Magic 2015 | Principal Platforms:  PC (Version tested), Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, Android | Developer: Stainless Games | Publisher: Wizards of the Coast | Genre: Digital Card Game | Year: 2014

Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015

Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015

There’s a scene from the movie Unforgiven where the protagonist William Munny stands over an incapacitated Little Bill Daggett whilst holding a loaded rifle right to his face.

“I don’t deserve this… to die like this.” Daggett says.

“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Munny responds.

I find this scene a fitting analogue to how Wizards of the Coast has treated its customers with this year’s Duels of the Planeswalkers. After making our way through four previous games in this series we, the players, felt that we deserved better; that we deserved a better game for our continued investment in the franchise.

But evidently Wizards think that what we “deserve” has got nothing to do with it. The reason I say this is because Magic 2015 is by far and away the worst Duels of the Planeswalkers entries yet and easily one of the most lacklustre, disappointing video games that I’ve had the misfortune of playing this year, perhaps ever.

And yes, it may actually be worse than being shot in the face by Clint Eastwood.

But in case you’re not familiar with Magic: The Gathering, allow me to quickly fill you in. Magic is the original collectible card game designed by Richard Garfield in 1993; it changed the face of tabletop gaming forever and has remained the longest running, bestselling card game in history.

In Magic, each player takes on the role of a planeswalker; a wizard with the ability to walk through different dimensions and harness incredible magic powers. It’s about as old-school fantasy as it gets; players play cards from their hands that represent creatures, spells, enchantments and other items that might help win the duel against their opponents.

The objective is simple: reduce your opponent to zero life points and you win. But the richness in Magic comes from the different cards that constantly break the rules of the game to make an experience that is fast, fun and unpredictable.

Duels of the Planeswalkers is a somewhat lightweight digital version of Magic that offers the same overall experience without the need for investing in any expensive real world cards. Magic features a lot of shuffling, a lot of tokens and other factors that are so nice to have automated in a digital version. The Duels games contain only a tiny fraction of the cards available in paper Magic but I’ve always felt that trade off was worth it.

And that brings us to Magic 2015.

I got off to a rocky start with the game as the first thing that happened upon installing it was my anti-virus program popping up to triumphantly declare that the nasty trojan virus duels2015.exe had been successfully removed from my computer. Little did I know that this would be an omen of things to come.

Magic 2015’s big selling point is its customizable deckbuilding feature. Not the restrictive pseudo set-decks from the previous games but the ability to create your own personal deck from a set pool of cards that you will unlock over the course of the single player campaign and online multiplayer battles.

This is perhaps the leading positive feature about Magic 2015. Deckbuilding is finally here, it’s fun and there are some decent cards for you to play with. However, as will quickly become apparent throughout this review; for every small positive feature that Magic 2015 possesses there is always a little asterisk next to it leading you to an equally negative feature (or two) that will constantly detract from the enjoyment you’re trying to have. And in a truly ironic twist, the most positive feature of Magic 2015 arguably creates its biggest weakness and compromises the experience from the get-go.

Magic 2015 Duels of the Planeswalkers Gameplay Screenshot

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 (PC)

First of all, the card pool (these are the number of different cards that you can actually choose from to put in your deck) is just too small. Around 300 selectable cards might sound like a lot but in reality it becomes very restrictive, very quickly.

The idea of deckbuilding is to open up the full range of choices to the player- what kind of deck do you want to make? What colours do you want to include? What creatures? What spells? How fast does it need to be? How much control does it have over the battlefield? What kind of balance do you want to strike? These are the kind of questions that players love to answer when building their decks.

Now in Magic the cards are split into five different colours: red, green, blue, white and black. Each colour represents a different ideology towards spell casting and will change up the way in which the game is played. A red deck will play very differently from a green deck and this is a major part of Magic’s variety and flavour. A “mono” deck for example consists of cards of only a single colour whereas a dual-colour deck will feature two.

So, take that card pool of 300 cards and divide by the five different colours. You see where the problem is now? If you wanted to make a mono red deck for example (mono decks are the simplest way to play the game) your card pool is not 300 at all, it’s more like 50 or so (for red cards at least) and maybe a handful more for colourless cards that any deck can make use of. This means that potential builds are severely limited by the small card pool, but especially so for mono decks.

Part of the problem here is because of, wait for it… micro transactions.  Now, every Duels game has featured micro transactions in some way but Magic 2015 goes completely overboard by introducing card collections, foil stickers and the much maligned “premium” booster packs.

