If you’re not familiar with Magic: The Gathering, or you are a returning player from yesteryear, then this title is a solid place to start with. Several issues with the title lead me to believe that you’d be better off with the paper form of magic to learn the ins and outs of the game, especially if you know a friend with considerable play experience, though the cheap asking price of the title relative to the cost of acquiring paper decks reflects the differing efficacy of the two methods. Some aspects of this game are also very user unfriendly which is another sore point by comparison. Of course, we’re not here to judge the relative merits of the paper game, we’re assessing a software equivalent, so let’s crack on with that shall we?
To explain the concept of Magic: The Gathering briefly, your primary aim is to reduce your opponent’s life total from 20 to 0. You achieve this by playing cards known as ‘land cards’, which come in five varieties, to generate mana and cast spells. You are limited to playing one land a turn unless a card effect states otherwise, and primarily you’ll be casting creature cards and eventually attacking with them to whittle down your opponents life total. There are other types of spells that can influence the game state, and even different means of winning games, but for brevity’s sake I’m not going to discuss those here. The voice acted in-game tutorial performs a very effective job in explaining the game’s mechanics, as well as familiarising you with the game’s UI and controls.
For this year’s entry in the DotP franchise we follow the story of planeswalker Chandra Nalaar, a hotheaded pyromancer (and the central tenet for the game’s visual motif) who is trying to find a lovely sounding gentlemen by the name of Ramaz who has previously betrayed her. She recruits us, the player, to take a chosen deck and battle through various opponents and scenarios to find Ramaz and give him a good virtual walloping in a final 2 on 1 encounter. There’s even voice acting and cutscenes throughout to add a little pizzazz to the proceedings. It’s all very convoluted stuff and is just a set-up for the various opponents and scenarios you must face. Ultimately I’m more bothered about the spellslinging and so should you.
With the exception of the final encounter for each area, each opponent you face has a stacked deck. On the assumption you do not/cannot interact with your opponents cards on the battlefield or in their hand or library they will make the exact same sequence of plays each turn. This is a good means of teaching the nature of matchups for decks and precisely what each of the ten playable decks is good and bad at dealing with but it becomes borderline impossible to win in certain instances – the green deck ‘Hunter’s Strength’ will have a torrid time against two red decks in particular precisely because it focuses purely on creature combat as opposed to mixing up creatures and disrupting opposing strategies, and playing with a mind to disrupt is probably the best way of going about the campaign, and Magic: The Gathering in general. It’s a polarising design choice for the campaign nevertheless.
The aforementioned final encounters along with additional encounters against other planeswalkers are where the campaign shines brightest, as these simulate what a true game of Magic should play out like. These encounters – bar the one with Ramaz – also unlock that specific deck to use in the campaign, online play and free play once beaten. Sometimes the AI can come across a little sketchy in these encounters, even on the hardest difficulty (easy, normal and hard are substituted for mage, archmage and planeswalker respectively). Battling Ramaz should be frightening in theory but the AI handles the deck’s cards very poorly. AI opponents also have a marked tendency to attack with reckless abandon if they know they are going to lose. It’s all still pretty fun and suspenseful though.
Speaking of the decks, I don’t find them to be as interesting as in past iterations (please note I haven’t played 2013). Some decks will look very familiar to players of past games as well. The balancing of the decks is tilted towards those that fill the board with cheap but good value creatures, and there is enough of a dearth of mass creature removal that some of the ten playable decks cannot cope a fair amount of the time. Promised future expansion packs may change this; traditionally, existing decks get more cards to play with in addition to the appearance of entirely new decks, and there has been the promise of promotional unlocks for the existing decks, so there are more developments to come in this sense yet.
