Developer: Stainless Games / Publisher: Wizards of the Coast / Played On: Xbox 360 (LIVE Arcade) / Price: $9.99 / ESRB: Teen [Violence, Blood, Suggestive Themes]
For many of us, our relationship with Magic: The Gathering is a tried and true romance, cultivated over the course of several years (if not the better part of two decades). It’s a love affair galvanized by friendly competitions around kitchen tables or at local hobby stores. Throughout the seasons, Magic has become an annual release of the updated core set of cards, driving competitive league play while revising fringe rules and refreshing the status quo.
Yet Magic: The Gathering remains something of an insider’s game for tabletop’s counter-culture elite. Sure, Magic has earned a mainstream foothold in checkout lines across America – and holds true to the axiom of “a minute to learn and a lifetime to master” – but a healthy and competitive CCG habit requires tenacity, attention to detail, and (most importantly) a small pocketful of coin.
Wizards of the Coast changed all that in the summer of 2009 with the advent of Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers. This digital arcade version of the original CCG was justly well received, and did a damn fine job of capturing the thrill and whimsy of the tabletop game it was modeled after – complete with head-to-head online competition. Annual releases of updated Duels games would follow, attempting to capture the full scope and breadth of the living tabletop game fans have come to know and love. But something has always been missing: the collectable aspect of the game.
Although I was privileged enough to get a hands-on preview at E3 this year, I still had many questions about Magic 2014: were the changes all they were cracked up to be? Is a sneak-peak at this year’s new cards worth my precious “video game time” or hard-earned cash when I’m still drowning in the torrent of this spring’s blockbuster titles?
I can proudly say hell yes – it’s worth all that and a pack of cards. Duels of the Planeswalkers eagerly delivers more than just the standard round of revisions. On top of a robust single-player experience and endless hours of well-balanced competitive multiplayer, Magic 2014 introduces a new Sealed Deck campaign and the ability to use the adjoining player-crafted decks in a multiplayer environment.
Hands down, Magic 2014 features the most realized story-driven single-player experience of any Duels of the Planeswalkers title to date, and I hesitate to call the single-player experience of the original Duels a “campaign” – it was merely a sequence of card duels against an array of challenging AI decks (the titular Planeswalkers themselves). The game’s sequels would employ “Encounters” (in addition to increasingly complex “Challenge” modes), and these Encounters would eventually string along the main duels against the Planeswalker decks.
But there was this lingering feeling of disconnection.
Although the Encounters themselves were fair and balanced, they lacked a certain cohesion when compared to the more impressive Planeswalker decks themselves. Many of the Encounters were too simple. Magic 2014, by comparison, presents a plane-hopping tale of ambition and revenge, driven by a protagonist with definable goals – fan-favorite fire mage Chandra Nalar.
Magic 2014 tells its story by utilizing a series of Encounters, unlockable duels against your fellow Planeswalkers, and interstitial videos (featuring the first fully-rendered 3D video in a Duels of the Planeswalkers title). And though these aren’t the most intricate rendered sequences in the world of modern computer-generated animation, they utilize the best of the parent game’s art and design to tell a brief but classic fantasy tale.
The Encounters themselves have been reshaped to provide an experience that echoes our heroine’s fantastic journey across time and space. Rather than staggering the primary duels among a string of seemingly unrelated battles, the revised menu integrates the aforementioned storybook experience with Encounters of increasing difficulty leading to a climactic battle with a Planeswalker of your choice. Five iconic Planes present four Encounters each, and duels with five opposing Planeswalkers will lead you to an epic finale. Each encounter feels more robust and conjures a vibe worthy of your favorite sword & sorcery cartoon or story. For a moment, you’ll forget you’re playing a card game.
The iconic creatures known as Slivers have been introduced to the Duels franchise for the first time. I won’t bog you down with details, just know this: they’re among Magic‘s nastiest creatures, designed to swarm, overpower, and humiliate… and a welcomed addition for sadist and masochist alike. But old-school players take note: Slivers in Magic 2014 (both digital and terrestrial) behave differently than before. ‘Sliver creatures you control’ is the new key phrase, whereas previously ‘all slivers’ on the battlefield would benefit from any other Sliver’s abilities. Yet, the Slivers remain nasty little buggers, to be sure.