The card collections are a stunning example of bad game design. Remember that card pool of 300 cards I mentioned earlier? Well, those cards are not all available from the beginning of the game as in order to unlock the full collection you need to win missions from the single player campaign (about 71 or so in practice) in order to earn booster packs that will expand your collection.

The single player mode in Magic 2015 features several levels divided into different locations taken from the Magic universe. These locations have their own cards associated with them so winning a battle in Zendikar for example will reward you with different cards to a battle won in Theros. Once the campaign is completed, you need to return to the previous levels and win a random ‘explore’ battle from that plane in order to earn the rest of the cards unique to that stage’s collection.

The explore battles quickly get tiresome as each level only has 4-5 different random battles for you to face; you have no control over anything here and it results in the game becoming an inevitable grind for you to get the cards that you want for your specific deck. Of course if you want to bypass this senseless chore you can simply buy a card collection for an additional £4 which will award you with all the cards for a particular level. So you’re paying quite a bit of money there in order to skip a badly designed (and major) part of the game.

The “complete” edition of the game comes with all of these collections meaning your initial £6.99 purchase will rocket to well over £20, once again, just so you’ll be able to skip badly designed gameplay. It’s mind-numbingly stupid and many players are going to be enraged by this acute dip in playability just to get the cards that are already programmed into the game. The fact that Wizards are asking for money here is hilarious in itself.

Whilst we’re on the subject of the “complete” edition, let’s make something very clear; that description is a damn lie. Magic 2015 comes with 14 ‘premium’ booster packs that feature additional cards to add to your card pool. The “complete” edition does not come with those cards… Therefore it is not complete at all.

The premium booster packs have received a particularly negative response from the community. These £1.49 boosters add in new cards that are not obtainable any other way but direct purchase – but is their negative image really that deserved? You bet it is.

There is no other way that Wizards can possibly defend the inclusion of these boosters at all. They are a money making tool and that’s it. What other reason is there to hide a portion of the game’s content behind a pay-wall? There isn’t one. This is especially galling seeing as various additional promo cards for Duels have been distributed for FREE in the past.

There are additional concerns caused by premium cards of course including multiplayer balance. Is a level playing field possible when a player who pays extra for premium faces a player who does not? It’s a bit of a grey area for me to comment on seeing as I have not bought a premium pack myself so I won’t comment on that particular issue. All I can say with any certainty is that certain decks I could see myself creating would absolutely need the cards that the premium set has locked away. And if you look at the distribution of the packs themselves; how useful is one premium common card going to be on its own? You’ll need to have four copies of many cards for them to be of any strategic use and yet the packs are of course, random. It’s just bad design and unsurprisingly, it’s made a lot of players angry because one purchase of these is not going to be enough in practice.

It’s a real pity about the micro transactions because I think the idea of purchasing foil stickers for your cards is actually quite a nice idea. They are much cheaper than the aforementioned options; they offer more control than previous games (you can apply foils to individual cards of your choice now) and nothing about them affects the overall balance of the game. Of course for some idiotic reason the foils in Magic 2015 look really poor compared to previous games in the series but then what would a positive point about this game be without an asterisk ready to knock it take it down a peg?

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 (PC)

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 (PC)

But let’s put aside all of these debatable design decisions for just a moment and focus on the more inherent problems with Magic 2015. Whilst the deckbuilding feature is the highlight here, it’s implemented rather poorly. There are no filters to apply to your actual deck. You can filter your sideboard just fine but your deck is always filtered by colour first instead of mana cost (like it used to be in the past four games). I don’t understand the reason for this switch and I especially don’t understand why I can’t have the choice. At every turn the usability in Magic 2015 makes me wonder if someone actually checked this or if they just thought it was good enough as is.

Part of this is due to the remarkably bad menu design. All of the game’s menus are rendered as large icons with suitable card art which looks quite crisp, but it’s an ungodly pain in the ass to actually use. To get from the main menu to the options screen for example you need to scroll through several entries to reach it and with a mouse and keyboard this is a huge chore that you will need to repeat constantly. Even the simple process of quitting a match involves you having to scroll the menu awkwardly with your hand and even then it can be glitchy and unresponsive. The menus are clearly the result of a design compromise in needing to factor in touch enabled devices. So bad are the menus and overall targeting using a mouse, I eventually opted to just play the game with an Xbox 360 controller instead which worked much better.

