Mabinogi Duel, An In-Depth Review

Gameplay: 10/10
Sounds: 9/10
Graphics: 9/10

An innovative system of game mechanics. | Unique face-to-face trading and playing through Soul Link. | Genuine free-to-play model that isn't soul-crushingly slow.

Card balancing is occasionally an issue when a single deck starts to dominate the meta.


Free to play, with in-app purchases.

September 1,2015

English, Chinese, Japanese, Portugues, German, Spanish, Russian

Mabinogi Duel is a fantasy-themed, “true trading” card game for Android and iOS. It features a unique mechanic of having no random card draws or shuffling, with your whole deck of 12 cards available in your hand at the start of the match. It also features a distinct Korean manga style blended with Western fantasy art.

In the story campaign, you’ll cast spells and summon creatures as you fight your way to the Holy Land in a quest to cleanse your outcast character’s vilified half-elf nature back to being fully human again, with twists and turns along the way. In the various PVP (player versus player) modes and Arenas, you’ll duel against other players both live and also against their trained A.I. ghosts (which get smarter the more consecutive wins they have against others’ ghosts).

The game’s world and mythos is loosely based on the Korean MMORPG Mabinogi (by the same developer, Nexon Korea) but you don’t need to know anything about it to play Mabinogi Duel. It is a bold move by a Korean developer attempting to break through into the Western app market for strategy card games – but is it a good game? I think you’ll be surprised. Read on to find out…

(Also, you’ll find our exclusive interview with the developers of Mabinogi Duel here, conducted just after the Closed Beta earlier this year!)


The view of a typical duel, with your opponent and story environment featured behind the two rows of the battleground and your hand of cards in the foreground.


Mabinogi Duel shocks and delights in equal measure — this is a game that is clearly setting out to challenge the digital mobile TCG/CCG market with something fresh, deeply strategic, and full of value for both paying and free-to-play gamers. It draws upon the familiar just enough to ease new players into its world, but then you’ll find that everything you think you know about card games no longer applies here. Mabinogi Duel demands a whole new way of thinking about how to create and play a game in this genre, and I’m having an absolute blast learning at its feet.

For starters, decks are just 12 cards in size, but you have access to all of them right from the start of the duel – there is no drawing of cards from a random deck. This puts a much heavier emphasis on strategy and skill over luck and randomness as is often more present in other digital TCGs/CCGs that use heavy RNG (random number generator) effects. This really is the game’s strongest aspect. You have to play it to see just how genre-changing it actually feels.

Players each control a row of five card slots which they play cards to in typical “lane combat” fashion, summoning Creatures (which include structures and locations, too) and casting instant Spells in their turn. However, that’s not all — another unique element is the leveling system that occurs in a single game. Players and their cards start off at Level 1 with one action per turn used for playing cards or charging to gain a resource. Players slowly gain experience points during the duel from the various actions they take until they are Level 3, which yields three actions per turn.

The basic stats (and sometimes effects) of cards get stronger as you level up and your player health goes up too. Leveling up costs an action, meaning that it is not an automatic process but rather a strategic decision when to trigger it, as the first jump from level 1 to 2 will cost you a turn of playing a card. This becomes a big part of the gameplay as well, sometimes holding off on leveling up in order to play another crucial card first, or even never going all the way to level 3 at all, if it is tactically appropriate to do so.


Each card has a ‘Help’ page that can be opened up, where you can see a breakdown of the card’s stats and effect at each level, as well as how many times it has been traded between players. They also add an alternating series of helpful tips and gameplay strategies unique to that card across the bottom of the screen. You can also open up the card’s full art to see what it looks like extended beyond the borders. This level of detail, information and interactivity with a single card is completely revolutionary for this genre.

On the one hand, you have what appears to be a very typical “lane combat” style card game: your units have Attack and HP (Health Points), but there’s the added dimension of the Defense stat which functions in a way you wouldn’t expect: it doesn’t act as a straight-up extra layer of HP, but actually includes a small RNG element by which it reduces the amount of incoming damage up to a certain point determined by both the amount of Attack and the amount of Defense. It takes some time to get used to this, but once you’ve experienced it a few times you’ll realize it’s far more interesting than a straight 1-to-1 damage shield mechanic would have been.

