Thursday, July 17, 2014
Recently I had a chance to try out the latest incarnation of Wizards of the Coast's Magic: The Gathering for Xbox 360, titled Magic: The Gathering 2015 - Duels of the Planeswalkers. I'm a big Magic fan, although I've only moderately enjoyed the Xbox and PlayStation releases of the game. The problem in designing a Magic game for next generation consoles is in limiting and balancing the ways that Magic is a free-form deck building game such that there is a standardized experience that gamers can sit down and get right into. That is: if Xbox Live hosted Magic online, it would certainly appeal to the hardcore Magic players on there. But I've played Magic online. And people's decks are just SICK. These days deck building seems to be at a sort of different level than it was when I was a kid. You can learn a lot playing Magic on there. You'll also be demolished right quick most of the time.
There's a singleplayer campaign (multiplayer hosts up to four-player matches) and each tier of the campaign features you playing against decks designed around cards from a certain Magic expansion. As you complete the campaign, you gradually earn cards from that expansion. The game boasts a solid tutorial for non-Magic players. A few set scenarios where the game will teach you how to play if you've never played Magic before. Magic 2015 (and it's previous incarnations) permits players dedicated starting decks that are already well balanced and well prepared. The end result is that it's easier for players to sit down and have a Magic game with less outliers. Less people running around with decks that don't even have enough land and less people running around with decks that can win the game on turn two or three. Of course, the dilemma for game designers is this: half the fun IS in customizing and personalizing your own deck. Right?
Now, it seems to me that Magic 2015 does a very admirable job of balancing the tension between the need to standardize the game and the need to grant players the freedom to create their decks. When you start the campaign, you choose a deck that consists of two colors. Any two color combination is available. You pick one base color and than another color that you add to it. Previous Magic releases on Xbox Live have had some interesting starting decks, although I was often left feeling like "man, some of these are cool but I wish there was a white-blue (or whatever) deck specifically." In this case, no option is left out. Any combination you can dream up is there. The other reason I like this is because for me, growing up, two color decks represented the standard of what people used. I know eventually things gave way to the realization that this was limiting in some ways. Nowadays, you're just as likely to see a one color red burn deck, a well thought out five color deck or even a colorless deck. But for me, this brings Magic back to its roots. Their are five colors and any combination of two leaves you with certain strengths and certain weaknesses.
Cards are unlocked in booster packs. Whenever you win a match in the campaign, you get a chance to 'open' a pack and get a few cards. These are randomized just the way they would be in real life. And yes, you can even buy cards if you want to beef up your deck or unlock all the cards of a certain card set (i.e. Ravnica). Although I suspect their will likely be online tournaments and so on that will give players a chance to win more cards. Once you collect enough cards you can build any deck you want. Granted the cards you use are limited to those programed into the game, but this release seems to cover a lot of ground so to speak, spanning many different Magic sets. The deck builder has an excellent, easy and intuitive layout, complete with easy to read deck analyses.
One nice feature about the deck builder? You don't have to adjust your mana. I mean, yes, if you really want to play with less or more mana you can get in their and fiddle around with the numbers. But the default setting is this: you just pick the cards you want to play with and the builder, through some algorithm, adds an appropriate amount of mana for the kinds of cards you've chosen and how many you've chosen.
Ultimately, the layout and feel of actually playing the game feels the same as previous Magic incarnations. Yet I'm surprised to say that somehow the game feels less cluttered and busy. It seems a little easier to move your cursor over to where you want it to be, easier to navigate the playing field and less overwhelming keeping track of the game. Granted, sooner or later you will getting around to playing a game of Magic that will be cluttered and overwhelming because hey, that's going to happen. Still, I can't quite articulate why, but there's something about the display of the game that seems smoother and easier to read and manage this round out.
Overall, I'm pretty pleased with Magic: The Gathering 2015 - Duels of the Planeswalkers. Going into playing it, I had a feeling I would be sort of lukewarm. I was fully expecting to feel like 'Yeah yeah, I've played the previous incarnations of this, what's going to be different?' And I mean, it doesn't have to be that different. It's already Magic and the game is already great. I'm happy to say that the few tweaks and touches makes everything feel smoother and easier to pick up and play. This is definitely worth the buy even if you've played a lot of Magic already. Expect to see a lot of players on here playing this through the rest of this year.