 hour games, I just don’t have time for that any more.  It’s also much harder to interest new people into games when they’re that long… I think that the game is different enough that it can stand on its own from Heroscape.  I like the way your army grows up over time – as you can only summon 1-2 army cards a turn.  I also like the way that there is a sense of “Summoning Sickness” to the new armies as you cannot use them until the turn after you bring them into the game.  You definitely do need to think ahead a bit as you don’t want to bring your new units into the game in a vulnerable position as they might be attacked and destroyed before you can even use them!

But, while I said that M:tG AotP could stand alone – it’s not radically different enough from Heroscape (yet). The main attraction of Magic: the Gathering for many gamers is the process of building a deck of cards – the strengths of your deck and the strategies that you would pursue were based solely on your ability to put together a cohesive deck with the right cards.  In this base set, each of the five Planeswalkers does have a unique style derived from its specific spell card deck – but there really is no deckbuilding.  You simply take the cards and pieces in your color and go.

Like the old Reese’s commercial – M:tG AotP is two great tastes that taste great together.  The game mergers concepts from two of my favorite pastimes and brings them together in a single 30-45 minute game.  Is it a great game?  Honestly, it’s hard to say at this point. M:tG AotP is just a base set, and while its potential is enormous, it really needs more armies, cards, etc to bring out the variety of play and strategies that helped propel Heroscape to its well deserved glory.  I certainly see the potential for this, and I assume that the Hasbro marketing and design folks see this as well.  That being said, the base set will give players a lot of bang for their buck, and it a worthwhile purchase in and of itself.   

In short, if you like Heroscape, you’ll probably like this.  If you like Magic: the Gathering, you’ll like this if you liked Heroscape.  Though M:tG AotP combines two game systems together, the balance is more like 90:10 in favor of Heroscape.  This may change with the addition of more cards/armies to the system when you will be able to really get a “deckbuilding” or “army-building” feel to the game, but that’s not really there at this point.


Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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