What have they done? For years the Duels of the Planeswalker series has produced limited but satisfactory versions of the classic card duelling game, Magic: The Gathering. The ballooning success of Hearthstone makes this a great time to introduce new players to the complex, highly competitive king of the genre. Instead we get Magic 2015, a clunky, under-featured sequel compromised by microtransactions.
The underlying Magic: The Gathering ruleset is still great. As a wizard, you summon monsters to engage in proxy combat with other wizards. Each turn, you place land cards that serve as resources for spells, summons and enchantments, and must use them to disassemble your opponent's fantasy zoo of zombies, drakes, horse-fishes and centaurs to strike directly at their 20-point damage pool.
Cards are divided into five colours, which represent elemental and mechanical themes. Black death cards steal life and curse enemy creatures, holy white cards summon angels and heal you. Red cards zap your opponent's life-pool with bolts of lightning and fire. Magic: The Gathering lets you merge these colours into hybrid decks that allow for an extraordinary range of builds and strategies. Magic 2015 locks that potential away behind a huge grind, which you can pay money to circumvent.
Formerly, you'd beat bosses to unlock themed decks to play with, that you could then tweak with additional cards. In 2015 the game locks you into playing with a hybrid starter deck after the tutorial. As you progress through the campaign—linear strings of AI battles divided into five 'planes'—you receive booster packs that slowly grow your card collection. Eventually, you'll have enough to enter the deck creator and build something new.
The deck builder allows for an encouraging amount of customisation and, theoretically, a level of freedom that the series has never quite offered before, but amassing enough cards to make interesting use of it takes far too long. Each section of the campaign has a 'explore' option that lets you play apparently endless AI battles to win booster packs. Expect to use this a lot, and expect to unwrap boosters full of duplicates, weak cards, and cards of a colour you don't necessarily want.
The format removes any sense of satisfying progression from the campaign, and seems designed to push players into picking up card collections, for £3 / $5 per plane, or £14 / $24 for the whole bunch. In addition, there's a special range of cards included in Magic 2015's 'premium' booster packs, sold at £1.50 / $2.50 a pop. These include "10 powerful cards" which you can use in single player and multiplayer. If you want full access to the variety and depth of Magic 2015's card pool, you'll need to put up a lot more than the £7 / $10 initial price to get it.
And then there's the state of the game itself. Menu screens hiccup during long transitions between pages. In matches, button-clicks sometimes go unregistered, the 'continue' button has frozen up in multiplayer, mid-match, forcing me to concede. Cards hover ponderously over the bland new game board, which still positions the play-space miles from your view, rendering card titles and artwork unreadable without regular zooming. It's still Magic: The Gathering underneath, so occasionally I'll have fun buffing a zombie with angel wings and punching the enemy to within an inch of death, but the quality of Magic's systems struggle against this implementation, and these annoyances are only compounded by the weakness of the starting deck you're given. It's a slog.
A few of these presentation problems have dogged the Planeswalker series for years, and the pauses between each phase of play are necessary to allow opponents to interrupt the action with Magic: The Gathering's 'instant' cards, but where have all the game modes gone? Three and four-player free-for-all games are included but The competitive team mode Two-Headed Giant is nowhere to be found, Sealed play from 2014 has also been thrown out, and there's no replacement or iteration on 2013's Planechase mode or 2012's team vs. boss Archenemy mode.
At best it's a frustrating, poorly paced experience with fewer features than its predecessors, at worst, Magic 2015 is a cynical redesign that wants to suck more money out of players. As such, I'm unable to recommend Magic 2015 to anyone at all. If you want to play Magic, any edition prior to this one is more fun. If you're looking for some satisfying competitive card-duelling, you'll get oodles more out of Hearthstone without paying any money at all.
Expect to pay: $10/£7 for the base game, $24/£14 to instantly unlock single player cards, more for premium boosters beyond that.
Release: Out now
Developer: Stainless Games
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Multiplayer: 2-4 players online