Wizards of the Coast sure is reliable! They manage to release another Duels of the Planeswalkers title every summer, and this year is no exception. Magic 2015 has arrived, developed by Stainless Games, and they have finally delivered the feature that fans have been begging for since the series’ inception: fully customizable decks. While it could be argued that this is a step in the right direction for the series, there is also a reasonable counterargument that the very essence of the series has been lost as a result of this new feature.
In many ways, this series has represented a unique way of experiencing Magic: The Gathering. Not unlike the “Duel Decks” that are made available for the physical card game, the Duels series of video games offered players the opportunity to battle relatively balanced decks against one another. Now, granted, there were some missteps along the way in terms of balance. Each game had a deck or two that was clearly better designed than the majority of the others. But for the most part, it was a collectable card game with at least some sense of balance.
Beyond that, each of the decks was heavily themed and most of them were interesting and fun to play. I certainly got some deck building ideas for my real life collection of cards from playing Duels over the years. And perhaps the most interesting thing about those decks was that you could unlock cards exclusively for each individual deck, and then try to form the most powerful version of that deck using the cards that have been unlocked. It was fascinating to see how different effective variations of those decks could be formed using only 90 or so cards. Most importantly, the process of unlocking those cards (by winning games using each individual deck) created a great deal of replay value, and encouraged the player to try out every single deck in the game.
Also adding to replay value were various gameplay formats over the years, such as 2-headed giant, Planechase, Archenemy and even last year’s flawed Sealed mode. This year, all of that is unapologetically absent, and with the preconstructed decks gone as well, all that’s left is a barebones version of Magic: The Gathering with a limited card pool, an uninspired single player campaign, and very little replay value.
I always argued that for $10 and 10 decks, the Duels series always offered a lot of value. I’ve averaged 50 to 100 hours of gameplay per game. By contrast, I have played 9 hours of Magic 2015, and I’m pretty sure I’m already done with it. Why?
Because we got what we asked for: fully customizable decks. I suppose someone should have mentioned that we wanted those in addition to the preconstructed theme decks that define the series, not instead of. Completing the tutorial in Magic 2015 does allow the player to choose from a variety of decks to start with, and the cards in the chosen deck are added to the player’s collection, but after that, there are no more decks to unlock—at least, not in the traditional sense. The 9 other starting decks can be put together later if you happen to collect all of the relevant cards, but frankly, these decks have little meaning in the context of Magic 2015. Since any deck can be modified with any card in your collection, there is no longer any reason to try to make the most out of the starting decks. You might as well just build your own deck from scratch—you’re basically doing that anyway as soon as you start making changes. The sad truth is that the 10 preconstructed decks in Magic 2015 are there only to give the player a small collection of cards and a somewhat playable deck to get started with. Their existence later in the game becomes quite irrelevant, and with them, the heart and soul of the Duels series is also lost.
But yes, we got what we asked for; we can build our own decks, open booster packs and collect a library of cards. And despite the presence of microtransactions, Magic 2015 is actually pretty generous about dishing out cards. The campaign is divided into 5 Planes, each with 4 or 5 matches, and each victory for the player unlocks a booster pack of cards. There is also an option to explore the various Planes, triggering more matches and providing another way to collect more cards. Each Plane represents a separate set of cards, and winning enough games in the relevant Planes can eventually unlock all of the cards in the respective sets.
But there is one set of cards that cannot be unlocked in this way: the premium set! Yup, you guessed it; you can buy booster packs for those cards for $1.99 a pop. You can also spend $4.99 per Plane to unlock those sets of cards without having to actually play the campaign if you really want to.
The campaign itself is full of the usual challenges. You’ll bump into synergistic decks, such as those with Slivers or Ally creatures, you’ll encounter powerful opponents with gimmicky decks that either utterly destroy you or peter out before getting started, and you’ll face off against a variety of themed decks, including my personal favorite, a deck made almost entirely of frogs. But what you won’t find are the usual Planeswalker battles that in the past would have unlocked new 60 card decks. I miss them.
Instead, you’ll most likely be using a variation of your selected starter deck throughout the entire campaign, as you probably won’t have enough cards to put other decks together until you are nearly done with it. In my case, I ended up with one other deck when I had reached the final Plane. This made the entire campaign feel somewhat monotonous compared to the previous games in the series.
The one thing that should have been changed to make the campaign better than previous years would have been the presentation of the storyline. But alas, they left things just as they were before by introducing a menace towards the beginning of the game, and then filling the entire game with unrelated battles with brief paragraphs of text introducing the various reasons that some faction or force would stand in the player’s way. It was just an excuse to use the various themes available in the card set as opponents instead of to serve the storyline in any way.