Another new addition, Magic 2014’s new Sealed Deck campaign begins with six virtual booster packs containing 14 randomly selected cards each, pooled from the collection of 180 cards – many of which are new to the Magic 2014 core set. You then fashion a deck to your liking; it’s that simple, but it can be incredibly (and satisfyingly) complicated depending on the cards. As you play through the short campaign, you earn 3 additional booster packs as milestones, allowing you to supplement and alter your sealed deck as you go. Although the Sealed Deck campaign is relatively short compared to the regular single-player experience, the ability to use your sealed decks in multiplayer opens up previously unseen possibilities in the console arena.
New Sealed Deck slots can be purchased at $1.99 a pop, allowing for a different Sealed Deck campaign experience without corrupting the core game mechanics and business models established by the original Duels of the Planeswalkers. And that’s the key of it all: Magic 2014‘s Sealed Deck does an amazing job of scratching that “real Magic” itch without destroying the streamlined “everyman” approach to the game it’s been from the beginning; and according to the game’s developers, it’s the everyman they had in mind when making this game.
Magic 2014 has also taken some impressive visual strides. A motion comic technique has been applied to many of the still images, from the backgrounds of the various Plane-scapes to the art of some of the game’s rarest cards. These subtle augmentations bring new life to the game’s impressive (but often motionless) library of still imagery. But while the revised layout flows with a previously unseen elegance, there are a handful of occurrences where the resolution of the implemented still image just doesn’t hold up. And it doesn’t matter how fantastic the full color paintings and illustrations look when they become pixilated.
The console controls of the game have remained relatively the same, with a few minor adjustments to the timing of various commands (I feel like I’m still getting the hang of the zoom timing, whether it’s changed or not). The addition of an often-needed “Confirm” step during library searches is particularly helpful. But without going over the litany of nuanced changes, it still handles like a Cadillac until you try to look at your opponent’s stack when there are over two-dozen creatures and permanents on the battlefield. In classic Duels fashion, that toggle switch doesn’t always go where you want it. This is only a problem in timed multiplayer settings; against the computer you’ve got all the time in the world.
The soundscape is the lushest it’s ever been. Audible cues fans have come to recognize have been refined and more delicately implemented, while the game’s score offers an impressive array of interesting ambient and symphonic fantasy.
Back to the previously mentioned multiplayer, I needn’t say more than this: you won’t find a more balanced competitive multiplayer game online than Magic 2014 (or any previous Duels of the Planeswalkers, for that matter). Multiplayer presents a seamless replication of the campaign’s Planeswalker duel experience, only against a human opponent. Untold hours of victory (or defeat) await…
Duels of the Planeswalkers isn’t supposed to be like your home game of Magic: The Gathering, complete with your horde of legacy cards. Magic 2014 is the stuff of playgrounds; a sport of gentlemen, and the gateway drug this franchise has been looking for. And at 10 American dollars a download, it is bar none the best money you’ll ever spend.
Now, I don’t want to ever tell you to “buy a game” or “not buy a game” – that’s up to you. But if you like Magic: The Gathering, if you like strategy games, if you like the community of online gaming – you won’t get more out of your 10 bucks with any other title. The ratio of money spent to time enjoyed is hilariously negligible.
Every year a game like this comes out and a guy like me worries: is this going to live up to what has come before? With a new generation lurking just around the corner, we don’t have time for wasted purchases or dead storage… I’ve spent a little over a week with Magic 2014 – and there’s no going back.
Magic 2014 is available now on Xbox LIVE, PSN, Steam for PC, the iTunes App Store, Amazon Apps, and Android Apps on Google Play – making it inescapable and the current uncontested king of digital card games.
+ Moves closer to fully recreating the original Magic: The Gathering
+ The modern arcade classic looks and sounds better than ever
- Doesn’t quite solve the issue of cumbersome console controls
8.5 / 10