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Finally! Magic 2015: Duels of the Planeswalkers feels like the real card game (review)

Magic 2015 Black Green Deck

Above: A Magic 2015 Black and Green deck demonstrating the meaning of overkill.

Image Credit: GamesBeat/Brandin Tyrrel

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Any minute now, I’m going to be murdered.

My inevitable death will either come from the blood-soaked hook-mitts of Griselbrand, the legendary demon of the broken Helvault, or a giant sea-swallowing lobster. Secretly, I’m hoping for the lobster.

Magic 2015 on mobile

This review does not reflect the free-to-play versions of Duels of the Planeswalkers on iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire. The monetization strategy is different on these platforms.

These soul-cleaving monstrosities gazing across my now-empty battlefield have already gorged themselves on what can only be described as a death march of sacrificial lambs in a desperately mounted defense. Now, I imagine they’re ready for the final course. So with two remaining life points, zero options in-hand, and a graveyard approaching the population of a small island-nation, I hope for the best and draw one last card.

I wish I could recount the near-impossible series of events that followed, leading to an agonizing, tense, eventual come-from-behind win in the face of certain annihilation. But like a punch-drunk fighter at the end of a long bout, everything after the ninth round is a blur. I assume I did well.

In these moments, Wizards of the Coast’s digital gateway into the world of Magic: The Gathering is at its very best: when tables turn and sparks from one card ignite the next, building a brush fire from an unlikely ember. In my time with Magic 2015: Duels of the Planeswalkers on Xbox 360, I reveled in the chance to finally take up my own fully customized arsenal and dredge Magic’s deep pool of strategy and synergy in order to pull off the impossible, enabling for such blazes to burn as personally constructed victories — that long sought missing piece of the digital series.

Magic2015 Griselbrand

Above: The rare Griselbrand is a powerhouse in Magic 2015: Duels of the Planeswalkers.

Image Credit: GamesBeat/Brandin Tyrrel

What You’ll Like

Weapon of choice

For the first time in the Duels of the Planeswalkers franchise, Magic 2015 incorporates completely customizable decks. It’s the marquee addition to this year’s entry and the biggest change to come to the series, instilling that feeling of ownership and meticulous tinkering that’s afforded to players of its paper-based sibling. After a lengthy tutorial introducing the basics and each color’s theme, you choose a primary and secondary color as the basis for your deck, freely enabling you to cater to your playstyle right from the very beginning. This personalization ripples throughout Magic 2015, making campaign wins more meaningful and multiplayer more difficult, as rival players heft purpose-built decks that could contain anything.

To facilitate the building of your own deck, Wizards of the Coast has introduced an extensive deck editor. Every card in your collection is on display, and you can filter it by every possible category: color, type, cost, rarity, and even by plane (that’s the set to which each card belongs). Here again, Wizards thankfully holds your hand through what would be an intimidating process, adding useful functionality for newcomers like the feature to suggest complementary cards for your current creation, or autocomplete an entire deck based around a single card (or many). The system is both flexible and powerful once you’ve gotten the hang of it, and thanks to the 30 available deck slots, you can build every deck you could want, naming each one and assigning it a custom image.

Magic 2015 Deck Editor

Above: Magic 2015 — Duels of the Planeswalkers’ deck editor allows for precision customization.

Image Credit: GamesBeat/Brandin Tyrrel

Pillage the multiverse

To that regard, Magic 2015 has also shifted the means by which you unlock cards. In the past, players were tied to a limited number of specifically themed decks that you wrested from the hands of defeated A.I. opponents. Notching wins with a particular deck rewarded you a predetermined card that you could swap in, but that limited customization was all that was available. Wizards has again looked to the physical version for inspiration: awarding booster packs filled with random cards for each victory. It’s the best possible move for the series, as the boosters you can earn revitalize those feelings of anticipation, luck, and the possibility for anything to pop up — even the rarest cards.

Though victories against campaign opponents only provide a booster pack for the first win, each of the five Magic planes you’ll battle across in the story come with a random encounter node, pitting you against opponents in that plane’s theme. You can revisit these random encounters infinitely and as often as you like for booster rewards to fill out your collection, which admittedly harks back to the grinding inherent in the franchise. These also add a level of variety as each opponent uses wildly different tactics. Furthermore, booster packs earned in these encounters only contain cards from that plane, meaning you’ll need to travel everywhere and see everything in order to complete the collection.

Magic 2015 Spider Trap

Above: One of the many random encounters you’ll come across in Magic 201: Duels of the Planeswalkers.

Image Credit: GamesBeat/Brandin Tyrrel

What You Won’t Like

Simple mistakes

Despite the excellent new feature additions and dramatic style, Magic 2015: Duels of the Planeswalkers suffers from seemingly obvious oversights. In some rare instances, losing a duel whisks you away to a failure screen with three callouts: Play Again, Continue, and View Battlefield. But pressing Continue moves you forward to another screen with only a Continue prompt … that doesn’t actually do anything.

At this point, you’re stranded and forced to quit. And though this is the most glaring issue, it’s not the only one: noticeable stuttering and framerate drops appear during prerendered videos that dot the campaign, and images pop in late when speeding through menus. Nothing herein detracts from the great gameplay experience, but these blemishes instill an overall feeling that Magic 2015, at least the Xbox 360 version, needed a bit more time and polish.

The price of perfection

Wizards of the Coast has historically offered downloadable content in its Duels of the Planeswalkers series, usually in the form of cosmetic foils and new postlaunch decks. However, this year the company has moved toward piecemeal downloadable purchases, offering the standard foil stickers alongside a set of premium cards that can you can only get through purchasing premium booster packs. It’s a monetization model that’s becoming more prevalent on console, which is completely understandable, but seeing several dozen cards in your collection that will remain grayed out unless you spend additional cash can leave a bittersweet aftertaste on the otherwise fantastic experience that is hunting for cards you don’t own and tracking them down through in-game encounters.

Magic 2015 Premium Cards

Above: Magic 2015 features a set of premium cards that can only be unlocked via purchasing power.

Image Credit: GamesBeat/Brandin Tyrrel

Conclusion

The Duels series has always been the easiest way to get into Magic: The Gathering, but the limited nature of the series has only ever provided a taste of the real strategic potential. Magic 2015: Duels of the Planeswalkers remedies that to a greater degree than ever before, offering up an experience that’s closer to its physical counterpart than ever before, while maintaining that accessibility and ease of use. This is the digital Magic game that fans have been wanting since 2009; it’s the pinnacle of the series in function, and it’s a welcome new direction.

Score: 82/100

Magic 2015: Duels of the Planeswalkers is out now for Xbox 360, PC, iPad, Android, and Kindle Fire. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a digital copy of the Xbox 360 version for the purposes of this review.


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