|Multiplayer:||Yes, via GameCenter|
|Purchase for iPhone:||None available. Buy an iPad now!|
|Purchase for iPad:||
GD Star RatingMagic 2015,
Magic the Gathering is becoming the nerd version of Madden – a game that is updated once a year with a new roster (selection of cards, in this case) and iterative changes to the gameplay. The latest and greatest is upon us – does it shake the planes, or get lost in the shuffle?
On the offchance that you still don’t know how to play Magic (despite our review of the original and 2014 versions), here’s the game in a nutshell: you, a mystical planeswalker, possess a
deck library of cards spells and creatures. You are locked in a constant struggle with all other planeswalkers, since as in Highlander there can be only one.
Each turn you can play up to one land. You may then tap each land you have in play to generate mana of its corresponding color. Mana, in turn, is used to either cast spells or summon creatures. Once per turn, you can send your creatures to attack your opponent; your opponent, in turn, can block with any creatures they may happen to control. Between your spells and creature attacks you must whittle down your opponents’ initial 20 points of life. Last wizard standing wins.
If that seems like a cursory examination of the intricacies of Magic – and to be fair, the game has a rich complexity and depth belied by the preceding hundred-or-so-words – it is because, as with any franchise game, the finer points of gameplay really don’t change much from iteration to iteration. The main differences lie in two factors: what cards are available, and what options the application embraces.
The cards, unsurprisingly, are drawn from the 2015 core set that has just been released upon the physical world. The major shake-up is that unlike previous years, where you could unlock fixed decks through gameplay and then add to them over time, here you exit the tutorial with a single, solitary deck. Subsequent victories will give you boosters (the first few will contain 1-5 cards each, the rest will be standard 15 card packs) and as you slowly amass cards you can build exactly the decks you want – within the confines of your resources at hand, at any rate. While this provides a much closer simulation of the core Magic gameplay than previous iterations, it does so at a sacrifice to the balance those forebears had taken for the casual player. It will take many, many games before you amass enough cards to build a successful second deck. Unless, of course, you use IAP.
Previous years’ campaigns would divide the single-player experience between “encounters” (non-random contests against stacked decks) and opponents; defeating the latter would unlock their deck. This time out, you simply have 4 opponents per plane, all of which must be defeated, in sequence, to access the next plane. Additionally you can “explore” the plane, encountering a random opponent from a set of 5.
Each victory will net you a booster, and each booster can randomly contain cards that are unique to the plane on which you’re fighting. As in previous years, it’s a $10 unlock to convert the free download into the full game. Unlike previous years, you can either spend $5 per plane to unlock that planes’ card pool, or a $20 bundle to unlock all five. There are also “premium” boosters available at $2 a pop, and the cards they contain can’t be obtained except via these purchases. With no mechanism to trade or sell back unwanted or duplicate cards, even just amassing a full set of the apps’ card pool (a feat which is more important now that you’re truly designing and building your own deck) starts to cost close to what you would spend for physical cards at a casually competitive level.
While the card collection and deck building mechanics are radically expanded from previous go-rounds, what is missing from this year’s Magic is…virtually anything else. The puzzles that used to serve as both strategy guides and teaching aids in years past are gone, as are the alternative play modes, such as sealed, Planescape, or Two-Headed Giant. While the loss of sealed makes sense, given that that’s now basically the primary game, the lack of options is still frustrating. The only real change up is the “practice duel” mode, which can support everyone-for-themselves games of 2, 3, or 4 players; note that any decks you create are fair game here, along with the dozen or so that come prebuilt as options for your own starter. As with the predecessors, multiplay against a live opponents (handled via GameCenter) is strictly a head-to-head, synchronous affair.
Given the new focus on building and maintaining a library of cards, the main interface tweaks are in the display of your card collection and the deck construction interface. To be fair, both of these are handled elegantly. The collection screen lets you easily determine your haves and needs, and will inform you which of the five planes contain any specific card you seek, so that you can go duel there and hopefully unlock a booster containing the treasured card. The deck builder itself has added a number of filters, and has the ability to “suggest” cards based on your filter choices, or to auto-complete your deck based on what you’ve already selected. This allows even a novice to rapidly construct an effective deck from whatever cards they’ve amassed, but last year’s interactive checker rating the strength of your deck as you build is gone. This seems a particularly keen loss, as the interactive strength checker would provide instant feedback about your choices, and thus served as an excellent learning tool.
With puzzles and strength suggestions both gone, the only real teaching tool we’re left with is the tutorial. It is, to be fair, a good one, and has only been getting better as the years progress. This time around it’s split into 5 basic lessons, each fully interactive and fully narrated, before your “final test” – the selection of your starter deck and entry into an unguided, full-fledged duel.
A few technical notes that don’t fit anywhere else. Magic on the iPad has a storied history of instability. We’ve played about a dozen games on an iPad Air and haven’t seen a single crash; initial reports are that this year’s app is more stable than what’s come before on older hardware, but we haven’t had a chance to try this ourselves. This game also maintains our single biggest gripe from previous iterations – it is nigh on impossible to unassign a creature from blocking, so choose carefully.
It seems like Magic on the iPad is changing its focus. This series, collectively known as Duels of the Planeswalkers, always served as more of an introduction to Magic, perfect for whetting the appetites of newbs or providing a casual quickie for the hardcore. The PC-based Magic Online, meanwhile, served as the full battleground – call it the Master’s Degree to this game’s Bachelor’s. While the new mode streamlines play and deck construction, it does so with the expectation that the player is already somewhat familiar with the finer points and has no interest in the more balanced compromises seen in years past. Magic is now basically a lite version of Magic Online, except the cards that you buy here won’t transfer there, or vice versa. It’s still not a bad option for those who seek to satisfy their craving on the go, but casual players may find it takes longer than years past to amass a versatile toolkit of different decks. Whether that tradeoff is worth it for the unbridled freedom of deck design now available is ultimately a decision each gamer must make for themselves.