Magic: The Gathering is twenty years old. If that sentence makes you feel old, you’re not alone. As the first trading card game ever released, Magic has been around long enough to garner a fervent and widespread following. This isn’t restricted to the physical CCG either - the second game in the Duels of the Planeswalkers series sold over half a million units back in 2011. This fourth iteration aims to build on the success of its predecessors, but does Magic 2014 offer enough new features to warrant another visit to the Multiverse?
Depending on your level of knowledge of Magic the game will offer various tutorials. New arrivals have nothing to fear - you’ll be walked through the mechanics of the game via a slick interface which details the basics of the game through examples and voiceover. Indeed, considering how complex the rule system is, the game does a fantastic job of introducing you to each individual concept and allowing you to play out the scenario it demonstrates. By the end, you’ll feel ready to take on world-class players. Mistakenly perhaps, as the game is subtler and far, far deeper than you would expect, but as a lead-in to the tenets of play it really shines.
The basic premise of Magic is built around mana. There are five colours of land cards, from mountains (red) to forests (green) which are your building blocks and you can play one land card each turn in a cumulative fashion. You can then play further cards by using or “tapping” a land card to use its mana value, combining the mana from all the land cards you have tapped, and then playing various other cards - creatures, sorceries, equipment, instants, and so on, which use up your mana for that phase. When you’ve expended as much mana and played all the cards you wish to use, the game moves into a combat stage where you can attack your opponent with as many or as few of your creature cards (or spells) as you wish, in an attempt to reduce their Life from twenty to zero. In response, your opponent can block your cards with their own spells and creatures before the attacker has another spell phase. The turn then passes to your opponent to mirror these stages, but with you as the defender. Once your turn arrives again, all of your tapped cards are untapped and you draw another card before repeating the process until either you or your opponent’s Life has been reduced to zero.
Sounds simple, but as you would expect the nuances of the game are far more intricate. Each creature has a Toughness and a Power number. If you have a 4/4 creature, then it can attack with four points of damage and take four damage before being sent to the Graveyard. You can block one attacker with multiple creatures as well, so blocking the above example with a 3/3 and a 2/1 pair of creatures would result in all three creatures being destroyed. Any blocking prevents damage to the actual player’s Life - unless the creature attacking has the Trample ability, which carries any remaining damage through to the attacked player. To add further complications, some creatures have other statuses such as Flying (which renders them unblockable unless the defending creature has Reach), Devour (which lets you cannibalise your own board to gain improved stats for the devouring creature), and Annihilation (which allows you to destroy a number of your opponent’s cards even before combat begins). Different cards require different combinations of land colours, although for half of the game’s campaign you’ll be playing with monochrome decks - at least to begin with.
As well as the main stage where you can play your land and creatures, there is a magic stage which lets you cast Sorceries (one-time bonuses), Enchantments (permanent bonuses) and Artifacts (equipment providing specific bonuses to individual creatures). Some of these can be game-changing, such as spells which kill creatures regardless of their power, reviving them from the Graveyard or exiling them from the game altogether. Combat decisions are also fraught, since if you decide to attack with a creature it becomes tapped and cannot then be used to block your opponent on their combat round. For a card game, the strategy is as deep as any board game and the decisions you make will be rewarded or brutally punished by the very competent AI.
Naturally, the more powerful a creature or spell is the more mana it costs and the more land you need to have in front of you. You can find yourself whittled down to the last dregs of Life, only to play a stonking combination of cards which decimates your opponent’s board, recovers your Life and does significant damage to their health. This is one of Magic’s greatest assets and means that no two games will be the same.
The rules have been faithfully translated to the video game version and developer Stainless Games has had a few attempts to iron out the wrinkles. It shows; play is fast and free, with the computer crunching all the numbers and handling the duller side of the game for you, but you will be in complete control throughout. Instants - cards which you can play at any point - can be unleashed by stopping the timer which is present at each stage and can wreak havoc on your opponent’s plans. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing them spend their entire mana stack on a massive brute, only to have you wield a card that kills it outright before they can make a move.
The cards are as exquisitely drawn as their real-world counterparts. Moreover, even though it’s difficult to make a card game feel anything other than that, there are some lovely touches. Cards which have the “flight” ability hover gently on the table. Crackling lightning effects arc across the table for some spells, whilst combat sees balls of fire or red claw marks devastate opponent creature cards. Instants are highlighted in blue, whilst cards which are available to play have an orange border. Clicking on a card in your hand will outline in white the land cards and mana cost it requires to play; it’s all very intuitive. The whole interface is slick and each card can be zoomed in on to read specific detail and appreciate the varied artwork on offer. If there was any criticism about the visuals, it would be that animations would liven up combat immensely. A video game CCG has the opportunity to go beyond the limitations of its physical form in any manner it chooses, but here Magic 2014 plays it safe and just has each combat pairing displayed next to each other, with a small elemental effect followed by a reducing health counter. Similarly, some of the higher value cards have colourful animations which zoom out and reveal more of their environment - it’s a pity that this effect wasn’t copied across the entire menagerie, as it would have really brought the cards to life. Something to consider for a future version, perhaps.
Music is suitably dramatic, although we experienced a few occasions where it dropped out entirely and we were left with just booming sound effects for accompaniment, dampening the atmosphere somewhat. If you’ve played any type of fantasy-based game you’ll know what to expect and it ranges from competent to soaring, but never less than adequate.
Gameplay is split over a Campaign mode which pits you against various AI-controlled decks within an expectedly paper-thin story arc, a Revenge campaign which rehashes the Campaign boss characters amidst other Planeswalker characters, a Multiplayer mode and a new Sealed Play campaign. This last feature is where the game really shines. Six booster packs are opened with all the virtual excitement you’ll have experienced as a kid, waiting to see if a “shiny” was buried within. From the resulting cards, you’ll build a deck of at least forty and use this to play the resulting campaign with. As you continue, you’ll be granted another three boosters which helps minimise any imbalance in your deck. You’ll also get a second slot to create another sealed deck from, with further slots available via microtransactions should you require more variety.
Criticisms in the past have almost always centred on the lack of customisation available to players and Sealed Play addresses almost every concern here. The game offers the option of building the best deck from your booster packs for you and does a reasonably decent job, but devotees will want - and are granted - full control. For novices who haven’t experienced multi-coloured decks, there are a few pre-built decks available which you unlock as you progress through the campaign. You’ll soon graduate to the randomness of Sealed Play though, as it adds a whole new dimension to online battles compared to the static familiarity of the standard decks available to every player. This is truly a turning point for the series, finally granting the level of oversight that gamers have been clamouring for since 2009.
With an initial Campaign that clocks in at around ten hours plus a secondary campaign, and almost unlimited online replay value thanks to the superb Sealed Play (which itself has a third single-player campaign), there are dozens of hours of card-battling fun available in Magic 2014. Unlocks are plentiful and with thirty locked cards per deck, it will take you many, many victories to fully open and complete every available deck. It’s difficult to see where the series can progress to from here, but we’re looking forward to what Stainless Games produces next for the granddaddy of CCGs.