‘Magic Duels’ a great game marred by sloppy roll-out
I’ve never had as much trouble simply getting hold of a video game as I did with “Magic Duels” (free; rated T), the latest digital iteration of the popular trading card game “Magic: The Gathering” (now available on PC, iOS and Xbox One, with PlayStation 4 on the way).
It was worth it, ultimately, but then I’m sort of an atomic nerd for this game. I suspect that new and casual players may come to a different conclusion as to whether it’s worth the hassle.
More on the technical snafus in a bit. Here’s the gist: “Magic Duels” is the (ostensibly) user-friendly online multiplayer version of the venerable tabletop card game invented by mathematician Richard Garfield in the early 1990s. It’s one of the planet’s truly great games, in my sometimes obsessive opinion, and has established an entire industry of collectible card games.
In both the online and tabletop editions, “Magic” players build their own decks where the cards represent spells, enchantments and magical creatures set in a rich fantasy world. Multiple worlds, actually, as the player assumes the role of a Planeswalker – a powerful entity able to travel between alternate dimensions.
The massive success of the game, over the years, has allowed “Magic” parent company Wizards of the Coast to attract some of the best writers and artists in the game design business. That level of talent has kept quality up as the franchise has evolved, and it’s on full display in “Duels.” The stories and illustrations in the game draw on everything from Gothic horror to Greek mythology to alt-history steampunk. It’s the game that keeps on giving.
Returning players will find that “Duels” offers essentially the same virtual tabletop game system used in the previous “Duels of the Planewalkers” games, released annually. The big difference this time around is that “Duels” is a permanent, continually updated client. Going forward, you’ll be able keep all your cards and decks as new core sets are released. As such, the new game offers the most extensive deck-building options yet released in the series. You can earn new cards the slow way, by winning lots of in-game duels, or the fast way by purchasing the six-card booster packs for $1.99 each.
For new players, “Duels” also offers the most thorough tutorial issued to date. It’s by far the best way for rookies to learn the game of “Magic,” which is famously intricate and occasionally impenetrable. In addition to the initial step-by-step tutorial, the game has an optional hints/tips feature that carries over into the Story and Battle modes.
Battle in silence
Story mode this time focuses on the origin narratives of five famous Planewalkers. It’s interesting stuff if you’ve followed the mythology of the game in recent years. For instance, we learn how the charming young necromancer Liliana Vess first developed her penchant for working with corpses and ghouls.
The stories unfold around a series of one-on-one duels against randomized AI-controlled decks. The AI in this series has steadily improved with each release, and veteran players will find worthy challenges when selecting the hardest of the three difficulty modes.
But, as always, AI opponents are no match for other experienced players. In a controversial move, the designers have fully automated online multiplayer matching and removed chat altogether – no text chat, no voice chat. Initiate an online game, and you’re simply paired with another player to battle in silence. (Well, you have the repetitive music score, but I recommend turning that off immediately.)
All in all, the new game retains the best elements of previous iterations, and adds the stuff longtime fans have been clamoring for – full-featured deck building and integration with new cards and core set releases from the tabletop edition. The actual gameplay mechanics are fluid and intuitive, and the system handles most of the math required, which is nice.
But the game’s sloppy roll-out is likely to turn off the very demographic the designers are targeting – new players. The iOS version doesn’t work on older iPad models – I found this out the hard way – and the PC version is plagued with online bugs. Players must download the game through the digital distribution platform Steam, which often performs as if its servers are literally steam-powered.
Glitches in the first week of release caused many players, myself included, to lose their progress and saved files, stalling the game in a maddening limbo. Simply re-installing the game doesn’t help. I had to create an entirely new Steam account just to have the privilege of starting from scratch.
New and casual players are unlikely to fight through these hassles, and that’s a bummer, because there’s a pretty great game on the other end.