Chances are if you’re around the age of 20 to 25, you’ve already heard of the cult phenomenon ‘Magic: The Gathering’, discussed in part with the early 2000s Pokemon-card boom, or perhaps something more akin to a basement-dwelling context alongside World of Warcraft (before it was cool!). To any of the uninitiated, Magic was the first trading card game (TCG) created in 1993 by designer Richard Garfield. Comprised of Planeswalkers (players), creatures, spells, equipment, and a huge amount of strategic planning, Magic has evolved from one man’s pet project into being played on a global scale, with ‘Friday Night Magic’ regularly emblazoned across your local Forbidden Planet front window.
As with many franchises such as this, if you’ve played something like Skyrim or any of the Final Fantasy games, you’re more than open-minded enough to get into Magic. The basic tenets of a duel are made up of players randomly drawing a card each turn, which can then be cast at a mana cost governed by the amount of land in the player’s possession. Each turn you may draw land or any number of other cards, and therein lies the rub. As more land equals more powerful creatures and spells, duels evolve from goblins and thieves battering each other into submission with dirks and pitchforks to gigantic, Tolkien-esque mountain trolls and dragons laying siege to swathes of enemies in one turn.
Whilst the game boasts that this is the ‘best way to learn how to play’, sadly, explanations of the finer points of dueling are left out, leading to many a frustration as to why you’re seeing the ‘Defeated!’ screen over and over again. With the game offering no semblance of a ‘this is where you went wrong’ option, it can feel as though the computer has an unfair advantage. It always seem to draw JUST the right card to thwart your attack at the last possible second and counter with a devastating combination of defense-destroying buffs, leaving you on the precipice of death, something akin to your friend humiliatingly ‘poking’ you off the edge of a cliff in a game of Worms.
That being said, it’s all part of the fun. As regular players know, all you can do when facing down the business end of an unblockable double-strike spell is lick your wounds and move forward, resolute in the fact that next time, you’ll have a counter spell waiting.
Whilst the game does feature 5 tutorial levels before letting you choose to either dive into ‘Campaign’, ‘Sealed Play’, ‘Multiplayer’, or ‘Challenges’, the difficulty found in all these modes outside of the initial few bouts is going to be severely off-putting to the majority of players. Constant pausing to keep up with terms and buffs by way of a quick googling is the order of the day for the most part, as the game makes no concessions for it’s immediately steep learning curve. This does eventually work in its favor, as too often gamers are spoon fed information over and over. In Magic, you are left to construct the larger training wheels and fit them yourself.
Building a deck from scratch is a new feature in this 2014 edition of the annual franchise, found inside ‘Sealed Play’, a mode where you unwrap foil packets similar to what you purchase in real life to then build your custom deck. It has to be said there’s still that fuzzy feeling of unwrapping a new set of cards in-game, and with plenty of packs unlocked only by beating a multitude of opponents, there’s plenty reason to get stuck into this new mode and work your way up the opponent ladder Mortal Kombat-style.
As mentioned, Magic 2014 also features a campaign, this time with fully-voiced cutscenes telling the story of fan-favorite Chandra Nalaar’s quest to defeat Razar, alongside the many different creatures she’ll face along the way. The campaign works really well, as instead of facing an opponent with a standard, randomly generated deck, ‘encounters’ within the campaign are comprised of an opponent playing the same cards in the same order until you find a way to break through.
It’s something that we’ll see in upcoming ‘MMOTCG’ Hex, and works a treat in training you to think in particular strategies to outfox your opponent, priming your cortex for the more cerebral battles online. ‘Challenges’ feature handicaps of sorts in supplying you with decks favoring certain equipment or creature-types, and also serves to flesh out particular skills you’ve acquired throughout the campaign.
Multiplayer is the same as last year, with ‘Double-Headed Dragon’ (2 v 2) and ‘Free-for-All’ (up to 4 players) modes returning, alongside the new online version of ‘Sealed Mode’. Taking your custom deck online goes some way to replicating the intensity of a real duel where carefully cultivated plans are pitted against friends and other players, yet it is a very poignant omission that the only way for two local players to play online is if they have Xbox Live accounts, instead of a more traditional ‘guest account’ scenario. In fact, the only way for local players to play together is through the Double-Headed Dragon mode, instead of any one-on-one or free-for-all with AI opponents. Something of a missed opportunity, as if you and a friend were hoping to create the digital equivalent of your dream decks, it will have to wait until (hopefully) the next installment.
The interface aesthetic presented is serviceable, yet entirely unmemorable. For a franchise featuring so many amazing pieces of art throughout, these are only shown outside the duels on loading screens, instead of something more instantly arresting such as the main menu. The artwork throughout the game is still gorgeous, and there’s no doubt you’re playing a Magic game as soon as you jump in. The experience on offer here is the best replicate to that of its worldly counterpart, and even with the reliance on foot-finding, for 800 MSP you can do far worse than this.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Magic: the Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 by Stainless Games distributed by Wizards of the Coast.
- Real Duel Feel
- Custom Deck Options
- No Advanced Help
- Steep Learning Curve