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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Turns where you do nothing but put out a land card stretch out far longer than they need to as you wait for the clock to run down on every phase of your turn, while at other times you nervously hover over the pause button to play a long sequence of actions. The constantly spinning clock makes a round of Magic Duels feel both frantic and drawn out at the same time.
Reap and Sow
Magic Duels, like many mobile games, is free to play and it implements that very well. It won't cost you anything to install, and you can theoretically play the entire game without paying a cent. Completing games earns you the in-game currency, from 5 coins against easy AI to 20 for beating a human player. Daily quests (usually winning games with a certain type of deck) give you another cash bonus.
One lovely touch was a "community quest," which is a long-term goal that everyone playing the game needs to work together to complete. At the time of writing, players everywhere had a few days to transform a total of 15,000 creatures into Planeswalkers, a rare and powerful type of ally. Again, this offers another pouch of coins if it's accomplished before the deadline.
Booster packs of cards will cost you 150 coins a pop. With six random cards per pack and hundreds to collect, you'll be buying boosters for quite some time. As with most digital card games, you can buy in-game currency with real money to expedite the process a little, if you feel the need.
Sadly, here the Hearthstone comparisons again reared their head. In Hearthstone, it's possible to destroy cards in your collection for a type of in-game currency ("dust") that can only be used to create other cards. It's a very neat way to deal with duplicates and gain access to cards you really want, but just can't seem to find. There's no such luck in Magic Duels, where players seem bound by the luck of the draw.
The fact you can play the game for free is a huge positive. One of the big problems with Magic: The Gathering is the high barriers to entry, both in learning the rules and buying cards. Magic Duels very neatly sidesteps both of these problems.
Gather the Pack
"Deck Wizard" is a very smooth process that cycles you through all the possible deck combos and guides you through common play styles, from a focus on Flying to packing your deck with spells that require you to sacrifice your own creatures.
Select a play style and the Deck Wizard offers you a range of cards that can be dropped into the deck based on cards already in your collection. You'll also get advice on what kind of cards you should be selecting, from the generic "try to include 20-30 creatures" to more specific, such as "look for spells that allow you to steal your opponent's creatures." After you're done choosing spells, it will automatically add the optimal numbers of resource cards.
If you want to go rogue, you can build your deck from scratch. You'll have access to your entire card collection, rather than picking from five cards at a time. On the iOS version of the game you can filter cards by colour, while the PC version also lets you filter by spell type and rarity, but this is very much an expert-only endeavour.
That said, even the expanded PC filter seemed a little lacking. I couldn't search for all the zombie-type creatures I owned as I went about building a zombie deck, despite that being a keyword in the game. The resulting process required a lot of flipping back and forth through pages of my library of cards.
There's no two ways about it. The interface, especially on the iOS version, isn't good. There's a lot of wasted space around the edges and in how your resources are laid out, meaning the actual cards feel cramped and often too small to make out without liberal use of the game's zoom function.
It feels like the developers leaned very heavily on recreating a physical tabletop layout, but the result is something that feels clunky on smaller touchscreens. Cards would start to overlap each other and cycling through options on things like resource combinations to pay for cards felt like a chore. More than once I flubbed a play with the touch controls.
Thankfully, the PC version (which is where I spent most of my time) was immeasurably easier to control. A bigger screen meant the visibility issues on the tablet version weren't as prominent, and playing with mouse made manipulating the cards much simpler. Zooming was a matter of using the scroll wheel, and a cursor made clicking a specific card a snap.
In jumping from PC to iOS, there was one other major issue. Hearthstone has cross-device play. You'll log into the one Hearthstone account, and no matter if you're playing on PC, Android or iOS, your quest progress and card collection is the same.
Not so with Magic Duels. The iOS version was linked to my Apple account and the PC version was linked to my Steam account. My progress in solo modes didn't carry over between the two different versions and, crucially, neither did the cards I had unlocked. Essentially, everything I did on the iOS version was locked to the iOS version, and the Steam version was entirely separate. Given the collectible nature of the massive card library, I can't stress how big an issue this is for the game.
You'll be locked into one platform, and if you have to choose, I'd recommend PC over iOS in a heartbeat.
The hard part in learning to play many card games isn't committing the rules to memory. Even a complex game like Magic can be picked up with a little practice. The real struggle is in learning what players call the meta game -- the types of decks people are playing, the counters to common play styles, how all the cards on offer interact and the most powerful combos to be found.
Between the tutorials and the deck-building tips, Magic Duels does a surprisingly good job of managing both. But, again, that doesn't make it ready to go head to head with Hearthstone, or really any other digital card game on offer. It's far more fun to play on PC, but it still has some of the same issues as the tablet version.
Magic Duels does not seem like a game poised to capture an audience keen to bash out a round or two on their commute home. But, to be fair, the more I played of it, the less I was convinced that this was ever the intention.
The biggest tip-off is the way the game looks. It's trying to capture the feel of sitting at a table and playing cards. And, for better or worse, that's what it does. For my money, it's one of the best ways to learn to play Magic, short of being dragged along to your local game store by an eager friend.
If you've ever been even slightly curious to learn the game, you've got every reason to try out Magic Duels. It just doesn't give you many reasons to stick around.