One of the first games I ever bought on the App Store was Solitaire City ($2.99), and I remember thinking all the way back in mid-2008 that card games work amazing on touch screens and how unfortunate it was that (at the time) the most complicated offering available was the same game of Solitaire I’d spent most of my educational career playing on Windows computers. Since then, there have been a number of collectable card games available on the App Store, but they all pale in comparison to the nearly 20 years of refinement and evolution that Magic the Gathering has experienced since the physical game was originally release in 1993. Of course, two decades of complexity, rulings, and card releases can be a double edged sword in that getting involved as a new player is potentially very intimidating.
This is exactly where Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 (Free) comes in. I’ve often described the previous installments (only available on PC and consoles) as a “gateway drug" to the Magic universe, and really, I still can’t come up with a better way to put it. Previously, getting into M:TG required buying (potentially lots) of physical cards, and either finding someone to play with or attending an actual event like Friday Night Magic. Even then, you’d still deal with the fact that it’s a complicated game that (despite Wizards of the Coast’s best efforts) is fairly difficult to learn without someone teaching you all the little nuances.
Enter Magic 13. If you own an iPad, it’s totally free to download and try out. In fact, there’s so much free content included that if your goal with the game is to learn it to the point that you can go play the physical edition of the game, you could totally do that. Taking it one step farther, in the not too distant future you’ll even be able to buy pre-packaged decks at card shops that are very similar to the ones found in game. The tutorial is fantastic. Keywords on cards are fully explained with “More Info" buttons everywhere and informational pop-ups filling the gaps in between.
If you decide you’re enjoying yourself, a single $9.99 in-app purchase unlocks the rest of the game. With that, you’ll eventually get access to 7 more decks, over 250 additional cards, a full single player campaign, 10 puzzle challenges, full online play, and much more. If you want to kick things up further, for 99¢ a pop you can immediately unlock decks you’d unlock via completing challenges in-game, and there’s even an option to convert your favorite deck(s) to fancy “foil" cards for 99¢ a deck. These two things are totally optional, and even a little silly to consider.
I’ve played the two previous Duels of the Planeswalkers games an embarrassing amount, and in the time I’ve spent on both the iPad and Xbox 360 versions of the 2013 iteration, this is the absolute definitive version of the game. Controlling the game by tapping to target and dragging cards from your hand feels incredibly natural, and the experience is almost on par with the physical game on the Retina Display of the 3rd generation iPad. The game is high resolution enough that you can read card text, which makes everything flow so much better. Comparatively, playing on consoles involves moving a cursor around and continually zooming in to read text. This is so much better.
The only thing the iPad game is missing that its console brethren has is four player online multiplayer. The version you’ll find on the App Store is limited to two person multiplayer battles. Thankfully, it all works over Game Center and (currently) even waiting for a random battle with someone online rarely takes more than a few seconds. It’d be nice if you had a way to communicate with your opponent, but, whatever- It might almost be better to not have people screaming at you Xbox Live style.
You can still play in four player battles, it’s just against AI opponents. Additionally, both two headed giant and Planechase modes are available for these games- Another massive benefit, as even if you play a lot of physical magic, getting people to break out of the standard format can be a little challenging. In a nutshell, two headed giant is a 2v2 battle where you and your teammate share a life total. Planechase is a recently introduced game mode where larger central cards have constant effects on the game field. Both are a lot of fun, and all the complications of tracking persistent effects and counters are beautifully handled by the game.
My criticisms of Magic 2013 are shared with previous iterations of the game in that the pacing is a little slow. It’d be nice if there were a button you can push for when you don’t have any viable responses to anything your opponent is capable of doing and you just want to fast forward to your turn instead of waiting through all the step timers. Additionally, targeting the effects of some of the cards can be tricky the first time you do it, and without an undo button it can be frustrating when you make a mistake in trying to tell the game what you want it to do.
It’d also be nice to have more deck customization, but it seems clear that as a Magic gateway drug, as soon as you’re ready to step up to the “good stuff" of building your own deck you should explore either getting involved in the real game, or try out Magic Online. As someone who has played Magic most of my life, either are great choices.
Something to keep in mind, is that even though Magic 2013 breaks the game down into easily digestible chunks, it still can be tricky. Our forum thread is home to a few people who think they’re experiencing “bugs," when in reality, they’re just running into rule nuances they don’t understand. For instance, you can play a card like Nature’s Lore and hit a button to complete the casting of the card without playing a land. Initially you might think this is a problem with the game, when in reality, the “Search" keyword makes playing a land totally optional, and the game is letting you choose not to play the land. But, again, I feel like once you reach this point that you’re looking into these things, you might have outgrown Magic 2013, and eventually getting you to that step almost seems to be the point of the game.
Regardless of whether you’ve been vaguely curious about Magic the Gathering or an experienced player, you need to try Magic 2013 on the iPad. For us veterans of the game, it’ll also serve as a cruel tease and horrid reminder of how badly Magic Online needs an iPad port. But, by the time you hit the point that you need to fork out some cash for the $9.99 unlock, you’ll already know whether or not you’re into it, which is a payment model that I find really easy to get behind.