I've been playing Magic Duels [Free] non-stop since it was released this morning at around 8:00 AM Eastern, and even streamed the game a bit on Mobcrush. Overall, I dig it, but that's coming from a someone who can't get enough Magic the Gathering and has played the game most of his life. I'm the guy who puts up with how remarkably jank Magic Online has been forever simply because I love playing Magic. Maybe I let my imagination run a little too wild following our E3 preview, but instead of releasing something incredibly awesome, Wizards once again didn't go all the way.

The best way to describe how I feel about Magic Duels on day zero of release is the end of Mike Ehrmantraut's monologue about half measures from Breaking Bad:

To back things up a bit, we need to acknowledge that Hearthstone [Free] is the current 10 billion pound elephant in the free to play card game world. What started as a silly side project at Blizzard has since exploded into a proper eSport, a staple in online game streaming, and the free to play card game that seemingly everyone is playing- Particularly as the universal update hit in mid-April and the Android version followed. Airing commercials during the NHL and NBA finals has resulted in it being vaguely normal to see people playing the game on their phones when you're out and about. It always kind of blows my mind to see a guy sitting at a bar playing Hearthstone, but, that just goes to show how huge mobile gaming has become. The point of emphasizing this is that Hearthstone has set the bar for what to expect out of a game like this, and even though a comparison between Hearthstone and Magic could be argued as apples and oranges, they're both competing for the same interest space.

Switching gears back to Duels, this latest iteration is probably the best version of Duels of the Planeswalkers so far, even though they've since shed that moniker in exchange for the simplified Magic Duels. Much like other yearly franchises, the Magic games each year have gotten incrementally better, making reviewing them year over year sort of awkward because you're often just re-writing everything you wrote before but focusing on the few minor features that further shave off the few rough edges that remain in the franchise. This year takes things a tiny step further, with a really cool deck building wizard that makes it way easier to make decks- Particularly if you're a new player who doesn't yet really understand concept like the mana curve, how to balance spells and creatures, and similar things. It's all handled automagically, while still allowing you to make choices, and it's handled incredibly well.

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I also love the idea of the solo battles against randomized decks controlled by AI players of three different difficulty levels. In previous years, you kind of ran out of things to do as you unlocked all the cards and played through the campaign and were basically left saying, "Well, that was fun, I guess see ya'll next year." In theory, this should provide loads of longevity to the game, as even once you've got all the cards unlocked, you'll still be able to endlessly play against crazy decks. It feels a lot like playing Friday Night Magic in a way, as you never know what kind of ultra-random stuff you'll come across. I'm only a day in, so it's hard to say how true this will actually turn out to be in practice.

The biggest shift to the game is turning Duels into a fully free to play experience. In the past, Wizards has dipped their toes in the water of free to play with games that were free to download with various unlocks you can buy, but this is a full-on belly flop off the high dive. ...And I'm really not sure if this is a good thing or not. The dream Wizards is selling is that in the future all of the Magic card sets that get released will eventually be incorporated into Magic Duels, so instead of effectively throwing away your collection year to year with the previous releases, you're going to snowball your collection into what could amount to just a stupid amount of cards.

This sounds great, and if you read my E3 preview, you could probably tell my excitement for such a thing was sky-high. The problem is, the implementation of this is so mediocre that even this die-hard Magic fan likely won't spend much, if any, money in the game. Spending habits in free to play games are highly personal things, and I have no idea how many people are on the same page as me, but here's why I feel like this:

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*Deep breath* I love free to play stuff, it is totally awesome how in the mobile arena we get so many incredible game experiences for quite literally zero dollars. I'm not sure there's a single piece of entertainment property out there including books, movies, and video games that I've invested more time into than Candy Crush and I've done that all for free. For me, the value proposition of free to play stuff I end up playing a ton heavily relies on a feeling of permanence offered by the game- Both in the time I'm spending as well as the money I'm spending. In the case of Candy Crush, all of my progress is synchronized with Facebook and I can play the game, exactly where I left off, on literally any platform. If tomorrow I swear off iOS and high-tail it to the Android side of the fence, my years of progress in Candy Crush stays with me.

On the other side of the fence, I've spent over $1,500 on League of Legends, and I do it gladly because every champion I unlock and dumb skin I buy stays with me, and is always accessible regardless of what platform I'm playing it on, or even where I am. I can log in to my LoL account from a friend's PC, a cyber cafe (or "PC bang" if you're cool), or anywhere else and it's all there. When I'm using the things I bought, I can play against anyone in the world. Sure, League of Legends could eventually cease to exist, but that seems about as improbable as Candy Crush just going away one day- At least gazing into the reasonably conceivable future.

