Success is something every publisher or developer wants in the video games industry and if a game takes the cake it is only natural that more will come and attempt to take a slice.
The British studio Stainless Games has been working with Wizards of the Coast since 2009 making MTG video games for PC and other platforms. Inspired by Hearthstone’s huge success, Magic: The Gathering goes free to play and adopts a business model that is less controversial than its current buy to play versions.
First of all, my experience with Stainless MTG games is quite limited. I’ve played them a few times at friends, but never bought them for myself, mostly because I try to stay away from video games that require spending on DLCs several times the amount spent on the main game in order to get the full experience. But a few years back I really got hooked on the physicalMTG and spent a lot of money on dozens of booster packs, after years of watching the game from the distance. I never got in to it competitively because of various reasons, but I’ve appreciated the game’s complexity despite its extreme pay to win nature and I still appreciate it to this day. Maybe because I used to play the physical game or because Hearthstone didn’t really caught me, but I was intrigued as soon as I heard about a free to play Magic: The Gathering video game.
The first thing that I’ve check was the business model. TCGs and CCGs have a tendency to be pay to win and I wanted to know how imbalanced the cash shop was. To my surprise, Magic Duels follows the same business model as Hearthstone, with daily quests filling one of the three available slots for them. In addition to that, there is a global quest which resets every seven days and requires the effort of the community to complete. So far things are more or less like Hearthstone, but there is a twist, each match won offers a gold reward which varies in value based on the opponent. The AI rewards from 5 to 15 based on its difficulty and matches against players award 20. There are no rewards for team or friendly matches, as these could be easily exploited. There is a daily cap of 400 gold, which might sound bad but it takes quite some time to reach this limit and for the average players it won’t be a problem.
|The Archetype quests become annoying after a while...|
The gold can be spent on foiling cards or booster packs. One booster costs 150 gold or 1.79 Euros and contain 6 cards out of which two are uncommon and one is rare (with a chance for mythic rare).
Going from a buy to play game that had more than 40 DLCs (...) to such a business model is a huge improvement and I can only praise this initiative of doing things better. Magic Duels is still a pay to win game to some extent, but for this genre is unavoidable and I don’t know any TCG or CCG that doesn’t have this problem.
Magic: The Gathering is probably one of the most (if not the most) complex card game out there and it’s not so intuitive, so it might be problematic for a beginner to quickly get into this game. Explaining the game mechanics in this review will be extremely space consuming, confusing and pointless because Stainless Games took care of this by combining a series of explicit tutorials with five single player mini-campaigns which are rewarding and instructive at the same time.
Keep in mind that MTG is quite slow paced, because it has multiple phases for each player’s turn and it might be a little difficult to accommodate with this style. To solve this issue, the developers have put at the player’s disposal a series of gameplay settings that can be adjusted based on the preferences and the level of competence of each player. These settings serve as part of the tutorial providing helpful warnings, combat animations and various other small things that help the newer players get into the game easier, but slowing the game’s speed quite a bit. So it is good to adjust them as you feel more confident with your play and the game’s mechanics.
The campaigns take the players in a small journey through the multiverse presenting a short story of the Planewalkers (magical heroes from the multiverse) that are representative for each mana color in the current set of cards. The campaigns are also designed to teach the players the strengths and weaknesses of all the five mana types.
There are five missions to each campaign intertwined with short tutorial moments teaching various mechanics related to the cards in the player’s hand. The decks update with each mission won and the difficulty increases exponentially. The campaign battles put the players against uneven odds (the decks the AI has in the campaign are extreme hard counters to the player’s decks) and strategies have to be made around the AI play style which isn’t a great way to learn for later Online Duels. But these battles can be perceived as PvE bosses and do require some effort and a lot of luck (A LOT!) to obtain the victory. Completing the first campaign awards three booster packs and completing the rest of them provide enough gold for an additional booster pack per campaign completed.