What makes the game unique and completely changes the way you approach each duel is not just that you get to play your deck in the order that you like — cards can also be played more than once by paying your hero’s life points in order to return your entire Grave back to your hand again. This is a small but essential element to the whole system at play here, allowing for re-use of cards while increasing the cost to prevent over-abuse of single cards.

Being able to ‘Revive’ your hand with cards from the Grave for the cost of an action (and a permanent +1 increase to the cost of the card each time) is a stroke of brilliance and I love it. This function gets more costly with every use and there are very few ways to restore a hero’s health, meaning that each game is always edging closer to a victor, preventing any stalemates from occurring.


The game does have some minor RNG (random) card effects in the game. However, it’s more common that card effects tend to refer to a particular aspect of gameplay, something variable but clearly determinable by looking at the board state. This makes it much more strategic than its bigger, more popular rival Hearthstone, that some have argued has too much RNG.

Paying for cards uses up a number of the ‘Resource’ of that card’s type (these are discussed below) and you gain a number of Resources. At any time, you can press the ‘Charge’ button to gain a Resource for the cost of 1 action, but it is randomly selected as to which of the Resource types you’ll gain.

In the later stages of a match, where costs of cards are higher, you will need to Charge quite a lot, and this is where the variance in the random-less card draw system comes in – you won’t always reliably get the resources you need to cast the cards you want (unless your deck has one or two Resource types, which are easier to manage but don’t get as many total Resources over the course of a game compared to a three-type deck).

I can’t stress enough how much I love this system already, and even though I have a hand full of cards with no surprises about what is possible for me to play, it still feels much more exciting than you’d think. Knowing what possible strategies you can execute at any given time is simple, with a calculation of how many actions and resources it will take for you to get there with very little variance to stand in your way.

This means you can respond to your opponent’s threats in a controlled manner that just isn’t always possible in certain games like Hearthstone. For that reason alone, I think this system is going to prove the game worthy as a mobile competitor to Blizzard’s behemoth (albeit at a shorter game length, but just as strategic).


The menu system has both vertical scrolling and tabs at the bottom to get around, with a couple of side menus accessible through small buttons. However, since there are just a few options on each page it doesn’t feel clunky. In fact, quite the opposite: it’s an utterly elegant user interface to both navigate and behold. You can even switch to landscape mode for both menu navigation and dueling if you’re playing on a tablet or larger phone, which is amazing because rarely do these kinds of games provide this degree of flexibility for the user.

Modes and Features

Mabinogi Duel’s single-player campaign takes the form of a string of Scenario duels punctuated by story dialogue and even the occasional animated cut-scene. In the story, you embody a half-elf, half-human male who is on a journey to a place called the Holy Land. Here, there is magical water that will apparently “cleanse” him of his half-elf blood, since being half-elf is a mark of disgrace in his home village.

Accompanied on his journey by a band of very eccentric characters (it’s hard to emphasize just how quirky or downright weird some of these characters are until you meet them), we soon find out that being a half-elf is rather rare, and a whole bunch of people turn up wanting a piece of him for their own nefarious reasons.

Scenario duels are punctuated by story events and dialogue in a way that makes them actually feel relevant to the story and a part of it, rather than an awkward mechanical interjection. Occasionally your cards or objectives change depending on the enemy and the story event, which makes for some rather unique encounters.


The story is frequently humorous and rarely takes itself too seriously: here we have some Kobolds, small, goblin-like beasts often found in old fantasy roleplaying games… as a team of Power Rangers-styled fighters. This encounter is completely silly, but still mechanically engaging and has a lot of charm.

