To some, Magic: The Gathering is the modern equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons. Most gamers know a group that play every Friday, or at least have someone hounding them to learn because “really, it is quite fun”. It’s a stigma that has left many at a distance – but if there’s one thing that Magic 2014: Duels of the Planeswalkers has taught me, it’s that it really is, in essence … quite fun.
The main campaign puts you in the well-travelled boots of a Planeswalker, a powerful mage who traverses the planes of Zendikar, Shandalar and other fantasy-sounding places. But the beauty of this installment is that Magic 2014 isn’t trying to wow with an immersive narrative or realistic visuals, but focuses on what’s important. The cut scenes are short and disposable, while battle animations are limited to the odd fireball between cards in combat. What little story there is comes from a few sentences before each battle – giving the player purpose without distracting from what really counts.
The thing is, in Magic 2014 the cards are the story. The detailed artwork by talented artists, the beautiful prose and unique skills combine to create rounded, interesting characters who don’t need expansion. Once in combat, the cards naturally interact with each other, creating their own rich stories and governing how a battle plays out. The fact that Magic 2014 has enough wisdom to give these cards the breathing space they deserve is a credit to its design.
Upon starting the campaign, the game asks how familiar you are with Magic: The Gathering – giving a choice between “None”, “A Little”, and “A Lot”. By choosing the former, the game becomes a useful tool for newcomers to learn the rules of MtG through a sleek set of hint tabs, allowing them to move through battles at their own pace, whilst veterans can launch straight into the fray. The rules are simple: both players start with ’20 life’, the aim is to break through an opponent’s cards and attack their life directly. The first player to hit zero or below loses the battle. The exciting part comes from the multitude of cards that alter these rules in clever and unique ways; no one game plays the same.
On top of the standard tricks, Magic 2014 brings new elements to keep itself fresh, such as offering a variety of foes and the new Sealed Mode. The former comes in all different shapes and sizes; entering a sewer will set you against a swarm of rat cards and poisons, getting caught in a storm spawns elemental cards that aim to scatter your creatures. These mix ups force players to adjust tactics and think of new ways to route an enemy, as well as create cleverly varied scenarios merely through a selection of cards. One of the most notable (and tougher) battles happens when confronted by an angry mob that, on their own, are seemingly weak cards – but in true mob mentality find strength in numbers as the cards feed off each other to create overwhelming odds.
‘Sealed Mode’ is the latest addition to the digital Magic: The Gathering world. Players collect virtual booster packs (packs of 15 random cards) to create their own decks instead of using set options available through the main campaign. This gives each deck a personal feel and allows players to experiment with different elements all at once. Boosters are unlocked by defeating foes, but players can purchase extra decks for $0.99 from the steam store, allowing them to improve a lineup and gain an advantage. It’s a clever idea, but paying seems slightly pointless compared to buying the real thing. Both the Standard and the Sealed campaigns are fairly short, so buying cards for offline battles is a waste of time: players will unlock enough cards as they progress. The DLC becomes worthwhile when taking your custom deck online though, as testing its strength against other players can be very rewarding.
Overall, Magic 2014: Duels of the Planeswalkers is a triumph for both Magic veterans and newcomers alike. It understands that Magic: the Gathering has been around for decades, and honours its legacy by letting the cards do most of the work. Despite the single player being on the short side, the game is extended by its online functionality – at $10 you can’t really go wrong. If you’re after some serious Magic playing, whether it be to hone your skills or simply learn the ropes – then this game is for you. Look elsewhere if you’re shopping for narrative and visuals; Magic 2014: DotP is all about the cards.
Focus on cards | Addictive gameplay
Disposable cut scenes | Short campaign