Rather unexpectedly, part 3 of my play journal here is set to be the final record of my time playing competitive Magic Duels, so be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t done so already.

My rank was 25 at the end of the previous entry and following that I established a hot winning streak and reached the giddy heights of rank 32. Sadly, that same hot winning streak then turned into a decidedly colder losing streak and my rank plummeted quite dramatically, all the way back down to 24! Feeling extremely demoralised and yet even more determined, I somehow managed to crawl my way back to rank 32 and proceeded to win a further 2 games that took me to rank 34 for the first time.

I remained at rank 34 for quite a while as I analysed my deck over and over in dismay. I seriously doubted its ability to go much further (my recent wins had been extremely lucky), but ultimately I relented and in the face of stiff opposition, some very lucky draws, and a very spotty wireless connection, I found myself at rank 39 vying for the top spot at last.

My first shot at the title came down to an absurdly close battle where my opponent’s lucky top deck of an Impetuous Devils lost me the match despite victory being a single turn away. However, my next matched opponent folded before our duel could even begin (he/she really mustn’t have liked their mulligan) and so in record time I once again found myself challenging for rank 40. This second game was also quite close and could easily have gone the other way if my opponent had been a bit braver with their plays, but thankfully my werewolves stormed past their enchantments and scored their final win. Rank 40 achieved!

Magic Duels Gameplay Screenshot

Shiny!

The level of competition upon meeting players ranked higher than 30 is highly intense. After numerous battles it became apparent that my Blood Moon deck possessed many weaknesses as strictly speaking, it wasn’t really fast enough for an aggro play style. Don’t get me wrong, with a 7/7 first strike Lambholt Butcher swinging on turn 4, it certainly could be fast, but I think that element was a bit too reliant on chance. The transformation mechanic in Blood Moon ensures that even the smallest creature can become a big threat given time, but time is something that you never have enough of at this level.

A number of highly aggressive mono red decks – whose entire chance of success rests solely on the opening 5-7 turns – are extremely common past rank 30. Players at this level generally aren’t keen to wait around for their victories and it’s clear that you absolutely must adapt to this mindset if you hope to see continued success. Playing Magic Duels at this level is where understanding of the meta becomes really important. You have to know about the wider state of the game and start planning for common cards and net-decked strategies.

After facing my 5th opponent using a “Superfriends” setup (this is a deck that ramps hard into multiple Planeswalkers in order to generate huge card advantage) it became clear that my deck had a severe weakness to spells that destroy multiple creatures at once. Board sweepers such as Planar Outburst were huge threats and I’ve seen many duels go up in smoke the moment they’ve been played.

One card I really wanted (and couldn’t seem to find in free booster packs) was Spirit of the Hunt. This wolf has all the right keywords for synergy purposes and its instant speed toughness boost would have been great for avoiding popular mass kill spells like Languish and Radiant Flames. Its stats are pretty nice for three mana and with a cheaper cost than my existing Sage of Ancient Lore, I would have had room to fit it in and improve my early aggression at the same time.

One useful card that I did manage to secure though was Rogue’s Passage. This non-basic land was dead easy to drop in and often allowed one of my big creatures to sneak past an army of blockers. Whilst the ability is pricey, it works well alongside my deck’s cheap creatures and allowed any werewolf to hit their transformations more reliably. I won a few close games thanks to this card and I’m very glad to have found it.

Recuperating in the face of my massive losing streak was no easy task though. It’s funny how strong the psychology of competitive play can get when you have such a binary ranking system as the one here. Losing multiple games in a row takes a toll on your morale for one thing and it becomes doubly important to consider what win ratio you need to achieve in order to go all the way.

The tendency of how people play between ranks 1-10 compared to 30-40 was also quite interesting to witness. Despite seeing weaker decks featuring more basic cards, you’ll often see players in the lower ranks quit games outright if things don’t immediately go their way. You don’t see that mentality half as much when your rank starts to climb into the double digits.

I’ve also learned that Magic: The Gathering, like many card games perhaps, is fundamentally quite a weird game. If a player’s enjoyment could be accurately measured then it would be interesting to see what percentage of enjoyment both players really get out of a regular session or at least how it shifts as cards get played. My guess is that value would fluctuate quite wildly. Magic is a bitterly harsh duel most of the time where its common “take that” mentality forms the basis for entire concepts that are front and centre of the competitive landscape.

As well as the true emergence of the meta you also see a lot of mixed card sets and enthusiast players who have purchased premium card sleeves and avatars to further express their fandom. And more than anything else, it’s clear how competitively wired all this becomes as a wider experience. Daily quest rewards frequently require you to play in ranked mode and for some reason there’s no option to play friendly games online at all unless you manually invite someone in. Couple this with the fact that daily quests cannot be completed in games with more than 2 players and you have an aggravating situation for more casual players.

This was one of my criticisms of Magic Duels from way back during my original review. Too much of the game’s appeal is locked up in this competitive mode of thinking and it leaves other areas of the game either feeling undeveloped, unsatisfying, or missing entirely. The easy answer for this now relates to the game’s expandable content being discontinued, but these problems have persisted since the game’s launch and delving into its complete offering a couple of years later reveals those flaws clearer now than ever.

And seeing as how I’m on a re-review kick here, I should mention how Magic Duels now reminds me of Hellgate London of all things. There was a video game that sank into the depths of history due to its bitter struggle in supporting an online infrastructure. Magic Duels is a similar in a vague sense; it is also free-to-play online and that design is intended to entice a casual audience without price being a barrier to entry. Compared to past Duels titles though, even the most basic features are absent and too much of the experience is orientated around getting players to spend money. Like Hellgate, there wasn’t much left to salvage the game once its support ended.

The solo battles being utter trash are a good example of how worthless the game is fast becoming. Every new expansion block would see a new title screen, playmat design, and theme music among other things, and now all of that is locked to the most recent Amonkhet block. From now on it seems that every AI-controlled deck will use nothing but Amonkhet cards and so too will the playing field always looks like a windswept desert. With no option to return to any of the previous builds, Magic Duels has essentially fossilised itself. Is free-to-play so lucrative that it’s worth doing this to our video games?

I certainly don’t regret my time working towards rank 40 for this one time, but honestly, I would still like to do so much more with the game. I’d like to explore different decks (without paying through the nose for the privilege), I’d like to collaborate on challenges (that the game doesn’t have), and complete daily quests alongside friends (which you can’t do). I don’t understand why being free has to limit the game’s appeal so much and prevent what makes Magic cool and unique.

For some players Wizards of the Coast will have a chance to make amends as their in-house development studio takes over development duties for the upcoming MTG Arena. I sincerely hope that they remember this time that there is more to Magic: The Gathering than just numbers.