Developer: Stainless Games
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast LLC
Magic: The Gathering is the original CCG and still going strong after two decades on the market. Its simple premise of playing Land cards to summon powerful monsters and spells is easy to grasp and understand, yet the constantly-expanding card library offer a near-infinite level of depth, strategy and complexity. Playing competitively is becoming increasingly expensive and time-consuming, but its dedicated fanbase continue to support each new release.
However, lapsed casual dabblers like myself have a new way of keeping up with the hobby in Stainless' annual Magic games. Robust without being unnecessarily obtuse, these downloadable adaptations give players a fun way into the hobby and a taste of the Magic experience that won't break the bank.
Magic 2014 may be yet another incremental improvement on the core Duels Of The Planeswalkers experience, but does ship with some interesting new tweaks to the formula.
For starters, the campaign has a story this time around. A laughably generic load of inane codswallop to be sure, but experienced franchise fans assure me that it respects the lore enough to be an asset to the experience. More to the point, it now gives some context to the familiar framework of battling against a selection of foes with preset decks (allowing you to fine-tune your strategies until you emerge victorious) peppered with tricksy Planeswalker bosses who present a much sterner and less predictable challenge. Working out how to use your themed decks to advantage is as rewarding as ever, especially since new decks are gradually unlocked as you progress.
The interface is comfortably familiar; a crisp and attractive tabletop that shows you both hands and useful information at a glance. Each turn, you can easily view cards in your hand, play Land cards (acting broadly like energy or mana if you're new to the concept), summon monsters and field powerful spells to whittle down your opponent's twenty hit points, all while they attempt to do the same. Simple context-sensitive controls and menus make viewing and playing cards a cinch, while arming you with the critical intelligence you'll need to make the correct play. The busywork is automated, such as automatically rotating appropriate cards when tapped and prompting you to block enemy attacks, but you've always got the final word. It's slick, streamlined but unquestionably Magic.
As a helpful tip, you should quickly deactivate the default option to automatically distribute damage between enemy blockers. Even if you don't know what this means now, you will come to rue it if you don't switch it off from the get-go.
As always, Magic 2014 contains some comprehensive tutorials that cater to players of varying skill levels. Being a lapsed and decidedly novice player myself, I was pleased to discover that the tutorial missions are well-explained, methodical and cover almost every aspect of the experience. Starting out with basics like playing Land cards, summoning monsters, attacking and blocking, further practice battles go on to flesh out some of the more esoteric and involved parts of the ruleset. Most of the tutorial battles admittedly contain an inordinate amount of waiting around while the turns catch up with the commentary, mind.
I still feel that Stainless are missing a trick, though. Even though the interface is crisp and clear (unless you're playing on a very large television, whereupon fonts become obnoxiously small), it's uninspiringly workmanlike and functional to a fault despite a few fun little card and spell animations. Since the Magic games only contain a relatively limited selection of cards, surely the time is right to actually render some 3D models of the monsters so we can watch them fight one another? The extra visceral thrill of watching your summons tear your opponents to shreds would be a perfect reward for a smart play, while adding something genuinely new and exciting to the Magic brand. Bring it into Magic 2015, please.
That's not to say that Magic 2014 offers nothing new. By far the most intriguing addition to the core battling side of things comes in the form of Slivers: powerful monsters who share abilities between each other. The more you field, the more powerful they get, meaning that working out a solid plan is absolutely paramount. Likewise, skilled human players will look to quickly shut your strategy down with a clever counter-offensive. They're a deep yet balanced new weapon in your arsenal that will doubtlessly inform the outcome of many a match.
Deck building has always been one of (if not the most) compelling facet of the paper Magic experience, and its absence has always been my major concern with Stainless' series. Thankfully Magic 2014 makes an attempt to redress the balance. You've got some slight leeway over the proportion of Land cards in campaign decks (a minor if welcome change), but the new Sealed Deck mode takes things up a notch by letting you create your own decks out of a random assortment of cards. Finally. However, the fact that you've only got six AI opponents to fight and two deck slots to experiment with will be somewhat disappointing to many eager fans.
Of course, Magic 2014 is designed to give us a taste of the hobby and wean us onto the paper version, so expecting us to convert and start collecting our own paper deck is understandable. There's still about 7-10 hours of content to be found here before major repetition starts to set in, with diehard fans naturally favouring the multiplayer side of things.
Naturally most of Magic 2014's appeal will be found online, with Sealed Deck mode set to become a staple. The netcode seems to be vastly improved over previous years (performance can be a little choppy, even down to the opening logo), though local multiplayer options are a little limited. That's what the CCG is for, I suppose. Local multiplayer at its finest.
Much like Madden or FIFA, Magic 2014 chunters along and iterates rather than innovates, enough to whet our appetites and keep us invested in the brand. For many, this can and should be enough, but the series probably ought to shake things up next year.
An important note on platforms: Though I reviewed Magic 2014 on XBLA, I also downloaded the freemium iPad version for comparison. Personally I feel that the touchscreen interface genuinely improves the experience; making it more satisfying, tactile and accessible. Add another point to the score if you plan on buying Magic 2014 on iOS - note that the Android version doesn't appear to have online multiplayer yet.
- Full-fat Magic gameplay made eminently accessible
- Sealed deck play adds enjoyable deck building
- Slivers are tremendous fun to field and defend against
- Utilitarian interface could use a shot in the arm - maybe animated 3D monster models?
- Aggravating limitations to sealed deck play, local multiplayer and campaign deck building
- May feel over-familiar to series fans
The Short Version: Magic 2014 is another fun and accessible way of getting into the hobby or catching up for lapsed fans. This year's iteration brings some welcome new tweaks and additions to the table, but going forward, we may need to see some genuine innovation to make an annual purchase worthwhile.
As mentioned, add another point to the score if you're considering the iOS version.