When I recently and briefly discussed the history of digital and online card games, I mentioned that a new Magic: the Gathering game was coming out. Magic Duels, as it’s called, has recently arrived on PC, and I’ve given it a whirl to see if the game as a whole can still get my juices flowing.
In what follows, I compare Magic Duels to Hearthstone quite often, not just because the latter is the card game I’ve been playing most the past months, but also because there are parallels between the two games in terms of design and presentation. It is also quite likely that within digital card games at least, Hearthstone is Magic Duels’ main competitor for time and attention right now, and the most obvious comparison for people to make.
So, what was my return to Magic like, more than ten years after I last played a land card?1 Well, good, mostly. Magic is still an impressively clever game, and it only took me a few turns to get back into the swing of things, summoning soldiers, magicians, outlandish creatures, and slinging spells. Sure, with Hearthstone fresh in my mind, I was reminded that unlike in that game, Magic doesn’t let you have your creatures directly attacking those of your opponent. In hindsight, this rule seems a bit arbitrary, and there are actually several special cards in Magic Duels that do allow you to have two creatures fight each other. A coincidence? I’m not sure.2 Magic has additional complexity in the presence of “instant” spells, which can be cast not only during your own turn, but also in response to your opponent’s actions in their turn.3 This gives the game a lovely potential for surprises and traps that is approached only vaguely by Hearthstone’s “secret” cards.
Supposing you don’t have my (somewhat remote) experience with Magic, how do you start out with Magic Duels? Well, the object of Magic: the Gathering is to deplete your opponent’s life total by summoning creatures to attack that opponent, and by casting spells that deal additional damage, make creatures stronger or weaker, etc. The game does a swell job of teaching you the rules — and not a watered down version either — through various mini-quests that focus on specific rules in isolation: “what do I need to do to survive this turn?” In addition, there is a story mode focussing on the backstories of five famous planeswalkers — the multiverse-traversing wizards who have become the main protagonists of the world of Magic. Each of them has five missions, so that comes to 25 matches that teach you the basics of the game, familiarise you with a lot of the different cards, as well as the basic feel and flavour of each of the five colours of magic.
Thematically, the story mode is nice, but the difficulty level can be a problem depending on your experience. Even knowing the rules of the game, some missions are practically impossible to win should you start out with a bad opening hand. If your opponent gets the drop on you, there are few ways of catching up again. For players who are new to Magic, there’s the risk of frustration and unfairness here. My advice is to restart a match if the opening turns go badly, since with a lucky initial hand, those same missions can be extremely easy. With some perseverance, players will soon be familiar with the rules and a slice of the cards that are available later in the Magic Origins set.
That set of cards, which also happens to be the latest set in the physical card game, is currently the only set available in the game for making your own decks, apart from a smaller selection of basic Magic Duels cards. It seems logical to start small and see how well the game performs, but part of me gets all warm and fuzzy inside imagining what it would be like to play around with all the cards from MtG’s 23-year history. That’s a ton of cards, I know, but at the same time, it would go a long way to make the game feel like ‘true’ Magic, rather than the physical card game’s digital little sister.
A more serious gripe with the game lies in its design. Again, Magic is more complex than Hearthstone, and there can be a lot going on on the table any given moment. In that respect, everything on screen feels a bit small; even when zoomed out, cards are shown as whole cards, lacking the recognisability on a crowded table of Hearthstone’s creatures, who are reduced to portraits. To make things worse, there is a slowish zoom animation for each card that needs to be scrolled to activate. Why not a simple mouse-over? Especially in the beginning, when most cards are new to you, you’ll want to look at them often, and the delay in zooming is a hindrance. The animations in general are nice, but very sluggish on my work PC, which does roughly the same things in Hearthstone without so much a hitch. I had to set the animation levels to a minimum to keep the game moving along at a manageable pace. For a game that is all about the interaction of many different cards, I don’t want the pseudo-physical manipulations of cards to slow down that somewhat elusive flow of thought-and-play.
That said, there is great potential in the digital version of the game. Of course, it’s not the first digital Magic game, and to be honest I’m not sure what the previous Duels of the Planeswalkers games were like, but the new Magic Duels gets a lot of things right. It couples a balanced and thematically interesting new set with a play environment that takes some of the better cues from the Hearthstone model. Enthusiasts with a big wallet can happily spend real money to quickly buy packs of cards, but for those who can’t or don’t want to spend, you can get everything in the game for free simply by playing matches and doing daily quests for virtual gold. Popping in for a few games every other day will be enough to provide you with a constant trickle of new cards.
Am I hooked again like I was as a little teen? Not yet. For now, Hearthstone’s snappy play — not to mention its presence on my phone — is winning out over Magic Duels’ stylistically more mature but unwieldy execution. However, I’ll pop in now and again to see what’s happening, or maybe to answer someone’s challenge to an online game. You know where to find me.
- At the time, they had only just lost the text “tap: add X to your mana pool”. [↩]
- Additionally, I’d forgotten that in Magic, unlike Hearthstone, creatures automatically heal at the end of each turn. It’s those little differences that’ll mess you up at first. [↩]
- [grandpa mode]In my day, we even had “interrupt” cards, which were faster than instants still.[/grandpa mode] [↩]