Magic Duels Review

August 16, 2015

Yearly releases of Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering games have become as predictable as clockwork, but that’s all changing with Magic Duels. Billed as a persistent client to be constantly updated with new content, Magic Duels marks a turning point for digital Magic: The Gathering card games. With big changes in focus, as well as a shift to a free to play model, it’s understandable some big changes have occurred, but how does Magic Duels stand up?

When games become a service or platform, as opposed to a single product, there are always questions about how much the game tries to push you to purchase content as you play. In the case of Magic Duels the game did not once push me towards buying gold to unlock booster packs. In fact, I didn’t feel the need at any point during my playtime to purchase gold. There are a myriad of ways in the game to unlock gold during your playtime. You can play through the story mode, play online against other players or AI opponents and complete daily and community quests to unlock gold. Gold purchasing is there purely for people to speed along their card collection as it allows you to circumvent the 400 gold per day limit from playing the game. Conversely, the option of purchasing gold to speed up your development does make you feel that the game would become unbalanced. However, the new deck format introduced in Magic Duels limiting a player to 1 Mythic Rare card in a deck prevents paying players from getting too much of an advantage on non-paying players.


Initially, the story mode in Magic Duels will be where you gain the majority of your gold. Origins, released in conjunction with the physical card set of the same name, is the first story content to be released for Magic Duels. The story follows each of the five Planeswalkers included in the Origins cards set and their journey from ordinary people through to becoming all powerful Planeswalkers. Each Planeswalker has 5 missions, each increasing in difficulty and reward as you play through them. Presented as still images prior to each duel, the story lacks in both depth and quality of content. As you select each mission you are presented with a still image and a short paragraph of text giving you a snippet of backstory leading into the mission and that is all. When you complete the sequence of 5 missions you are rewarded with a cutscene that is honestly laughable in its lack of quality. The poor quality of the CGI makes it quite obvious that this was not a focus during the development of Magic Duels.


Graphically, in general, Magic Duels is very barebones. Especially when compared to competitors such as Hearthstone and Hex. Effects are few and far between, with every card dealing damage with the same animation and battlefields being sparse and empty. While this is something that could be improved with time, especially with the years that Wizards plans to support the platform, it’s disappointing to see how little work was put into diversifying the playing fields in the game. The same can be said for the audio of the game. You can quickly become bored after hearing the same sound effects and music play in every game you play. While the focus in a card game will always be on the cards themselves, a wider range of music, sound effects and visuals would have gone a long way to improve playability.

While the battlefields may be barebones, a number of changes have been made to improve the playability of the game when compared to its earlier incarnations. Magic Duels can now tell when there is nothing you can do or play during a turn and will automatically countdown and move to the next phase or turn. You can manually stop this as it happens, but it means that you’re less likely to be left in situations where you forget to manually initiate the next phase of a turn. You know have the option to select to attack with all creatures, instead of having to select each creature separately. While they’re minor changes, they improve the overall playability of Magic Duels. One gripe I did have is that the ‘next’ button turns into the ‘withdraw attack’ button when going through to your battle phase. This means that if you’re clicking through quickly you can potentially hit it accidentally and skip your battle phase.


Magic: The Gathering has never been the most accessible of card games, especially when compared to something like Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh, and this is has never been adequately addressed. This all changed in Magic Duels with the introduction of a new tutorial and deckbuilding system. Previously, you read through pages of tutorials, each explaining every possible type of card or ability you could find. It was a slog to get through, and you would forget almost everything by the end of it. In Magic Duels a tutorial will now pop up whenever you encounter a new ability or card type. Deciding to do the tutorial will take you to another battlefield where you will be told what the ability is and taken through an exercise to show you understood it. It’s a much better system than in previous instalments, and with the story mode introducing different card types at a staggered pace you will retain information more than previously. You also gain some gold from completing these tutorials, which should entice experienced players into completing them. Once completed, you can access the tutorials from the main menu if you ever want a refresher.


I’ve always felt that the most daunting thing to do in Magic: The Gathering is learning to build a deck. Which element or elements should I base it around, what cards should I use as my main focus, which strategies should I build into the deck and how many land cards should I have? It’s something that can be incredibly daunting to an experienced player, let alone someone just starting out with Magic: The Gathering. Luckily, in Magic Duels, there is a new deck building wizard to introduce new players to deck building. You select from pre-determined deck archetypes and the game will then present you with 2-3 ranges of cards and tell you to select a specific number of cards from those ranges. There is still some choice there, but it helps take some of the complexity out of deck building. Experienced players still have the option of creating their own completely custom decks, so don’t worry about not having that option.


Accessibility means nothing if there is no content to play, but content is one thing that Magic Duels has in spades. As well as the story content, the game also comes with the always necessary Versus mode. Within this you have two options of game types to play: a standard 1v1 Magic duel and the more interesting and fun Two-Headed Giant mode. Two-Headed Giant is co-operative game type where you and another player share a life pool and face up against a similarly linked pair of opponents. The addition of a second person completely changes the dynamic and strategy of the game, leading to some very varied matches. If you have a friend to play with, the two of you can build complimenting decks to decimate opponents. Conversely, if you’re not in sync with your teammate, you will quickly find yourself on the end of a beating. Two-Headed Giant is one of the most popular game types in Magic: The Gathering and it’s easy to see why. There was also an abundance of matches, so I never had to wait long to get into a game.

Magic Duels is easily the most accessible Magic: The Gathering game to date and shows Wizards of the Coast’s dedication to bringing in new players. While it may be rough around the edges, it’s a good baseline and starting point for something that is meant to be supported for quite some time into the future. With a deck system that stops paying players from getting too far ahead of non-paying players and an easily understandable system for obtaining content, it’s also one of the fairer free to play games I have played. It’s not perfect, but Magic Duels is definitely worth downloading and trying out.


Most accessible Magic game to date
Two-Headed Giant is back


Bare bones graphics
Lacklustre story

Overall Score: