Review: Wizards of the Coast Magic 2013
Magic: The Gathering was the first collectible card game to hit the market, and remains the most popular almost twenty years after its launch. Developed by Richard Garfield and sold by Wizards of the Coast -- now owned by Hasbro -- it's a game based around players building decks of different cards and battling friends. On a few occasions the publisher has tried to translate the physical game to the digital world. The most recent attempt is Magic 2013 (Free/$10), also known as Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013. Simultaneously released on PC through Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, and PlayStation Netowork, this iPad title is a faithful representation that fans will truly appreciate. It's worth noting that while the app will work on all of Apple's tablets, the developer recommends an iPad 2 or third-generation iPad for best performance.
The game is rather complicated, and becomes more complex with each new set of cards as more mechanics are added, but here’s a brief primer. You play as a planeswalker, a wizard in with control over spells, creatures, and the land itself. All players in the game start with 20 life points, and the goal is to get your opponents down to zero by attacking them with your army and powers, each represented with their own card in your deck. The currency used to pay for these spells is derived from land cards—known as mana—in five colors: black, blue, green, red, and white.
Magic 2013 allows you to play the game in a variety of different formats, against various CPU and human opponents. Rather than accessing the thousands upon thousands of cards in the game’s back catalog, it limits you to those in the new core set which is set to be released on July 13, 2012. As a free download the game offers the ability to play through part of the single player campaign with three different decks at your disposal. Paying $10 for the in-app purchase unlocks the full game: seven more decks, many more unlockable cards, the rest of the campaign, online play, new custom game modes, the ability to buy decks rather than win them, and new downloadable content when it’s made available. The fee also gives you a code that can be redeemed for physical Magic cards at participating retail outlets. We see this as a very smart move by Wizards of the Coast. It allows curious newcomers to check out the app without fear of wasting money if they don’t like it, with enough content to really draw them in if they do.
The heart of Magic 2013 is the single player campaign, which itself is split into four segments. There’s Campaign, Revenge, Planechase, and Challenges. Campaign is a standard ladder-style competition. Across six worlds you must battle and defeat a handful of enemies before getting to the boss and moving on to the next. Each becomes progressively harder but winning allows you to unlock new cards that make your deck more powerful. Some of these battles are Encounters, in which the CPU makes predetermined moves requiring you to figure out the best way to deal with that specific strategy. Others have full AI and will react based on your play. They’re not easy and chances are the battles will take you a few tries, alternating decks and strategies until you find the best way to defeat the opponent.
Revenge mode allows you to replay enemies at a tougher level, while Planechase pits you against three computer-based players in a modified version of the game wherein Planes cards alter the rules. Then there’s Challenges, a mode that’s simply a lot of fun. You’re presented with a certain scenario and have to jump in mid-game to accomplish a task. For example, you may have to defeat a heavily fortified enemy with limited offense in a handful of turns. It’s a nice twist on the standard gameplay.
Magic 2013’s multiplayer pits you against opponents using Game Center to make the pairing. It allows for both standard one-on-one play and the Planechase mode. We found the connection to be fast and reliable with games moving as quickly as those against the CPU. Unfortunately there’s no cross-platform play so you’re limited to battles against iPad players only. This still seems to be a big field though, and we had games going in under a minute very time.
The game is laid out beautifully, and we have to give Wizards of the Coast a lot of credit for great design. Magic is known for its artwork so this should come as no surprise. The graphics and cutscenes are not yet optimized for the third-generation iPad’s Retina display, although the cards themselves seem to be. Their artwork and text are just as sharp as we’d expect. The developers set up the battlefield perfectly. Players “sit” across from each other with their cards facing towards them. Below the active cards you can see those in your hand, and right in the middle is a glowing circle where creatures attack.
One of the most striking features of this game is how perfectly the multi-touch controls work. They feel completely natural; we can’t imagine playing with an Xbox or PlayStation controller. To play a card, you simply drag it from your hand onto the table. When declaring attackers, drag from the creature to the opponent you’re fighting. At any time you can double tap on a card to zoom in on it. Hints and suggestions pop up, but they’re mostly unnecessary as the controls are so intuitive. There are small animations when spells are cast and creatures attack, which are nice but not altogether necessary. An instrumental fantasy soundtrack over the game adds to the appeal, as do sound effects when cards are played.
A benefit of a computerized version of a physical game is strict adherence to the rules. Each turn in Magic is split into several phases, and casual players may not be totally aware of them or their order. Magic 2013 has a small progress meter in either players’ corner that walks you through them, step by step. This makes it impossible to forget to draw a card at the beginning of your turn, or to play an ability when you’re not allowed. We did occasionally find the timer to move to fast, preventing us from making the moves we wanted to. In this game, one misplayed card can change the outcome of the battle. Thankfully there’s a pause button that allows you stop and think for a moment.
Although you’ll unlock extra preconstructed decks and additional cards as the game progresses, those looking to advance sooner can purchase them for $1 each. Magic 2013 also allows you to upgrade the decks with a Foil Conversion for an additional dollar. All this does is add a sparkly effect to the uncommon and rare cards in your deck—it’s totally unnecessary and we recommend you don’t waste your money on it. Each deck has cards that can be swapped in and out to alter how it plays. One feature we’d like from the game is the ability to be presented with the full set and make decks from scratch.
If you’re a fan of Magic and have made it this far without hitting the download button, go do it now. You’ll be glad that you did, although prepare to devote hours to working your way through the campaign and battling your friends. It may be a different story for those who are new to the game, but Magic 2013 is done so well that it’s worth downloading the free version to give it a try. As for the in-app purchase of the whole game, it’s great. $10 is a bit high for any iOS game, but here it feels well justified. The omission of access to the full set of cards and a lack of Retina graphics are the only real hits against it. We still highly recommend this additional content with an A- rating. Magic 2013 is true to its source, beautiful, and most of all, a lot of fun.