One such encounter even saw you controlling the deck of a much more powerful character, a deck that you had no possible way of losing the match with, yet for the sake of telling a dramatic story, you get to beat the enemy to a pulp just to show off to you, the player, just how powerful this ally character is. Was it useless gameplay-wise? Completely. Did I care? Not at all – I was too busy being impressed with how cool it was, and how it actually added to the sense of engagement with the story and its characters.

Unfortunately, the campaign is staggered by the implementation of the dreaded “stamina” system found in other games, where initiating matches in certain gameplay modes costs an energy resource that recharges slowly over time. However, the actual effect on the player is so minimal, I have never run dry even after constant hours of playing. I play the game for many hours each day and I’ve never needed to take a break due to running out of stamina. (Some other modes in the game don’t even use the stamina system, which makes me wonder why it’s even necessary at all.)

The story is currently incomplete, with more chapters arriving in the future, but what there is to play will take you a solid week to get through — 52 unique Missions so far, each with their own unique form of card puzzles as well as straight-up duels.


The way the campaign actually uses the gameplay engine to tell aspects of the story made me all the more interested in the tale it was telling, especially when it added unique victory conditions or cards for you to use. Here, you’re trying to climb across the chains of an enemy airship attached to yours, until he sends over robots to cut away at the chains. Can you stop them in time before you fall to your death?

Mabinogi Duel’s Rookie and Veteran Arenas are the “constructed” format for the game – you take your deck in with you and you play against all the other registered players’ decks in an attempt to earn points and raise your rank within the limited time frame before the Arena finishes (which varies between one to a few days, depending on the Arena type).

The Arenas award large amounts of gold, premium currency (called Gems) and coupons for booster packs, reducing their cost by 10% (or in the case of the Generation 2 coupons, these allow you to buy boosters from the next set, which are not freely available to purchase yet unless you have these coupons).

It’s important to note here that most of the Arenas work with a unique “Ghost” A.I. system. It works like this: as you win against the A.I. “Ghosts” controlling the decks of other players, you rack up consecutive wins. As you do so, if at any point you choose to end your run of matches, your Ghost will level up and get smarter with your deck which makes it harder for opponents to defeat it, earning you gold and points passively as other people encounter it. If you lose a match during a run, however, your Ghost will return to level 1. There is a real PVP Arena, but you’ll need to be at a higher level to join it.


You are allowed two decks at a time in the Rookie Arena, each with their own unique Ghosts that you’ll need to level up if you want them to passively win matches for you (even while you’re away from the game). If you’re good at the game, you’ll be able to earn a decent amount of boosters and Gems, which makes it entirely possible to play this game competitively in a fast way, compared to Hearthstone‘s incredibly slow grind.

The Draft Arena provides a “limited” format for the game and surprisingly, it’s entirely free to play even though it can result in a decent amount of premium rewards if you rank highly at the end of it. This is another A.I. Ghost mode, unfortunately, but for what it lacks in real-world opponents, it more than makes up for in ingenuity of method. You are presented with a grid of cards (see below image) and you may choose to “hold” certain rows of these while having the opportunity to replace all of the cards that are not being held, up to a maximum of three times (further times can be paid for in gold, if you really want to push for extra cards).

This puzzle-like grid sort of reminds me of a slot machine with its “hold” buttons, but it actually works really well. This drafting method is almost a kind of puzzle, and it’s bizarre how well it works while also providing a unique challenge of its own in forming an ideal, workable deck. You have to compromise on what cards you want by sometimes holding a row that has 1 or 2 cards you don’t really want, or are from a Resource type that you don’t plan to use.

When all cards have been locked in, you’ll have to choose which three Resource types to keep in and the rest will be scrapped (even if this reduces your deck total down from 12). You then get to play against the A.I. Ghosts of others in the Draft Arena, much like the regular Arenas. I absolutely adore this mode, not just because it’s free and you can earn some huge rewards, but also because it allows you to play with rare cards you don’t have, or simply forces you to play with a strategy you don’t normally build decks around.


Are we gambling at Vegas here?! Well, sort of — try your luck with controlling the semi-random deck generation here and you could win big if you perform well enough by the end of the Draft Arena event.

