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Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 Preview

It’s easy to forget how lucky we are sometimes. When I was younger, a school friend and I were fortunate to come across an old magazine demo disc. They’re often filled with a lot of trash, but you get the occasional gem. But for us, one program was more than that. It was as satisfying and as enjoyable as a full game itself, the demo for Microprose’s digital take on Magic: The Gathering.

But the game was difficult to find in stores. I searched every store within an hour’s radius – an effort my mother and I repeated threefold for Pandora’s Box, although that’s a story for another time – to no avail. My family couldn’t afford the internet for a couple of years later, and even then the dial-up connection was not sufficient to trawl through the thousands and thousands of sites that might have contained The Holy Grail.

Online purchases were not the magical solution they were today: if anything, the scepticism users had for sharing personal information then would be mighty handy in our post-Snowden world. So my friend and I went without. Some good fortune, but more likely due to my adorable mother’s arcane-like mental processes, meant that I did come by some old Magic cards down the road.

So with a strong well of patience, my friend were able to enjoy the real-life pursuit that is Magic. And don’t be confused: Magic is undoubtedly a pursuit, in the same vein that photography or track days are the domain of adults. It’s a costly, often unforgiving game, and with no luck in finding Microprose’s excellent recreation of Shandalar and having no allowance of my own, my passion for Magic was forced to lay dormant for almost 15 years.

Gamers these days are not so unfortunate. After years of failing to make Magic Online appeal to the masses, Wizards of the Coast, owners of the Magic license, turned to Stainless Games, a British-based developer more attuned to the the blood and guts strewn around in the Carmageddon series. But their affinity for measured, calculated combat – no doubt driven by their work remaking a series of old IPs as downloadable titles – proved a perfect fit for crafting a newer, more accessible entry into the world of magic, monsters and Planeswalkers.

Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 is the fifth iteration of the DOTP series and the second to be properly multi-platform, supporting all consoles, PC, Mac and even iOS and Android devices. The success of the digital version has become a cornerstone of Hasbro’s marketing strategy, being largely responsible for the franchise enjoying 66% growth over the last three years. It’s now more popular than Monopoly and, with 20 million across 70 countries enjoying Magic in 11 languages, sits nicely among the pantheon of gaming brands.

And after the last couple of years, the Magic archetype sits nicely within the gaming landscape. Every free-to-play collectible card game, and even titles in other genres that have integrated their own CCG elements, has spent the last two years running as far away as possible from Magic. Interrupt mechanics have fallen out of vogue; counterspell is a dirty word for the casual player. Three or four-colour decks, builds combining multiple factions or races, litter the collective cutting room floor, designers convinced the complexity is beyond the attention span or will of most gamers.

In effect, the industry has, seeing the niche Richard Garfield created, formed a cabal around the Goliath, only to strengthen the vice-like grip Wizards of the Coast has. There might be Netrunner, Garfield’s follow-up to Magic, and the childlike but utterly serious strategy within the Pokemon CCG, but if you’re hankering for a thinker’s, no holds barred CCG, Magic is still the only answer. And after multiple iterations, DOTP is still the perfect entrance.

A few changes have been made in 2015 to make the barrier to entry even easier. There’s a six-part tutorial covering the intricacies, including the all-important interrupt mechanic and the arcane behaviour behind the stack, a term for the order in which spells are resolved. The stack is especially important if you ever want to enjoy Magic at, say, your local gaming store during a draft or a prerelease event, although the cards in DOTP have traditionally been simple enough that you can get by without a detailed understanding.

DOTP doesn’t have cut-down versions of cards – all of the cards are available in real-life Magic - but anything on the extreme end of the power scale, like a Sphinx’s Revelation or a Nephalia Drownyard, is not welcome here. Even the cards that are truly powerful, like the 6/6 mythic Soul of Zendikar, are limited to one per deck, a restriction more familiar in Blizzard’s Hearthstone than the champion of “premium” CCGs.

But Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro understand that a premium tag is worthless if the barrier to entry is too high, and everything about DOTP 2015 has been designed with this in mind. The menu and battle backgrounds have been tweaked slightly, dropping the vibrancy of 2014 with a striking grey/white theme. At first, it seems like such a pointless, unremarkable change, but the cards, which have carried black borders since 10th Edition, stand out more.

It’s most noticeable on tablets, where the smaller screen size and the challenges presented for readability are much more greater. DOTP 2015 is no less enjoyable on tablets – you’ll still need to zoom in on certain cards, but that’s part of the fun of CCGs, learning new monsters and spells and pondering the tactics they make possible – and the new, diamond-centric interface, is leaner and much more crisp than previous versions.

Not all changes are welcome. The turn of the new year has seen the scrapping of Sealed Deck, a mode which has always been close to my heart and Wizards of the Coast’s, considering it features at every prerelease tournament around the world. It seems odd to time the release of the digital product with the real-world core set while dropping the same format that was introduced only 12 months prior.

On the positive, last year’s system of unlocking a single card after each victory has been mostly scrapped. Wins will unlock boosters, expanding the potential of your deck, although it was confirmed to me that the packs will initially start with 1 card, later growing in size over the course of the game to a full 15-card booster.

Cracking open boosters is part of the magic of CCGs and even though you don’t get that new card smell or the tactile feel in DOTP, it’s a sensible inclusion. Small UI changes like adding a red battle bar when the combat phase begins so players – particularly those on tablets – have a greater understanding of what creatures are attacking is clever as well.

It’s difficult to say much about how the game plays with the new themed decks without a good couple of hours’ experience. The preconstructed theme decks share two colours each – a similar trait in previous DOTP games, although the game overall has been moving to a more creature-focused, faster style of game that favours fewer colours – although precisely what archetypes are represented we will only discover upon release.

Little of the plot was covered besides the corruption of Garruk, although it gave the PR team present an opportunity to show off Stainless’s increasingly competent – but short – CG skills. Magic has a plethora of art to draw upon; Wizards of the Coast has so many artists they could comfortably run their own breeding program. The striking backgrounds intensify the focus on the art even more in DOTP, a long-time strength of Magic when you consider the high quality even on the most useless cards.

The deckbuilder will be familiar to those who jumped in last year, although I’d still strongly recommend building your own decks. My handler threw in a couple of six mana (converted cost) Nightmare cards and let the algorithm build the rest, which it did, but the mana curve was so wildly inconsistent the deck would struggle to be playable, let alone consistent. I can’t imagine any deck that could function with the same amount of 6 or 7 drops as 2 drops, while having absolutely no support in the middle and no capacity to mana ramp.

But in a way, that’s the whole point. The more you learn to explore DOTP 2015, the more you’ll get out of it. Precisely how much more we won’t know until release. Until then, however, it’s looking like this year’s iteration is still the most efficient way to enter the world of Magic - even if it will never reach the great heights of Shandalar when Microprose ventured there in the late 90s.

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