Magic 2015 is at once the best and worst thing to happen to Wizard’s arcadey take on its popular trading card franchise. It has no doubt gained a lot, most obviously the first ever fully customizable deckbuilding experience. But much has been lost as well, and not just the “Duels of the Planeswalkers” nomenclature. Fan-favorite modes have disappeared, while long-time bugs persist. It’s truly a mixed bag.
What that means for the user will depend on personal taste. What it means for Wizards of the Coast, however, is another thing entirely. More on that later.
Jump Into the Deep End
More than any other iteration in the series, Magic 2015 replicates the real-life experience of learning the cardboard version of Magic: the Gathering. You start out with a mediocre set of beginner cards, then build laughable decks out of whatever you can cobble together out of booster packs. Over the course of many matches (or many dollars), players unlock full sets of cards to choose from.
For a 15-year veteran of Magic, it’s honestly refreshing. I had long forgotten what it was like to build in such an environment, and I was instantly flooded with nostalgia for my horrible early piles that relied on singleton card combos and/or ramping up to 7-mana spells that didn’t even do much. As I progressed through the game’s story mode, I cobbled together a blue/red agro deck that was at best marginal, but definitely really fun to play.
There are, however some restrictions. Unlike previous versions of Magic/DOTP, cards are unlocked in a random order, making deck planning all but impossible. If you have a specific archetype in mind, you’ll have to grind out time or cash to make it happen. Cards are also limited by rarity, with a 4/3/2/1 cap for commons/uncommons/rares/mythics respectively. This certainly balances some aspects of grind/card power, but it also greatly reduces deck diversity and archetype viability.
Then there are the premium packs, cards that can only be unlocked via microtransactions. Not all these cards are particularly good, though their mere existence has stirred gamers into an anti pay-to-win frenzy. And while I personally enjoy winning with underpowered concoctions, I sympathize with players who don’t have a lot of disposable income or a strong stomach for money-grubbing. Power arguments aside, it opens a Door to Nothingness for many players who specifically chose Duels of the Planeswalkers because they didn’t want to buy boosters as is required in real life or MTGO.
Minor DLC-related gripes might have been overlooked by the majority if Magic 2015 was an otherwise spotless experience. However, the game abounds with UI/UX problems that make the experience cumbersome. Lavish backgrounds and animations are great and all, but they result in long load times and needless delays in user action, even on my stupidly overpowered gaming PC.
I guess you get to watch a couple “cool” cinematics, but I’d honestly prefer the money spent on virtualizing Garruk to be instead put towards code optimization. For instance, automatic land tapping is somehow worse than any iteration of Magic, ever. While early titles got your plays wrong half the time, Magic 2015 will color screw you nearly every time. Yes, you can manually choose mana sources, but this whole series was supposed to be for casuals who didn’t have time/brains to count lands. Besides, this system worked great in Magic 2014… what happened?
Menu navigation is hampered by what is clearly a touch-centric interface, requiring prodigious amounts of swiping in order to access options that could have been 8 to 9 times more efficient in traditional lists or tables. Buttons are gigantic, making single-item selection easy but bulky by gaming standards.
Some of this has carried over from previous DOTP games, but that kind of makes the problem worse. Stainless has had many opportunities to streamline and improve the base Magic client, but have instead chosen to ride what is clearly a suboptimal code base for several years in a row. First time planeswalkers may therefore overlook these problems, but series fans will be (and are) let down.
Your Favorite Mode is Gone
You might be wondering how I can guess that your favorite mode has been removed from Magic 2015. Well, that’s easy: nearly every mode was removed from Magic 2015. Two-headed giant got a double-bladed axe. Truly custom matches were neutered. Purist preconstructed and sealed deck play went the way of the dodo, and there are no “special” modes like Planechase, Archenemy, or the original game’s Mentorship mode. No matter what your fantasy fetish is, it’s been eliminated. Your options are basically play against a computer, or play against a person.
Is Good Enough Good Enough?
I’m not as doom and gloom as many gamers. I have truly enjoyed playing Magic 2015, including unlocking cards, building decks, and playing against human and CPU opponents. Unfortunately for Wizards of the Coast, that’s not good enough.
It’s not good enough because this is their umpteenth take at this formula, and users expect improvements across the board over previous versions. If gamers bought Madden 2020 and found out it was demonstrably worse than Madden 2008, they’d be pissed, and rightfully so.
It’s not good enough because nobody wants a pay-to-win setup in the DOTP series, or even the suggestion of a future pay-to-win model. Gamers have specifically chosen these casual takes on their favorite card game so they can avoid the high costs of paper Magic and MTGO. Previous installments offered DLC as a time-saving or aesthetic boost, but didn’t lock out content (expansions excluded).
But really, it’s not good enough because Hearthstone. It’s not good enough because Hex. It’s not good enough because Might and Magic. Because Cockatrice. It’s not good enough because Wizards of the Coast no longer has the option of writing all the rules and dictating what a digital trading card game experience is. Hell, I don’t even like half the games I just listed, but the fact that they are all pretty popular is proof that gamers are willing to go with relatively new franchises if it means less grind, less cost, better UX, ore more fun.
Ultimately, Magic 2015 won’t make or break your wallet, regardless of DLC. But if Wizards of the Coast doesn’t change its digital direction soon, it will certainly break its chances of salvaging a fun online experience for Magic: the Gathering. Players want a robust experience with tons of options, intuitive controls, fun competitive/cooperative modes, and as little stress on pay-to-win as possible. I hope Wizards takes these lessons to heart, because no amount of black mana will be able to resurrect Magic/DOTP if one or more competing franchises buries or exiles the series.