It’s been nearly two months of exchanging witty quips, idle pleasantries, awkward bathroom “selfies” and squishy childhood stories with a mysteriously attractive redhead you met online named Chandra. Her profile ready simply, “Hot, fiery SWF from ‘another plane’ looking for a man who can tap his mana in an Instant. Not interested in Green-thumbs who only like Permanents, but someone that has his own style of casting.” A bit confused – yet intensely curious – you suggested to finally meet in-person at a local dive bar down the street. Immediately upon arrival, however, it was obvious that you’d forgotten to bring your life counter. Concede.
“Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014” is the newest iteration in a long series of product spin-offs from the original, circa-1990s collectible card game. I started my own personal Magic addiction back in the latter-days of high-school – somewhere around 1996 when I was just barely grasping the concept of “Antiquities” – and life hasn’t been the same since.
Digital Life Is For Grown-Ups
Due to my distaste for hanging out in low-budget game shops nestled in the creepier parts of town for hours on-end with mobs of awkward teenagers nearly half my age, I can’t even begin to explain how happy I am for the digitalization of this gaming franchise. Now, I can sit in the comfort of my adult living room whilst sipping on some adult beverages and swearing profanities at my television without the added pressure of having to give my DCI number to some awkward game shop clerk. And, don’t even get me started on that one “old guy” who has nothing better to do than buy stacks of rares and spend the rest of his retirement beating the pants off the young’uns. Yes, Magic the Gathering has come a long way…
I bought the XBLA version of Duels 2014 today, but I’m here to elaborate on the new, speckled-and-shiny premiere version of Duels for Android! For those of you who have played the two prior versions for the console, there will be some spiffy new improvements. And for those of you who are just making it out of the game shop into your 30s, buyer beware…. Wizards of the Coast have done a bang-up job. This is the first time Magic has ever come to mobile, by the way. Just thought I’d mention that.
As Free As Wizards Can Be
First, let’s get one thing straight – we all expect cheap-ass games on Android, if not free, that allow us to buy in-game content if we truly want to dominate; this has been the standard for as long as I’ve been doing game reviews. Duels 2014 is available on the Play store “for free” much in the same way that your very first hit of heroin only costs you the friendship of the dealer. Lucky for you, Wizards would still rather you purchase the physical card game (or get into Magic Online) than play this silly little mobile adaptation. You should be thanking them profusely and so should your wallet, future addict.
Duels 2014 is technically free on the Google Play store – true – and with this 1.2GB download, you’ll enjoy the benefits of a newb tutorial and three whole decks… very basic decks… with the potential of five unlockable cards each. Again, those of you new to Magic the Gathering will be saying, “Wow, sounds like a great deal!” while the MtG vets will be rolling their eyes and wondering just how many MORE cards you can cram into these decks if you spend a little allowance money. Obviously, being under cover of darkness in my own private living room and under the influence of a couple glasses of wine, I just went ahead and bought the “Premium” version for $10. I’m no newb, and Wizards loves people like me. And wine. This “premium” version of Duels 2014 nets you an additional 7 decks to play, 250+ unlockable cards, and a whole slew of campaign and “challenge” content; basically, the actual game. In addition to spending $10 for the full game, you may as well just go ahead and bank on another $10 to fully unlock the additional 30 or so cards for all ten decks and save yourself the pain of grinding your way through every single card unlock. I still don’t know why they don’t just sell the game at $20 and unlock all this crap from the get-go. Magic veterans, continue rolling your eyes and read on!
