Being a relative newcomer to the Magic series – having only briefly dabbled in the last two iterations of the Online version – the prospect of diving into Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 was a daunting one. Even with the comprehensive, hand-holding tutorial, it’s a lot to get your head around purely to cultivate a basic understanding of what’s required to win a match. The instinctual knowledge and mental conditioning needed to truly read the decks and stay a step ahead of an opponent can only really come from extensive experience.
That being said, the tutorial does a good job of guiding a newcomer through the initial stages of Stainless Games’ much-beloved tactical card game, explaining the different gameplay dynamics such as the mana tap (whereby you use up mana sourced by playing “Land” cards to summon creatures and cast spells), instants (instant-use effect cards) and the stack (where you queue any cards that will trigger due to certain conditions). The tutorial can only teach you so much, and before long you have to bite the bullet and jump into a match, either in the solo campaign, online multiplayer or practice mode.
The first few matches are a baptism of fire. It took me six attempts to defeat the first enemy mage, a charming little “corpsecaller” who seemed to have a psychic ability to kick my newbie ass. I started to wonder if it was my deck that was the problem. In Magic 2015, you can assemble your own deck from the ground up from five colour-coded archetypes – but your initial selection following the tutorial is permanent, so if it doesn’t work very well you’re going to struggle like crazy in the early stages.
The narrative behind this iteration is the Planeswalker Garruk Wildspeaker, now a headhunter bewitched by an ancient artefact and forced to hunt and kill his peers – including you. You spend the campaign trying to avoid him by killing everyone else you come across and growing steadily stronger until you’re ready to face him. Unfortunately, the character development is weak and there’s very little sense of you growing and evolving into a badass Planeswalker – something previous games in the series did quite well.
The campaign feels somewhat shallow in Magic 2015, and the uneven difficulty artificially extends the lifespan. At times it can feel as though you’re plodding through the motions, when all of a sudden you’re up against an opponent who seems to be unbeatable – and even seems able to draw cards you will never have access to.
The card collection aspect is horribly hit and miss, in fact. On the one hand you can earn cards and booster packs through playing, but in an apparent hangover from this iteration’s iPad and Android “Free to Play” model, the really good cards are locked behind a premium paywall. Essentially this means that unless you’ve got god-like Magic skills, you’re never going to have an even chance against someone who is prepared to pay premium price to unlock the best creatures and spells. If the premium cards were purely for the sake of collection or completion, perhaps merely containing rare designs, it might not seem so unfair, yet they’re not. On console you will have to pay to buy the vanilla game, and then pay again if you want to stand a fair chance of winning. It’s indicative of the industry’s direction, and a blatant slap in the face of seasoned fans whose loyalty will be exploited for the sake of making a few extra dollars.
It might be more excusable if the boxed content (so to speak) were more robust, but it seems Wizards of the Coast have opted to go the other way, removing far more than they have added. The biggest bone of contention upon which the community will no doubt gnaw for weeks is the removal of all the multiplayer modes other than Free for All. You can play it with 2 or 4 players, so there is still scope for some decent online competition, but the omission of the hugely popular Two-Headed Giant mode is a genuine head-scratcher. Being able to play together as a unified team added a whole new dimension and level of tactical nous to the multiplayer, and its removal in Magic 2015 is as bizarre as it is infuriating.
If you can put those gripes aside, however, Magic 2015 presents a shiny – if slightly bare-bones – package. The UI is simple and elegant to look at (though for some reason is ponderous and not as smooth as you’d expect), and the cards themselves are uniformly excellent, designed by members of the community as well as professional artists. The sound direction is decent, too, mixing spartan voice-work with a rousing score to evoke as much atmosphere as you can reasonably expect from a game that – essentially – is about laying cards on a table.
VERDICT: Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 is a solid enough game if you’re new to the series. The daunting difficulty is always going to be a problem to a newcomer taking their first steps into such a popular, community-driven landscape, but Magic 2015 offers an in-depth tutorial that doesn’t skimp on the information. Sadly, though, the main game will disappoint established fans. The campaign feels stripped back and shallow, and the undulating difficulty is not off-set enough by the fully customisable deck – itself hamstrung by an intrusive, cynical paywall. It’s a shame Stainless Games have seen fit to tinker with a format that didn’t really need to be tinkered with, because as a result, Magic 2015 squanders a little of the good feeling built up by the series so far.
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.
Review code provided by publisher.