Magic Duels review: Magic Duels falls flat for card sharps

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The Good If you've ever been interested in trying out Magic: The Gathering, the barrier to entry on Magic Duels is as low as it gets, and it's as faithful an adaptation of the tabletop game you're likely to find.

The Bad Slavish copying of the physical card game comes at the cost of fast-paced matches and innovation. While the game will eventually be available on most devices and consoles, not being able to share your card library and progress between versions is very limiting.

The Bottom Line Magic Duels' tutorial mode is among the best ways to learn to play Magic, but interface problems and poor cross-device support mean the average player should look elsewhere for their fix.

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Review Sections

Magic Duels is not Hearthstone. Write that out 100 times. But even after you've filled every chalkboard in the classroom, you'll still be finding ways to compare Magic Duels to the biggest digital card game in the world.

Developer Stainless Games' latest attempt to translate the enduringly popular Magic: The Gathering trading card game from tabletop to screen gets so much right on paper. Magic Duels is free to play, with optional in-game payments. It eases in beginners without costing veterans too much of the scope they're used to. There's an extensive library of cards to collect. And it's available on multiple platforms (iOS and PC at the moment, Xbox One on July 31 and PlayStation 4 later in the year).

But Blizzard's Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft and its 30-million-strong player base still sets the standard. Looking at Magic Duels purely as a digital card game, it falls short. And, it's a shame to say, it was always going to.

The lesson to be learned is that what works for a physical card game won't always work for a digital one, especially when it goes up against such stiff competition.

Magic Duels takes it back to basics for the game's central characters. Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

Faces of the Past

Magic: The Gathering has existed as a game since 1993, evolving constantly since then and winning over 20 million players in the process. It's a game with complex rules, designed to be played in real time with a physical deck of cards. Each player brings a custom deck with carefully selected spell and resource cards, taking turns to cast tricks and attack each other with creatures until one player dies.

Magic Duels wasn't built from the ground up to be a video game. Condensing more than 20 years of game design into a playable video game is a monumental task, and as I've seen with previous attempts to digitize Magic, it's one that's rarely been done successfully.

On that front, it should be stressed that Magic Duels is a resounding success. It's a solid translation from the table to the screen, but that in itself doesn't make it a good video game.

Magic: The Gathering's intricacies are all there, but it lacks the fast pace and innovation at which other digital card games excel. Duels only does what the tabletop version of the game can do, and the kind of plays that could only be made possible in a digital game are nowhere to be found.

Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

Demonic Tutor

Here's a quick run-down of how Magic Duels works. Players each have a deck of 60 cards, containing spells and lands (the resource you use to pay for spells). From there, you can play one land every turn and as many spells as you can afford.

If you're confused, you'll probably appreciate how well the game eases you into it all. Magic Duels should be lauded for its tutorial. If you've never "tapped a basic land" before (or have no idea what those words even mean) there's a short set of quests at the start of the game that leads you through the basics of playing Magic. When a new ability appears, you also have the option to immediately play a quick "Skill Quest" to see how it works in practice.

Take, for example, the first time you see a creature with the "Trample" effect. You might remember that if a Trample creature's power is greater than the defender's toughness excess damage will be dealt to the defending player. But if the legalese rule explanations don't do it for you, you can play a turn or two on a test table to see how it actually works.

Cards with special rules or abilities get animations or icons (creatures with the Flying ability hover over the board and Trample cards have a small footprint icon, for instance), and even after you've played the relevant skill quest you can still zoom in on any card to read detailed information if you forget what the icons mean.

Creatures with special abilities are marked with different icons and animations. Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

Handling all the bookkeeping is also something the game does incredibly well. In the physical game you have to keep track of which creatures have bonuses to attack or toughness, or if your creatures can't be blocked, or whether or not you remembered to assign damage from a dying goblin. Magic Duels takes care of all of that for you.

In fact, the whole single player mode seems designed to give players a taste of Magic: The Gathering, from learning the rules to playing with different types of decks.

There are five separate campaigns in Story Mode, each following a central Magic character through their origin story, which will take you a few hours to play through. The first of these serves as the tutorial, and most of the game's functions are locked until you play through all five rounds. Completing a round upgrades your deck, giving you access to more advanced cards, which is a clever way to sneak in lessons on complex card interactions and customising decks.

It's a smart way to give newcomers a taste of what the game itself has to offer. And an early, burning hatred for playing against blue control decks, but that's neither here nor there.

Beyond the solo play, there's also a casual multiplayer mode and a more serious ranked mode to test your decks against other players, as well as a two-versus-two team battle called Two-Headed Dragon.

Time Walk

Magic Duels is a turn-based game. You'll draw a card from your deck, play your spells and launch your attack. Your opponent will be able to defend against it with creatures they already have on the board. However, there's also an important timing structure to Magic because certain spells (called "Instants") and other abilities can be used at almost any time on either player's turn. If several of these are played in the same window, the effects go on a "stack," with the most recently played effect triggering first.

It's part of what makes a digital version of Magic so hard to get right. The game isn't truly turn-based, since you need to be aware of every card that gets played and take advantage of these windows of opportunity.

The solution was a 3-second timer in the bottom right corner of the screen that I came to think of as the shot clock. Any time you could trigger an Instant spell or ability, the clock would tick down. Either player could jump in to make one of these plays, or pause the clock to take a little more time to plan things out.

Pause the timer and zoom in on your cards to keep track of their special abilities. Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

The implementation of the timer is a mixed blessing, and it's really at the heart of my problems with Magic Duels. In theory it's an elegant way to implement the complex timing of the tabletop version of the game, but digital card games are traditionally about fast play, and the timer meant the pace never felt quite right.

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