Since 2009 whenever anyone asked us what the best way to learn Magic: The Gathering is, our answer has always been referring them to the newest Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers. Last year’s installment Magic 2015 introduced the highly anticipated custom deck building client, however it caused a bit of an outcry after dumping one of the game’s beloved casual formats, Two Headed Giant. It also introduced micro transactions for “premium booster packs” which left a sizable portion of content under a pay wall. Wizards of the Coast amended this with the Garruk’s Revenge expansion that made the previous paid content unlockable through multiplayer game play. This year’s iteration fully embraces it, going completely free to play with a new persistent client that’ll be around for years to come.
Aug. 1, 2015 Update
We’ve lowered the review score from our original review down to two. Many players cannot play the game citing errors which prevent it from launching. If you’re one of the lucky people able to actually play, servers which don’t connect resulting in hours of lost progress leave everyone else frustrated. When Wizards of the Coast addresses these issues, we’ll be changing the score as appropriate.
With six years of refinement under it’s belt, Magic Duels really is the best way to learn Magic: The Gathering. As you progress through the first of five Magic Origins stories, with Gideon, the Magic Duels client teaches you the basics of how to play Magic: The Gathering. As you encounter new abilities you’re taken to mini games where you learn how to cast instants, use activated abilities, block with multiple creatures, and more. After completing each skill quest you’re thrown back into whatever duel you’re in so you can apply what you’ve learned.
The five campaigns tell the “origins” story of how each of the five main planeswalkers in the game ignited their spark. You’ll play mono-colored decks which increase in power as you progress. These stories feel more like challenges though because your opponent almost always has better cards than you. After completing the Gideon campaign you’ll unlock four more campaigns: Liliana, Jace, Chandra, and Nissa. You’ll also be granted a “deck box” of cards from which to build your own custom deck and play against the AI or in multiplayer.
Coins are what make Magic Duels tick. You earn five coins for defeating the AI on easy, 10 on medium, and 15 on hard. For those looking for some more challenging PVP action, you’ll score 20 coins for each multiplayer win. Individual games can range from five minutes to over half an hour. You also unlock one weekly community quest for 40 coins and one daily quest, which at the moment of this review provides 40 coins (we recently saw it lowered to 20, then raised back up to 40). The daily quests range from playing with specific color deck combinations to putting 20 +1/+1 counters on your creatures. The amount of coins were originally capped at 200 a day when the game released on iOS, however it’s since been upped to 400. The good news is that with “smart” booster packs you can’t collect more copies of a card than you need to play with in your decks.
So what do you do with these coins? 150 coins will unlock a booster pack of six cards to your collection. Each booster pack contains three commons, two uncommons, and one rare or mythic rare. You can also spend coins to make your cards into premium foils. There will be additional ways to use coins in the future, such as unlocking new avatars.
As of this article we’ve sunk 57 hours into the early access Steam beta version, and have only unlocked about a fifth of the cards. It’s important to note that we weren’t able to play many multiplayer games, relegating us to playing just the AI. For the collection you’re initially granted with, you’ll have to stick to playing easy until you’ve managed to make a better deck. Grinding on medium difficulty, we averaged to win a game every 20 minutes. That’s an average of five hours to collect 150 coins and unlock a booster pack, provided you don’t lose. Multiplayer will certainly be quicker to grind with twice as much gold to win.
If your time is more valuable, you can use real money to purchase coins. 150 coins cost $1.99 while you can get a savings for buying coins in bulk. Unfortunately booster packs always cost 150 coins, even when purchased in bulk. That means there’s no advantage to hoarding your coins. You’re better off buying a pack every time you acquire 150 so that you can get better cards for your decks. We would’ve liked to see a slight savings on boosters, even if it was just a free pack for the topmost tier.
One of the ways Magic Duels differentiates itself from the paper game and Magic Online is by its deck-building constraints. Players can only own four copies of each common, three of each uncommon, two of each rare, and one of each mythic rare. That means you can’t just net-deck the latest Grand Prix or Pro Tour standard deck. You get a free mulligan of a new seven cards. Additionally, there’s no real upkeep phase. We found ourselves wanting to cast a spell or use an ability before our opponent had the chance to draw a card, however we couldn’t. The game does have cards that refer to upkeep, such as when the AI uses Arcane Denial against you. Another thing to note is that unlike Magic Online the game doesn’t automatically stop for you on each phase. You have to manually click stop. If you like playing reactionary decks, such as blue counterspells, you’ll have to become adept at hitting the stop button in time to respond. Just like in real Magic, you can get mana-screwed. Despite the Deck Wizard putting 24 lands in our deck, there were a lot of games where we didn’t hit three mana on turn three. Thankfully you won’t be the only one this happens to. The AI will sometimes gets stuck on one or two lands as well.
With competitors like Hearthstone and Might and Magic: Duel of Champions offering cross platform support between iOS and PC and other free to play games such as Smite and World of Wartanks allowing Xbox One and PC players to play against eachother, Wizards of the Coast really missed a golden opportunity to hit a grand-slam out of the gate. You can’t play Magic Duels on your iPhone while on a break at work and then sit down and relax at your console or computer for an extended play session at home with the same decks unless you’re willing to pay to unlock or grind through the collection twice. It also leaves the player base fractured by what system they’re playing on.
At the moment the card pool is limited to cards from Magic Origins and the random assortment the game grants you. Over time the number of cards players are able to collect will skyrocket, starting with when the Battle for Zendikar update releases, and then with each new set released in the paper game moving forward. We can’t help but feel slighted at seeing cards that are clearly programmed into the game’s story mode not available for use by players when building custom decks though.
Aside from one on one, the only other mode is two-headed giant. You can’t earn coins playing two-headed giant. None of the other formats we’ve seen in past Duels of the Planeswalkers games such as Archenemy, Planechase, or Sealed are present. Grinding coins is fine, however we’d love to see something additional to do with them after collecting every card. How about adding tournaments where we can put our skills to the test and wager our hard earned coins for a potentially bigger payoff?
Additionally, there’s quite a few bugs we ran into. New daily quests didn’t always spawn, and when they did they can only be completed with decks made from the Deck Wizard. Even then, sometimes games you’ve won don’t always count. Tragic Arrogance will prevent games from progressing upon if your opponent has an aura, say Suppression Bonds, on one of your creatures. You’ll have to exit the game and forfeit any gold you would have won. The game will also sometimes disconnect from the server, also causing you to lose any progress you’ve made (coins earned). It doesn’t happen often, however when it does it always seems to be at the end of a 20 minute game you’ve finally just won.
- Learn how to play Magic: The Gathering for free.
- Everything can be unlocked through play. Absolutely no pay walls.
- The grind is real.
- Several game-stopping bugs.
- No tournaments.
- No cross-platform support.
Our rating: Two out of five.
Despite its shortcomings, Magic Duels is the best iteration in the franchise we’ve seen to date. With an ever-expanding card pool and Wizards of the Coast affirming that Magic Duels will indeed be around for years to come, it’s easy to see the potential in this game once all the bugs are fixed. It’ll be really interesting a year from now when Magic Duels syncs up set-wise with Standard, yet won’t mirror it because of the deck-building constraints. Add in a few additional modes, along with cross-platform support, and Magic Duels will be perfect in our book.
Bottom line: Yes, you should absolutely download and play this game – when it’s fixed.
Magic Duels: Origins is currently available on iOS and is scheduled to release on Steam July 29, 2015 and on Xbox One on July 31, 2015. It will also be headed to PlayStation 4 at a “later date.” There’s no word yet on Android. Please note this review was based upon a code for the early access Steam beta version of the game.
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