Magic Duels: Origins is the latest digital video game iteration of Magic: The Gathering, the world’s most popular fantasy collectible card game. Magic Duels is also the “final” evolution of Magic’s immensely popular Duels of the Planeswalkers annual series of games which have digitized Magic into slick video games with animations, stories, single-player campaigns, exciting multiplayer modes, and a range of other unique features.
This time, we’ve been promised that Magic Duels is here to stay, designed to receive on-going updates with each new Magic card set as it is released and new gameplay modes and features in the works. This is to be the enduring mobile/tablet version for Magic: The Gathering and will receive all of the on-going support required to make it so.
It’s an ambitious project with big promises — so it’s no surprise that many Magic fans received the announcement of the game with cautious optimism, hoping that it could live up to the market’s expectations for digital TCGs/CCGs since the rise of Hearthstone.
Does Magic Duels pull off all of the tricks it promises, or will it sink faster than the near-disastrous predecessor, Magic 2015? Read on to find out…
Changes from the Duels of the Planeswalkers Series
Firstly, it is important to outline some of the changes that Magic Duels: Origins has made in its “upgrade” from the rest of the Duels of the Planeswalkers series.
- Entirely free-to-play — prior versions had an upfront cost, or only allowed a free download with a small amount of playability before requiring a full unlock. Magic Duels is changing all of that, hoping to emulate the success of Hearthstone’s distribution model by allowing players access to every card in the game as a free player (theoretically — read on for caveats later!).
- Multiple platforms, but no cross-platform play or accounts — this is something that is a bit disappointing. Currently there are no plans for cross-platform play, but we anticipate this will be added eventually given the long-term future plans of the game as the go-to Magic: The Gathering video game. Cross-platform accounts is a harder ask, but we may see that eventually, too. You can have a cross-account on the iOS platform through Game Center.
- 80% of the new Origins card set, with some older cards to round it out — some people are disappointed at the lack of 100% inclusion, but I guess Wizards are concerned about stepping on the toes of their paper game (and the older but more “serious” Magic Online platform) too much. I’m OK with this, and it seems like most of the set’s flavor and important cards are in play.
- Smart booster packs — apparently the Origins booster packs will only ever have cards you need to complete your collection of the set. I have yet to complete a full set, but so far this seems to be true, and it may possibly be true for future card sets as well.
- Two-Headed Giant is back — they listened, and so we’ve got it back. No other crazy multiplayer modes yet, but hopefully we’ll see Planechase and/or Archenemy at some point.
- No Planes-based campaigns — at the moment, the focus is all on the origin stories of the main Planeswalker characters. Hopefully we’ll see the Planes themselves added into the game later, as these were fun to play with in the prior installments.
Rather than explain how Magic: The Gathering is played, if you are looking to understand the basic gameplay itself then I will instead refer you back to a prior review I wrote about Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014, where how to play the actual game is described in greater detail.
Instead, this time around I am going to talk about how the game plays in a more general sense, from the focus of two perspectives: new players to the game, and experienced, or returning, Magic players. Feel free to skip ahead to the section that interests you the most.
For Newer Players
Magic Duels: Origins is the best way ever created to learn how to play Magic: The Gathering. While previous Duels installments were not terrible, with this new game they’ve made the huge task of learning the complicated rules much simpler. The game will break down the rules into small chunks as mini-quests, where a voice-over will explain a mechanic or game concept to you and then present you with a situation in which you’ll have to use that knowledge to defeat the opponent. These are extremely short, but by using “kinetic learning” it really helps the concept stick with you after you’ve finished it. You’ll also earn gold for completing these, so it’s worth doing even if you’re not a new player.
There is also a guided deckbuilding wizard tool that walks you through the construction of a deck in a way that helps you learn the “art” behind deckbuilding as you go along. More information on this is in the Strategy and Deckbuilding section below.
For Experienced and Returning Players
It is annoying, but you should go through the tutorial quests because they give easy Gold and you’re going to want it for booster packs. Otherwise, the game offers a variety of modes for you to play that should satisfy your desire for more advanced and challenging Magic games.
Read on in the next section to find out exactly what is included so far.
Modes and Features
Story Mode — here you’ll find the single-player campaign, featuring the origin stories of 5 of the Magic universe’s biggest planeswalker characters: Gideon, Jace, Liliana, Chandra, and Nissa. You’re not forced to start with any particular one and so you can choose to take on any of their stories first.
Each character has five specially tailored battles that you must complete in order, unlocking the next as you go along. The deck lists are locked, starting off with a specific set of cards, and as you defeat each stage, the deck will be automatically “upgraded” with additional, more powerful cards, culminating in a “boss battle” at the end. These battles are hand-crafted for flavor and interesting gameplay, sometimes even changing the victory conditions or other gameplay rules that aren’t the regular way to play Magic.
In terms of the strength of the computer opponent’s, I found them to be moderately challenging but only due to the low power level of the decks you’re given to play with, and herein lies most of the frustration. Winning will take repeat games to ensure you get the right opening hands and sequences of draws that you need to win. Nevertheless, I had a lot of fun completing these stories even if they aren’t very long. Some of the boss fights are particularly memorable for the way they have to be approached. Liliana’s and Nissa’s are especially interesting. You’ll see what I mean when you get to them.
