Have You Played… Magic: The Gathering Planeswalkers?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers, to be specific. There’s a bunch of ’em, so I’m asking about any of ‘em, really. I’ve played two in my time, and fairly briefly, but last week I played actual, proper, cardboard Magic for the first time (somehow I won 20/0 against my extremely veteran opponent first time, then was demolished handily in the three successive games), and all of sudden those entries in my Steam library are a constant temptation.

Magic 2015 truly taught me the rules, and after for years thinking Magic was a fusty and over-complicated game, it turns out that they are extremely elegant rules. Hearthstone’s a different game for sure, but I can really see now quite how much it plundered from the granddaddy of fantasy card battles. In this age of designer boardgames which take five hours to learn, Magic is so remarkably stripped back, using this core set of inviolable rules then somehow spinning them off into vast amounts of per-card variety. It’s an amazing creation, though it is of course one designed to perpetually siphon ever-more money from me. Each clever card an opponent obtains requires me to obtain something similar, and on and on.

Magic 2015 lacks, I can tell even from these early experiences, an awful lot of what Magic For Reals has. Deck-building is so poor and cumbersome, the slow, clumsy UI is so much less fluid than the simple gestures used in cardboard play, and the overall structural rigidity is antithetical to the get in there, muck about, see what works and what doesn’t ethos of casual Magic-with-chums play. The 2013 version I played a couple of years previous seemed a whole lot less fussy, if less prettily presented. Even so, now they’re there, able to feed what is in some danger of becoming a habit. I wish there was a way to recreate my opponent’s best deck – this Black one which perpetually generates shedloads of mana and can insta-kill all my best stuff – though. I must know how to defeat him.

I guess what I am really saying is ‘Have You Played Magic: The Gathering’, but it’s also an excuse for people to hold forth about what did and didn’t work about the PC adaptations, and what future versions should ideally do.

41 Comments

  1. Baf says:

    It’s always seemed to me that the rigidity of Duels of the Planeswalkers — which is to say, its failure to provide for the same degree of experimentation that you get with physical cards — is a help for the casual dabbler in Magic. This is a game that doesn’t expect you to know how to build a deck, and doesn’t give you any advantages if you do. It just gives you the experience of playing the game with minimal fuss (which is to say, given the rules, a certain amount of fuss).

    • malkav11 says:

      In my case it’s less that I don’t understand deckbuilding and more that it’s never interested me particularly, but I agree that the lack of it has been a major selling point of the franchise, not a detriment. Unfortunately it’s one they appear to be on course to abandon.

      • Aben Zin says:

        It’s a bit of a double edged sword – As rather a veteran play I found the earlier games a bit frustrating with the rather rigid decks.

        I think the last game got things pretty right (in the end). Deck building was possible, encouraged in fact, but you can just unlock and use the archetype decks.

  2. Mr. Mister says:

    I’m more of a YGOpro guy myself (never bothered with physical though).

  3. swerty says:

    Yep, these are okay. I’ve had phases of die-hard Magicdom over the past ten years, from not playing at all to constantly churning my noggin during any spare moment for new casual deck ideas. The best part about the Planeswalkers games is the challenge mode, where the designers set up a specific, mid-game situation you need to work yourself through. They weren’t ever particularly difficult, but it was fun to find the logic of the puzzles.

    And that they weren’t that tough goes along with a sort of theory I have about regular 60card Magic, that the majority of the strategy of the game – outside of high-skill-ceiling eternal formats – is not in actually playing the game, but in deckbuilding. Which makes the Planeswalkers games largely a disappointment for me and players like me, since you have so little agency in the deck you play. You can unlock cards if you sink a lot of time into the game, sure, but the choices of which cards to swap in and out are mostly no-brainers. It’s cool that it can rope new players like Alec into the game, though.

    Also, when a few iterations back they revealed that there was a new sealed/draft mode in the game, I was ecstatic. I thought I’d be spending days at a time just drafting ad infinitum and playing the computer. No such luck. You can ultimately only draft a couple times before your draft deck slots fill up. You can’t delete your decks, either. And if you just go in and delete the data off your drive, you find that the game sets up a seed that ties which cards you’ll see to your account. Utter bullshit. And of course, you can pay for extra draft deck slots as DLC. Yeah.

