Time ticks on and yet another year has passed. While the likes of FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer please the football fanatics and Call of Duty reliably shows up for the first-person shooter crowd, it’s easy to forget that the collectable card game (CCG) devotees have their own annual franchise. Much like their sporting equivalent, Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 utilises minor tweaks to the game engine while introducing new features and game modes to change things up a notch. But has the franchise lost its spark?
Compared to the barebones “plot” from last year’s version, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 at least attempts narrative. You are essentially Chandra Nalaar’s Planeswalker vassal, tasked with following clues that lead to another Planeswalker, Ramaz, whom she has sworn revenge for tricking her. Your quest leads you through several planes, from the haunted Innistrad to the guilds of Ravnica; but aside from short video cutscenes and the text that appears before each duel, you don’t get the chance to really sink your teeth into the worlds. It’s tricky to balance arcade style gameplay with an expansive campaign where you actually play the role of a planeswalker rather than somebody wielding a bunch of cards, but it certainly seems doable; even if the final battle against Ramaz is alarmingly underwhelming.
Gameplay and deck building have seen even more tweaks to make it more in line with the real CCG. Choosing your own land when casting spells has been made slightly easier, while the ability to put in/take away land from pre-made decks has finally been enabled. The interface for deck construction as a result feels better than ever to use, giving players a better level of insight. Also, the card animations haven’t gone unnoticed – they’re the most awesome thing I’ve seen to date from the franchise. Campaign structure is certainly linear, with each plane featuring four encounters before culminating in a match against an unlockable deck. You are also rewarded for each plane completion with the chance to duel against one of the five core planeswalkers for even more unlockable decks. Each encounter throws a set number of cards for you to deal with, which make most encounters a cakewalk. One encounter was even completed without playing a single card, which seems a bit broken, but figuring out the exploit was hilarious.
Challenges are also back, with ten in total to try to figure out the solutions for. Compared to last year’s selection though, the first five are a cakewalk while the rest just aren’t tricky enough to be called “Advanced”. Two-headed Giant also returns in both offline and online, giving players the ability to team up locally, online, or with an AI partner. You can unlock new persona and titles by passing requirements either in one game or in your career, giving players online another way to customise their online experience. As for the post-completion revenge campaign – it’s just more of the same. Both online and offline are prone to slowdown and bugs that were present from last year’s version, but I hope this issues don’t persist.
While I still would love to see the Commander variant, I was initially stoked to see that they had included a game mode that mimics actual tournaments. Sealed Deck introduces the concept of opening booster packs, making your own 40 card deck, and then going at it in a mini-campaign. Given that there is a limited card pool to get cards from, the decks you make are fully customisable. Naming your creation is but bittersweet icing on the cake, while those who just want to get on with it can just choose a couple of cards they like and hit the auto-complete button to let the AI do it.
There’s just one problem: you only get two slots to begin with and you can’t delete them. I’m pretty sure this is there to stop deck construction abuse online, keeping things at a more level playing field, but there are far less heavy-handed ways to go about it. A larger pool of cards might have created diversity akin to what the CCG players see in the Standard format. Perhaps only allow players to save a finite number of deck slots for use online, made from decks they have built once they’ve completed/tested the Sealed Deck campaign. At least give us the option to delete saves from decks we’re not fond of in the Sealed Deck format. The very notion of charging for extra Sealed Deck save slots beyond the second one, no matter what the price, is exploitative and a definite black mark.
While my love for the game is still apparent, Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 is a bit of a step back. Some of the little extras that have been implemented are awesome, with Sealed Deck showing a great potential for more traditional Magic gameplay/deck building to become more commonplace. If only then the developers just ironed out Sealed Deck’s “deck limit” to be fairer to the consumer. Challenges and encounters have also been dumbed down a little less complex. In essence, this year’s game is more accessible to new players, but it comes at the price of slightly alienating those already invested in the franchise. Stainless Games have proved that they’re capable of making things work out in the past, so with any luck – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 will perfect the innovations brought to this year’s iteration.