Video games that have annual releases are usually the subject of many jokes within the industry, with the biggest offender being the sports genre. Honestly, who wants to pay $60+ dollars every year for a new roster and…well, nothing else?
For once, us nerds have an upper hand on the jocks with the Duels of the Planeswalkers series, which has continued to improve with each release. It’s now time for Magic 2015 – Duels of the Planeswalkers, and fans of the franchise can’t wait to take this year’s cards online. The question is, how does this iteration push its quality series forward?
Short answer: by leaving out standard features and play modes, by including micro-transactions that create a pay-to-win model of gameplay, by stripping away much of the beautiful art for sterile white backdrops, by failing to fix horrific loading times and technical flaws and ultimately, by failing to do almost anything right. Long answer: well, see below.
For those not familiar with Magic: The Gathering, a quick recap is in order: you are a Planeswalker, a sorcerer who can summon an endless variety of creative creatures through the use of land, which you draw mana from. Creatures, spells and lands come in five different colors that represent various elements: blue is water, red is fire, etc. Each color has its own play style, and decks can be created with any combination of elements. Much of the appeal of the series comes in the creative freedom it offers players, freedom which is mostly missing from Magic 2015.
When you’ve got as strong a foundation as Stainless Games has with its Duels of the Planeswalkers series, it shouldn’t be hard at all to improve with each new year. All fans asked for after last year’s entry proved to be the best yet was a fully customizable deck building mode, and including just that with new cards, new art and new battles would have been enough to solidify Magic 2015 – Duels of the Planeswalkers as the peak of the series. Yet for some baffling reason, much of the extra content that helped break up the eventual monotony of solo battles has been left out in favor of nothing at all.
Because I don’t think of myself as a cruel man, let’s start with the few positives that Magic 2015 has going for it. As always, the tutorial offered at the beginning of the game is incredibly thorough and in-depth, making it one of the quickest and simplest ways to ease newcomers into the world of Magic: The Gathering. Even my girlfriend, who harbors a healthy hatred for the time suck the game can become, managed to learn most of the basics and actually started to discuss strategies by the end of the tutorial.
As much of a disaster as Magic 2015 is, though, it still retains the core gameplay of past entries, meaning that if you’ve at least loved the way battles have played out you can still enjoy them here. Cards are just as detailed as in real life, battles flow smoothly through phases (albeit a tad bit slower this time around for some reason) and hints can be left on to continue helping newcomers or forgetful fans (read: me).
The long-awaited deck building mode has finally been included, meaning you can draw from your pool of collected cards to make as many different decks as you want. While this mode can be extremely helpful and allow for tons of creative freedom (there are hundreds of cards to work with from five different Planes), there’s one thing holding it back: the lack of cards to start with.
When starting the campaign, you’re given a handful of preset decks to choose from. From then on, that’s your deck and you cannot change it. While the presets in previous games weren’t always the best or most creative, there were at least quite a few to choose from and they offered a ton of variety from the very beginning. In Magic 2015, you’re stuck with one deck until you unlock enough cards to build a totally different one.
Rather than gaining access to full decks or a complete booster pack after finishing each mission in the campaign, you unlock a measly few cards from the Plane you’re in, cards that are often weak and/or duplicates of what you already have. If you want to get all of the cards offered in each Plane, you’ll have to play through a new mode called Explore, which is basically a random battle that rewards you with a handful of cards. This is just a grind option that, while somewhat fun at first, quickly becomes a slog when you just want enough cards to build a brand new deck. While grinding in itself can be fun if you’re enjoying the ride, the inability to change decks midway takes away any variation, and grinding with the same deck becomes absolutely tedious.
Because of this odd change to its gameplay, the first few hours of Magic 2015 – Duels of the Planeswalkers just aren’t much fun. Since you can’t change your deck whenever you want, battles quickly become monotonous. However, Stainless Games have offered an alternative to grinding: micro-transactions. That’s right, if you’re tired of wasting your time earning weak, duplicate cards, you can just spend some real cash and unlock them right from the get-go. While it’s easy to just ignore these attempts at taking more money from fans that have already paid for the game once, it becomes intolerable and unforgivable when certain cards are only made available to those who spend real money.
Getting a leg up in battles through natural progression and earning good cards through battle is one thing, but simply paying to have the best cards is just paying to win. Gamers have recently been outraged by developers charging money for content that should have been included in games in the first place, and Magic 2015 just makes their case even stronger. When your two options are to grind for hours upon hours with a weak deck you can’t switch out or just pay cash to unlock the cards you need, neither are as appealing as past titles were.
Magic 2015‘s sins don’t stop there, however. There are a ton of small technical issues that build up over time to completely erode your patience. Complaining about loading times may seem petty, but in 2014 nobody should have to wait this long just to play a simulated card game. The menus are also cumbersome and at times, unresponsive, as they seem designed for mobile platforms such as tablets and phones. While I’m sure they work great there, they just don’t flow well on a console, and there’s no excuse for them being so sluggish and unresponsive.
The impressively detailed art sprinkled throughout past games has instead been replaced with colorless snapshots over a white loading screen, and battles take place against a white wall. It’s not completely offensive to the eyes, but it’s boring and drab. Why they would squander the wonderful art assets at their hands from the Magic: The Gathering series is a mystery. Also missing from past games are the multitude of extra game modes, including Two Headed Giant, Puzzle mode, sealed decks and Planechase, among others. The omission of these, which have been present in most versions of the game, is unforgivable, especially since nothing new was added to replace them.
Overall, it’s hard to recommend Magic 2015 – Duels of the Planeswalkers to anybody, because it simply isn’t worth playing. While the core gameplay remains true to Magic: The Gathering, past entries have offered the exact same gameplay in addition to much more content and less pay-to-win cash grabs. If you’re a fan of the game, I’d suggest picking up or dusting off last year’s edition, because Magic 2015 has nothing new to offer aside from its deck-building mode. You’d be better off picking up some real cards instead.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which was given to us for review purposes.