I Challenge You To A Duel
Magic: The Gathering, a collectable card game that’s been around for a pair of decades, is absolutely huge. There are thousands of cards, official novels, more fanfiction than any one person could ever read, and millions of players to keep it all going. While it’s nice to see such a fun and well put together game achieve the success that it has, in a way its growth has become its own enemy. With the raw amount of content out there, it can be a rather difficult hobby to jump into if you don’t know anyone to guide you through the walls of cards and the harrowing gauntlet that can be league play. Perhaps more stifling for newcomers than anything, however, is that jumping into such a well-established game can get downright expensive. Sure it’s possible to pick up a starter set or a few cheap packs to play with some friends, but much beyond that requires at least a moderate investment at penalty of being crushed by those with more disposable income. Luckily there’s another option that is likely to satisfy new and veteran players alike looking for a cheap and easy way to enjoy the game that has entranced millions: Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014. Enjoying its fourth year of existence, this yearly franchise developed by Stainless Games is back, and while there are a handful of issues both new and old, the title is largely a satisfying improvement worthy of the asking price.
Magic is far too complex to completely explain in detail here, but it all boils down to a few main tasks and objectives. Each player starts with 20 life points. Players then use a combination of creature spells and other magic to battle their opponent’s life total down to zero. Cards are separated into five different colors (red mountains, blue islands, black swamps, white plains, and green forests, or a combination of multiple). While most decks include one or two colors, the beauty of the game is that each one has a very distinct persona while remaining extremely well-balanced. No deck in the game is inherently better or worse than any other (except in sealed play, which we’ll get to later), meaning strategy and learning your decks strengths are more important to victory than getting a particular deck match up with your opponent.
I mentioned before that this game is a great way for new players to introduce themselves to the world of Magic, and it’s true, although with a few caveats. The actual tutorial, the obvious first stop for people casting their first creatures, is a bit confusing. While the narrated tips and instructions themselves are very nice and helpful, the games they take place in aren’t completely scripted. This means that even in the tutorial it is possible to screw up, lose, and have to start over. There is something to be said for letting players see the consequences of various actions, but to a new player it becomes unnecessary frustration, and I don’t think the tutorial is the place for it. That aside, however, the tips and information in-game are invaluable. Any card can be zoomed in on at almost any time, and the “more information” button will describe the card type, as well as what any special characteristics or terms on the card mean. Even the greenest of gamers should have no problem gaining a functional understanding of the game's rules and style after an afternoon of play.
For most of the game, players will use one of 10 pre-constructed decks to either play online versus others or against AI. These decks start with 60 cards, and can have one more unlocked with each victory (to a max of 30). While this does allow for a bit of flexibility substituting new cards out for old, you’ll largely know what you’re getting into when you see the deck you’re up against. I’m happy to report that almost all of the decks are a blast to play. Each one is different enough from the others to warrant its own existence, and most are focused around a theme which range from building a horde of small weak creatures, to using graveyards (discard piles) in your favor, to summoning one or two huge monsters, and a ton more.
These mostly pre-constructed decks are what you’ll be using for one of the game’s main modes, the campaign. In some ways the campaign is an improvement over those past. There is an attempt at a story to tie all the battles together, which includes some voiced out lines. While it really doesn’t make much sense, it does at least add a bit of reasoning to the particular order you battle your opponents in. The voice acting is also pretty good. Unfortunately there are just too many “encounters” for me. Encounters, which make up a rather large portion of the duels in the campaign, are games in which your opponent draws the same cards in the same order every time. The idea is that you can use them to test your decks against certain situations and play styles. That’s fine, and actually is a useful idea, but I’d have liked to see it be a separate mode instead of a large chunk of the campaign.
Standard online play also uses these decks, and is where most of your hours will likely be spent. All-in-all, multiplayer is pretty slick. There are three modes to choose from: Free-for-All allows you to take on between one and three other players in a standard game, Two-Headed Giant is two-on-two, and Sealed Play lets you use non-standard decks, but again, we’ll get to that later. Three game modes might seem a bit thin, but it’s really all I found myself wanting more often than not. People making the jump from last year’s title will notice the lack of the Planechase mode. I’m not entirely sure why it had to be removed (just as Archenemy was removed in the jump from the 2011 to 2012 release), but at least its replacement is worthy.
Great way to learn the game, varied decks that are fun to play, Sealed Play opens up creative options, interface is more intuitive.
Tutorial can be a bit confusing, Sealed Play could be a bit bigger, and connecting to games online can be a challenge.