Magic Duels: Origins Review

Magic Duels: Origins

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 Two Headed Giant

Two-Headed Giant is back!

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.

Magic Duels Enchantments

The tutorials in Magic Duels are incredibly well designed

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.

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Nic Bunce

Nic Bunce

A South African born, London raised Brit living in London. Studied Microbiology at the University of Leicester, and taught English in Japan. Jack of all trades and Master of the Universe...
Nic Bunce

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  • David Anderson

    They should fix the bugs and give everyone 3 free booster packs.

    • Nic Bunce

      Well we got 2 free boosters, so that’s something, eh?

      • David Anderson

        Haha oh well. I’m already at the point where I’ve collected every card in the origins set and it won’t even let me buy more boosters. So they should add the dragons of tarkir set to the game lol.

        • Nic Bunce

          Hopefully they will. We all know that they will be adding more sets moving forward, and we will keep reviewing the game as it goes… Will be something to keep a new eye on moving forward, seeing if they decide to move backwards… The Tarkir side to Magic 2015 was pretty lacking.

  • Draco Lusus

    I’ve only played Magic on either Android or PC, so can’t comment on 2015 for iOS. 2014 was awesome, 2015 was an abomination of a game. The fact you sing it’s praises disturbs me no end. Yes I’m a physical card player, not the best, but hey…had high hopes for some casual fun. Seems they didn’t learn from the colossal stuffup that was 2015…

    • Deepsouth

      I’m not sure how you could call 2015 an “abomination”. That’s an incredibly brutal word for a pretty decent game. It was and still is superior to duals just for one simple reason. 2015 AI decks weren’t designed to counter your deck. They were just tough well built decks that were beatable if you were an experienced mtg player. In Duals the AI decks are literally designed to just counter whatever you have in your deck. It’s complete trash and is just made that way so you will purchase booster packs.

  • Shawn

    How was this a review? It was you bitching because you could not beat 1 boss. And its a very new game that will be expanding greatly as this is replacing the yearly releases. I advise people to not listen to this review and maybe try it for yourself.

    • Nic Bunce

      I beat him twice… Sadly I only got coins the second time

    • Deepsouth

      Two years later not much has changed. I agree with this original review.

  • Juneauz

    Wow. It seems to me that the only problem here is that you’re really bad at this game. It took me exactly 10 minutes to beat Baral as Chandra, that challenge was a piece of cake. I’m also playing on an iPad Air and I’ve experienced none of the bugs you’ve mentioned (except for a rare frame-drop issue). Honestly, I recommend anyone to try this game out as it’s free and vastly superior to all it’s “Duels of the Planeswalkers” predecessors.

  • An Angry Person

    In order to use activated abilities you need to swipe forward on the zoomed in card with the needed ability. It isn’t explained in the tutorial, but with a little experimentation, you should have been able to find that out.

    • Nic Bunce

      Yeah, the activated abilities system is buggy as hell on my iPad. Wizards have acknowledged the bug and are working on it 🙂

  • Chris Privateer

    I will admit, with no shame, that the last match of Chandra’s campaign is irritating. However, Captain Baral has basically zero offense. A few of his counters send the card you cast to either the top of your deck or back to your hand, so it’s not the worst counter around. It’s much more a mana drain/turn waster, but since he’s not going to deal any serious damage to you, so what? He has another counter that lets you draw two cards at the next upkeep, which is fantastic for you! I LOVE drawing cards! I mean, if he’s going to counter my spell anyway, I may as well get something out of it, right? And, again, it’s not like he’s going to hurt you in the mean-time, so he’s pretty much doping you a favor. You shouldn’t try to ultimate against a counter deck anyway, so you WANT a larger number of cards so that you can overwhelm him with small amounts of damage here or there. And if you REALLY want to nova, just wait until he’s out of mana for your finisher.

    So, yeah, irritating. Many campaign duels are irritating. Hell, I’d say the guy before Captain Baral was more difficult, going by type of deck. A lot of it is in the luck of your first draw compared to your opponent’s, in the campaign. Also, not really knowing exactly what cards, or number of specific card, you can expect to see out of the deck is the real problem. How do you plan for good combos you don’t even know you have access to?

    Also, while I have had a few bugs, none of them were anything major. You can pause to get time to cast everything you want to, so long as you’re actually paying attention. Sure, I’d like more time to react to the enemy blocking, for starters. I think they should just plain pop an extra combat phase, like in real-life magic, after defenders are declared, but before damage is dealt. Then you’re not relying on good timing to know if the enemy’s actually blocking or not. I use instants differently depending on IF, let alone how, the other guy blocks. I’m not sure how many critters I lost due to this one problem, but this is pretty much it, as far as problems go.

    Also, this game DEMOLISHES my battery. Even when it’s plugged in, I lose power as I go. I can’t wait until the PC version comes out, so I don’t have to worry about battery life and so I don’t mis-place an enchantment or damage from an effect due to several cards being stacked in the center and I have fat thumbs.

    • Nic Bunce

      See, I’ve never had battery problems, but I seem to have found more than my fair share of bugs… You know when you have no attackers and the game skips your attack and M2 phase? It does that with me from time to time, even if I have untapped creatures. I’ve been speaking to the debs about the bugs and while they assure me that most people aren’t as unlucky with the bugs, they are working on the fixes ASAP 🙂

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  • dc_lion

    This makes me feel much better because after Chandra’s campaign which I had no trouble with, I’ve won precisely one match in twenty-five from the other planeswalker story arcs. The AI is absolutely brutal and does seem to stack the opponent’s deck with every card designed to slaughter whatever cards you own. I’m quite familiar with the game after playing it for the past twenty years, so while I’m okay with losing over half my matches, there’s no way I should be destroyed on this level. It’s basically like playing computer chess where the computer can instantly analyze every single way to beat you in a split second.

    • dc_lion

      I also bought several boosters right off the bat, and have heard that the computer AI increses in difficulty as your collection expands—but this shouldn’t affect the story campaign, right??