Magic: Duels

Players:
2 or 4
Multiplayer:via GameCenter only
AI:Yes, 3 levels
Universal App:Yes (there is a single app which works on both iPhone and iPad in HD)
Purchase for iPhone:Use link below to purchase universal app
Purchase for iPad:

Price: Free
User rating:
GD Star Rating
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Another year, another digital Magic: the Gathering game. As with annual sports titles, MtG continually refreshes its roster with the current all stars. This time, with Hearthstone nipping at it’s heels, MtG is going freemium and reinventing itself as a digital locker rather than just a standalone game. Is this enough to light your spark?

Gameplay

We have to assume that if you’re a regular visitor to this site, you know how MtG works, but just in case here’s a brief primer. You, a Planeswalker, have dominion over the planes of existence, the creatures that dwell within, and the magic essence that binds the galaxy together – kind of like a Jedi but without the cool laser swords.

magic duels particles

Each game will be a duel between yourself and an opposing Planeswalker. You both begin the duel with 20 life. Each turn you will be able to place one land, and can then tap the lands you’re played to generate mana. Mana, in turn, allows you to summon creatures or cast other spells from your hand.

magic duels summon

Creatures are unable to act the until the turn following their summons. Each turn thereafter, you may either attack with them, leave them standing to block others’ attacks, or activate an ability they have if applicable. The goal is to be the first to deal 20 damage to the opponent, smear their blood upon your face neck and chest, and declare yourself the winner.

Implementation

While this year’s annual entry of MtG has shortened its name, the franchise has always been aimed more at newcomers to the powerhouse franchise than seasoned veterans. Up until now, Hasbro has preferred to shunt its players toward Magic Online, which is widely considered to be one of the worst digital interfaces for a CCG. Duels straddles the uncomfortable position of trying to be all things to all players, and the result is that it doesn’t particularly succeed at any of them.

magic duels skill quest

If there was any question of the designers’ assumption that the game was aimed at newbies, it’s answered by your first hour or so with the game, which is spent just doing mind-numbing tutorials on the basics of MtG rules. Unlike previous years which asked you for your experience level, there is no command to bypass these exceedingly basic lessons – though given that you have to play through them just to earn enough gold to buy two booster packs if you don’t plan on paying, you really don’t have a choice anyway.

magic duels single player start

As with previous iterations, the game’s content content is divided between a single player campaign mode and a battle arena. This time around, the campaign is split into 5 stories of 5 missions apiece. Each campaign arc takes you through the backstory of one of the prominent Planeswalkers of the game’s lore, complete with video clips that you’ll skip immediately due to the poor animation and overwrought voiceover. It’s unclear, however, at exactly which playerbase the campaigns are aimed. The initial campaign features scripted card draws to let first-timers feel like they’re making headway against the AI. The first battle of each subsequent campaign almost seems designed to punish you, with things like a slow moving blue phantom deck against a red speed deck, or a black zombie deck against a black vampire deck with infinitely more lifelink and air assault.

magic duels decks

For veterans, of course, MtG is all about the meta-game, and using that to your advantage in your deck construction. The ability to build your own deck was first introduced two years ago in the “sealed” mode, which would give you a small number of booster packs and challenge you to build the best deck you could with those limited resources. Last year’s version streamlined the deck builder, adding more features but taking away the guidance that helped rank newbies build killer decks.

magic duels decks

This year’s version manages to combine the weaknesses of both to come up with the worst deckbuilder that’s yet been deployed in the series. You are given the choice between using a standard deck builder or the deck wizard, a tool which was apparently named without a sense of irony. The standard builder actually displays less cards on the screen than previous iterations, meaning that a lot more scrolling is necessary if your card collection is of any size. It’s functional, but only just, and other collectible card games on the platform do it better – just about any of them, frankly.

magic duels wizard

The Wizard, meanwhile, guides you step by agonizing step through the process. First you choose from one of a dozen deck archetypes. Each one is built in thematic steps, and you are presented with a limited selection of cards for each step – always shown the most expensive first. This wouldn’t be so bad except that the only way to change up this offering is by adding a card irrevocably to your deck, and only when you add all 4 (or, as is far more likely when starting out, all that you have collected) is another offering presented in its stead. Given that most of these phases only ask for 6 or 8 cards, this can be a pretty significant sacrifice. You tend to end up with a deck that is either topheavy with expensive cards, or has them so randomly distributed that they never synergize. We’ve built half a dozen decks via the so-called wizard, and every one of them rates significantly lower than the decks we designed ourselves – even via the game’s own star rating system for decks. As a final insult to injury, you can’t take your custom decks into the campaign mode – you are instead forced to use the same anemic decks time and again.

magic duels searching

If Hasbro is to be believed, the battle mode with these hand-crafted decks is where the heart of the game lies, but we’re not sure we follow the logic. All the online hooks are tied into GameCenter, meaning you’re limited to the iOS playerbase (unlike Hearthstoneunlike SolForgeunlike Earthcorehell even unlike Shadow Era) and are totally reliant upon Apple’s servers and considerable whim to safeguard your expensive virtual card collection. Oh, and since you’re entirely reliant on GameCenter, we strongly recommend not playing on an airplane, on the road, or anywhere else your iPad isn’t in the cloud, as you’ll simply lose any progress rather than having it stored locally and synced at the first opportunity.

magic duels quests

Last year’s version also received a lot of flack for the particularly greedy way it insisted that you pay to unlock cards. Being a free-to-play game you have to expect that isn’t going to really improve, and it both has and hasn’t. Gone are the cards that can only be unlocked (randomly) via IAP; instead, ALL cards beyond the base set are unlocked via boosters, which are purchased via coins. Boosters contain a miserly 6 cards each – less than half a standard MtG booster offline – and cost 150 gold each (or 30 victories against the “easy” AI, the only one unlocked initially). Unlike most digital CCGs, there is never a tier where you get any “bonus” packs. The previous Magic games cost $10 to unlock after the free download; $10 also gets you just about exactly enough coins for 8 packs, which combined with the starter box is about what it takes to be able to start building competitive decks.

Hardware requirements, meanwhile, are steep. The stated requirements are an iPad Air or an iPhone 5s or later, and on our iPad Air we’ve already had 2 crashes, as well as one on an iPhone 6 – none of which, thankfully, resulted in a loss of earned currency, but both of which required us to replay tutorial levels.

Verdict

It’s not entirely clear what purpose this app is meant to serve. It fails as a tutorial, swinging wildly between lessons so basic a ten year old would lose interest and challenges so fiendish they’ll turn off anyone who isn’t already a seasoned fan. As an online client it also misses the mark, hooking into a proprietary system over which neither the player nor the developer has any control to save a potentially very expensive collection of virtual goods. It is also so reliant upon this online system as to be essentially useless without an always-on connection, which is not something you can assume on an iPad.

This is, in other words, arguably the least magical Magic the iOS has seen to date.

magic duels defeated

6.5
Keep on planeswalking - nothing to see here

Good Things

  • Best AI options so far for iPad Magic games
  • Should you need one of the braindead tutorials, you can access them from anywhere in the app
  • Look at all the pretty particles!

Bad Things

  • Online decks will not be competitive without cash or weeks of grinding
  • Worst deck builder in the history of the series
  • GameCenter required for everything - pray Apple never decides to change it

The Breakdown


Gameplay
7
Interface
6
Artwork
8
Features
5



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