Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015

Magic 2015 was another game in the Humble Bundle, and I feel like I got my money’s worth. The game is frequently enjoyable. Arriving after the reportedly horrible bugs had been fixed, I found it worth my time.

First big thing to note: this one features deck-building. As you might imagine, a Magic: the Gathering game without deck-building is a somewhat unsatisfying experience for much of the target audience. Here you go. I was much happier after I switched from the starter deck to the Alara block: rainbow (5 mana for an 8/8? woo!) and then most of the game using a blue/black/white artifact creature deck that comboed beautifully.

The Good

  • Lots of cards, lots of variety. Since I played with physical cards, Magic seems to have gone through an odd trend of adding stronger expensive cards and weakening the cheaper ones, or duct taping two little ones together into a moderately expensive card with options. Counterspell is gone, but there are cards that do the same thing (and maybe more) at a higher price. Lots of dual lands, but not the original dual lands. But lots of big, powerful creatures and combos, which I think a lot of us enjoy as players. If you like Magic cards, here are a lot of virtual cards on the cheap.
  • Computer-controlled decks are flavorful and interesting. The developers took a mechanics and themes and ran with them. Not all of them work, but I think it is okay to have some weak opponents mixed in. A few work ridiculously well in ways players cannot duplicate (see “The Bad”), but you can counter that by building an opposing deck. Some players mourned the passing of puzzles from earlier Duels, but some of the computer decks are effectively puzzles. The quality and variety of computer-controlled decks were the big selling point for me. I had fun and the good outweighed the bad.
  • Part of the fun was recreating the early Magic experience from when the game first appeared, before there were spoiler lists. There was a sense of the unknown, of discovery, that your opponent could pull anything out of his/her deck. Playing Magic 2015, I did not know what cards existed, which were included in the game, which might have been made up for the game, etc. Explorer content!
  • The AI is surprisingly not horrible. You will want to turn off all the ways it tries to help you by making decisions for you, but even that is just “sub-optimal” rather than “appalling.” The computer plays similarly: not perfect, but not horrible, and I think some of its bad decisions were attempts to bluff me.

The Middling or things that don’t matter to Zubon

  • The storyline was meh, where present. It mostly wasn’t present; half the scripted opponents are roughly “something ambushed you,” or was otherwise in your way or opposing you. It was easy to forget that there was supposed to be a storyline. A few pieces were nice.
  • The cut scenes were nice with evocative animation. Someone felt the need to put cut scenes in this game?
  • I had only one crash while playing. Reviews noted lots of bugs and crashes, but I didn’t see that. Either it was fixed or my system is set up like the game is expecting.
  • I noted only one card for which the computer seems to blatantly cheat, Drown in Filth, where the computer was either consistently lucky or else knew how many lands were on top of its deck (as in, targeted 4/4 creatures when it needed 3/4 cards to be lands for that to work). The computer occasionally seemed uncanny in top-decking counters at times, but randomization explains that.
  • I didn’t try multiplayer. That is probably the main draw for many players, but I don’t really trust my happiness to random online players, particularly being set against people who have had six months to complete their collections. Or maybe this is the best time to play, now that a bunch of people just got it from the Humble Bundle. I’ll probably play some friends at some point. For players focusing on this: enjoy hours of PvE to get your deck multiplayer-ready! (Probably a “bad” for them.) I’d like to play with friends sometime.
  • I’m sad for anyone who bought the DLC except maybe the expansion, and even that can’t have been worth 50% of the base game price. For $30, you can pay to instantly collect all the cards you can collect in PvE, and another $10 for the PvP cards. I’m generally not amused with paying to skip grinding, but the grinding here is playing the game, so if you paid to skip it, either you are really keen on getting to PvP now or you just shouldn’t be playing the game.

The Bad

  • The game seems to use true randomization. This should be a “middling” or “good,” but I found it to have perverse effects in play, even being comfortable with randomization. In some ways, it recreates that real Magic experience, and really good and really bad streaks are perfectly normal randomization. In practice, it is very common to draw 4 lands in a row or 0 in 10 cards. I once drew an initial hand with 0 lands, took the mulligan, and got 7. And the mulligan is irrelevant in all but the final boss fight because you can just restart the game if your initial hand is garbage.

    But the computer cannot force a decent first hand. Did you win because you played well or because you got good luck when the computer got average/bad luck? After you lose because of drawing 12 lands in your first 16 cards, then win by turn 7 the next game, you begin to wonder if randomness dominates and it can poison all the joy of doing well while rubbing in the pain of doing badly for no fault of your own. I’m pretty sure some of the computer decks are pretty weak, but I also saw one get 0 lands by turn 3, so maybe I just never experienced some of them properly. It is hard to get a game where you and your opponent have similar levels of luck, and the somewhat limited card pool keeps you from having the full range of options for manipulating probability in deck-building.

  • The computer gets access to a wider variety of cards than the player. They programmed cards into the game and then did not let the players use them.

    They programmed cards into the game and then did not let the players use them.

    I feel like repeating that line a few more times or giving it its own section. Maybe they plan to sell them to players later, but I cannot see why you would build cards into the game, standard Magic cards, and not let the players use them. Some of these are interesting and powerful cards, like adding a win condition to the game. Some of these are weak little things like Wall of Wood. Some of these are those original, full-power inexpensive cards I mentioned, like Bayou and Counterspell. Wait, my opponent gets real Counterspell, and I’m stuck with Nullify and Negate? There are all kinds of interesting strategies I could be playing, but those cards are computer-only? Couldn’t you at least make them PvE-only, if you’re worried about letting them loose in PvP?

  • The interface is clunky. Congratulations, here are the cards you just won! The “deck” and “collection” menus are just seven clicks away! This can also get clunky when the game gives you the chance to put a spell on the stack when many copies of the same thing resolve. For example, firebreathing is resolved one at a time, even if someone paid for the same effect 10 times, as is every instance of Exalted. This is rules-appropriate but “omg it’s still going.” Combat, however, can be set to resolve instantly. I’m still not used to activating regeneration before fatal damage rather than when damage is assigned
  • The game is adware. Loading screens advertise Magic products. Glowing icons advertise the cash shop. You must scroll past the cash shop to view your deck or collection. I’m going to say that one again: you must scroll past their attempt to sell you more cards to see the cards you have.

That ends a bit ranty, but I’m sticking by my assessment at the top: overall, fun and worth the time if you like this sort of thing.

: Zubon

One thought on “Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015”

  1. Let me add something that I found really significant to the “good” column. It lets you play “Magic: the Gathering” without being horribly, horribly expensive. That’s gold.

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