At this point, the Magic: the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers franchise has become much like a sports one, annualized and focusing on the latest updates. This isn’t such a bad approach; bringing in the newest core set cards and mechanics is a nice enough way to freshen things up, and as a product designed to appeal to newcomers, it doesn’t have to bring wildly-different things to the table.
New to Magic?
If you’re wondering whether Duels is for you, check out Chris Dominowski’s newcomer-friendly review of last year’s game, then head back here and read about this year’s changes.
That said, Magic 2014 continues to refine and enhance the game’s basic presentation. A lot of it is going to look very similar, but you’ll notice some improved production values here and there. This is especially evident in the campaign’s cinematic interludes. Duels has come a long way since 2011, even if developer Stainless Games is, at its core, doing the same thing.
This year, the campaign tries to have some sort of narrative, taking you through the worlds of Magic‘s recent sets to battle the noted planeswalkers of each. As usual, you unlock cards by playing with decks over and over, and unlock decks by beating them in the campaign. The extra cards are more consistently useful this time around, and less based on needing them in one particular match-up and ignoring them the rest of the time.
Every Duels installment focuses on a special format that Wizards of the Coast happens to be pushing at the moment. Sometimes, it works very well, like the many-on-one Archenemy. Sometimes it’s a bit boring, like the changing global effects of Planechase. This time? It’s the exciting premise of sealed play. You open packs and build a deck based on those limited supplies, and are set out on a short quest to beat a few opponents and unlock a few more packs to augment it. If you’re unfamiliar with how best to make a deck, the game gives you simple guidelines for ratios and number of colors, and the construction interface is easy to understand (if not sporting a particularly robust set of filters and options).
This campaign isn’t the focus, though, as it really is made to train you for playing online with your created deck. You can do this, though it does start to show just how limited the pool of cards is in this mode. It’s nice to actually have deck construction tools, as it’s been the main complaint of previous games, but Wizards still intends this as a newbie-friendly product that leads you into the deeper waters of the actual cards (or Magic Online). It’s also an opportunity for the company to get a bit more money; you start out with two slots for sealed decks (and you can’t easily delete them to make room), but you can buy more slots for real-world cash.
Even with these drawbacks and frustrations, it’s a great thing to see actual deck-building make it into a Duels release. Hopefully it will be fleshed out some in the future, but for now, I’d much rather play Sealed than Planechase when I need a change of pace.
The online play is as solid as ever, and it should be, what with the years of work on the engine. Local play is limited to co-op Two-Headed Giant play this time around, which is a bit sad, but totally fits with Wizards’ plan to have you play with actual cards if you’re in the same room. There are still some elements of the Magic rules that make passing priority an exercise in mashing the button a lot but making sure you don’t miss the one time when you shouldn’t. It’s faithful to the original rules, though, and because of that, it’s understandable.
Magic: the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 is a step in the right direction for the series, though it is just that: a step. We want a more robust offering, but as long as it’s a gateway product, there are limits to how full-featured it will be. Even still, as a $10 product, Magic 2014 offers quite a bit, and if you haven’t experienced a game in the series before, it can be quite impressive.
Pros: New sealed mode offers deck-building play, presentation continues to improve
Cons: “Gateway game” role brings limits, sealed campaign is short, we miss Archenemy