Creating the video game version of a popular table top/card game like Magic the Gathering (MtG) comes with a variety of challenges. How do you recreate the same felling and experience without having access to any of the physical things that make the real experience so memorable? Better yet, how do you go about creating a quality digital recreation without infringing on the original’s livelihood? You don’t want to tear your original customer base away but at the same time, you don’t want to cut the digital experience short. I would imagine that the developers at Stainless Games and Wizards of the Coast face this same problem every year that the craft a new version of Duels of the Planeswalkers. Now that the 2014 installment of the game, entitled Magic 2014 is here, it is clear that they are becoming masters at overcoming this issue.
Magic 2014 may be the closest that they have come yet to creating the perfect replication of the game, at least behind the PC version of Magic Online, in terms of actual gameplay. I am not going to explain the intricacies of the gameplay and what goes into a round of Magic, if you are reading this review you likely already know how things play out. Magic 2014 plays and feels just like the previous Duels games. Instead, we’ll talk about the changes to the experience and new features that can be found in this year’s game that differentiate it from the older versions.
Right from the start it is clear that one of their goals is to streamline the experience and get you playing as soon as possible. The menu interface has received a drastic overhaul that is clean and easy to navigate. The game also features a very well done tutorial that eases you into the MtG experience depending on your experience level. If you are new to the game, it forces you to play through missions that teach you about the card types and mechanics of an actual game; if you claim to know your stuff already, you simply have to prove it in a duel against the computer before you head off into the full experience.
There are a lot of other small tweaks found throughout the game, similar to the menus, that just plain make the experience easier and more user friendly. You have a ton of new options like the ability to “attack with all”, “withdrawal all", and randomly select decks which cut down on your decision making time. These work well, along with the return of mana tapping options to keep the game moving at a faster pace than it has in the past. These aren’t things that bring major alterations to the overall experience, but they are simple additions that returning players will find beneficial in the long run.
The now-classic challenge mode returns again with both beginner and advanced challenges. I always love taking at stab at this to test myself on the deeper mechanics of the game of Magic, but this year’s edition of the mode seems to have scaled back the difficulty level dramatically. While there are a couple of head scratchers in the bunch, some of them are as simple as just launching an attack with all of your cards; there isn’t nearly the amount of thought required as the previous three games have had.
Magic 2014‘s campaign dives more into the lore of the franchise more than perhaps any of the other installments. Rather than playing as a faceless Planeswalker, this one puts you into the shoes of Chandra the Firebrand. It feels like a combination of the 2013 and 2013 campaigns, giving you a chance to explore different Planes while challenging you to face off against themed decks from those settings. While you will unlock decks occasionally during the campaign, the primary decks for the game must be unlocked by challenging the five core Planeswalkers after you clear all of the level of a given Plane such as Innistrad or Ravnica. Being a fan of the entire Magic universe, I really appreciated seeing a true story embedded into the game that gives players insight on the lore behind the franchise. This is the stuff that will suck in people for the long haul and it is great to see the video game go that direction.
Just like in all of the other games, there are ten base decks included in the game. Only one of them is available when you begin the game (Chandra’s Firewave), but all of the others quickly open up to you as you work your way through the campaign and challenge (and defeat) Planeswalkers. Each 60-card deck includes 30 locked cards that you will gain access to as you win with them. this really drives you to experiment and spend time with all of them so that you can make alterations to them in the deck manager to tailor them to your personal playing style. It isn’t quite full deck building, but it works well within the confines of the experience. Thankfully, true deckbuilding, albeit with some limitations, has been included in another mode of the game.
The biggest addition to the franchise is the inclusion of a Sealed Play mode. While it is great to see true deck building finally added to the game, it still leaves a bit to be desired. The sealed deck mode gives you a set of booster packs to open and use to construct a deck with a minimum of 40 cards. You then get to use that deck against computer controlled players to earn additional booster packs to expand your collection. This would be really great if it weren’t artificially limited by the game. There are only slots for two saved decks, and a third one can be purchased as DLC. Granted, you can alter the deck in each slot endlessly as you wish, but you can’t save more than two (or three) decks for play at a time.
The game tries to guide you in the deck creation process by offering a rating system on your creation,however it doesn’t really work. The system simply measures your deck with four requirements: 17/18 land cards (auto added), 14-17 creatures, no more than two colors, and having exactly 40 cards. This means that crafting a real, complete standard deck will cause your rating to plummet. Plus, advanced players like to play with multiple colors, which this rating system frowns upon if you exceed two. It is a nice feature for teaching players the beginning art of deckbuilding, but something die-hard fans will simply laugh at.
Don’t get me wrong, I am very thankful to finally see deck building, albeit limited, incorporated in the game and I completely get why they would implement such limitation. However, in the end it feels like a tease. I love crafting my own creation, and even have the ability to take it online against other players, but I just wish I could have full access to all of the cards in the game to make as many different decks as I like. Plus, when are we going to get to import our favorite decks from the past games?
Despite the limitations that exist, true deck building is a great addition to the game and simply ups the bar for next year’s installment. there are a ton of other tweaks that have been added to the experience, like the ability to integrate both your Facebook and Twitter accounts, a ton of unlockable content such as titles and avatars to decorate your player profile and art galleries featuring the fantastic work of the artists at Wizards. Plus it has the usual, great online matchmaking that I have never had an issue with since the original game. I just find myself missing some of the modes from the past years like Planechase and Archenemy modes and some of my preferred decks form year’s past.
Overall, he franchise seems to be treading water from last year to this one, with no real progress being made in terms of the big picture. The inclusion of sealed play takes it closer than ever to replicated the experience of the real card game but some of the luster of the experience is lost without the specialty modes we have seen in the past. I can’t help but hope that it evolves even more next year. Despite complaints with those limitations, the game features a great lineup of cards and modes and the gameplay is as smooth and addicting as ever. This is another game I will be pouring hours into for the next year, until 2015 launches.