Magic Duels: Impressions 2

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.

Liliana certainly gets her Necro juices flowing in this game.

Liliana cer­tain­ly gets her necro juices flow­ing in this game.

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.

Fiery Chandra is another of the game's Planeswalker protagonists.

Fiery Chandra is anoth­er of the game’s Planeswalker pro­tag­o­nists.

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.

The unnamed portraits and landscapes you can tie to your individual decks also have a great aesthetic.

The unnamed por­traits and land­scapes you can tie to your indi­vid­ual decks also have a great aes­thet­ic.

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.

Especially in 2v2 matches, the table can get quite crowded.

Especially in 2v2 match­es, the table can get quite crowd­ed.

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.

  1. At the time, they had only just lost the text “tap: add X to your mana pool”. []
  2. 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. []
  3. [grand­pa mode]In my day, we even had “inter­rupt” cards, which were faster than instants still.[/grandpa mode] []

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.

2 thoughts on “Magic Duels: Impressions

  • Tom Dawson

    Still haven’t played this. I’ll get around to it!
    My only real com­ment (or at least the only one that requires me to put on my plays-far-too-much-Magic hat) is with regards to the “fight” mechan­ic you men­tion as a way of emu­lat­ing Hearthstone’s level of creature-on-creature inter­ac­tion. This is actu­al­ly a long-running thing in Magic design and almost entire­ly focused on green (with maybe a lit­tle over­lap in red, some­times with a twist, as in Alpha Brawl) to pro­vide the colour acess to crea­ture removal that feels with­in its slice of the colour pie. Every colour needs a way to remove oppos­ing crea­tures; black straight-up mur­ders them (Murder, Doom Blade, Hero’s Downfall) at instant or sor­cery speed, often with the caveat that the destroyed crea­ture can­not be black. Red just burns with direct dam­age (Lightning Bolt and like sev­en­ty bil­lion oth­ers of vary­ing power). Blue can poly­morph them into some­thing else (Turn to Frog, Rapid Hybridization, Curse of the Swine), bounce them back to hand or library (Chronostutter, Boomerang) or tap them down (Encrust, Claustrophobia, Singing Bell Strike) to keep them out of the way. White tends to exile, either direct­ly (Journey to Nowhere, Swords to Plowshares) or tem­porar­i­ly (Oblivion Ring, Banisher Priest, Hixus, Prison Warden). With green’s main char­ac­ter­is­tic play styles revolv­ing around big mana and big crea­tures, the fight mechan­ic showed up as a the­mat­ic way of using crea­tures to remove other crea­tures. Note that unlike Hearthstone, when you use a fight spell in Magic it does­n’t take place as part of ordi­nary com­bat — the crea­tures fight, one (hope­ful­ly) dies, but this can be before or after or even dur­ing the com­bat phase, which then pro­ceeds as nor­mal.

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