Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 | Principal Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 | Developer: Stainless Games | Publisher: Wizards of the Coast | Genre: Card Game | Year: 2014

When Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 enters the battlefield, destroy target Magic: The Gathering franchise. It can't be regenerated.
Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 Box Art

Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015

Known round these parts more for an incredibly bitter review rather than any truly memorable quality, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 was — and very much still is — a disappointment on so many levels.

Duels of the Planeswalkers was once a successful series of digital card games based on Magic: The Gathering. The playable decks in older Duels games were semi-fixed stacks with player customization being limited to a small selection of unlockable cards. This barely constitutes a taste of the full variety and complexity of paper Magic itself, but those limitations didn’t stop the popular series from carving out a pre-Hearthstone niche for itself.

For the fifth instalment though, Wizards of the Coast promised to bring actual deck-building to Duels for the first time, thus allowing players to create their own personalised deck of cards from an exclusive pool. This exciting concept is the lifeblood of Magic: The Gathering and collectible card games in general, so the hype leading up to the summer release in 2014 was undeniable.

Whilst I find that much of my bitterness for it has dissipated since then, the fact remains that Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 is a bad video game. The custom deck-building is the only leading positive feature about it, and even then the anaemic card pool doesn’t offer many opportunities for outstanding creativity.

It’s hard to know where to begin when it comes to the more serious fun-sapping problems. Do you start by mentioning the horrendous user interface where even the simple action of scrolling between menu items feels awkward? Maybe it’s the clunky deck equip feature; the disgraceful micro transactions; or those excessively bright transitions that blind players every time a loading screen is triggered. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 is a remarkably shoddy production in this sense; a dispiriting exercise that’s plagued by niggles at practically every turn.

Not yet convinced? Consider the frontend’s wonky store locator (that barely works); the adverts that sometimes replace story text on the loading screens; and the insipid prompts that encourage players to upload their achievements to social media. It creates a bad look for the product, with the game being pervaded by this sense that Wizards of the Coast would rather you be playing something else.

Really though, the usually reliable formula could have prevailed here were the game not sabotaged by short-sighted development decisions, with the removal of the incredibly popular 2v2 team mode called Two-Headed Giant easily ranking as the most severe misstep of them all.

Two-Headed Giant had always been the secret weapon of the Duels series; a remarkably fun mode that previously allowed players to group together both locally and online for epic card-driven skirmishes with each other. Developer Stainless Games offered nonsensical justifications for the mode’s sudden excision, and it’s interesting to note how limited and pointless Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 still feels today without it.

The loss of Two-Headed Giant was always far worse than a quibble because it harshly limits what you can do with the software. Unlike previous instalments that came with their own special formats such as Archenemy and Planechase, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 has nothing. It’s a game that lacks edge and variety, which is pretty strange considering the custom card pool was intended to help enhance those very same qualities.

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 Gameplay Screenshot

For all of the game’s bungling, the final story battle versus Garruk feels well-handled. His is a tough multi-phase deck that provides the dumb AI with enough power to actually make players sweat it.

When I reinstalled the game especially for this retrospective, I was surprised to find that my save data had vanished. I envisioned a long slog to recoup all of those unlockable cards (this game has a rather infamous period of grind), and yet one quick goblin aggro deck later saw me complete the entire thing again in less than a weekend. There is a strange duality here because although the grind to unlock cards is long and boring, the actual story mode is quite short and makes no case for why it should ever be played again.

The storyline is too basic, and the lacklustre cutscenes and threadbare narrative do a poor job at representing Magic’s rich setting. This is a shame because some of the special battles in the story mode do hide some reasonably creative moments. Certain encounters feature themed decks featuring a lot of staple mechanics and wacky strategies like curses, tribal hydras, a weenie-based army corps, and that one deck that has no creatures at all and instead relies on trap cards to ambush players during the combat phase.

It’s funny how there are so many programmed cards that you can’t use in your own decks. This is another sticking point for me because even with a complete pool, the number of interesting builds and strategies seems to be quite limited, especially for mono decks that only feature a single mana colour.

To the publisher’s credit, several of their post-release software patches did try to address this foible by deploying free booster packs featuring new creatures, artifacts, and lands; valuable tools that would expand the card pool. The controversial “Premium Boosters” were also scrapped and replaced by “Battle Boosters” that would unlock by winning card duels online, rather than granting a blatant pay-to-win advantage like before.

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 Gameplay Screenshot

PitStop Productions delivers yet another thematic soundtrack here.

It was a step in the right direction, though things wouldn’t dramatically improve much in time for the game’s one and only expansion that released a few months later. More akin to a DLC pack than a proper expansion set, Garruk’s Revenge failed to make an impression. Its story mode was once again very short and superfluous, and its range of new cards possessed very particular synergies that ensured only specialised decks could really make use of them.

This post-release tinkering did cut out some of the putridity surrounding the production, but for the most part Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 remains a hobbled experience. It’s a weird title caught in the divide that would separate the passionate Duels games of years past with the free-to-play minimalism of its sequel Magic Duels, and later Magic: The Gathering Arena.

My recent retrospective on Card Fighters DS proves that Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 isn’t quite the worst digital card game that I’ve ever played, but the similarity between the two — being the embarrassing footnotes of their respective franchises — sure is startling.