I think the graphic design is stylish, moody, and a positive departure from Magic 2014 with its muddy menus and awkward combination of orange and blue. But of course that nagging little asterisk jumps back in here and this time it’s in the form of annoying fade-to-white transitions that EVERY menu has to make when selected. This effect looks nice… the first time you see it. But after the twentieth time, guess what? It gets old!

Moving on to the gameplay side of things and Magic 2015 is still struggling. The actual game functions decently enough, but there are many bugs present in the release build. I’ve seen the game crash to a white screen, experienced numerous freezes, and ecnountered a rather odd bug that caused the ending cinematic to play twice for no reason.

The automated tapping of lands (the resources to play cards) is completely off when playing with a two colour deck, something that is especially problematic considering that you’ll be forced to do exactly that for the vast majority of the game. Many times the computer will leave you in a situation where you are physically unable to play a card because of the way it will automatically tap your lands.

The AI in Magic 2015 is perhaps a new low for the series too. The Duels AI has always gravitated between bone-headed to occasionally inspired but in Magic 2015 the computer is as dumb as it can be.

Here’s a list of all the stupid things I can remember the AI doing during my Magic 2015 campaign:

  • AI attacks with creatures that cannot deal any damage or trigger any positive effects from attacking.
  • AI plays the Demolish card to destroy one of its own lands.
  • AI sacrifices creatures that can readily act as blockers to an incoming attack instead of sacrificing identical tapped creatures that cannot.
  • AI gives the deathtouch keyword to a creature that already has it.
  • AI manually taps its own gate for mana it can’t use. I don’t even know how this was possible…

And seeing as that bullet list looks so impressive let’s have another. Just look at how much stuff ISN’T in Magic 2015 that was in previous versions:

  • Two-Headed Giant – a 2v2 team mode.
  • Challenges – fun puzzles that you must solve using a set hand of cards.
  • Promo cards – free cards unlocked with special promotional codes.
  • Animated cards – not a huge loss admittedly but why not keep it in for cards that supported it?
  • Revenge campaign – a harder campaign unlocked after completing the original.
  • Deck filter – sorts your deck by mana cost instead of colour.
  • Radial deck selection – I’ll rant about this further down…
  • Persistent multiplayer lobbies – and this…
  • Special game modes – 2009 had 2v2 campaign, 2012 had Archenemy, 2013 had Planechase, 2014 had sealed play, 2015 has… NOTHING!

The most egregious is the removal of Two-Headed Giant.

Foolishly brushed off as non-issue by the game’s lead designer on Reddit, the removal of 2v2 from Magic is a major blow for the franchise. The reason cited was “balance” and how the designer felt that Two-Headed Giant was never up to scratch and simply couldn’t be done justice with full deckbuilding as an added consideration.

Magic 2015 Duels of the Planeswalkers Gameplay Screenshot

The menus look pretty, but they’re also a pain to navigate and take ages to load.

Now the point about balance is respectable enough but ultimately short sighted. THG has been a major feature of Duels since the beginning and its removal is, in my opinion, fully unwarranted. I may be biased seeing as THG is the reason I got into Duels in the first place but I also say: why is balance such a big concern now? Stainless Games has had plenty of opportunities to get this right and now they’re giving up? Why was it good enough for 2013 or 2014 but not for 2015?

And if game balance is suddenly this major new concern then why not simply make it an unranked game mode? That way, what difference does it make? All you’ve succeeded in doing is robbing your game of variety and THG offered that in spades. Hell, go one further and make it offline only. As a player I don’t like having the option taken away from me. Let me decide what is fun; I’m the one paying for the game after all.

Whilst we’re on the subject of multiplayer a special mention needs to be made about the truly ridiculous deck equip feature. In the previous games you would enter a lobby and select your currently available decks from a radial selection menu. In order to use a deck now though you need to ‘equip’ it from the deck menu. This means that you will never know what deck you actually have equipped before exiting out of whatever menu you happen to be in. So in order to change your deck before an online multiplayer match, you need to back out of the lobby, enter the profile screen, scroll to the deck you want, equip it, back out, create a new multiplayer lobby and then invite all players back into that game before you can continue playing. This approach of course triggers no less than four very long menu transitions before continuing as opposed to simply, selecting them from a radial wheel which takes all of 3 seconds.

As John Carmack would say:

“Patently ludicrous.”

Also, when any online multiplayer game ends, it kicks you dumps you at the main menu which means you can’t opt for a rematch at any point; you’ll instead need to create a new lobby and invite people all over again. Somebody really needed to check this as it’s very bad design and should have never have been allowed to make the release build.