The other type of modes available are the Daily Missions. These are a series of A.I. battles (with either a deck of your own or a drafted deck in the same manner as the Draft Arena) where you’ll be running a gauntlet of rounds with increasing difficulty, with varying gold rewards, a card prize at the end, and even a premium Gem or two.

There are quite a lot of battles to finish before you get to the end, however, so while this is a good avenue for daily grinding and gold acquisition, it’s going to be a time sink just because of how many it takes to get to the very end. You do earn a very generous amount of gold though, which will allow you to purchase at least a few single-card packs in the shop, so after a while of playing you can feasibly build an entire collection for free.

If you want to play practice matches against the A.I., you can do so. Also, extremely helpfully for competitive players testing out their decks, you can initiate a practice Mirror Match which is against an A.I. controlling the exact same deck you’re running, just in case you want to see what happens if you run up against a deck that is similar or identical to yours.

Furthermore, there is the Cat Merchant, who pops up occasionally as you’re navigating the game menus offering you card trades, but the cards he offers and wants from you are ones he chooses himself. You can push him a little bit in several directions through a list of options, such as “Change my cards” or “Add more cards to your offer”, but these are requests and not commands, because if you push him more than once or twice, he’ll run off annoyed and you won’t get to trade at all. Sometimes he even runs away after your very first suggestion, making him an extremely difficult trade partner to work with! Be careful with him — he is notoriously “scammy” with his unfair offers and rarely gives you a good deal, in my experience!

One last thing to note: each day, there is a global effect applied to non-campaign matches, based on the day. For example, Friday is the ‘Day of Darkness’ and the effects are: “Hero’s HP -1 when Dark Resource is gained through Charge. +1 Dark Resource when using Revive.” Some of the effects are positive and some are negative, so it’s worth keeping in mind how the day’s global effect is interacting with your decks when playing.


Dynamic booster content keeps things feeling fresh and exciting, especially when there are Mutant cards on offer. Those with random booster pack fatigue are not going to be happy though, since this is every bit as bad as Magic: The Gathering and every other randomized TCG out there. Potentially even worse, considering certain chase rares and Mutant cards will rotate around in the various packs available, making them even harder to acquire.

The store is simple, but offers some unique products. You can buy a single-card pack for 999 gold, and as gold is earned in the game quite easily, you can rack up a decent-sized collection in no time at all. Some of the boosters can only be purchased by unlocking their availability, either by playing certain daily modes or winning special coupons in the Arenas. The cool thing is that most of the packs offer dynamic content, which rotates after a set time.

You can get a straight-up booster from the Generation 1 or 2 sets, which potentially has any card from the set available, or you can get one of the dynamic boosters. With these, you can open them up and see the potential contents as well, before you’ve even purchased them.

It’s going to show you a larger pool than the amount of cards you’ll be getting, but at least you get a feel for what cards could appear inside and make an informed decision based on what you’re looking for at any given time. Mutant cards are cool because they can color-shift the Resource type or modify the card cost or stats in some way, but this comes with a cost of -1 HP to your hero during a match for each Mutant card in your deck.

You can buy your standard packs of Gems, the premium currency, but you can also purchase Premium Memberships, of which there are two types (one is just over double the cost of the other, but offers roughly triple the rewards). These give you a set amount of Gems, coupons and other benefits every day for 30 days and they’re generally extremely cost-efficient for what they give you, so I highly suggest starting off with one of these Memberships when you want to get more serious about playing the game regularly.


Connect the cables together with a “snap” as they lock into place… and away you go. The Soul Link mode blurs the lines between physical and digital in an elegant and socially rewarding manner that will be crucial to the game’s long term success with real-world events and tournaments.

Soul Link is one of my absolute favorite things about Mabinogi Duel. This is how you interact with real people to trade and play matches, with a caveat — you have to be in very close physical proximity to do this. When entering the Soul Link mode, there’s a cable on the screen which you’re instructed to pair up with a friend’s phone end-to-end to “plug in” to each other. GPS has to be enabled on the phone for this to work (assuming to verify that you’re in the same location). It then creates a digital link between your profiles and you’re given several options for what you can do with the other player.

