Everyone needs an expensive hobby, I think. For a lot of people, Magic the Gathering fills that niche nicely. And for those initiated, the game’s depth of play and variety of mechanics make it one of the best games on the market. For new players, though, the complexity (and cost) of MTG can be a huge barrier to entry. I’ve not collected in years and I find it difficult to adjust to the mental and financial expense of coming back into the community.
It’s in cases like my own, and those of complete newcomers, that Duels of the Planeswalkers comes in. It has all the depth of play paper Magic and Magic Online have without the sheer volume of cards. More importantly, it serves as a teaching tool for both deck building and moment to moment play in a much more game-feeling setting.
With these points in mind, here’s my Magic-noob review of Duels 2014.
Accessible with a little sacrifice
As WiNG noted in his illuminating Magic Online vs. Duels article, DotP sometimes fluffs the rules either out of a glitch or to ease the process of play. He noted as well that he understood the reasons for that choice. One of them: Magic is fairly complex and for an introduction to the game a few skipped intricacies doesn’t hurt. Duels isn’t meant to be an official Wizards rulebook, nor is it indicative of true tournament play. It looks like a video game, acts like a video game, and plays like a video game.
Of course, all of that is what makes it successful. Duels doesn’t get bogged down in the details and adds a little visual flair to keep people short attention spans interested. As someone who enjoys the casual shooter or three, there’s a part of me that likes all the shiny bits and bobs. Granted, I’ve removed most of the animation for brevity’s sake, but the visual aids for combat, turn length and phase transition are helpful in their own right.
The lack of explanation for all the abilities cards possess is less helpful, though. My first fight against Vampire Nighthawk would’ve been made only slightly less annoying if I’d known what lifelink and deathtouch meant. An option or in-game glossary would certainly be welcome (my bad if there is one and I didn’t see it).
Still, there’s a positive side to that unknown: players learn through failure and implication rather than by having someone tell them. Sure, I wasn’t sure what Nighthawk was capable of, but I learned quickly to get rid of/work around him. The context of each engagement and my assumed definition of the abilities gave me everything I needed to know. I doubt my understanding would be as complete if all I had was a glossary definition. I’d still like one for the sake of reference, mind you.
Decks built but not perfected
Creating a workable deck in Magic is not an easy feat. At the highest levels of play there are innumerable stratagems you have to either account for or hope to never run into. A novice competing against even a below-average expert will usually lose. Duels tries to mitigate this issue by giving every player a set number of pre-built, mono-color decks. They’re all balanced against the others, and all have additional cards to iron out any kinks players might find.
Microtransactions aside, it’s a work of genius giving players playable but imperfect decks to fiddle with and test. Instead of having a thousand cards and no idea where to start, there are ninety cards and a solid foundation on which to build. As we look at the ratio of creatures to enchantments to sorceries and instants, we as players learn the basics of which setups work and which don’t. Like the glossary mentioned above, there’s a large deck building reference section built into Duels for new Magic players. While the current paper game is all about multicolor decks, new players need a firm understanding of the basics.
Tear open a new one
The introduction of Sealed Play in Duels 2014 is a welcome one. For rusty veterans like myself, it’s nice to have the familiar uncertainty of building a deck from scratch and refining it through play. In keeping with the overall design of the game, Duels limits “sealed play” to just five booster packs to start out with. Again, for someone with some experience, this limitation is a double edged sword. On the one hand, I like spending four hours combing through a thousand cards to build my RUG deck. On the other hand, the limited card count in Duels Sealed puts a stronger emphasis on tight deck construction in sometimes unfamiliar territory.
Indeed, Sealed in Duels 2014 feels much more like a standard, five pack draft than any sort of Standard play. Granted, there’s no time limit on what cards you pick, and you don’t have the pressure of trying to perfect the deck on the fly. But like a draft, you have only the cards you’ve been dealt. If that means building a White/Black, lifesucker deck when you wanted a to make a control, then tough, son. Deal with it.
At its core, Duels Sealed Play is just a natural extension of its more familiar pre-constructed format. Both act as tutorials on deck building and optimization within tight constraints, and both are balanced with ease of use in mind.
I’m predicting here that Sealed multiplayer will be the main source of staying power for Duels players. It comes closer to the unpredictability of paper Magic and Magic Online, and aims to build a bridge between Duels and its peers.
To do that, of course, there need to be more cards in the sealed pool. 250 works for the introductory part of Duels. I’d be more than willing to pay for an additional 250 or ever 500 cards and access to matchmaking with similar devotees. I’m of the mind that there should’ve been more cards to begin with, but we have what we have.
I’ll be honest, I enjoy Duels 2014 a lot more than I thought I would. It’s a game that fully embraces the limitations placed upon it. Moreover, it tries to build an easily crossed bridge for any not familiar with Magic or those long absent from the game. And it does all this with a fun interface, loose but interesting story and new takes on old mechanics. Some of my shooter-game friends on Steam are getting into Magic, and that makes me happy. If you’re reading this and you’ve not yet paid the entry fee of just $10, then do it nao. The Steam sale is on, you might just get an even better price.