Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 Review

Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (reviewed), iOS, Android

It is summer time and we know all know what that means. No, I’m not talking about burning alive in the hot sun or possible death from heat stroke. Well those are legitimately answers as well, but I’m talking specifically about a new Magic: The Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers game. The Duels franchise is slowly turning into something akin to Madden or Call of Duty with its yearly releases and while a game like Magic should be able to pull this off (because it adds hundreds of new cards to the game each year and has thousands of cards from the past to tap into), let’s not jump the gun with an assumption like that so quickly.

Magic is a game I’ve grown very passionate about over the last couple of years and while my IRL play has been significantly cut down, I still follow the game very closely. Each year I very much look forward to getting my hands on the latest Duels game because it lets me play the game I love when I can’t get together with friends. So it’s unfortunate that I have to say this, but Duels 2014 doesn’t quite live up to expectations and the series may have finally peaked and be on the decline.

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Like years past, the single player options consist of the usual campaign, revenge campaign, challenges, and custom free-for-all or two-head giant matches. This year the campaign has you working with Planeswalker Chandra Nalaar and traveling to various planes within Magic’s lore to collect items in order to track down the elusive Ramaz. As with the other Duels games, the story means very little and most probably won’t give it a second thought. Where I draw the biggest issue with the campaign is due to its focus on encounters, which play out almost exactly the same each time. This sort of kills what makes Magic so great, it’s unpredictability. This is just a minor complaint as these are still fun to work through in most cases. After completely a few of these encounters, you’ll face the “boss” of that particular plane and actually get to play a real game of Magic. Upon defeating this opponent you’ll unlock their deck, as well as the next plane.

One “feature” in the campaign that felt rather tacked on was the ability to battle Magic’s original five Planeswalkers (Ajani, Jace, Liliana, Chandra and Garruk). Within each plane you’ll be able to pick one of the five to do battle with and by defeating them, you’ll unlock their deck. This feature is so unintuitive that I didn’t even notice it was available until I was halfway through the campaign. What’s even worse is that two of the Planeswalkers’ (Chandra and Garruk) decks are unlocked from the beginning, so facing them feels almost pointless. Luckily the revenge campaign stacks these five Planeswalkers and all of the “bosses” from the campaign and into a progressive ladder with no story or encounter filler, making for a tougher and much more satisfying experience.

The challenges in each Duels game are something I always look forward to, but unfortunately 2014’s were completely underwhelming. Out of ten challenges only one of them even slightly posed a real challenge to complete. It was like the developers just felt it was necessary to put them in because they’ve been in the series from the beginning and then proceeded to half-ass the job. I’m all for beginner challenges that help new players learn certain mechanics and tricks the game offers, but having every challenge feel like “baby’s first Magic game” was really disappointing.

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Arguably the most important part of any Magic game is the deck selection you have at your disposal. Unfortunately, this is another sore spot in Duels 2014 for me. Like most of the previous installments you’ll have 10 decks available (once you’ve completed the campaign or paid to unlock them) and each has 30 cards to unlock to help you develop more powerful strategies. In years past Stainless Games has struck a beautiful balance between each deck, but this year the balance (or lack thereof) was all over the place. There are two or three decks that are completely overpowered, a few mediocre decks, and a couple that are basically unplayable if you want to win. This is honestly the most disappointing issue with Duels 2014 as unlocking each card has always been something that I’ve found quite enjoyable, but I’ve found myself unable to consistently win with a couple decks (even battling AI on the easiest difficulty) and that has deterred me from continuing the pursuit.

This issue becomes even more glaring when you step into the world of multiplayer. This is where most players will probably spend most of their time with the game and from my experience it just isn’t fun like it was in years past. When everyone plays the same two overpowered decks, the variety and enjoyment plummets immensely. Add on top of that the fact that the Steam version of the game is running rampant with cheaters and hackers, which Stainless apparently has no desire to address or fix, and the fun, competitive online experience that some may be used to, just isn’t there in Duels 2014.

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The biggest addition to Duels 2014 and perhaps the game’s saving grace is the introduction of sealed play. While the sealed play in Duels 2014 isn’t quite the same as you’d see in paper Magic, it’s still something new, different, and enjoyable. In 2014’s version of sealed play you’ll start with six booster packs, each with 14 cards, in which you use to create your own custom 40 card deck. Once you’ve opened your packs and built your deck you’ll get to play through the single player sealed campaign, which allows you to unlock an additional three booster packs to further enhance your deck. This is the first time you’ve ever been able to create your own deck in a Duels game, so this feels like a major step forward. Also worth noting is that you can finally adjust your lands as you see fit (even with the 10 pre-constructed decks) for the first time as well.

Duels 2014 comes stock with two sealed slots you can use for free, each with its own pool of six boosters and three more unlockable via the campaign. You also have the option to buy more slots for $2 each if you want to build more decks or just want to try and get a little luckier with your pool. Compared to IRL Magic, $2 for 9 boosters isn’t too shabby, especially if you plan to take your sealed decks online, which will greatly extend their life making the $2 investment far more worthwhile.

The online sealed play is a much more refreshing environment when compared to the pre-constructed online games. Here you’ll definitely see a much wider variety of decks and because of this, games feel far more competitive and unique. There’s still the pesky problem of cheaters and hackers (mostly on the Steam version) that are just out to ruin days. While I played on the 360 and didn’t experience any cheating (that I know of), it still seems worth noting if you’re looking into possibly purchasing the Steam version of the game.

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Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 is a completely solid and competent game when it comes to gameplay, presentation and mechanics, but there are a number of issues holding it back including its unbalanced pre-constructed decks and completely lackluster single player campaign and challenges. There is one shining light and that comes in the form of sealed play. If you’ve always wanted to build your on deck in a Duels game, you finally have that chance, although on a limited basis. So if you’re a fan of the Duels series or Magic in general, it’d be hard not to recommend this, but just know that Duels 2014 is somewhat lacking and definitely isn’t the best game in the franchise.

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