In a recent interview with Polygon, Magic 2015’s lead designer Nick Davidson called the latest entry in the Duels of the Planeswalkers franchise, “the best Magic experience that you’re going to get at that price point pretty much in history.” Hundreds of fans on Steam, Metacritic, and a variety of forums might have something to say about that grandiose statement. Since its launch earlier this month, the game has received a heavy dose of criticism. Some players think it’s the worst yet. Davidson thinks quite the opposite. In a strange way, they are both right.
Let’s take a step back. For those unfamiliar with Magic the Gathering, it is a tabletop card game that has stayed alive for more than twenty years. Even today, the game has a massive audience, young and old alike, thanks in no small part to a fantastically designed system that has withstood the test of time. This beautiful system, the artful construction of decks and ingenious play, is still the glistening diamond at the head of Magic 2015. Despite its transition into the digital space, when you put your deck together, planning and imagining all the card combinations and synergies together and then take it for a glorious spin, you can see it. This is, hands down, a great game.
For ten dollars, Magic 2015 is a steal. If you were to buy individual real world booster packs, you would be draining a huge sum of money into random luck draws until you had access to all the cards that you can earn in the game. For those with less commitment to the collection and purchases necessary to such an expensive hobby, Duels of the Planeswalkers scratches the Magic itch. This is one of the reasons Davidson calls the series a yearly franchise akin to Madden or FIFA. And with this latest release, the development team even gave players for the first time in the series the ability to create their own custom decks from scratch. This is as close to the tabletop Magic experience that you can get and definitely at the low ten dollar price point. Davidson is right.
The problem is one of expectations and demand. The latest Duels of the Planeswalker succumbs to the self-made trap of trying to please too many with too little. In fact, Davidson himself offers the best example for any of us who remember being a child when he describes the game as “Magic with the corners cut off, kind of like the corners on your peanut butter sandwich.” I don’t know about you, but I like the crust on my PB&J.
What is the crust in this analogy? Easy access to customizable play. Davidson, seeing the game as an introduction to those new to the game, could absolutely be right in trimming (or at least heavily limiting) the intensity of customization. Magic 2015 forces players to pick a single deck and work their way through an extensive tutorial, walking new players through core and advanced concepts. With a single deck to master and build upon, new players grow accustomed to the game with a basic play style in mind without opening up a world of possibilities too suddenly.
On the other hand, those familiar with the game find themselves burdened with a tedious wall that prevents them from accessing what they really want: varied play experiences and deck construction. With access to just one starter deck, those who are used to experimenting with various deck types are forced to slog through a single player campaign that never gives them the variability they desire. Likewise, fans of the series expecting the popular 2 Headed Giant gameplay mode, a variant on multiplayer combat, are disappointed when they find the option completely removed from the game (Davidson hints that the team may patch it in at a later date). What this group of players hears is this experience wasn’t meant for them.
These frustrations for experienced players on the PC are doubly aggravating with Magic 2015’s awkward user interface. The menus are layered tiles, making options difficult to read before you too hastily swipe over the one that you want. Switching decks during multiplayer is impossible without first backing out, navigating the disastrously slow menu, and reinitiating a match, which is especially painful for those who just want to play a quick game with a friend. In game, the interface decisions continue to mire the experience. Land selection defaults consistently to the worst combination, but changing manually is tedious. Likewise, after selecting a card to use, the game makes it painful to cancel out of your action. It’s as though across the table from you is the most hostile player ever who demands “you touch the card, you play it.”
Play Magic 2015 on PC, and it becomes blatantly clear that the entire experience was developed for tablet players. In fact, one of the most anger-inducing features of the game is directly tied to mobile game norms. While PC players can pay ten dollars for the game, tablet players can download the game for free and increase their card pool with in-app purchases. These microtransactions have proven profitable enough to see them rolled up into the ten dollar experience as well. A significant number of cards in the game’s collection are only accessible by purchasing premium packs in addition to the initial ten dollar price tag, pushing total access to roughly forty dollars.
Microtransactions like those in Magic 2015 are not alien concepts. Mobile players, I expect, are perfectly comfortable with both the interface and the monetization model for Magic 2015. Again, the problem is in expectation and demand. Stainless Games and Wizards of the Coast are aiming to create what Davidson calls an “on-ramp for new Magic players.” But I suspect Duels of the Planeswalkers is consumed by a significant group of players like myself, those eager to recapture the joy of Magic without investing so much time and money into building a collection.
I would be tempted to say the goal of satisfying the fair weather fan of Magic is impossible. But as Phil Kollar rightly points out in his interview, games like Hearthstone and Netrunner offer very different takes on the traditional CCG model. Even if Davidson does succeed at bringing in new players, he only digs a deeper hole. The audience who demand more than a paywalled introduction to a digital card will find much better homes elsewhere.