    So that’s DotP really. It’s for roping new folks into the game, but only in a way that directly benefits Wizards. Experienced players who want to play some good, respectable, customizable Magic, are instead playing on Cockatrice.

    • Pantalaimon says:

      It directly benefits everyone who plays Magic to bring new players into the game. Not to mention, the thousands of people who start out playing those games each year.

    • GiantPotato says:

      If you want to play with sealed decks without paying every time then you have to play Shandalar, which was released in 1997. It’s too bad that WotC doesn’t want to make games like that anymore.

    • Orful Biggun says:

      I’m the same as you, swerty, going from die-hard mode (spending hours and hours on cardboard M:TG and Apprentice, years ago, replaced by Forge, now; playing, designing decks, talking strategies, looking at cards, reading articles, etc.) … to not even thinking about M:TG for weeks or months on end.

      I’m not at all interested in M:TGO … I’ve sunk real money into cardboard M:TG (no I don’t keep up with standard but the money I’ve spent is real enough to me!). My son and I have something like 16K cards, and I’m not rich, so that’s a no-brainer for me.

      But DotP, thankfully, seemed to be looking for middle ground in there somewhere. Maybe someplace for beginners to learn, and someplace for people like me who wanted to play online but who weren’t about to start sinking $ into digital card collections via MGTO. I’ve only played DotP 2014 and 2015, and I think there are some good things to say about it. But there are also some issues.

      I liked 2014’s challenge mode, as well. I thought the best thing about it was the sealed play until, like you, I discovered how “limited” (pun very much intended) that actually was, and became thoroughly pissed and disillusioned.

      2015 had a lot more depth to its deck-building (not enough, IMO, but better than before), but it had its own issues.

      Hopefully the Duels Origins thing this year can finally square the circle. Would be nice.

  4. agitated_android says:

    I played that first Duels of the Planeswalkers but not since. I certainly enjoyed it, though.

    I’m actually looking forward to their new platform strategy coming later this year to get back into it.

  5. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    I’m glad this feature is back!

    “Endless recommendations” rings a little hollow when it goes away for a whole month.

  6. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I played the 2012 and 2013 iterations of DotP. They were good enough, especially for the price, but quite a few bugs remain in those games. I do like that they added manual land tapping at some point, but it never got added to the games which didn’t have it.

  7. Pantalaimon says:

    The yearly editions of Planeswalker games have been hugely successful for WotC in introducing players to the game, which is the important part. Lost count of how many people I’ve spoken to who came in via that route since they started the games up. They largely attribute the growth of the game in recent years and the influx of new talent to the game series. Their polish actually kind of lusted after by players of the stripped back if (mostly) functional Magic Online client. And as you say, paper is the game at its best, but it’s nice to be able to play in your t-shirt and boxers at 4am.

    Good news, though, the money siphoning part is set to end this year with the release of Magic: Duels Origins (I think I got that name arrangement right). It’s going to be completely free to play, which is quite a departure for WotC, and seems to be tied into the Magic proper release this Summer of Magic Origins, which is the reboot of the core set, telling the story of some of the planeswalker characters. They’ve also said that deckbuilding with whatever cards are built in is going to be unrestricted. For anyone who really wants digital deckbuilding, Magic Online is really the way to go, once you’ve got your feet wet.

  8. iago says:

    I played first game of this name, 1995 MicroProse version. It was best M:TG game ever since.

    • nullward says:

      Yeah, I’ve heard the first iteration had a kind of adventure/strategy vibe where you wandered around dueling and winning cards on an overworld. Personally that sounds SO much more interesting than all of the recent DotP games I’ve played. Why port magic to a computer if you’re not going to take advantage of the cool things computers can do, like render worlds?

      I still play the 2015 one occasionally when I want a single-player Magic fix but I’m always disappointed by the interface and the general lack of imagination. The extent of the world-building they a paragraph of text before each “encounter”, all of which are canned and extremely bland. They spent more time making pretty animations and loud, annoying sound effects than actually thinking about what would make an interesting backdrop to the core game.

      They’re great for learning the game, it’s true — a no-pressure environment to get a hand on the rules. But they could be so much more… what I really pine for is an RPG where you play Magic to resolve battles.