Once you’ve ponied-up $20 to buy the full game and unlock all the decks – or at least $10 for the game itself – the game is afoot. Duels 2014 includes a snazzy new tutorial to get you newbs up and running with all the basics like mana tapping, creature combat, instants, and enchantments. Once you’ve finished the tutorial, the real game begins. Duels 2014 single-player campaign sends you across four planes to battle against dozens of uniquely powerful personas. If you’ve opted to unlock new cards as you go, expect a good slog… You can fight the easier opponents over and over again for new unlocks once you’ve run up against a really hard opponent, but expect to do so 29 more times to get every new card (gah). If you bought deck keys to unlock the full decks, you’ll want to spend some time customizing their contents in order to best plow through the campaign. Pay attention to the curve! The curve…
All Carrot, No Stick
When it comes to deck customization, Duels 2014 offers the ability to specify how much (and which type) of mana to include in every deck – a feature much desired by the MtG community. Of course, you can still let the game auto-adjust the lands if you’re lazy like me. Like prior versions of Duels of the Planeswalkers, you can swap unlocked cards in and out of your decks as long as you have a minimum of 60 cards. There is also the new “sealed” format in 2014 that everyone’s been raving about, so let me talk a bit about that…
For the newbs (again), Sealed format is one in which you’re given a bunch of 15 card booster packs and you do your best to make a deck in the time allotted. Personally, I love this format as it keeps you in the “sane” group of MtG players who don’t spend their entire life’s savings on making uber decks that pwn everyone in the shop. Instead, you do your best within the confines of the packs you’re given and then try your deck against other players. Pretty fun deal. Sealed in Duels 2014 works like this – you’re given two free slots to create Sealed format decks. You can add/remove cards to your heart’s desire, or you can highlight just a couple and let the AI do its thang in creating a custom deck around the themes of those cards… which actually works rather well. If you want to keep doing Sealed format, however – like any good drug dealer – they charge you more for each deck “slot” after the second. $1.99 to be specific. Wizards continues to try and find new and innovative ways to make sure your digital experience nets them at least close to the same amount of cash as the physical card game. We know it. We love it. We are your slaves.
The Mobile Drag
Let’s talk performance and interface… The table background is now a more muted blue/black scheme which reduces the general distraction when trying to focus on your cards. The graphics themselves look decent on my Nexus 7, though it’s clear that the cards on the table – specifically their artwork – are seriously being scaled down (crapified) to save on performance. Up close and zoomed, however, the art is just fine. You still get the wonderfully soothing soundtrack to accompany you throughout your trials and tribulations, and the combat and card animations are still very much present (though you can disable them in the settings). For you veterans out there, be sure to fully explore the game settings and disable all the stuff that slows the game down like combat animations and hold-priority. The only issue I’ve noticed – and maybe this is just because I’m used to playing on Xbox – is that the AI can be rather sluggish at times. I first noticed this AI lag during the last round of the tutorial match, but have seen it off and on throughout the campaign as well. Perhaps it’s just an artifact of mobile hardware, who knows. Or, perhaps it’s just the fact that my plays are so immensely amazing that I’ve stumped both cores of my Nexus.
The adaptation to a mobile “touch” interface is an interesting one… Of course, I’ve always suspected that my fingers were too big for this little tablet screen, but Duels 2014 seems to rather enjoy pointing it out. You can play cards by “dragging” them out of your hand and on to the battlefield. When you do this with lands, they simply get filed with the rest of the lot. When you drag sorceries, instants, or enchantments, it’s a different story. It seems to me that you drag the spell out on to the battlefield, and then the system asks you where to put it. And sometimes, sometimes, you can simply drag it directly on to your target and the system figures it all out. But don’t count on it. Blocking is also a strange beast. Once your opponent attacks, you’re prompted to block. At this point, you can either tap one of your creatures – and then an opponent’s attacker – to block, or you can drag your creature to create a “line” to the blocked creature. Either way, blocking can be a bit cumbersome. I’ve found the “tap-tap” technique to be the best, but you need to wait a second or two for the system to register your blocker before you move ahead to the target.
Everything else interface-wise is nearly identical to the older, Duels 2013, version of the game – attacking, stopping the timer, zooming to played cards, activating abilities, etc. It does seem that the navigation (or highlighting) of cards is more… tight. You don’t get lost and side-tracked when trying to look at a specific opponent card nearly as much as you used to. Also, there’s a snazzy new “attack all” feature which really simplifies the attack phase for you weenie-deck players.
Whether you’re a first-time addict or a veteran “user”, Duels 2014 certainly appeals to a broad audience in terms of getting you hooked to the universe. Personally, I loved the fact that the campaign spans across multiple planes and gives you a feel for how each plane has its own vibe that’s distinctively different from the others. The addition of Sealed format addresses a long-standing request from the Magic community about the lack of deck building and moves us one step closer to the likes of Magic Online and the card game itself. One thing I would mention here, much to the dismay of you readers without Xboxes or PS3s, is the fact that multiplayer is severely limited on the mobile version. You can do ad-hoc multiplay with a friend sitting next to you, but you cannot play online… quite disappointing, but not too surprising seeing as “true” Android online multiplayer is still in its infancy. If you have a console, just skip mobile and get the real-deal… Although, having the mobile version is a great way to tune your decks until you get home! PS: My Nexus 7 ate through half the battery just playing the tutorial, so don’t stray too far from home. Happy hunting.