New to DotP 2014 is sealed play, at long last fulfilling a desire to construct a deck using any cards of your choosing. Its implementation is solid but there are limits to the mode. As in a real life sealed tournament you are given a number of booster packs, the contents of which you build a deck with (also with access to any number of basic lands of your choosing). Deck building here is terrible in my opinion. The interface does not lend itself well to visually consider and compare all your options, as you can only look at cards on a scrolling vertical line no matter how the game lets you organise them (colour, rarity etc) rather than lay all your cards out in front of you by your own preference. The game also makes no attempt to provide advice on deckbuilding, which is horrid for new players, rather there is a deck autobuild option that bunches together a recommended group of cards and a land base, and is the option I plumped for right away. This actually works quite well, as the decks that were built seemed well considered when I tried it, but the game makes no justification for its choices, and this will leave newer players rather confused. Even a good deck in the hands of a bad player won’t always perform well.
Sealed play grants you access to two ‘slots’ of sealed boosters which do not interchange with each other, and you cannot reset the contents of these boosters for each slot as the cards you receive are tied to your gamertag/PSN ID/Steam ID etc. So if you don’t like the contents of your sealed pools it’s tough. Though you CAN buy extra slots, up to a maximum of 20, for a small fee per slot. I’m not a fan of this in terms of balance, as you may reach the pay to win stage if you pull some powerful rares, but if you really don’t like what you opened up it’s a nice option to have.
Regardless once you have a deck you can pilot it against an AI opponent that has one simple strategy – a nice touch to practice with certain cards and strategies – and take it to a basic campaign run where you battle familiar planeswalkers and unlock more sealed boosters in the process. You can also take a sealed deck to play online, which is where most of the mode’s appeal, and this title’s appeal in my opinion, lies. The uncertainty of not knowing what to expect from your opponent, and playing around threatening cards, is what develops good playing skills, and the online play of the sealed mode is this title’s biggest success to this end.
Traditional to the DotP games are challenges, and 2014’s entry is no exception. Challenges are exactly as they sound, pitting you in varaious scenarios that you have to overcome through correct use of your cards. They serve as an excellent way of testing your rules knowledge and of your observation of all the cards that exert an effect on the board state. There aren’t too many right now and they’re mostly simple (one of them is very unique in that it’s near impossible to lose but sets a goal of achieving the largest possible overkill) but with the promise of expansions by Stainless Games I’m certain there will be more to come.
With the game modes out of the way I’d like to dicuss the act of spellslinging in the title itself, and I have several issues to flag up here that are likely to annoy many during play.
Firstly is the UI. The text used in the game is small and sometimes hard to make out and this will be a pain for those with small screens or non HDTVs, and as there is so much space on screen in general I’m surprised it wasn’t used more effectively. I had a problem making things out sometimes when sat 2 meters away from a 46 inch display.
The UI doesn’t offer good quality feedback when making choices. The fiery aura that surrounds a card that can be played or chosen will disappear when selected using the X button but there is no explicit confirmation that the game has registered your choice. Sometimes its just flat out hard to tell what I’m clicking on sometimes wherever I am in the game.
One major positive about the UI is that it can be customised. The game is somewhat naughty in that it is set to skip your turn by default if there’s nothing you can play, but this option can be changed so you can have full control over each phase. THIS should have been the default – the current setup is a trap for beginner players that more experienced players can exploit and derive information from and this has no place in a strategy game. Even the ability to choose how your damage is assigned is turned off by default, so I would highly recommend delving into the options menu and changing a few things around before getting stuck in.
Online play ran with some amount of lag on PSN in the couple of games that I tried, and this led me to not activating a card before the end of my opponent’s turn once. Getting matches was very quick and snappy, and there are plenty of customisation options to choose from – 2 vs 2, ranked play, friendlies and such. I think the primary joy of the title is found here, especially with sealed, and is a nice distraction from having to win games with the normal decks to unlock cards (you can pay to unlock cards for a small fee, which is icky in my opinion, but hey, the option is there).
At the end of the day, and despite all my niggling complaints, Magic 2014 is still a solid title. Magic is a great TCG and it would take a sterling effort to misrepresent that fact. This title is best seen as a cost effective means of learning to play and improving and maintaining your play skill, and to entice beginners into playing the paper game or Magic Online, which is what Wizards of the Coast really wants. If you’re invested in the real game to any significant extent then this title is completely unnecessary.