Magic 2015: Not the digital powerhouse the card game deserves, but a good start

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I didn’t play Magic: The Gathering — Duel of the Planeswalkers 2014 for very long on the iPad — I found it to be clunky, and there’s still a good deal of that clunkiness in the new 2015 version. Unfortunately, there also seems to be fewer options — unless you want to spend a bunch of money on in-app purchases.

In recent months, the virtual card game I’ve been playing most is one without a counterpart in the physical realm: Blizzard’s Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. I really just stumbled into it, but it keeps me interested. If you haven’t played Hearthstone, it works a lot like traditinal Magic: The Gathering, and it also works a lot like how Magic’s digital version should play, but doesn’t.

Now, the Magic 2015 redesign could have gone a long way toward bridging the chasm of polish that separates Magic’s digital gamesand Hearthstone, but that didn’t really happen. The latter is a “digital native” and it just seems to feel more comfortable in its own skin. Magic still has the legacy of the actual card game to uphold, and while it’s an enormous strength in branding, in some ways it may be holding the series back digitally. The 2015 update is a definite improvement in many small ways, just not a dramatic one. The previous version’s slow pacing didn’t get any better, and the new 2015 iPad game’s reliance on in-app purchases, while possibly intended to address the 2014 version’s lack of deck-building options, comes off as more of a cash grab. Perhaps that was inevitable, but it’s still there.

In-app purchases

Deck building in Magic 2015
Deck building in Magic 2015

As mentioned previously, I played the iPad version, which is free, but in-app purchases are required to unlock anything beyond the limited features that come with the app. In-app purchases are the core of the game, it seems. Wizards of the Coast’s marketing people provided some iTunes credit so I could try this out and get a good feel for how it works. There are a lot of options, and they don’t always make sense to read the descriptions in the app itself. You can purchase booster packs just like in the physical version of the game, and you can convert cards to “foil” if you’re into that sort of thing; to me, that doesn’t feel like a good use of my app store credit. You can also purchase chapters, card pools, and a “complete bundle” that isn’t actually complete. This blog post by BoardGameGeek does an excellent job of explaining the distinction between these options, and how best to get a complete set without going broke — I won’t even try to re-create their hard work, so go read it for yourself.

Missed opportunities

Magic 2015 - Garruk Ax Woods

Wizards of the Coast’s other big fantasy property, Dungeons & Dragons, has faced similar struggles adapting to a digital format. If anything, the digital incarnation of Magic 2015 feels like a counterpart of the D&D Starter Set for the Magic brand — a no-frills introductory portal to the game as a whole. Maybe it’s a generational bias, but I just can’t imagine playing Magic without the physical cards, whereas I’m fully comfortable playing Hearthstone and knowing that it’s digital only. Marketed as a tool to draw new players into Magic, this could work wonders — but it’s just frankly off-putting for existing players, myself included.

CONCLUSION: Try, but don’t buy everything

Magic 2015 – Duels of the Planeswalkers, out now for iPad, PC (via Steam), Xbox One (edit: soon), Xbox 360, Android, and Kindle Fire. The game is priced at $10 on most platforms except iPad, where it’s a free download with limited content and in-app purchases.

Magic 2015, the app, is a slight improvement over the clunky gameplay of its predecessor. I like to use it best to brush up on the game’s rules as a companion to the traditional card game, and to get nonplayers interested in the game’s distinctive gameplay and visuals. Magic is the game that started it all, and it’s the better game in the genre. Hearthstone is basically the same game — but, for now at least, it’s a better app.

The art: always a pleasureMagic 2015 - Richard Garriott

A neat element of Magic’s 2015 release, both virtual and physical, is the offering of special cards designed and illustrated by gaming celebrities outside the Magic family. Magic 2015 - Penny ArcadeThese luminaries include George Fan (Plants vs. Zombies), Stone Librande (SimCity, Diablo 3) and Brian Fargo (The Bard’s Tale), as well as cards from Ultima creator Richard Garriott and Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. In addition, the card “Waste Not” was designed by the Magic community as part of the ongoing “You Make the Card” series.

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