Furthermore, completing each stage will result in an incrementally larger amount of Gold. This is the easiest Gold you’ll ever earn in the game, so make sure to get all of it early and enjoy it, because it will be harder to grind from multiplayer matches later on. You’ll also earn a large amount of Achievements in these Quests, meeting certain conditions as you play them. When you finish a character’s journey, you’ll be treated to an animated video clip as to what happens right after you’ve beaten the “boss”. These are really neat, with a unique visual style that’s hard to describe until you see them. I loved them, at any rate!
Battle Mode – here you will find the various multiplayer modes available.
- Versus Battle — play matches against friends, or random people online in casual or ranked matches. Ranked matches online will net you +20 Gold. Nothing unexpected here, but including a Gold incentive to play ranked was a good move.
- Solo Battle — You can duel against an A.I. opponent here, choosing between Easy, Medium and Hard levels. This earns you Gold as well, varying amounts depending on the difficulty selected.
- Two-Headed Giant — the beloved mode returns! If you’re unfamiliar with it, the game is played with four people as two teams of two. A team will share 30 life, the same turn but separate hands, and a variety of other specific rules. If you’ve never played it, it’s a lot of fun, but make sure you have a fair amount of experience with regular Magic matches first.
- My Decks — for some strange reason, the deckbuilding tool is hidden away at the bottom in this menu. If you’re looking for it, here it is: under the Battle Mode menu. Deckbuilding will be discussed below under the next major heading.
Card Collection — Here is where you’ll be able to see all of the cards, not just in your own collection, but in the game entirely. Cards you don’t own are greyed out, and there are advanced filters you can apply in order to sort through all of the cards, including only seeing the cards you currently own. Nothing too mind-blowing here, but I really do enjoy being able to see what cards are available rather than just what I own. Looking at cards I haven’t collected yet gives me an idea of what’s “out there” in the set.
Quests — Here you’ll find the various challenges you need to complete in order to earn more Gold. You’ll have to play (and win) multiplayer matches with specific kinds of decks, and meet other certain conditions occasionally, to earn the Gold. There are also community Quests where everyone contributes to them within a set time limit in order to earn the Gold amount. This is a neat idea and I like being able to see how far the progress is on the quest.
The Store — The store is located at the top, but I wanted to cover it last as it’s the least detailed feature. Currently all you can do is buy Gold for cash and hand in Gold for booster packs. Boosters cost 150 Gold each and there’s no discount for bulk-buying in a larger quantity.
Boosters have only 6 cards from the so-called Magic Origins set (not identical to the paper game’s Origins set — about 80% the same and 20% older cards), which is a bit unfortunate, however the boosters are “smart” and only give you cards you need to complete your collection of the set. Ka-ching! Thanks for that one, Wizards!
Deckbuilding and Strategy
Completely unrestricted deckbuilding is back, and this is one of the most important things that more experienced players were hoping for in order to ensure the long-term success of the game. You are free to build your deck however you please, with no restrictions on land ratios or otherwise.
There is an interesting new addition to deckbuilding called the Archetype builder. This is a great tool for newer players, guiding you through the process of building a good deck without being patronizing. The wizard actually helps you learn how to construct a strong deck by narrowing down your options as you build, guiding you to choose several cards of each type that a deck should have, according to the specific archetype of deck that you’re building.
You can choose from a range of multicolored deck archetypes and they’ll explain to you the main ideas and what types of cards are needed for it, as well as showing you what you have in your collection so far that suits each particular role. Just be aware that once you build a deck in this manner, for some strange reason you’re unable to edit it further with the advanced deckbuilder. Hopefully they will fix this in future updates.
The strategy itself of playing Magic: The Gathering deserves many articles alone. It’s nearly impossible to convey it in such a short space, so all I can recommend is to play the single-player campaign and get to grips with the various colors of cards (the “factions” of the game: White, Blue, Black, Red and Green) and what their unique gameplay styles are. If you’re learning Magic for the first time, you’re in for a massive treat. That’s all I’ll say for now!
Magic Duels: Origins is going to be, by far, the best Magic game yet. However, it will just take some time to get to that point, so please take that into consideration when you think about the score I have given the game. I am thinking long term here, and I know the game has had a bit of a shaky start, with some bugs, and also Wizards doing a 180-degree turn on the game having a daily Gold cap of 200 (they initially said, even right up to launch, that it wouldn’t have any cap). Nevertheless, I still believe the value given in the free-to-play model is much greater than what you can expect from Hearthstone now.
This is going to be the best Duels game yet, because it will eventually encompass all of the things that made specific prior versions great. It’s still very green right now, and somewhat bare-bones, but it is snappier, more streamlined, and essentially a huge improvement over the last version by a long shot. The art is gorgeous as always, the card animations are simple but effective, and the user interface has been honed to perfection, both aesthetically and functionally.
This is the Magic Duels game we’ve all been waiting for… it’s just still an infant, that’s all. Give it time to grow. It’s still miles better than pretty much every other TCG/CCG game out there on the iOS app store, that’s for sure. I can’t wait to see what the game becomes and what exciting new features and modes will be implemented in the future.
Editor’s Note: Since the release, the game has been plagued by problems and a lack of promised features which means we can’t in all honesty keep such a high score for the game. Subsequently, we are dropping the score to 8.5 until such a time when the game is capable of producing a much better, smoother, broader experience for players.
For more screenshots, click here.
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