Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Android and iOS
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Stainless Games
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
With another year vanishing before our eyes at a truly alarming rate it can only be time for the annual release of a new Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers game, ingeniously named Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015. Who said creativity was dead?
Although it has a myriad of pretty substantial problems that we’re going to tackle throughout this review there’s no denying that the underlying gameplay of Magic the Gathering remains as brilliantly fun as ever. I’ve personally been out of the Magic picture for a while now in real life, largely because I have an obsessive personality and very limited bank account, but have kept my hand in through the videogames and found it comforting to slip back into the role of a Planeswalker. For the sake of keeping this review to a readable length I’m not going to delve into the entire list of pros and cons of the card game because there’s far too much to talk about, but suffice to say it’s a great blend of outright luck, careful planning and a whole lot of cunning that’s somehow both relaxing to play and incredibly exciting at the same time.
So, for the sake of this article, let’s briefly assume you’ve never touched Magic in your life, possibly because you always scoffed at the nerdy kids playing card games. How does the basics work? And more importantly, can I actually explain it in a way that makes sense.
Everything revolves around your deck of cards, because without them it would be like turning up to a knife fight without a knife. Decks are built around the five different colours that make up the Magic universe, each of which has certain attributes which are associated with them. Green is all about huge rampaging monsters and pummeling the opponent into submission, while White tends to offer a lot of healing and powerful defensive options, along with plenty of flying creatures which can attack the enemy player directly, bypassing most types of creature that could normally block the attack. Red is aggressive and uses fire to damage the enemy directly, while Blue loves to mess around with powers that cancel effects or send cards back to their owner’s hands. Finally Black can do things like raise monsters from the dead and destroy creatures outright.
Decks can be made out of any combination of colours, but usually focus on one, two or three at the very most. That’s because in order to play creatures or spells you need mana, gained by playing appropriately coloured Land cards. Play a Green Land and you have one Green mana to use. Summoning up creatures and playing spells both require you to pay a cost in mana, done by turning the correct amount of Land cards sideways, which is known as tapping. Most cards ask for a certain amount of a specific color of mana, along with a mixture of whatever colours you like. A Green creature, for example, may need two Green mana, plus three of any color. Tapped Land becomes untapped on your next turn, allowing you to spend the mana again, and so on.
The ultimate goal is to win by reducing your opponent’s life to zero, done through direct attacks by creatures or by casting certain spells. Incoming attacks can be blocked by your forces, with each monster having its own power and toughness ratings that determine the results of combat. Spells come in a wide variety and many creatures also boast special abilities, the use of which can swing the fight in your favor. Thus each turn is spent trying to determine the best way to maximise your available mana, while attempting to predict and disrupt your opponent. When to attack and when to go on the defensive is also very important to staying alive, as creatures who attack will be unable to defend you during the opponents turn. Attack at the wrong moment and you’ll be left wide open for an ass whooping. Likewise sometimes you might choose not to defend and simply soak up the damage, accepting the loss in order to set yourself up for later.
The singleplayer campaign guides you through a great set of tutorials which teaches newcomers the basics of the game, before then pushing you through a series of one-on-one duels across five Planes. All of this is backed up by a vague and frankly dull storyline involving a Planeswalker known as Garruk going rogue and killing his peers. There’s no interesting characters or sense of personal journey as you battle your way through the game. It’s instantly forgettable junk told via static screens with only the occasional voiced cutscene, but otherwise the singleplayer campaign offers up several hours of gameplay and the AI provides a surprisingly good challenge, although I must confess that despite having a decent tactical mind card games are a definite weakness of mine, thus it’s entirely possible that veterans will find little resistance.
You can also choose to “Explore” each area you travel to during the campaign, which merely amounts to being thrown into a one-on-one duel against an opponent, exactly what you’ve been doing throughout the campaign anyway. It seems clear that Explore is mostly intended as somewhere for players to grab extra booster packs in case they become stuck during the story and need to tinker with their deck. However, it was also where I become even more aware of the fact that the AI have vastly superior cards and decks, boasting some awesome creatures and spells that the player can never unlock and wield themselves. Do the developers not understand how heart-breaking it is to get trounced by an opponent with a powerful, beautiful card before finally achieving victory, but always knowing you’ll never be able play that card yourself? Bastards.
