After giving Magic 2015 a solid 9/10 for being the best Duels of the Planeswalkers game around, I’ve spent the intermittent months counting down to the release of Magic Duels. Having completed 4 and a half of the 5 playable Origins campaigns, three words come to mind when I consider how it makes me feel: disappointed, frustrated and cheated.
I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering for about a year now. I’ve 100%ed Magic 2015 twice and collected thousands of physical Magic cards. I attend local tournaments and I’ve even come in the top 10 at the last one I went to. I like to think that I’m fairly good at Magic – I’m no Luis Scott-Vargas, but I’m pretty good, if I do say so myself. That being said, I’m not good enough to play Magic Duels, as I left my Lens of Clarity in Tarkir. You see, Magic Duels is a game which doesn’t quite fully understand the rules of Magic: The Gathering, which is rather unfortunate.
Magic Duels is supposed to be the ultimate Duels of the Planeswalkers game. Not only is it the first game to bring Planeswalkers into the Duels series, but it’s the first game to run alongside an a new physical set – Magic Origins, which launches at prerelease tournaments worldwide this weekend.
On top of this, it heralds the return of Two Headed Giant as a multiplayer mode, pitting 2v2 in an intense multiplayer battle. You even get to walk in the footsteps of 5 different Planeswalkers on your iPhone for the very first time. All in all, this should make for an incredibly exciting game. Wizards of the Coast and Stainless Games have even said that they’ll release future sets in Magic Duels in real time, which should have fans chomping at the bit. So what are we waiting for?
Well, we’re waiting for the game to work, for a start.
You see, Magic Duels is only designed to run on some iPhones (5S, not the 5C, for instance, which came out a year and a half ago), and some iPads. Funilly enough, Magic Duels runs on my iPad Air (which came out more than a year and a half ago), albeit at a choppy frame rate and crashing fairly frequently.
I understand why old hardware was excluded from the release – it’s the Apple equivalent of non-backwards compatibility. But considering that the 5C and the 5S run the same OS and are fairly similar aside from their appearance, this feels akin to designing a game for Android and only releasing it on the Ouya. I can see why they did it – I just think that’s flipping stupid, if you’ll pardon the pun.
When Magic Duels does run, it’s a gorgeous game. It’s great fun test-driving Magic Origins ahead of the tournament, and the meter which shows you which phase you’re on is now in the middle of the board, which is nice. The Stop Timer button is unfortunately crazy fast and doesn’t always work, but that’s a small complaint considering what’s coming up. Still, it’s a lot of fun to sit there and play Liliana’s and Jace’s backstory, getting to know where our favorite characters came from. Chandra’s, not so much.
A big plus for Magic Duels is that it’s free to play, and unlike Magic 2015 you don’t have to pay $9.99 to unlock the full game. Instead, you can unlock all of the cards just by playing the game, winning coins with every match, similarly to Hearthstone.
Obviously there’s the usual microtransactions built in, letting you buy booster packs; but to be fair, they’re reasonably priced. Magic Duels can feel a bit stingy with giving you coins – a single booster pack is worth 150 coins, and a match will net you 5-50 coins based on the difficulty – though admittedly it’s more generous than Hearthstone, where you need to win 30 matches just to afford a single booster pack of 5 cards.
Unfortunately, I’m running out of encouraging things to say about Magic Duels. Sadly, everything I liked about Magic 2015 seems to have been gutted from Magic Duels. First and foremost, you can’t make progress offline. You can play, but Magic Duels doesn’t let you save. It’s a stupid decision.
Secondly, the entry barrier is insanely high. The tutorial is beautifully set up, and gives you fun little optional skill quests the first time a new rule is introduced. If you don’t know what Deathtouch is you can pause your battle and play and optional tutorial; if you do know how awesome cards like Typhoid Rats are (hint, it’s my favorite card), then cool – just move on.
That’s the level of playability I like. It makes games like this more accessible for new players and it means that the advanced players don’t have to break stride. But for every upside like this, there are two glaring oversights waiting to cheat you out of a win. The most notable example is when the AI cheats by loading its deck against you in the boss battle with Captain Baral – the fifth and final fight in Chandra’s campaign. It genuinely sapped the fun out of the game.
Fans of Magic: The Gathering will know how well a slow red deck matches up against a blue control deck (hint: not well). Playing as the most famous pyromancer in the multiverse, you’re obviously the chump playing red. For those of you who don’t know, it’s not fun at times. Captain Baral plays some of the nastiest blue control cards against you, with the skill you’d expect from a really aggressive player. It’s incredibly difficult, and being forced to use a sub-par deck is just cruel.
When I finally beat Captain Baral, I was met with the stark realization that Magic Duels was no longer connected to the internet, despite my iPad being connected just fine – and thus my game wouldn’t save. I hit reconnect a dozen times until Magic Duels finally acknowledged that I was, in fact, online – only to conveniently forget that Baral lay dead in my wake. My progress, regrettably had not been saved.
It took me about 4 hours to beat him again. Why? Because Magic Duels: Origins is buggy as hell. Creatures tapped by Baral never untapped when they should; the game skipped my main phase for me when I’d drawn the one card in my deck which would have let me win; activated abilities refused to activate, and this happened time and again until I finally beat him a second time for a meagre 50 coins.
If it wasn’t for the fact that I really wanted to see Chandra’s cutscene, I would have deleted Magic Duels hours ago.
So how do the other modes fare? There’s a Solo Battle Mode outside of the Story Mode where I pitted myself against the AI using a self-built deck made of my booster packs. I built this using the step-by-step construction guide for beginners, just to see how it shapes up. Somehow, I managed to crack both Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh and Nissa, Vastwood Seer in my first two boosters. As it happens, I’m a fan of the RUG deck anyway, so I thought I’d give it a shot and see what happens.
First of all, the beginner’s desk builder is absolutely terrible. It’s genuinely awful and whoever designed that needs to go hang their head in shame. Second of all, I find it a bit peculiar that given the fact I’m a regular player, I went 0-7 against the AI here. The AI is super aggressive, even when you play on Easy Mode for a measly 5 coins. It utterly trounced me, in one instance beating me by turn 5. Normally I’d be impressed, but that’s because normally play on Hard.
If you’re new to Magic, please don’t try Magic Duels before anything else. It will put you off what is a genuinely incredible card game. Go and play Magic 2015 instead – a game well worth your time, which still has people playing online (despite many vocal complainers).
The developer is aware of the many problems with Magic Duels, and has committed to fixing them. I remain hopeful that the game will improve over time, but other than the fact that you can get a sneak peak at the Magic Origins cards before tomorrow’s prerelease, I can’t recommend it in its current state. I may kick myself for this later, but I’d rather pay money for a Magic Origins expansion in Magic 2015 than play a free copy in something as broken as Magic Duels.
If and when the game improves – hopefully by the time it hits Android and PC – I may revisit the game. But as it stands at the moment, Magic Duels: Origins is average at best.