I've said it before, and no doubt I'll say it again, but I believe Magic the Gathering is one of the all-time greatest games money can buy, even if quite a large sum of it is required to purchase the cards needed to get the best experience from the game.
The digital iterations of the game have generally been solid, and I'm talking more about the Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers series than Magic Online, the more hardcore tournament engine that requires a similar cash investment to the physical game. The Planeswalker series has essentially been a lighter, cheaper version of Magic the Gathering that packs premade decks and a limited pool of cards. They've certainly been fun to play, but they've been missing certain major features like being able to build sophisticated decks – and they've essentially been self-contained environments that become redundant when each new edition of the game is released.
That has all changed with this year's version, however. Magic Duels: Origins sees the series becoming a persistent platform for the game, to which new expansions will be added over time, so you can build a collection in a similar way to the collectible card game. This is certainly a big deal for the series, and something that most Magic fans have been clamoring for.
The game's general format won't be unfamiliar to those who've played previous digital Magic iterations – it basically looks and plays very similarly to last year's version. It can sometimes be a little fiddly to use – you have to be quick on the timer if you want to cast instants in response to something that just happened – but generally speaking, it's a decent setup that lets you play the game in a very natural-feeling way.
All the major changes are essentially under the hood. First and foremost, a new tutorial system has been added to the game that really is quite excellent. Whenever the player encounters a new mechanic, the game automatically suspends itself and gives the player the opportunity to learn about the new feature through a practical exercise. It seems every aspect of the game is catered to in this way, meaning that Magic Duels: Origins is a great way to help you learn to play Magic the Gathering.
The game's story mode also represents a good learning experience. Here, the player is given five premade decks, with the objective of taking them through five increasingly difficult challenges – each representing the story of a Planeswalker. Some of the tougher challenges really do give you a good workout, and it took me the better part of a weekend to get through the entire mode.
All of this is free to play, but it's after you've completed the story mode where money really begins to become an issue. You earn gold for completing each story challenge, which you can use to buy boosters and begin to build your collection of cards beyond the fairly limited "free" starter set you're given. Gold is also earned by playing against the AI opponent, although it's a huge grind – and somewhat of a chicken and egg situation in terms of gold and cards. The decks you can build with the free starter set are rudimentary to say the least, and winning against the AI opponent using them is really quite challenging. And forget about going online and battling other people. Unless you're lucky and get drawn against an opponent with a similar paucity of cards to you, you're likely going to get stomped by anyone who's spent a few bucks on cards. Their spells and minions will just be better than yours.
Yep, just like the real game, you really need to shell out some cold, hard cash at this point to start boosting your collection and secure the rare cards you need to make strong, competitive decks. It is theoretically possible to earn cards just through playing, but like I said, it's a huge grind, and I don't think the end necessarily justifies the means at this point. If you really want to play and enjoy the game, you definitely need to drop some dollars into it. Around $20 will get you sufficient cards to build a reasonably competitive deck – assuming you're fairly lucky with your booster pulls.
One unfortunate thing I do have to report about Magic Duels: Origins is that it's buggy. I've put about 10 hours into the game so far, and during that time have had numerous crashes to desktop, and also connection issues. Sometimes the game loses its connection to the server and there's nothing you can do to reconnect – the "reconnect" button simply doesn't work. There definitely needs to be a patch to fix up the game, which I expect will arrive soon enough, but I must say it doesn't appear that Magic Duels: Origins is quite ready for prime time. These bugs are not game-breaking, but they are really annoying and I had a couple of instances when I lost connection during the latter stages of the story mode and the game wouldn’t save my progress, so I had to re-win my duel (the game only saves progress if you're connected to the Magic Duels: Origins server). Very frustrating.
However, bugs aside – and so far I haven't encountered any issues on the PC version of the game, which I've put about three hours into – Magic Duels: Origins does play very well. What's particularly good about the game is that it dynamically adjusts its difficulty level depending on the kind of cards and decks you're using. It appears the AI is fairly solid, though the real challenge and long-term appeal of the game is of course playing against human opponents. As well as regular PvP duels, there's also ranked play and two-headed giant mode, which helps keep things interesting – plus daily quests to help you earn a little extra gold to help you boost your collection while you play (although the only decks eligible for quests are ones created using the computer-assisted wizard builder, which seems a huge oversight).
Magic Duels: Origins is definitely the best digital version of Magic the Gathering to date, although its bugs do tarnish an otherwise excellent game. Don't expect to have anything but a rudimentary experience for free – unless you're willing to put in an awful lot of grinding, you have to invest money to make your collection competitive and worthwhile. But then that's true for most card games like this, Hearthstone included. Assuming you're willing to pony up some cash, however, Magic Duels: Origins represents a great step forward for the series and is highly recommended to Magic the Gathering fans – and those who are interested in learning how to play it.
Well designed, if sometimes a little fiddly. Especially so on iPhone.
Huge long-term appeal if you're prepared to invest in a decent set of cards. Magic Duels: Origins is the best way of playing Magic the Gathering online.
A great new direction for the series, and the best-playing digital version of Magic the Gathering yet. However, it's buggy, and you will need to invest a fair chunk of change to get the most out of it.