You can play a friendly match with them, which lets you spin the same minor reward wheel as winning Arena matches, or you can even play a Master Class Duel. This type of duel can yield higher rewards — it helps players advance their Master Class rank as only the winner gets to take the experience points.

It states that only people above Master Class 1 can attempt this mode, which is exciting because it makes it sound like this is the only way of advancement for higher level players – does this mean real-live tournaments are in the game’s future? That would be extremely interesting, and we’ve already seen one such event happen in South Korea so far.


The full list of Soul Link options. Once you’ve linked with someone, they will become your in-game friend and added to your friends list. Then you can challenge them remotely if they are online for a friendly duel.

Lastly, you can actually trade cards with each other live, something that a lot of digital collectible card games don’t actually do, hence not qualifying as actual “Trading Card Games” anymore. A unique aspect of the trading which I liked was that it showed the relative values of each card in gold, but if you are making a trade that is too skewed in favor of one person, the game won’t let you make the trade. As in, it tells you that the trade you’re attempting is imbalanced in the total values of each player’s offer to the other, and it outright blocks you from making the trade until one of you brings up or reduces your offering to make it more fair.

This is likely to protect new players from being forced into unfair trades, and it’s an interesting decision on behalf of the developers to integrate a feature like this, but I find it a little bit disappointing that I and my trading partner cannot choose to go ahead with a trade even if we think it is worth it.

I appreciate the function it may play in protecting newer players from being scammed at tournaments and events, but to put a system-wide block on uneven trades does make it less appealing. What if I want to give lots of strong cards to my friend to help him or her get started in the game? Currently, I wouldn’t be permitted to do that. Hopefully they’ll look at this function and reconsider it given the various problems it could cause with corner-cases like my example.


Here, the game calculates the gold sale value of each card and compares it to the total of the trading partner. If they’re within the ballpark of each other, you’re good to go — if they’re not, you’re bang out of luck, as it forces you to modify the trade until the game is happy with the difference in value.

Deckbuilding and Strategy

The current pool of cards the developers have actually created and are sitting on is said to be around 1000 cards, but these will be released gradually in content updates through what they call Generations, the name for card sets in Mabinogi Duel.

However, the first generation has nearly 200 cards to play with already. This is a lot of cards for a game that doesn’t use 40 or 60 card decks, but 12, meaning you need far less variety of cards to build a viable deck. It shows that the developers are true to their word that this is going to be fully-fledged TCG/CCG with a broad and diverse meta-game.

Currently there are several “factions” or colors in the game, tied to the game’s Resource types, and you are free to mix them up in decks as you please, up to a maximum of three types. The types are Light, Dark, Nature, Mana, and Gold. Each one has their own thematic and mechanic focuses, with some variations.


Another strategic decision you’ll have to make when deckbuilding for the non-campaign modes is which hero to run. Each hero has to be unlocked through a variety of unique achievements (such as collect 20 Mana cards, play 30 friendly matches, etc.) and they each have effects, some of which are global rather than just applying to you.

Nature loves big creatures with heal effects and ranged attacks. Dark loves vampiric health effects, killing, and using the graveyard for effects. Mana is very control-based with bounce, clone, and transform effects, but also has a lot of direct damage spells, too. Light loves to gain Defense, increase Attack, and heal and revive allies, while Gold is good for stuns, area attacks, high RNG damage spells for cheaper costs, and generally rounding out decks with neutral-type cards that fit with most other deck strategies.

Given that the game’s focus is on using no randomized draws for your deck, you are literally free to find the card synergies you like the most and carry them out, very reliably, each and every game. In theory, it sounds awful – surely someone will come up with the most powerful deck and never play anything else? However, from playing with the various Resource types, they all appear well balanced. The meta is currently very focused around fast decks with lots of cheap-costing cards, so if you’re looking for a chance to play those huge finishers you might find it hard to pull them off outside of easier A.I. matches.