Of course the biggest change for this year’s edition is the ability to craft your own deck, a feature that players have been clamoring for since the series began. The pool of just 300 cards feels rather limited in comparison to the real-life game or even to other digital offerings based on trading card games. Browsing the selection reveals a pretty uninspiring mixture of stuff, making the decision to grant the AI numerous cards you cannot unlock even more baffling. When one considers that Magic 2013 offered its players a substantial total of 1,000 cards, even if they were all locked into pre-constructed decks, it’s hard not to feel a bit disappointed when flicking through the complete collection in Magic 2015. Furthermore with roughly just 50 cards per color, opting to create a deck focused on one colour will leave you with few choices.
Victory against either an AI opponent or real person via multiplayer grants you a booster pack to rip open, giving you a random assortment of cards that can then be added to your existing deck or used to create an entirely new one through deck manager interface. In this mode you can filter cards by colour, mana cost or even rarity, plus name your deck and assign it an image. Strangely enough, though, there’s no search ability. You can also find some handy statistics detailing the exact number of cards in the deck, the mana cost curve and even a set of ratings assigned by the game that judge your work based on the deck’s speed, strength, control and synergy. You can also ask the game to finish creating your deck for you, a handy idea for new players feeling a little overwhelmed, though generally I found it to be unreliable. Land cards are added automatically, but you can choose to handle it manually, which is recommended because there were a couple of occasions when the game chose to give me Land from the wrong colours.
Whilst the game does technically offer its players a total of 300 cards to play with, a small portion of those are locked behind a pay wall, only accessible by purchasing special packs using real-world money. The developers have stated that through extensive play testing they minimised any advantage gained by buying the premium cards, but also admit that there is an advantage, however large or small it may be, to forking out some extra cash. Indeed, looking at the cards locked away there’s certainly some nice ones, and flicking through my own collection only to find a small section missing is downright heart wrenching. It’s disappointing to see the microtransaction market arrive in the Magic series, even if it was inevitable. However, it is important to consider that just buying the standard, vanilla edition of the game for the relatively low price of £6.99 doesn’t mean you’re going to have a bad time. It’s still very enjoyable, just be prepared to feel a pang of jealousy should you encounter someone online who was willing to splurge.
Oh, and for love of all that is demonic don’t be lured into buying Complete edition of the game as it has been very poorly marketed, leading players to believe that it grants them access to the special premium cards, when in reality it merely unlocks all the basic cards available across the five Planes, the very ones you unlock simply by playing the campaign. Opt for this package or the Complete Card package and you’ll spoil a large part of the fun for yourself as slowly accruing cards through boosters is one of the core tenants of the game.
One can certainly make the argument that this game is merely reflecting the real Magic the Gathering, after all there’s an advantage to be gained from buying plenty of booster packs as it provides access to a wider range of strategies to employ and lets you find cards that better suit your deck. In short, the real game does have a pay-to-win element to it, granting this with a big wallet an edge in battle, though its nice to think that outright skill can always trump simply having awesome cards. But what was nice about the Magic videogames is that they provided a completely balanced field: everyone had the same cards, leaving luck and skill as the deciding factors. Furthermore, microtransactions of this nature go directly against the very nature of the Duels of the Planeswalkers series, which was supposed to provide an easy introduction to Magic for newcomers without them having to shell out for boosters and decks in real life. New players could experience the game and wide variety of cards for minimal price and fuss.
There are a few other issues that arise from the new deck creation system as well that are worth chatting about. Once you’ve gotten through the tutorial and can proudly remember the difference between a Land card and an Instant then you must pick a deck to begin playing with. There’s no way of taking any of them for a test run, and once you’ve picked out a deck you’re stuck with it until you’ve managed to get enough new cards to alter into something more useful that actually suits your own style or to build something from scratch. None of the starting decks are very well put together, either, nor do the descriptions really match their construction. If you pick incorrectly you’ll find yourself trying to fight opponents with a selection of cards you simply hate, hoping that you can snatch enough victories to get a few semi-decent cards. Get a run of back luck and booster packs will reveal duplicates of crap you don’t need, leaving you feeling frustrated. Indeed, it’s possible that you may run into a couple of harsh difficulty curves where your chosen deck seems to be almost entirely useless against the enemy’s far more powerful selections, forcing you to restart over and over until you get a damn good run of luck and the opponent gets the opposite.
