Magic 2014—Duels of the Planeswalkers

Now that it’s actually 2014, I’ve decided it’s time to write up a review of Magic 2014—Duels of the Planeswalkers: the fourth installment in the Duels of the Planeswalkers (DotP) video game series. Developed by Stainless Games and published by Wizards of the Coast, the DotP series has been bringing the beautifully-designed collectible card game Magic: The Gathering to Windows, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 since 2010 (2009 on Xbox 360). As an avid Magic fan, I’ve enjoyed each of the DotP titles and was ecstatic when I had the opportunity to test Magic 2012 during my stint as a software test engineer in the Seattle area. Overall, each title has been an improvement on the one that went before, and Magic 2014 is no exception. Here is my review:

The Good

The best feature introduced by Magic 2014, in my highly biased opinion, is the fact that it’s available on Android tablets. Magic 2013 was ported to the iPad, but not to Android devices, and I don’t own an iPad. I am, however, the proud owner of an Asus Transformer TF300 and I had long been looking forward to the day when I could play Magic through simple touch commands on that powerful tablet. While lying in bed. Naked. Okay, I guess you didn’t need to hear those last two details. In any case, for the most part I was not disappointed: the touch controls work very nicely and are easy to learn. Plus, they added a wonderful time-saving feature: an “attack with everything” button that sends all your little minions toward your enemy without having to select them one by one (and if you have tons of creatures but only want most of them to attack, you can simply tap “attack with everything” and then tap whichever creatures you want pulled back before tapping the final “attack” button). Overall, I’m quite pleased with the controls and other UI features.

Several creatures attacking with a single click in Magic 2014.
Ah, the glory of the “attack with everything” button!

Another excellent new feature is “Sealed Play”: opening virtual booster packs and building your own decks for use online as well as against a series of AI opponents. It’s still very limited, frankly, but it’s a welcome addition because much of the appeal of collectible card games like Magic is the exhilaration of opening new packs and then choosing which cards to include in a deck according to a desired theme or strategy. The main “Campaign” mode of the DotP games hasn’t involved these elements so far, or at least not nearly as much. All the decks involved are pre-built and, although new cards are acquired for a given deck whenever it’s used to win a match and cards can then be added and removed to tailor the deck to a tiny extent, it’s extremely limited compared to the usual experience of deck-building.

Deck-building in Magic 2014's "Sealed Play" mode.
Deck-building in Magic 2014’s welcome, but still very limited, “Sealed Play” mode.

Finally, this game possesses the most critical feature common to all DotP titles: the ability to challenge both human and AI opponents with interesting, well-balanced decks. The PC-only game Magic Online provides infinitely more flexibility in terms of card availability and deck-building, but one sometimes feels overwhelmed (or bored…or annoyed…) by the power and time-consuming nature of the combos some players build into their decks (okay, okay…sometimes it’s actually quite impressive and fun to watch them in action, I’ll admit it!), so the sense of balance is often lacking. More annoyingly, some players seem to have acquired their concept of online etiquette from the likes of Malfegor and there is no option to play against AI opponents to avoid this issue. So, although overall I still prefer the freedom and variability afforded by Magic Online, there are times when a quick, balanced game against an AI opponent holds much more appeal for me.

Malfegor, a demon-dragon hybrid in the Magic: The Gathering card game.
A demon-dragon hybrid may be handy in a fight, but please don’t learn your social skills from this guy!
The Bad

First of all, this game took an extraordinarily long time to download onto my tablet and is currently attempting an equally arduous update. Seriously, it never ends no matter how long I leave my tablet on and downloading: I’ve already stopped and restarted the update a few times because it ends up taking so long I can only assume it’s encountered an error! This issue probably depends greatly on the specifics of your device, the quality of your internet connection, etc., and on PC/consoles I’ve never felt bothered by the size of DotP games, but it is worth mentioning that, on mobile devices, size definitely matters, and smaller is always better.

Not only is the game bulky, it’s also a bit slow and clumsy at times, like a lumbering Hill Giant. Loading screens already linger longer than they should on PC/consoles, but the experience is far worse on a tablet, even one as powerful as my Asus TF300. Once a match begins, gameplay is usually pretty smooth, but not when more than two players are involved, and the transitions between different screens and matches really should be faster. Take heed, oh ye developers of Stainless Games: this is just a card game, not a 3D first-person shooter! It’s okay to tone down the graphics and animations a bit, giving players a smoother experience as they enjoy the brilliant, simple mechanics that made this game a classic.

The Hill Giant card from Magic: The Gathering.
Remember, bigger isn’t always better!

It’s also worth noting that they could put a little more effort into the storyline associated with the “Campaign” mode. I’m glad they at least have something, and yes, I’ve already claimed that the game ought to be smaller and simpler, but if you’re going to include any sort of story, whether through text or short video clips, at least give it some depth and make it interesting. Brief scenes of Chandra Nalaar leaping around and rambling about a fire-spell scroll and the enemies I’m about to face didn’t do much for me.

Chandra Nalaar as seen in a cut scene from Magic 2014.
You’re welcome, Chandra!

Finally, I have a more general complaint. Why make each of the DotP titles so elaborate in terms of graphics and animations, yet so limited in terms of scope, deck-building options, and gameplay options? Of course, the main reason is probably money: the publisher may feel that by continuously producing different-and-slightly-improved-yet-still-highly-limited DotP games each year, they are increasing the odds that their hordes of adoring fans will buy the latest title every year. But listen, Wizards of the Coast: you’ll almost certainly get even more sales if you make each of these titles a little more versatile and expansive. For example, now that “Archenemy” and “Planechase” modes have been available in Magic 2012 and Magic 2013 respectively, why not include these modes in all subsequent DotP titles? And as for deck-building, at the very least I would like to see an option to repeatedly delete any decks I’ve built in “Sealed Play” mode in order to open new booster packs and build new decks. A high degree of freedom and variability is crucial to the long-term success of any game or series of games, in my opinion.

The Hilarious

Calling it Magic 2014 when it was actually released in the summer of 2013. This is one of my personal pet peeves: the unfortunately widespread practice of labeling and copyrighting games, books, cars, etc., according to the upcoming year rather than, you know, the actual current year. It’s silly, annoying, and, frankly, a blatant form of dishonesty. If it’s not yet 2014, what right do you have to claim your product is a 2014 product? But this section is titled “The Hilarious,” not “The Irritating,” so I should probably stop ranting.

The Final Verdict: 6/10

I’m tempted to give this game a higher rating, especially since I’m thrilled to finally be dueling Planeswalkers on my Android tablet, but I just can’t justify it given all the drawbacks mentioned above. Still, Magic 2014 is a decent game, certainly deserving of a solid 6/10. Whether you’re new to Magic or have a Black Lotus framed on your wall, I recommend trying out this game along with each of the other titles in the DotP series. It’s available on Android tablets via Amazon and Google Play, on iPad via the iOS App Store, on PC via Steam, on Xbox 360 via Xbox LIVE, and on PS3 via the Sony Entertainment Network.

The Black Lotus card from the Alpha set of Magic: The Gathering.
Ah, the infamous and highly valuable Black Lotus…I would love to get my hands on one of these, especially from the Alpha set!