|Burn baby, burn!|
|The discarding race campaign.|
By the time the players are done with the tutorials and the single player part of the game, they will have enough cards to put together a decent starting deck either by using the incorporated deck wizard or through custom creation. From here on everyone does what they think is best suited for them. The main focus is to grind gold through AI matches or playing ranked games against other players while simultaneously completing the daily quests in order to buy more booster packs and upgrade the decks. There are a significant number of cards from the Magic Origins card set and more cards will be added later as newer sets come to paper MTG (I’m given to understand that about 80% of the cards from a new set will be released to this game). The game currently has 251 unique cards, which is enough to keep the players busy until autumn when the next block of cards is going to be released and should receive a cards update every three months.
|I won't show you my deck!|
|Plenty of cards!|
I said so many good things so far that it is almost too easy to predict that something bad is about to come. There are no video games without flaws and Magic Duels strongly supports this idea. I’m going to start talking about the problems with the ones that bothered everyone the most and it’s probably the reason why the Steam users’ reviews have a mixed score.
The game launched prematurely having servers issues which prevented the players from logging in for quite a while. To make matters worse, there are a series of incompatibilities and glitches that cause all kind of fatal errors, crashes and black screens, preventing the players from fully enjoying the game without hassle. Some of these problems have been fixed, but as I look on the Steam Community page for this title, some problems still persist and this is driving the players away. Stainless Games’ response to these issues wasn’t prompt enough and apparently even to this date they didn’t figure out how to fix all the issues mentioned above, which is quite off-putting.
I was lucky enough to avoid all those issues, but this doesn’t mean I can fully enjoy the game without being disturbed by other various shortcomings.
The biggest issues I have with Magic Duels come from its lack of cool features and production value. At its core Magic: The Gathering is a trading card game, yet Magic Duels completely ignores the trading component. There is no trading available in the game and while such a feature would be quite hard to implement in a free to play game without creating room for exploits, I would have liked to see Stainless Games finding a way. But seeing that the game has no player interaction implemented other than PvP matches, I doubt trading was ever in their mind when they created Magic Duels and the disappointment continues…
There is no Draft Mode integrated and neither have I seen any mentions about this. Draft Mode should make the competitive play more balanced between players who invest a lot of time or money and those who don’t and it’s something common in paper MTG casual tournaments and speaking about tournaments another thing that Magic Duels lacks is a tournament organizer, a system that could automatically organize tournaments to which the players can sign up for and win some extra gold, achievements and glory. I think such a feature would have been brilliant for this game and would have ramped up the competitive play quite a lot.
The lack of interesting features can be excused for a free to play game, as they can always be added later, but starting with a low production value is never a good sign. Magic Duels’ visual and artistic design is unappealing. The playing table is dull and looks displeasing and it lacks variety in anything from animations to music (even so, the music is good!). I don’t say the game should quit its serious tone for a quirky theme in Hearthstone’s style, but I would appreciate to see more effort put into the graphical and artistic details, especially since this game requires DirectX 11 (I don't understand why). Yes, the campaign ends with some CGI cinematics, but they are such low quality that Blizzard’s Warcraft 3 campaign cinematics put them to shame and that’s a 13 years old video game.
Wizards of the Coast boast about having 25 millions MTG players worldwide on all their platforms, yet they couldn’t invest a few extra bucks into this game which, in theory, should be their video game platform for years to come.
Being a free to play title means there is still hope for more improvements in the future, but as it is now, the game feels uninspired and rushed.
|That production value!!!|
Bugs and annoying mechanics can drive the players into quitting a game and in Magic Duels it takes a strong will to resist some of the frustrating moments that are going to popup, especially in the online play.
The game mechanic that is pushing everyone to their limits is the concede option, which for the losing players works great as it stops the current match allowing them to move forward to other matches. On the other hand, for the winning players it can be hell as they have to continue the match playing against an AI (and oh man the AI can cheat in this game). It’s nothing more frustrating than losing a game that you should win against the AI and spending extra minutes of play time for nothing.
