August 27, 2015

Magic Duels

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I recently stopped playing Magic: The Gathering in person. After a brief spurt of activity, I quickly slowed down to just playing the occasional pre-release or other sealed tournaments, as much for the social event as the game. However, over time my impression of the game has only diminished. It takes too much time to play. Firstly there is the time taken to reach the game store, then the time waiting for players to be ready to start. If I get a return of one minute playing for two minutes waiting then I’m doing well – often it is much worse!

Then there is the problem that many of the actual matches are just not enjoyable. MtG relies on the concept of mana cards to act as a cost for playing other cards. Unfortunately sometimes a player ends up with too many or too few such cards (it is the luck of the draw) and as a result might as well not be playing. In the “limited” games I tend to play (“limited” format games do not reward paying extra for better cards, as all the cards that can be played are provided to competitors at the start) being “mana screwed” occurs to at least one of the players in game roughly about 25% of the time. So around one in four of the games are no fun (as I’m playing for the intellectual challenge, not to just win).

So with increasingly little spare time, I decided to just stop playing. But wait, what is this? A free-to-play version of the game is now available online! Maybe this will solve my issues.


Magic Duels (the online version of Magic) is a bit of a mess. I am quite unimpressed. Some parts are as expected. The games are always standard format (but with a small subset of the tabletop cards), so it could only be expected that the game would try to sell you the extra cards. Magic is probably the original pay-to-win game. The more one pays, the better cards they will have and thus better chances of winning their matches. This is carried over into Magic Duels – fair enough. It would have been nice if there were some limited format games as well, but maybe they will come later. At least they provide a mechanism to get the extra cards without paying, but just playing a great deal over time. Still the need to pay to be decently competitive rankles – and I won’t pay, so am always playing from a position of weakness.

Being able to choose your cards has not helped the “mana screwing” problem either. In fact in this game it seems to be even worse – at least at the initial stages when a player does not have many cards. The issue is amplified by the computer opponents having the most incredible luck imaginable. They never seem to have mana problems and often draw just the card they need right when they need it. Urgh. Of course it is possible this is just good luck and normal variance, but if so I’m way off into the land of many standard deviations beyond average. More likely the developer has fixed it and gone a little too far. I wouldn’t be surprised considering the numerous other issues with the game. It is slow: my PC can run some of the latest 3D games smoothly, but it takes 20 seconds to start a 2D card game from the in-game menu? Something is not right there. The UI seems to be built for mobile devices – it would make much more sense if I had a thumb sitting in the bottom right corner, but I don’t. This means that the time given to play instants is barely enough to realise what is happening and drag you mouse across the screen. Magic is not supposed to be a test of reflexes! As a competitive game, it uses an online connection to maintain state and when this connection can’t be established the game can’t be played. And the connection has been down often. Very often. There have also been numerous bugs, missing quests and other annoyances.

Annoying is a good term too describe this game. The mana issues and problems have just reminded me of the flaws inherent in the original game’s design. I get the feeling that it just doesn’t respect its player’s time. I can’t imagine playing Magic live again, and after this I probably won’t bother with the computer version either. Maybe its time to give Hearthstone a try.

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