Speaking of which, how about that digital special edition of Magic 2015 available on Steam?

CelJaded-Magic-2015-(4)

Here is a wallpaper that could easily have been put in the special edition.

Here’s what you get inside:

  • Official soundtrack to the game in mp3 format.
  • 4x desktop wallpapers in a variety of sizes.
  • A short eBook novella set in the Magic universe in PDF format.
  • Ammunition you can use for a negative review of the game.

I don’t know how it’s possible to screw up a special edition quite this badly, but it seems the publisher has gone and done that too.

The soundtrack is the highlight. PitStop Productions has done a fine job in creating a nice ambient soundtrack that supports the game with tracks that are moody, compliment the game much better than in previous versions and are not anywhere near as repetitive.

However, the music files themselves are poorly labelled with each track being named ZENDIKAR_1, ZENDIKAR_2 etc. Most of the tracks have no fade applied and just cut off suddenly. They also lack album art so it looks quite likely that whoever put this content together simply dragged the music files from the game’s code, dumped them in a folder and said “done”. A lazy effort.

The wallpapers look nice enough, but let’s face it, wallpapers are a laughable include for a special edition. They are not a premium item; you can get all the wallpapers you could ever want from magic.com for free. Considering the RRP, there should be a hundred wallpapers here really.

The eBook is a decent enough tale for those looking to learn more about Magic’s rich universe. With all due respect to the author Jenna Helland though, this eBook seems to retail at £0.72 on Amazon so it doesn’t really seem like you’re getting an item of much value here does it? This is part 1 of the eBook too- they couldn’t even stretch to chuck in part 2 so you could finish the story. Brilliant.

In case you were looking for a short answer here, this is the worst digital special edition I’ve ever seen. At least I got good use out of that ammunition that came with it.

It appears at first glance that Magic 2015 gears itself towards novice players. The tutorial is very in-depth, almost patronizingly so, but then you get to the starter deck selection and it makes you wonder. Before you can start playing Magic 2015, you will be asked to select a starter deck including a basic premade set of cards from the card pool. The developers really needed to make these more transparent though as you’ve no idea what cards are in each deck before you make your selection; a choice which is irreversible and will lead to further frustration if you don’t end up liking said choice.

The problem for many players here is that the starter decks are particularly weak and the single player campaign features exceptionally well crafted AI decks that will overshadow yours in the early and even later parts of the game.  This can make for a seemingly brutal challenge early on as you struggle to earn those valuable cards that will help your deck grow stronger.

Now to be perfectly honest, I did not have a huge problem with the challenge in Magic 2015. I played through the whole campaign on the hardest difficulty but my red/black vampire aggro deck performed well through all stages of the game. Some battles were particularly obnoxious (Nissa Revane casting Joraga Wallcaller every time on turn 3 was annoying as all hell), but I enjoyed the steep challenge for the most part as past Duels games have been rather easy to beat.

However, it’s no secret that the AI decks are hugely unfair. This has to do with the limit on the number of uncommon, rare, and mythic rare copies you can include in your deck. I can see what the developers were trying to do here (allowing a deck to contain four Baneslayer Angels would be a bit silly), but it makes for a very steep difficulty curve because the AI opponents do not abide by the same restrictions. Seeing Liliana Vess play her fourth Demonic Tutor in a single game is enough to have anyone tossing their computer out of the window.

There’s also the facet here that the computer gets to use a wealth of exclusive cards that you will never get access to. The AI might drop a Simic Skyswallower or a Rakdos Pit Dragon and you’ll be left holding a Pillarfield Ox thinking, “well this sucks.”

The cutscenes are a marginal improvement over those in Magic 2014.

The cutscenes are a marginal improvement over those in Magic 2014.

And after all that, what are we left with?

Magic 2015 is half of a game and not a particularly good half at that. The clunky menus, buggy presentation, and threadbare content make for a huge disappointment that is impossible to overcome. The deckbuilding may be good to a degree, but once you’ve grinded out all of the game’s content just to get to those precious cards that make the game work in the first place, what are you really left with?  Once you’ve got that perfect deck what do you actually do with it?

A lacklustre, badly implemented multiplayer with no 2v2 or special game modes simply won’t last you more than a weekend at the most and compared to previous games in this series that is simply nowhere near good enough.

If there’s one final comment I would make it would be don’t buy Magic 2015; you don’t deserve this. And in this case deserve has got everything to do with it.