In previous games defeating a boss granted you said boss’ deck to use, and you were free to swap at any time, therefore letting you switch strategies if you came across a troublesome opponent. It would have been nice if you were allowed to switch between any of the starter decks on offer at will. Presumably the decision to lock you into a single deck was due to the new deck creation system, ensuring that you couldn’t immediately ransack them all and use the cards to create something straight away, but this could have been combated by simply not allowing you to keep any of the cards within the starting decks for use with other decks. Another option would have been allowing players to swap freely between starter decks within the first Plane before finally having to settle on just one, providing time to find something that suits.
Still, these things aside there’s an undeniably massive amount of satisfaction from winning a duel using a custom deck that you patiently built from scratch. Watching your collection grow is also very pleasing, as is scoring a couple of awesome cards in a booster that you just know will finish your latest deck nicely.
The game has received a graphical upgrade to a sleek new design. The small animations that we do get during a duel all bring a nice dynamic to the game without getting in the way, and you can always disable them if you want to speed things up a touch. The menus all feature a clean, sleek white background with the signature beautiful Magic artwork used for all the icons, and the new information layout during a match is easy on the eye. However, as clean as the menus now look the developers have opted for the most utterly boring playing field imaginable. Its only interesting feature is that it splits along the middle during the attack phase to reveal a red chasm or something of the sort which looks oddly out of place, like the developers realised just how boring the playing field was and desperately tried to come up with something to liven it up in the closing minutes of development.
Though they might be visually appealing the menus are, to be blunt about it, stupid. Clearly designed with tablets and swiping in mind they feel slow and awkward to navigate on a console, and transitions between pages can take several seconds. It might now sound like much, but it can triple the time taken to perform even a simple task, and if you want to adjust some options then pack some bloody sandwiches. The deck manager is also effected. though the result isn’t quite as bad. The right thumbstick is used to switch between the three panels, but there’s a noticeable and annoying stutter when you do it. Click on any given icon in the menus and you have to patiently wait as everything else cycles past, and then wait some more as the next page slides into view. Its obvious everything was designed around someone using a finger to swipe away, leaving us console and PC users wondering why they couldn’t make it a bit easier for us.
Another problem is presented in the automatic mana tapping during a duel. When you play a card the game automatically decides which mana to tap, ensuring a faster pace to the game. Often, though, the game will opt to tap the wrong mix mana, leaving you unable to play a second or third card. You can opt to select which Land to tap yourself, but that just slows the match down further.
On the multiplayer side you can choose to do battle against up to three opponents, although the ability set up teams has been removed entirely, a baffling decision design given how popular the Two-Head Giant mode. Still, battling real people is far more satisfying than beating the stuffing out of the AI, but connection problems resulted in numerous dropped matches, and when you combine that with the inevitable rage-quitters the online experience can be inconsistent and even a bit annoying. There’s also no lobby system in place, so whenever you win or lose a match you get kicked back to the main menu. Even swapping your deck or switching out a couple of cards means flicking all the way through the slow menus, going through the deck manager and then firing up the multiplayer again.
Other than the beloved Two-Head Giant multiplayer mode there’s quite a bit of other content that’s absent. Sealed Play from last years game, where you opened virtual booster packs and constructed a deck from the contents, is gone, a truly sad loss. Likewise the Revenge campaign, Challenges and Planechase modes of the 2013 edition haven’t made it either, leaving in their place a stripped down game that offers less content for the same price and microtransactions to boot. Count in the deck creation and Magic the Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 feels like one step forward, and two steps back.
It’s no secret that the Duels of the Planeswalkers series is largely a marketing tool, designed to tempt players into the real game. It’s a perfect way of testing the waters at minimal cost before perhaps adopting the real life cards or deciding to tackle the free-to-play, microtransaction muddle that is Magic the Gathering Online. However, I’m somewhat conflicted here. While Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 does perform well as a learning tool for new players and provides all-important deck creation, both the 2013 and 2014 editions are better videogames overall, packing in more content for your money. In providing less bang for the buck and locking certain cards away the developers have only served to make Magic the Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 feel like a money-grab. That feeling doesn’t manage to completely overrun the enjoyment of an intense match or joy of building a deck from scratch, but it’s always there, hanging in the background.
+ Kicking ass with MY deck.
+ Getting a perfect addition to your deck in a booster.
+ Playing online is a blast.
– Horrible menus.
– Irritating microtransactions.
– Feels sparse.
The Verdict: 3/5 – Good
Magic the Gathering is as fun as it has ever been, and finally being able to create your own deck is a major selling point, but it has come at a price.