Hearthstone is similar, I've spent a ton of time and money in that game because my purchases feel permanent. They're tied to my battle.net account which I've used for decades now, and secured through two-factor authentication. Cards I buy in Hearthstone are usable on every platform the game runs on, an similarly can be used against anyone in the world. When I finished my core card set collection, I felt an immense amount of accomplishment, because I'll have those forever.

Now, on to Magic Duels- The lack of some kind of similar cross-platform account is the game's true tragic flaw. Yes, your collection does seem to sync via Game Center and is available across different iOS devices, but as anyone who has used any of the Apple cloud services knows- Never trust anything you actually care about to iCloud or Game Center. Nothing to do with the way the card collection is secured gives me the vibe that my cards will be there in the future. It's troubling to be stuck on one platform too, particularly if they're planning on having Magic Duels be the way to play casual digital Magic in the future. The layer of abstraction between Hearthstone's "ok, this is on my account forever" and Duels' "OK this is somewhere in my Game Center I guess somewhere" makes it hard to look forward to several years down the road when you potentially have multiple sets of cards you've worked towards- Who knows if Game Center will even still exist in iOS 10.

This feels like such a half measure, as the rest of the game is great. I love the idea of what they're trying to do, but without a true cross-platform account-based system the vibe went from "Holy sh*t this changes everything" to "Well, I guess this is a slightly better version of Duels of the Planeswalkers that's free to play." The lack of cross-platform compatibility is going to have a dramatic impact on multiplayer as well, as the competitive multiplayer scene in Hearthstone is what drives me to play the game and spend money. Currently, playing multiplayer Duels involves a lot of sitting at the Game Center matchmaking screen while the spinner does its thing. Also, always being trapped inside of the iOS player pool is never going to allow the meta game to fully mature as you're never playing with everyone like you are with Hearthstone.

Will this get better over time? Of course, it's inevitable the multiplayer scene will improve as more people start downloading the game, but the reason you can always find a match in seconds in Hearthstone is because the player pool is just ridiculous between all the different platforms the game is on. It might be pessimistic, but segregating all the platforms makes it feel like you're almost never going to have all the stars align to, for instance, find enough random people searching for games at the same time to play any more than a few games of Two Headed Giant before your patience is tested to its fullest and you give up. But, hey, whatever, it's day one, and hard to predict how multiplayer is going to pan out over time. I hope I'm totally wrong here, but historical precedence has shown otherwise, which sucks because vibrant multiplayer has become so integral to the longevity of these kind of games.

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The other problem with the new free to play spin Wizards has given Duels is you sort of need to play through the brain-crushingly basic tutorial of how the game works to earn coins to buy packs. Sure, you could skip all this, but you'd really be screwing yourself out of some free packs of cards which you really need at the start of the game to give some kind of variety (particularly when it comes to rare-level cards) in your card pool. It was sort of frustrating that the first 30-45 minutes of my time in the game was me sitting there going "I just want to play Magic" trying to rush through the tutorials as quickly as possible to unlock the starter pack and open the store.

I understand a major purpose of the Duels games is to teach people how to play Magic, but considering this is a year to year series, I think some kind of pop up at the beginning that's effectively like, "Have you played Magic before? OK, cool, here's the 300 gold you'd get from the tutorial go wild buying some packs and playing the game" would've gone a long way. Doing "quests" to learn how instants work exclusively because you want then 10 gold feels ... less than optimal, to say the least.

If this sounds like a heaping helping of disappointment, that's mostly true, but I'm not disappointed because of what the game is but what the game could have been. It's going to make reviewing the game supremely difficult, and something I feel like needs to wait to see how the game matures before being able to really give it a fair shake. Posting a review now basically disregards all the multiplayer, seeing how the meta game pans out, and whether or not the plans to add additional card sets are handled properly- Basically, you know, literally everything that's important about the game.

So, yeah, I guess that's a needlessly excessive amount of words basically explaining that as a sequel to Magic 2015 [Free (HD)], Magic Duels is a perfectly fine game. As the next step of digital Magic and the foundation of the future of Duels as a massive free to play game?

"No more half measures, Walter."

  • runesnatcher

    Excellent review, well articulated. This is way better than just weighing in with 2.5 or 3 stars or whatever.

  • bajaresident

    Complain about a real card game while touting how great Hearthstone is. As expected from this site these days.

  • benadvanced

    Dammit now I have to re watch the whole Breaking Bad show.

    • tsargeant3012

      Literally just had the exact same thought...

  • squirpe

    Is this the first iteration that is universal? Finally MTG on my iPhone 🙂 As a long time fan (physical and digital), will give this a chance.

    • tsargeant3012

      Yup it is, all previous ones were ipad only. Now that I’ve ditched my ipad, I’m stoked to play this on my 6+

      • Roleki

        You and me both, bro!

  • iamseamonster

    God damn thats such a great scene.

  • Xexist

    HEX: Shards of Fate

    When it comes it will blow magic away.

