If there’s one thing playing CCGs will teach you, it’s that Magic is a relic. Today there are so many better ways to collect, arrange, and play with cards. But getting there first counts for a lot. Magic’s gameplay comes from the genre’s earliest days. It’s not popular because it’s good. It’s popular because it has the weight of success behind it, like Monopoly, Risk, and the Grown Ups movies. That much momentum isn’t going to give way to better games any time soon.
However, if I’m going to play Magic, one of the best ways to do it is on the iPad, with one of developer Stainless’ annual releases, fingering and flicking the cards across the table, tapping to pick them up, thumbing through your hand as if they were physically fanned out before you. The interface is just so right and the pacing is perfectly executed. My cards versus his cards and we’re done in ten minutes tops. It’s worth noting Stainless also did the only decent way to play videogame Risk when they adapted Risk: Factions a few years ago.
After the jump, so what’s new in Magic this year?
The main game is as you’d expect, unlocking pre-built decks as you go, presumably featuring the latest and greatest cards in this old and tired gameplay about two dudes with 20 hit points fighting each other. These games are good not because Magic is good, but because they’re snappy and generous. The campaigns are an assortment of puzzles and dynamic matches, and they flex Magic’s gameplay dynamics about as far as they can be flexed. As expected, there’s plenty of frippery as well. Unlockable titles and portraits, puzzle challenges, a running tally of your stats for favorite mana color and most creatures in play, leaderboards (hacked, of course), and various cross promotional attempts to get you to buy real-world cards (i.e. advertisements). Of course the multiplayer is as slick as could be, and there seem to be enough people playing that you’ll never have a problem dropping into a real-time online game. This is Magic, after all.
The previous releases have unique modes that were a real value added for those of us with limited interest in banging pre-built decks into each other so we can unlock cards to more carefully tune the pre-building. Archenemy from 2012 was a clever one vs. many mode. The archenemy got a deck of special powers and the many used their regular decks to chip away at him. It was a gratifying phalanxes vs. battleship dynamic. The fantastic planechase mode from 2013 had a deck of sometimes crazy global rules tweaks that would affect all players, sometimes helping specific decks and sometimes upending the balance completely. Sheer delicious chaos, which is what CCGs are all about: wrangling chaos. These modes are no longer included, of course. If you want to play them, buy the older games. Magic 2013 is still a great value, specifically because of the planechase mode.
But in 2014, in their place, you get sealed play. Sealed play is easily one of the best ways to appreciate Magic the Gathering because it divorces the game from it’s collectible business model, whereby you buy to win. In a sealed deck game, you open a mess of booster packs and decide what to create from your limited resources. Synergies are all the more important because they aren’t a given, as is the case with the pre-built decks. And yet you only get so many booster packs. So you have to decide how to make the best of the packs you’re dealt, which is the strategic version of making the best of the hand you’re dealt in an actual match.
In this release, you open a mess of booster packs and build your deck. Then you play six matches, occasionally earning new cards as you go. Awesome. As I said, one of the best ways to appreciate Magic the Gathering. And with the short sealed deck campaigns, it’s yet another example of keeping the pace snappy.
But you can only play this mode twice. Beyond that, you have to pay $1.99 each time you want to play again. And in case you’re wondering, no, this isn’t a free to play game. You’ve already paid $10 for it. You furthermore can’t use your cards in any other mode (sealed play has its own multiplayer set-up). So the prominent new feature in Magic 2014 is the ability to pay Wizards of the Coast extra money each time you play it. What a horribly crass presentation of a wonderful feature. It sits like a stinking hole in the middle of an otherwise presentable game and therefore completely undermines any reason to play this when you could instead be enjoying last year’s planechases.