Magic Duels: Origins | Principal Platforms: PC (version tested), Xbox One, iOS | Developer: Stainless Games | Publisher: Wizards of the Coast | Genre: Card | Year: 2015
As the first free-to-play entry in the popular Duels of the Planeswalkers series, Magic Duels: Origins had its work cut out for it. Joining a collection of formerly superb digital card games known for their expansive content and ease of play was one thing, but following the new standard set by Hearthstone was quite another.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft – covered by our own Kit Evans in a review that you should totally read – was released two years prior and its runaway success clearly had Wizards of the Coast seeing dollar signs through their haze of envy. Although the company flirted with microtransactions prior to this, Magic Duels: Origins can be seen as the perfected form of their new free-to-play business model.
However, the initial reaction to Magic Duels was decidedly mixed with even the most positive reviews admitting that the game needed support in order to reach its full potential. Has it reached that potential in the space of a year? It will be pretty clear-cut to anyone who bothered reading the h1, but for the sake of review let’s save that answer until the end.
Now, it has to be said that first impressions of Magic Duels are fairly positive. The standard Origins card pool is attractive and well balanced and you can presently delve into an additional four sets of real-life cards all the way up to the recent Eldritch Moon expansion.
Players begin with a basic starter deck and use coins to purchase booster packs containing more powerful cards. You earn coins by beating the various solo campaigns, completing tutorials and quests, or by duelling other players online. You’ll be opening your first booster pack in no time and you’ll funnel those new cards directly into the custom deck of your choice. The deck manager UI has been overhauled and it really couldn’t be easier to sort through your collection or create competitive archetypes using the deck wizard.
Elsewhere in-game you’ll find a similarly high level of presentation. Buttons feel responsive, colours are rich, and seeing the number of cards in an opponent’s hand is easier than ever. The option for sorting your own hand of cards seems to be missing, which is remarkably amateurish and annoying, but overall the game’s presentation is as welcoming as it is functional.
The first few campaign missions are dreadfully boring, but the later offerings fare much better. Whilst the stories are mere summaries of Magic’s extensive lore, the battles themselves sport plenty of cool fixed decks and lots of interesting scenarios to conquer. The campaigns for Innistrad and Zendikar are particularly strong in this regard and feature the best story missions in Duels history. The “deck-out” contest between you and an evil Sphinx is a standout moment, as is the Gatewatch’s showdown with the world-devouring Eldrazi, and many more besides.
After these short campaigns and easy-money tasks are complete, you’ll need to find something else to occupy your time and this is ultimately where Magic Duels’ success will be judged.
If you choose not to pay real money then there will be a long grind of versus battles between you and that coveted world of deckbuilding goodness. The basic payouts for solo battles are understandably stingy, but without the better cards already in your arsenal, the lucrative online multiplayer mode will be an arena that’s much harder to succeed in.
Coins come thick and fast from winning multiplayer duels, but it presents a big ‘if’ when you consider human players will do anything they can in order to succeed online. Aside from the mere competitive aspect, I myself prefer the more easygoing solo battles anyway. I prefer competing against opponents who don’t deliberately spend five minutes on each turn, who don’t ragequit after a single combat trick, or who just sit there waiting to play another Languish! Not that I’m bitter.
You can’t blame human nature on the game of course, but when it makes online multiplayer such a focal point of the overall experience, it needs to be held accountable for the limitations that such a decision presents.
It wouldn’t be a problem if the single player element behind Magic Duels wasn’t so disappointingly thin. AI opponents no longer come with set personalities or cards as each one is now nothing more than a generic avatar with a generic deck to match. There’s barely any flavour here at all. Every AI deck is bloated with Eldrazis or werewolves or whatever other random spells, all jammed in with precious little consideration given to strategy or theme. I’ve played several games where a CPU duelist failed to play even a single card before being defeated. It may be a quick win for the player, but it’s not fun.
The return of two-headed giant (a 2v2 team mode that was axed in Magic 2015) should be more fun, but then you can’t earn coins when playing this mode with friends which seems really stupid when a simple daily cap could easily have offset any coin-grinding abuse. It’s nice to have team games back, but it’s an inclusion that deserves zero praise anyway considering it never should have been removed in the first place. Don’t expect to find any challenges or funky game modes like Archenemy or Planechase either as they clearly don’t fit into this new free-to-play framework.
Compared to the abysmal launch of Magic 2015 a couple of years back, the free-to-play approach in Magic Duels is not the worst I’ve ever seen, but the restrictions are still glaringly evident.
Magic Duels is fairly generous with what content it does give away for free, though it’s still a business model that benefits Wizards of the Coast a lot more than its does you and it’s a sticking point that ultimately decides this game’s fate.
If you’re willing to spend money on Magic Duels then you will enjoy it more. Deckbuilding will be more exciting, online dueling will be easier to keep up with, and you’ll get to sample a wider variety of gameplay mechanics when it comes to the cards themselves.
The only problem is that buying an entire expansion is going to cost a lot of money. The basic Origins set is valued over 10,000 coins (the equivalent of £40+) and since you can only purchase coins in bundles you’ll always be paying more than you need to.
For those earning coins the old fashioned way, each booster is a mere six card pack meaning you’ll experience many disappointing draws free from the card colour or creature type that you’re looking for. It’s easy to feel dispirited with this when a booster can take you multiple wins in order to afford.
The cost of purchasing a full playset costs way more than a typical AAA video game which is a galling prospect when you think of the series’ amazing value in the past. This approach is doubtlessly more lucrative for Wizards, but deck keys were a good middle ground before; this just feels exploitative by comparison.
They said that Magic Duels needed the proper support, but I’m not sure it really got it past all of those extra cards. There’s no leaderboard, no lobbies, no chat system, and there are still plenty of bugs and dreaded “unknown error” crashes still waiting to be ironed out too.
All of this results in a game that’s tough to recommend in spite of it being a year older and wiser. Magic Duels may be a good fit for casual players who enjoy online multiplayer at the expense of depth, but those who have sampled the delights of Duels 2012-2014 will find this offering to be altogether shallow and inferior.
I agree that the series needed a drastic rethink after the abysmal Magic 2015, but outside the role of introductory tool, Magic Duels: Origins is still too narrow and too expensive to be worth investing your time or money.