Magic 2015 Review: a friendly duel

Wizards of the Coast has been attempting to virtualize its long-running card game Magic for years, so it's no surprise that this latest edition improves and iterates on the versions that came before it. What is surprising, however, is how friendly it is to newcomers. While previous games felt aimed squarely at the not-insubstantial crowd of existing Magic enthusiasts, Magic 2015 can make a planeswalker out of just about anyone.

Capturing the Magic

Much of this is due to the progressive ramp and smart tools of the story campaign. A tutorial eased me into the basics, and you can read more on that process here. For the uninitiated, Magic is all about playing Mana cards to support casting spells and summoning creatures, and then using them to attack, block, or strike your opponent. The first player to reach zero health loses.

Once that was finished, I faced 20 or so campaign stages, as each opponent introduced a new twist or strategy. The ramp is almost perfect, offering a steady stream of challenges that constantly made me think differently about how to handle opponents. It was so natural that I barely noticed I was learning important staples like different card effects and the strengths and weaknesses of mana color combinations. I only had severe struggles once or twice--the Sliver battle is quite the pain--and for the most part I finished the experience feeling like I had a good grasp of Magic's complex mechanics.

Previous iterations of Magic had been more limited, likely to keep the process simple for newcomers. The result was unsuccessful, though, as it annoyed hardcore fans who wanted to build their own decks and the presets seemed arbitrary to newcomers like myself. Magic 2015 has found a solution that should please both groups. The deck-building is flexible enough to let you build from scratch, with a host of filters to find just the right card to fit your curve.

Computer, Build My Deck

If you're not as comfortable building from scratch, the deck builder has an "Auto-Complete" function that is shockingly smart. Even after using it several times, I've always been surprised and delighted by the results. Trying out a new color combination is as simple as putting in a representative of each and letting it finish the rest. It pulls the best cards and figures out which should be combined with others for the best synergy, even across colors. Whenever I struggled with a tricky boss, a trip to the deck builder with auto-complete would make a new deck that helped me overcome it. As in the campaign, I was able to learn by doing.

All of that helped prepare me for multiplayer, which is bare-bones but passable. It only has one kind of competition, head-to-head against a friend or through matchmaking, and once a match is finished it frustratingly boots you back to the main menu. The countdown timers feel long in multiplayer, but that may simply be because we can see it crawling by so slowly. For some simple one-on-one, it works well enough.

Tiny Complaints

These tools come together to build a smart framework, but some pieces of the presentation leave something to be desired. On the iPad version, at least, the cards were extremely small, making the text on them even smaller. I constantly had to zoom in on cards to read their effects, and sometimes even check the "More Info" tabs despite all the hours I had put in. I understand that Magic is a complex game, but the visual cues could have been made clearer.

This is especially galling since so much of the play area is plain, unoccupied white space. It's meant to make room for the late-game, during which a board can be absolutely flooded with cards. Still, having a closer view that zooms out progressively as necessary would have made it more user-friendly as well as reduced the wasted space.

The pricing model on iOS is also somewhat confusing. The shop offers all chapter unlocks for $10, all cards for $20, and everything for $35, as well as individual chapters and Premium Booster packs for sale. It's listed as free, but that's really more of a demo since most of the chapters can't be unlocked without payment. Any CCG is bound to nickel-and-dime, as that's the nature of the business, but I'm sure some players are bound to misunderstand what they're getting or fail to see that a better option exists in another menu.

That would be a shame, because the people most likely to be confused are the newbies that Magic 2015 is so perfect for. It's a friendly introduction for people like me, a flexible platform for hardcore players, and all-around the best version of Planeswalkers yet. Wizards of the Coast and developer Stainless Games have made an great showpiece for an enduring classic of a card game.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

This review is based on a iTunes code provided by the publisher. Magic: Duel of the Planeswalkers 2015 is now available for PC, Xbox 360, iPad, Android, and Kindle. The game is rated T.