Lastly, I am blown away by the amazing digital functionality for cards and deck information. Decks will generate a code that can link to a unique page on the Devcat Nexon website. See a sample deck of mine here. Each card is clickable which brings up a unique page for that card showing stats, tips, gold price information, and also a comments section underneath which the community will love as they discuss the various cards available. I absolutely love this functionality and it’s one of the best things about the game’s deckbuilding features.


Deck building functions like you’re pulling physical cards out of a traditional card binder, with traded cards slowly gaining a “faded” look to them to indicate how many hands they’ve passed through before. The attention to detail here further blurs the game’s distinctions between the digital and the physical, as it does with the Soul Link mode. It feels incredibly nostalgic to flip through binder pages full of your own card collection. I love the attention to detail here.

Final Thoughts

Mabinogi Duel, in three words: blows — me — away. There is no other game on the market quite like this one, and unfortunately for the market-leading game in this genre, I find the gameplay, free-to-play model and innovative modes and mechanics of Mabinogi Duel to be superior in nearly every way to the reigning king, Hearthstone.

Ever since I picked it up during the Closed Beta, I came to the game with no expectations about what I was about to encounter or what to think of it, and ever since that first day of playing it, I was and have remained extremely impressed. In my opinion, this game completely changes the gaming standard for TCGs/CCGs on mobile/tablet devices.

It has the feel of a traditional TCG while somehow scaling down the length and complexity without compromising on the strategy and player skill required in the genre. In ways that Hearthstone can feel a bit too dense a game for phones (and arguably even tablets), Mabinogi Duel scales perfectly into the platform space by delivering a strong — no, stronger — gameplay in a slightly shorter time, and with a lot of polish added on top.

Many mobile TCGs/CCGs, and especially casual card battlers, end up throwing the baby out with the bath water in an attempt to appeal to a casual audience, leaving you with a grindy tap-fest that doesn’t really reward player skill or strategy. I truly believe Mabinogi Duel has proven that this approach is simply a poor excuse for lazy game design.

Mabinogi Duel does not compromise on gameplay design in its attempt at mass appeal — in fact, it gracefully and successfully achieves the middle ground that it is seeking to embody whilst proving that authentic TCG design is at the heart of the game’s very purpose.


The card artwork is occasionally sultry, but never gratuitous with nudity. It elegantly brings together the best of both the Far Eastern and Western fantasy art styles.

From the strategic mechanics, deckbuilding options, unique drafting and PVP modes, to the nostalgic, heart-warming emphasis on face-to-face dueling and card trading — Mabinogi Duel feels like it is ready to lead digital card game players into a golden age of creating and uniting physical communities without compromising on delivering an exciting, video-game like player experience as well.

At the moment, the game is not without some flaws, for sure (especially with some translation issues and card effects being a bit unclear as the language localization is rolled out across all supported regions), but these are minor enough that they can be ironed out over time. Overall, the language localization seems to be very successful so far with only a few small issues that betray its origins as a non-English game (if the art style didn’t already give that away).

Nevertheless, Mabinogi Duel has me excited about mobile TCGs again in a way that I haven’t felt for a long time. This is a giant leap in the digital renaissance of truly authentic TCG experiences that are being born at the moment in digital form. I hope the eccentric name or manga art style won’t put people off — you absolutely have to check out this game if you have even a passing interest in the genre.

This is the game that changes everything. This is the game that kicks Hearthstone off the ‘number one’ spot on our site. This is Mabinogi Duel, and I couldn’t be more excited to see this community grow and flourish together.

Looking for some strategy hints, tips, and tricks? Our Beginner’s Guide is here!

For more screenshots, click here.

Did you enjoy this review? Like!  

Zac Phoenix
Author: Zac Phoenix View all posts by
Zac Phoenix graduated with First Class Honors in Philosophy, Religion and Ethics and has been playing strategy card games since childhood. He has a keen interest in the underlying mechanics and player interactions of trading card games, as well as tabletop game design in the digital space. He also designs card games in his spare time.

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