      • malkav11 says:

        The closest you’re likely to get to the Shandalar experience in modern digital TCGs is probably the PvE end of Hex (hextcg.com), but I don’t think it’s actually going to be the same sort of open world-y wandering, and of course most of it isn’t in place yet. They did just launch the Frostfire Ring, an arena mode with twenty battles against randomized computer enemies: four tiers, each with four regular enemies followed by a boss encounter. Limited number of lives, gold and equipment and PvE cards all available as loot. But while that’s surprisingly robust, it’s not nearly as grand as the dungeons they’re planning, based on what they’ve shown of them.

        • Premium User Badge

          DelrueOfDetroit says:

          There was also the Pokemon Trading Card Game on Gameboy. It was basically the same as Pokemon, where you walked around and battled gym leaders, only you played the card game instead of fighting. I don’t recall seeing it in the 3DS store.

          • malkav11 says:

            Huh. I knew it existed, but I had no idea it was more than just one on one duels vs the AI, maybe some sort of system link multiplayer.

    • airmikee says:

      Is that why none of the newer versions of the game look interesting? I played the original back when I still collected and played with the cards and it was a nice alternative when I couldn’t get together with friends. But each time I look at one of the newer games something just seems… off.

  9. mpk says:

    It kind of terrifies me that I first played Magic nearly twenty years ago.

    It kind of saddens me that my parents threw out a shoe box full of almost twenty-year-old Magic cards when they moved a while ago, just as I remembered about them and wanted to sell them.

    Ho hum.

    • Imbecile says:

      Yeah, I’ve been playing Shadowfist for a similar length of time. I’ve dipped in and out of MtG and a few other CCGs (Netrunner was great – whats the new version like?), but always returned to ‘Fist.

      20 years is a long time though :(

  10. Edgewise says:

    The problem is that MtG wasn’t really designed for digital play. Notice how Hearthstone has no instants? Instants ruin the digital experience, because you’ve got to give people time to play an instant in response to EVERY SINGLE CARD their opponent plays. The amount of time will inevitably be too long or too short, or worst of all, both. Too short if it doesn’t give you enough time to respond – which happened all the time when I played it earlier this year, to much cursing. Too long if it bogs down the game with a timer after every card played – which also happened all the time when I played.

    There are definitely problems with the DotP interface, but I think the issues with instants are integral to the game and an unavoidable problem.

    • JimThePea says:

      They give you a pause button for considering playing instants, or for just checking out what’s being played.

      For me, being able to tap loads of creatures/lands with a single button feels like a major efficiency over the paper game, not to mention instantaneous shuffling/effects/working out damage.

      • Edgewise says:

        I am quite aware of the pause button (the game would be nigh-unplayable without it). However, there were too many times that I didn’t manage to hit it before the timer ran out. And when I didn’t have anything to respond with, it was annoying to either have to wait for the timer or click to skip it…and getting in the habit of clicking to skip worsens the problem of missing the pause window when I actually need it.

        • Baring says:

          I’m pretty sure you can press “space” or some such to have it pause. :)

  11. welverin says:

    No, but I have played the real MtG off and on over the years, been to long since the last time however.

  12. Mitch.sp says:

    If someone want to play a much deeper F2P cardgame alternative to HeartStone, I can fervorous suggest Might and Magic Duel of Champions.

    With more that 2 years of life, great art, 2 Base Set, several expansions, Standard and Legacy game modes, every card in the game available to free players and with an economic model really generous for new players.

    Is based in the lore of Might and Magic saga, and gameplay is really interesting, with 6 distinctive factions, and actually with 10 heroes for each faction, offering lots of options for gameplay and deckbuilding.

    Using a referal link for other player give new accounts 6 starter decks, one for each faction, plus another free one.

    link to signup.duelofchampions.com

    and here is a redeem code still active for more free packs:
    TH4NK5-70K-D0C-F4CEB00K-L3G1ON

    To redeem them after creating your account you can go to the ‘SHOP’ in-game and click on the blue ‘REDEEM CODE’ button on the bottom.

    • Koozer says:

      MMDoC is good, but I got bored of the lack of things to do as a casual player. The tournaments give you nothing unless you win, allow the use of old cards now inaccessible without real money, and there’s no draft/sealed mode.

  13. binkbenc says:

    You really want to try Forge (I won’t link here, but it’s pretty easy to find at slightlymagic.net). It’s quite simply the best implementation of M:tG I’ve played. I grew up on the card game and the Microprose adaptation, and the Duels series never really did it for me. But Forge, Forge is something else. And the best (or worst, depending on how you value your life) thing is that there’s a version for phones. You’d think it would be cramped, but it works perfectly on my HTC M8. Having full Magic in your pocket is just amazing. Train journeys fly by, boring meetings are a thing of the past, getting fired is a daily occurrence. It’s great.