    • Kamakazie

      It's been available in beta for about 2 years now. It's not the best.

      • Xexist

        Oh so its not released yet? Because its not finished? So its not here yet?

      • Kamakazie

        It's available to play right now; it's definitely here.

      • Xexist

        Well I stand corrected, can you post the itunes link so I can get it?

  • dancj

    I'm only interested in playing on iOS so none of that bothers me.

    But seriously, $1,500 on one game? I can't imagine paying that much on all of the games I'll play in my life combined.

    • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

      You haven't bought 25 console games total in your life?

      • Xexist

        I usually buy MY games at pawn shops etc, or online. I rarel by new and save a lot that way.

      • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

        Fair enough, I don't really have a problem paying for things I enjoy. League of Legends has been my favorite game running for years now.

      • Xexist

        Ive never even played that one lol. If you include games (like MTGO, warcraft etc) my numbers go way up. Ive even spent about $800 or so on kickstarter games.

      • Tizz986

        10 years of WoW means I can't ever think a game cost too much money ever again lol

      • Xexist

        After thinking some on it; I think Ive spent more than I realized over the years.

      • C. Stubb

        This Vainglory crusader/fan says "Fight me IRL!"

      • dancj

        Probably about a dozen - the most expensive was £20 so probably under £200 total.

    • Jake7905

      Dude, Eli's a professional gamer. What did you expect?

      • dancj

        Does that mean he can write it off as a tax break?

  • goose1521

    Is this some kind of cruel joke? iPad Air and iPad mini supported, but not iPad (3rd Gen)? No excuse.

    • Andre Fairchild

      here's an excuse, ipad 3rd gen is outdated and probably isnt powerful enough to run this without lag. cant really compare that with ipad air

      ipad mini (1st gen) on the other hand....

      • dancj

        It doesn't work on 1st generation iPad mini either.

      • Andre Fairchild

        ha, in that case. ipad air supported. ipad mini 2 supported. ipad (3rd gen) as goose complained about is not. because its simply too outdated/ too low spec. saying "no excuse" to apple is simply stupid

      • dancj

        I do have to be a bit suspicious though as the previous two versions of a magic ran fine on my iPad 3.

  • Wizard_Mike

    Eli is absolutely spot on with this article. Awesome iteration of Duels, but still misses the mark a bit, and unfortunately the game's few shortcomings overshadow all of the improvements. If they made this game work crossplatform and had the player's account handled by them, rather than just a save file, then I would take them more seriously and would have no hesitations spending a bunch of money. As it stands, I feel more comfortable dumping cash on Hearthstone, even though MTG is my first love when it comes to CCGs (I've been playing since just before Ice Age hit the shelves).

    • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

      I think that's what's so disappointing about this, if they would have just gone a TINY BIT FARTHER this would be without question just how I play Magic from this point forward. I think just how insanely close they are to totally nailing it makes it exponentially more heart breaking, like when you're watching a race and the front runner fucks up just moments before a flawless finish.

      • Kallizm

        Beautiful analogy!

      • Dailon Huskey

        Hopefully some minor improvements and updates will push it over the edge.

  • unexpect3rd

    Isn't such the most common cases with other card battlers/CCGs? As long as the stuffs you worked hard in the game for, as long as it's in digital form stored on a server out of your reach, you can never truly say you have them for long. When ever the companies of such games decides to shut down the game, all these cards,monsters, etc will just be gone.

  • Zainul Setyo Pamungkas

    The game shown on my iPhone 5.
    But when I click install, it said that the app is not compatible with your device.

    • Andre Fairchild

      unlike android, all games are shown to older devices. doesnt mean you can play them. some old devices are too weak to run it

  • L0ck

    Good point re: permanence. I've made the Android jump before and may do it again if korg et al ever start releasing over there, and anything I've put money into suddenly becoming unaccessible leaves a bad taste.

  • diaskeaus

    Not playable on iPad 4. Boo!

  • Tom Swayer

    lol cant play this on my ipadmini...
    just bought the thing a few months ago brand new.
    Cant be that much going on LOL

  • disqus_g3LdJIsMG6

    I love and hate Magic Duels. The interface is always limited and/or frustrating. When you want to destro an opponent's land, you can't cycle through their tapped lands to target something specific. Also, not sure how you're supposed to tell which Acheivements you've completed and which ones you haven't. Seems just a jumbled mess. I've seen some 'glowing' that i have and have not completed.... so unsure what that's all about.
    As for the comparison to Hearthstone, I believe it is apples to oranges. I just couldn't get into HS. Maybe I am a bit biased though, since i've been playing MTG one and off for 20 or so.
    Thanks for the review and comments.... was a good read.

  • jonasflint

    Spot On. I just don't get how WoTC is missing this. Cross platform is the only way to go, and this is such a obviously missed opportunity....

    They just don't seem to get it...