Magic Duels: Origins is the latest in a trend of free-to-play TCGs to have hit the gaming market. Now, there is nothing wrong with a game being free-to-play. It’s something we’ve talked about on the site before, and there is certainly a right way and a wrong way to do it. Whatever the case may be, Magic Duels: Origins is attempting to compete with the likes of Hearthstone while also offering an easy to pick up and hard to master PC experience akin to the real thing. While there certainly is a dearth of history, lore, and game mechanics to draw from, is it enough for Magic Duels: Origins to play with the big boys, or should it tap and concede?
Before we talk about any sort of mechanics or payment models, let’s simply address the game’s presentation; after all, it’s the first thing you’ll see and first impressions can mean a lot with free-to-play games. One of the highlights of Magic: The Gathering proper is looking at all of the beautiful artwork and reading the interesting flavour text. Thankfully at any point during gameplay or while opening card packs, you can simply spin the mouse-wheel and get a close up look at any card while also pausing gameplay; this can also be helpful during a match in order to understand how certain cards will react with others. While there are no battle animations outside of some scratch marks and fireballs, the sounds that accompany your moves are really good at getting you into the action. Small hits sound aptly quant while powerful spells or huge dragons roar from your speakers. The niceness sadly stops here though. Where Magic Duels missteps the hardest is its failure to realize that it can offer much more than a one-to-one version of the tabletop experience. Your gameboard throughout every match is a bland and grey surface that somehow seems less interesting than that of an actual table. Why they didn’t offer players the chance to play on themed boards that match their character or deck baffles me. The game music is equally painful, it’s so generic I can’t even tell you where it’s been lifted from, aside from any off-brand open-world fantasy game. Again, this seems like a failed opportunity to better match the music and board with the theme of the decks being played. I’ve saved the ‘best’ for last on the presentation front. During the solo mode you play through a campaign that will familiarize you with the basic and advanced mechanics of Magic: The Gathering as well as provide you with more than enough coin to get started buying booster packs. Each campaign comes with CGI cutscenes that would have looked awesome had this game been released in 1996 for the PS1. I’m not joking. Picture what you saw when we started our Year of Kain, that’s what you can expect from this game. Alright, so maybe Magic Duels: Origins doesn’t offer the cleanest presentation around, but that shouldn’t matter, right? Magic is a game all about the actual playing and collecting after all, so let’s talk about that aspect of it.
I’ll tell you right now that, in general, the game is serviceable. For those looking to give Magic a chance before buying into the real-world version of it, or for vets who want a free version to play around with on the side, it does an okay job. Just as you can obtain cards and build decks from an ever expanding roster, so can the computer. Solo matches offer nice variety while the main story sets you against very specific strategies. While the tutorial is decent, it does what so many tutorials do where they hold your hand and restrict to the point of annoyance and before dropping you into a much harder learning curve later on. While the multiplayer is still riddled with bugs and dropped connections, the devs seem to be working on it and will hopefully soon make it a much smoother experience. Aside from story, solo, and multiplayer, you can also play the game in a mode called “Two Headed Giants”, where two groups of two battle with a shared life pool.
While all of this in a free game should make for some good times, let me tell you, there is plenty here to mar your MTG experience, with the payment model actually being the least of it. As far as free-to-play games go with their monetization, Magic Duels doesn’t ask too much of its players. Winning matches and completing set challenges will earn you coin, which you can use to then buy booster packs and get new cards. Just completing the first few story mode campaigns will earn you enough coin to build and customize a few decks, which may well be enough for casual players. There is the added guarantee that boosters will contain new cards, up to four, making sure that each pack is well worth your time or money. Speaking of which, you can also buy coin right out of the gate if you don’t want to play for it. A booster pack costs 150 coins, which will run you around $2, depending on how many coins you buy at once. This is cheaper than buying a booster in real life, and really grasps the model in a good way.
What drags this game down though and will keep longtime and new players away is how a match in this game actually plays out, which is sort of the whole point of MTG. The specific issues here are the game timer and movement between phases. Now, in real life, you can say exactly what phase you are entering and those phases can take as long as you need them to, but not in Magic Duels: Origins. Instead a game timer counts down for each phase of play (beginning, main #1, combat, main #2, and ending). This is painful in the early game when players are either setting up and laying down mana, and in the late game when there are only a finite amount of moves that can be accomplished. This is made even worse by the timer’s lack of intuition. It can often be unclear which phase is being played as the timer will keep going through each one, even if no action is occurring. This can get rough later on when instants and interrupts come into play. There were more than a few times where I thought I was either in the main or combat phase, tried to play a card that would have turned the tide in battle, and was either playing it just as the damage was being dealt out or during the switch to my turn. This is frustrating enough to deal with in solo play, but with the added lag and bugs of multiplayer, the mechanics themselves shouldn’t be getting in the way of the gameplay.
And that really sums up the experience of playing Magic Duels: Origins – The mechanics get in the way of the gameplay. What has been one of the most successful TCGs ever, fails on almost every front as a passable F2P game. There are some bright notes here and there: the pay vs play model works very well, in-game purchases are decently priced, and the artwork and lore are easy to gleam. However, it just feels like a grind to get through even the most basic matches. What should take no time at all feels like a clunky mess, none of which is helped by the bland music and table design. As such Magic Duels: Origins earns nothing more than 2 out of 5 stars. It’s alright enough for someone new to the game and offers a decent model with a few interesting bits for veteran players, but I can’t think of any reason to recommend this over any other digital version of the game (outside of the price), or even just going out and playing it for real.