    • RanDomino says:

      Forge is good but I prefer Manalink for its aesthetic, superior bug tracking system, and sheer audacity. I’ll agree that Forge has a much better (by which I mean less blatantly suicidal) AI.

  14. amateurviking says:

    As soon as anyone mentions deck building I break out into a cold sweat. Stresses me out so it does. Never graduated beyond the practice decks in Hearthstone for that reason. I find it hard to work out where decks are going wrong and fix them and I feel like using wikis etc kind of defeats the porpoise. This is exponentially more the case in games where you don’t have access to all the cards by default.

    • Pantalaimon says:

      It’s a hugely challenging part of the game, of course, but getting that intial handle on what you should be doing is probably the hardest part. The Duels games do pretty much ease you into it, though. After you know the fundamentals of construction, it evolves into something else entirely.

  15. April March says:

    So what happened to Magic Online?

    • malkav11 says:

      Nothing. It is still very much an active thing. But it’s an active thing with (reputedly) a terrible design and that expects you to pay real world Magic prices for digital cards, which is crazy on multiple levels. Whereas the Duels games are a self-contained one time purchase, for the most part, and deliver a feel for the game without the expense or the flexibility.

      • Derpa says:

        You are typically paying half or even less when getting the digital version of the card vs paper.

        • malkav11 says:

          Important distinction: are you talking about in singles and player-to-player transactions? Because I’m talking about the boosters and starters that WotC themselves sell.

          • Pantalaimon says:

            The only digital things you need to buy from Wizards is event packs if you play in pre releases (which are actually pretty good value). Everything else can and should be bought from players. For example you can usually get around 200 bulk cards for $1. The majority of other cards are less than say 20 cents, although the more desirable rares can be anywhere from 50 cents to $50 :) In recent sets it has been entirely possible to at least break even drafting online so your only outlay is the first few drafts or any singles you pick up for constructed.

            Basically outside of having a tournament ready Modern or Vintage deck, it’s not that expensive compared to other online games, and even those decks are mostly less expensive than their real world counterparts (yet you can still play in tournaments and if you’re good enough, get sent to tournaments on Wizards’ dime).

        • GiantPotato says:

          Buying a digital version of a collectible good is not a concept that I understand. Maybe some people look at MGO and see a cheaper way to collect cards, but when I look I see a more expensive way to play a card game.

          • malkav11 says:

            It’s something that people have been wrangling with for a while. If I recall correctly, when Magic Online launched their decision to have identical digital pricing to retail was tied to a guarantee that if you so desired you could cash out your virtual cards for physical copies, as a way of assuaging fears about committing to digital goods. I have no idea if that’s still a going policy.

            Personally, I made my peace with it when I got into much lamented early digital TCG Star Chamber, which did some really cool things crossing light 4X gameplay with a TCG. But even when SOE bought them up (and later, when the designer did the digital Everquest TCG), I’m pretty sure their pricing was a lot less than $4 a pack. Yeesh. And all gone now, since Sony killed their whole line of digital TCGs. :(

            I would much rather these games keep to a Duels-style pricing where you get the available set of cards for a single (low) price, with additional one-off expansions as needed, or at least mimic the LCG business model (occasional big box sets, more or less monthly dollops of additional cards year round, but fixed content packs always), but the fact is the randomized collectible model is a license to print money, and these other models merely provide a modest cash flow. It’s too tempting for a lot of folks to pass up. And unlike the tabletop space, where Magic and just a couple of other TCGs (mostly ones that aim for kids) pretty much have a lock on the market, digital TCGs are just flowering. Room to establish yourself, if you do it right. (Hearthstone is rapidly -becoming- a juggernaut, but it’s still pretty new and the fight’s not over by any means. And even if it does dominate, I fully expect there to be room for more complex, heavyweight games to snag people for whom Hearthstone just isn’t enough.)

          • Pantalaimon says:

            @malkav11 You can still redeem fully complete digital sets for paper versions. Though I’m not sure it’s a value proposition. Most people just play both.

    • RanDomino says:

      It crashed, probably.