I’ve taken a serious look over the game’s forums and there were all kind of weird bugs that I didn’t experience. Some of the most annoying are those related to the gold earning. For many players the daily gold cap doesn’t reset or they don’t receive their gold reward from a completed quest, some even lost their acquired cards. In a game where cards are obtained from grinding gold, this can be extremely irritating.
I can go on and on about the issues of Magic Duels, but I think I’ve covered pretty well the challenges that some players might face while trying to play this game.
|Seems like an appropriated logo...|
Following the forums and Stainless updates I’ve come to the growing realization that this newly released game is already in danger, not because it is a bad game (by no stretch of the imagination), but because the developers don’t keep a close relationship with the community and this makes fixing the game less efficient. The lack of answers on the official forums is worrying and I’ve seen this behavior before from developers and it never ends well.
It has been almost a month since release and I can’t remember patching Magic Duels more than once and the silence persists. Saying that this is a free to play game and everyone should be patient doesn’t seem too appropriate anymore and the longer the wait for answers the more questions arise. (I wonder if the developers really know what they want to do with this game…)
The player base has dropped considerably and by looking how slowly things evolve I think is going to continue dropping. The game launched on multiple platforms which should be a good thing, but there is no support for cross-platform play and there will never be. The progress is separated for each platform and so are the purchases and this is odd, to say the least. Very few players (if any) are going to make purchases from multiple platforms and this kind of greediness takes away from the player’s experience of having a larger pool of players and playing with friends from different platforms or playing on the run on mobile devices. (Talk about bad decisions!)
It feels a little unjust to the game that half of this review covers its problems and shortcomings. Even without the features I mentioned above and with all the annoying bugs, Magic Duels is still extremely enjoyable and I’ve spent almost 50 hours playing it already. It’s up to the players (and the readers) to decide if these problems are something they can put up with or not. I could overlook most of them and I’m having a blast, but this doesn’t excuse the game’s current shape.
If I have to give an advice I would say to hold on with investing in this game and play it as it is until the developers actually show that they are putting some serious effort into fixing its problems and answering to the community’s demands. Otherwise, you might as well risk throwing money on the window. But even without paying for booster packs, you can get a lot out of this game by playing it in a free to play style. Playing the campaign can be entertaining and rewarding and by casually completing the daily quests you can get enough gold to buy a few boosters a week. The ranked matches aren’t full of players with overpowered decks (yet) and the PvP is extremely satisfying for those who want something more competitive. Not to mention the cards’ artistic pictures which are a beauty to look at and have been so since MTG’s beginnings.
|Amazing art style as always!|
Magic Duels is enjoyable because it is a Magic: The Gathering game and I feel like the developers took advantage of this and skipped on the rest. The lack of production value is visible, but not justified, leaving enough room for improvement as the currently the missing features are a huge disappointment. As a free to play title, time will tell if Magic Duels will be just a milking the cow title or is going to evolve in a much better game. But I’m afraid its future is shaky and that’s a shame, because it could be a great online card game that could challenge the leadership position of Hearthstone, yet that can’t be achieved without effort and if I’m to look at Stainless Games track record the optimism that I should have, fades away.
So far, Magic Duels is more a commercial to the paper Magic and Magic: The Gathering Online than a game of its own. I think it’s time for Wizards of the Coast to decide if they really want to join the present time and have real video games or they just want to tease their fans with (cheap) annual releases that feel more like a cash grab and don’t match the high expectations from a gigantic publisher and an amazing trading card game.
+ The artistic style and game mechanics complexity of Magic: The Gathering
+ Free to play
+ Free to play
+ Decent business model for a genre that can’t avoid being pay to win
+ Ranked matches
+ Five different singleplayer campaigns
+ Good tutorials
- Lacks production value
- Lots of technical issues
- Lots of bugs
- No trading system
- Needs more features
- The concede option doesn’t stop the match for both parts
- No cross-platform play