Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 Review
PCAlso available on Android, Microsoft Xbox 360, iPad and Microsoft Xbox One
It’s fair to say that we were big fans of last year’s Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014, here at The Digital Fix Towers. As a polished digital iteration of the ever-present CCG, it surpassed its predecessors in both quality and scope, and represented a stellar translation of the game for fans as well as a fantastic introduction to newcomers. We awaited the 2015 offering with much anticipation, keen to see what new bells and whistles Stainless Games had packaged up for this year’s release. Would Wizards of the Coast take the opportunity to pick up the gauntlet brazenly cast down by Blizzard, and offer up a challenger to Hearthstone? Would they bestow new game modes and generous decks upon us? Would we be rewarded with a full retention of the previous year’s functionality as well as minimal microtransactions? The answers to these points, sadly, are “no”, “no”, and a resounding “no”.
Before ploughing into the changes made this time around, a brief recap of the game mechanics is in order. You build a deck based around one of five coloured land cards (red, blue, green, black and white), each of which has a specific attribute. Black decks inflict damage via necromantic arts, often at the expense of your own health. Red decks are aggressive, with lots of fire-based attacks. White decks are protectors with plenty of human cards and healing effects, and so on. Land cards of your selected colour act as mana currency for you to play your main “spell” cards - creatures, enchantments and so on - which are used to try and reduce your opponent’s twenty Life points to zero. Each turn is split into stages where you can lay down new cards and then use the cards already lain down previously to attack your opponent. This “taps” the played cards to prevent their further involvement until the next turn. Your opponent can use their own creatures to block your attacks, deflecting damage away from your character. The strategy comes from deciding whether to hold back your attacks until you have more of a chance to break through the possible blocks of your opponent, or go all out to try and force a response. Throw into the mix “instant” cards which have an immediate effect such as buffing your cards or destroying theirs, and you have a deceptively simple but ultimately involving game.
How much it differs to the previous version is negligible, however. The user interface has certainly had a makeover, and not much of it is for the better. On the plus side, the card hover-overs are intelligent, informative, and non-intrusive, the information panels for your character are clear and intuitive, and the tutorials provide an excellent introduction to the game - far more so than previous instalments. Unfortunately, this is offset by the horrendously clunky mechanics of the GUI which are clearly aimed at the tablet market, with swipe-happy menus which stutter and jerk on the PC version. Each menu is several layers deep, and not particularly intuitive; a finger can navigate the trees far more gracefully than a mouse, but even so, trying to locate options from within a five-deep stack is a challenge in itself. The problems are not helped by a completely bland monochrome look and feel which permeates the entire design. The game board looks almost sci-fi in appearance rather than fantasy, like your dining room table would if it had been converted into a Speedball 2 arena. It’s a sterile, dull place to throw down cards, and adds to the general feeling of ennui.
The music has also declined, with far more repeating loops and half-hearted hooks than Magic 2014, whose wonderful soundtrack bore more than a passing resemblance to the pulsating, ominous beats of Now You See Me. Cards are swished around with the usual amount of ponderous foreboding, ensuring you are made fully aware of each and every play your opponent makes. However, despite our hopes last time around, no great leaps have been made in terms of the animation of the cards. Attacks are once again a case of watching some numbers and a slash of red appear on any attacked cards to indicate you’ve taken damage. Spells are a blast of flame directed from the source card to the destination. It all feels too familiar.
In terms of new additions this time around, a deck builder - which fans have been crying out for during the last couple of versions - has finally arrived, and it’s pretty good. Again, it’s far more suited to touchscreens than the PC, but it’s pretty intuitive. Unfortunately, it’s also the only major new feature to grace the game. The biggest problem with Magic 2015 isn’t what’s there. It’s what’s been removed. You see, instead of taking Blizzard’s new kid on the block head-on, Stainless Games (no doubt at the behest of Wizards of the Coast) have decided to set up their own stall with their own rules and pretend that Hearthstone - and crucially, their previous chapters in this series - simply don’t exist. Free to play? Ludicrous. Why not charge people £7 for the main game, and then make a fortune charging £4 a pop for the rest of the decks which you could unlock for free in Magic 2014? The Sealed Play introduced in the last version, which helped escalate it far above previous versions? Gone. Two-headed Giant, the 2v2 multiplayer mode which was arguably its most popular? Sayonara. You want Challenges? Tough, they’re outta there. 2014’s Revenge mode? 2013’s Planechase? Nuh-uh.
If it wasn't enough to ask for the best part of thirty quid to bring you up to a basic level comparable with the previous year’s offering, Magic 2015 twists the knife even further. After the tutorial you’re asked to select a deck colour combination. Choose poorly, and you’ll be condemned to either grinding away at practice battles in the hope of dropping enough free cards to build up a half-decent deck to let you progress, or grinding your teeth and buying the rest of the decks as the publisher clearly hopes. The gold-plated cherry on top of the money cake is that the AI has been skewed beyond belief to bully you down that latter path. In fairness, Magic 2014 was a moderate challenge at best, requiring a basic understanding from newbies to complete its campaign. Here, you’ll be pummelled into submission by the first boss. Even the interactive help is in on the act, recommending you make plays which it knows the AI will not only counter, but use to its advantage in utterly destroying you. It’s a demoralising and frustrating experience, and it doesn’t stop there. There are additional premium booster packs at £1.50 each, which yield cards unavailable elsewhere, either via purchase or progressive drops. This means that even if you were to hand over the price of a double-A title for the main game, you’ll still hit a paywall if you want the best cards available. Unlike Hearthstone, which offers you the ability to craft every card in the game and will let you do so for free if you’re dedicated enough, here the only way forward for completionists is to hand over cold, hard cash.
At its core, Magic 2015 just about retains the bare essence of what made its predecessor so good. The artwork on the cards is as fantastic as you’d expect and the experience is polished enough to make you forget for the briefest of moments that this isn’t a calculated attempt to cash in on the current F2P market. Except, this isn’t F2P. It’s a cynical ploy to extort money for withheld content, and to encourage paying to win - one of the most malignant illnesses plaguing the gaming industry today. Even the deck builder navigation menus require you to unlock them, expecting a level of progression which isn’t unattainable but which should have you questioning exactly what it is you’ve paid for when its closest rival is happily dishing out cards, modes and fun as if it’s the Willy Wonka of CCGs.
Magic 2015 may not be on the level of Dungeon Keeper in terms of its attempts to squeeze your bank balance, but it does itself no favours either. Do yourself one instead: if you’re thinking of investing in a digital Magic experience, get last year’s instalment and avoid this soulless excuse for a game. Shame on you, Wizards of the Coast.