And if you’re expecting a challenge from the campaign, you’re unlikely to find one. It’s like all of the decks were watered down so that a poorly crafted deck would be able to win. I played the entire game on the hardest difficulty setting and won the vast majority of my matches without breaking a sweat. Even the game’s final challenge which requires two victories in a row turned out to be absurdly easy for me. In the first battle, my opponent spent the entire game mana ramping, and I was able to win before he summoned anything threatening. The second and final battle was even easier, since my opponent spent the first several turns attempting to draw a second land. He eventually did play a second land, but still couldn’t cast anything, and the next turn I won, the pointless storyline wrapped up and the credits rolled.
At that point, I looked around for some kind of hard mode, or another single player experience to add a bit of replay value to the game. I didn’t find one. If there had been interesting preconstructed decks like in previous years, I might have gone through the campaign again with each one of them, as I have always enjoyed doing. It was fun to unlock cards, improve the decks, and experience the challenges of the campaign with all of the different decks. But in Magic 2015, without the preconstructed decks to tweak, I couldn’t think of a single reason to ever touch the campaign again.
I also didn’t find the prospect of building new decks very interesting because of the limited card pool. Beyond that, the interface for creating decks in Magic 2015 is slow and cumbersome. For some reason, you cannot simply click on the various filters and sorting options while editing your deck. You have click on a little arrow to switch to the interface to adjust the filters, and then switch back. Making matters worse is that the sorting and filtering options only affect your library of cards; they do not work on your deck itself. There isn’t even a search interface to quickly find cards! It’s just a frustrating way to build a deck from start to finish.
Giving up on spending more time with single player content, I looked at my multiplayer options. The game has support for 2-player, 3-player and 4-player games. That’s about it. But the card pool is so limited that in this case—and despite the introduction of fully customizable decks—Magic 2015 makes the Duels of the Planeswalkers series compare even less favorably to the physical card game than the previous games in the series.
In all fairness, Magic 2015 does play a decent game of Magic: The Gathering, and for $10, I still can’t complain about the price too much. But this year’s iteration just feels incomplete compared to previous years.
The Hearthstone Factor
There’s also the matter of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, which really changed the landscape for collectable card games. Going from playing Hearthstone to playing Magic 2015 (or any other game in the series) is jarring, because of how different the pacing is. Everything in Hearthstone is just so fast! Click, drag and bam! Your minion attacks, just like that. But in Magic: The Gathering, there always has to be time allowed for your opponent to play cards in response to your actions, which means a couple of seconds of waiting after every card is played, and again as you wait through the time between the various phases of a turn. It just feels slow and plodding.
Hearthstone also set a standard for free-to-play collectable card games. Every single card in the game can be earned for free by playing the game, earning gold coins, and using the coins to buy packs, or by disenchanting cards and collecting dust to craft cards from scratch. The option to buy packs with real money is there of course, but I’ve been playing since the Beta and I’ve only spend $2.99 that entire time while having enjoyed 150 hours of gameplay. By contrast, Magic 2015 costs $9.99 just to get started, and that would be fine, expect that there is an entire set of premium cards that can only be acquired by buying packs for $1.99. This content is completely locked out to players that don’t want to spend money beyond their initial purchase, and I find that unacceptable in a post-Hearthstone world.
And Hearthstone also reveals a possible flaw in the very design of Magic: The Gathering. I’ve been playing Magic since 1994, and the one thing that always frustrated me was trying to balance my decks to have the right amount of Land cards. But no matter how well constructed a deck is, there is always that possibility that you will not draw the Land that you need to play your cards, or that you will draw so much Land that you won’t have enough useful cards to play competitively, and in either case, entire games are ruined. This fundamental issue with the game has manifested itself throughout the whole of the Duels series, and Hearthstone, with its singular resource type that is automatically and evenly distributed to both players throughout the game, makes the very existence of Land cards feel obsolete. Not that there is anything Stainless Games could have done about this issue, but I just couldn’t end this review without mentioning it.
When all is said and done, Magic 2015 provides less content than previous games in the series, while abandoning the preconstructed decks that defined it. The result is a game suffering from an identity crisis. It belongs to a long running series, but in many ways, it does not belong at all. Though it finally allows players to construct their own decks from scratch, far too much was lost in exchange for that feature. With a lackluster campaign, a limited card pool, a lack of game modes and content locked behind a paywall, I’m sad to say that I cannot recommend Magic 2015. If you’re interested in the series, the four previous games are all much better buys. I can only hope that the inevitable Magic 2016 will get things back on track next year.
Ari received a PC copy of Magic 2015 for review purposes and played for 9 hours before writing this review.