Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Game Review - Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 (XBLA, 2014)

Let's be honest: Magic: The Gathering is an expensive hobby.  Competitive decks can cost $200+, and even acquiring the collection to build casual decks can run into the triple digits.  The cost combined with the expansive (and continually growing) set of rules and interactions can be a daunting obstacle to anyone interested in the game.

Over the past few years, the annual update of Duels of the Planeswalkers has served as an excellent, low-cost introduction to the game.  For about $15 you've been able to get a nice little Magic package: sleek stand-alone games with nice tutorials, several interesting pre-constructed decks, and a few hundred hand-picked cards (of more than ten thousand from Magic's history) that showcase some of the game's more popular mechanics.

Historically, most Magic veterans would point interested newcomers to the most recent iteration of Duels of the Planeswalkers to get their feet wet.

That may not be such a great idea this year.

DotP 2015 takes a big step forward with its fully customizable deck building, but it takes a couple colossal steps back in other ways - terrible starting decks raise the barrier for entry for new players, and fewer game modes mean advanced players won't find nearly as much content as previous versions.

Let's start at the beginning:

When you first start the game, you'll be lead directly into a tutorial.  This introduction to Magic is essentially an interactive lecture, and it's about as good a lesson on the basics as you're going to get unless you sit down and talk to a veteran player.  For that purpose, DotP is still unparalleled.

After covering the basic mechanics, the game lets you choose your starting deck.  Veteran planeswalkers will recognize the choices as each of Ravnica's guilds, but their basic strategies are also described in plain English.  Again, it's a good way to ease newer players into this complicated game.

But that's where it all falls apart.  The game is ultimately built around unlocking new cards to improve your decks as you progress, so the starting decks are particularly weak.  The final tutorial duel, which is a straight-up game against an AI-controlled deck letting you see the rules in action, is hard.  The AI's deck is just better than yours, and I could only progress into the rest of the game (I couldn't figure out any way to skip this tutorial battle) after reducing the difficulty to the lowest setting and retrying until my opponent had terrible draws.  It's an absolutely unreasonable barrier to enter the majority of the game.

Things only get marginally better from there.  The single-player portion of the game consists of a sequence of themed enemy decks covering some of Magic's iconic locations and characters.  After each win, you'll be rewarded with a virtual booster pack, which will add a handful of new cards to your collection.

Those duels will be a struggle until you get a fair number of new cards, though.  It's the same problem as in the tutorial - your starting deck is weaker than the decks you'll face, which means you'll need to win through superior luck in the first several matches of the game.  It gets better as you go along, but it's certainly an uphill battle.

Once you've unlocked a good fraction of the nearly 1,000 cards (including copies) available in-game, you'll find a pretty nice Magic constructed format awaiting.  With fully customizable deck building, your collection allows for a wide variety of archetypes.  It seems like there are a number of solid decks, so I imagine the multiplayer side will develop an interesting metagame.  Taking your deck online to battle other mages is definitely the highlight of the game, and with the customization available, it's a ton of fun.

However, I imagine that this system will be tough for new players.  In previous DotP titles, the available decks were more or less at the same power level, with only relatively minor modifications being possible.  Here, it's entirely on you to put together a decent deck to be competitive because the starting decks are terrible.  If you haven't already developed rudimentary deck building skills, you're not going to get a whole lot of help from the game.

I suspect the deck building feature makes this version of DotP much less accessible newbies, which is exactly the opposite of what DotP has historically been about.

Given the emphasis on deck building, I would have expected the process of building a deck to be a lot smoother.  The deck builder uses the same format as previous games, showing available cards in one row and the cards included in your deck on another.  You can apply some filters that make things more manageable, but you're still only able to see a handful of cards on the screen at a time, so it's hard to get a holistic picture of the deck you've thrown together.  Add the sluggishness of the whole process (scrolling through the cards can be tedious) and the process of building your deck is a bit of a chore.

Another downside deals with the cards you can use in deck building.  To start, many of the cards you'll play against in the single-player game aren't available, so you'll see some cool ideas that you'll never be able to use yourself.  There are also a number of "premium" cards that can only be unlocked through microtransactions giving you premium booster packs.  Those cards aren't oppressively powerful by any means, but it's annoying not to be able to access all the cards just for the price of admission.

The menu system is also abysmal.  Loading times are long, and important features are buried in several layers of menus.  The worst offender is without a doubt changing your active deck: instead of being able to change your deck while in a multiplayer lobby (you know, if you decide you want to try one of the other decks you've put together), you have to back out to the main menu, enter the "deck equipping" menu, choose the deck you want, back out to the main menu, and re-enter your multiplayer lobby.  It's an arduous task for doing something that should have been very simple, and it's just the most egregious example of poor design.

Another frustrating point is the surprising lack of game modes.  If you want to play DotP 2015, you're stuck playing duels and free-for-alls.  There are no casual formats like two-headed giant or archenemy like in previous iterations of the DotP franchise.  They even omitted the challenge mode from previous games that gave you a game scenario and asked you to find a way to win on your next turn.  Those challenges were cool Magic puzzles, but there's nothing like that here.

In the end, you get a fantastic explanation of Magic's basics and a frustrating process for unlocking cards that eventually leads to a thoroughly enjoyable multiplayer game.  But this fully-customizable deck building came at a significant cost, as many previous features of the series have been omitted, and newer planeswalkers may find the barrier to entry to be a little too high.

As a result, I actually think that this year's Duels of the Planeswalkers is better suited to regular Magic players.  If you're already familiar with Magic and you can trudge through the tedium of the single-player features, this is a decent online Magic game with a pseudo-Standard format.  If you're looking for a way to introduce a friend to the game, however, you're much better off looking to previous versions.

My Rating: 6/10 - decent.

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