With Hearthstone creating new audiences for collectible card games (CCGs), it is certainly worth remembering the game that popularized the genre, Magic the Gathering (MTG).
While the Wizard of the Coast card game has been digital for some time, Magic Duels is notable advancement on the formula. Moving away from yearly releases to add new card sets in regular updates, this could be the first digital edition of the game that could be used in competition. It is also now available on phones.
This is not a review of MTG as a CCG, or the 2016 set of cards. Magic is a fantastic tabletop game that is over 20 years old that has been constantly evolving - trying to summarize it here would be folly. Instead, my focus is on what the digital version adds to the experience.
The main advantage of shifting to digital is convenience. You can play everywhere, carry all of your cards with you, and play whenever you like, thanks to computer controlled opponents and online play. As an old-school fan I do miss the tactile nature of real cards, but the advantages more than compensate for this.
MTG fans will quickly take to Duels thanks to its intuitive interface. Simple tap and drag controls make everything easy to understand, with double taps bringing up cards so you can easily read their abilities, and clear icons marking cards with common abilities (such as flying, reach, and first strike). The only real issues I ran into was my own impatience, and occasionally finding it fiddly to select multiple creatures to attack when playing on small screens.
There is an unfortunate slog to get through the opening section of the game, but once unlocked you have full access to all of the games various modes. The Story Mode walks you through the story of five iconic Planeswalker characters - telling the tale of how they evolved into powerful transdimensional beings from mere heroes. While these do prove interesting from a lore point of view, the computer-generated cut scenes felt a little basic. Battle Mode offers a more traditional experience, allowing you to square off against the computer, single human opponents, or do battle with a friend against two opponents in a game of Two Headed Giant. Finally, Quest Mode offers challenges that reward you with coins once completed.
And for newcomers
This may all look a bit much for first timers, but Magic Duels is also great for new players. As you start you are gifted a starter box of cards - allowing you to construct a range of basic decks - and earning coins will allow you to buy boosters packs to supplement these (each containing six cards of varying rarity). While more coins can be purchased in app, it is easy enough to earn them, and the booster packs offer the chance to unlock any of the game's cards for free. This removes the cost to entry that frustrates many new players - and could be the best thing that Duels does to expand MTG's appeal.
Magic Duels also does the heavy lifting in terms of rules. Firstly an in-depth tutorial is on hand. Known as Skill Quests, this option first takes you through the basics, and then offers further training at contextually appropriate moments. If you are playing a game against the computer, and a card comes up with a new rule on it, the scene will swap to another battle to teach you this ability and try it out.
With the basics the game continues to help, highlighting any card you can play, keeping the game flowing properly to prepare you for play against a real opponent (which does unfortunately mean you can’t undo moves), and offering a deck building wizard to help you start constructing your own decks.
This final option is fantastic. Selecting what kind of deck you want to play with, the wizard walks you through the concepts behind constructing a deck, filtering appropriate at each stage and explaining core strategic elements of each magic type. An auto complete is also on hand to speed this up, with you able to make edits at the end. There is also a free build option for experienced players.
Magic Duels is the most accessible and complete digital version of MTG to date. It is incredibly full featured and - bar a few more eccentric game modes and an enlarged library of cards that dives back into entire “modern” series – it proves the perfect way for newcomers and longtime players to enjoy Magic on the move.