Demo Driver 8: Magic 2014
Usually, I play a demo all the way through to the end before I make a comment on it. But not this one. I passed the half-hour mark and I was already done, largely because I didn’t need a great deal of introduction to playing a card game that I had already played for several years and have opted out of continuing to play for a variety of reasons.
The easy verdict here is that this is the most recent version of the game, and if you’re looking for a version of Magic: the Gathering that works as close to a box set of the game could possibly work, here is your game. Based on the demo, it provides exactly what it advertises on the tin, which is a faithful digital recreation of the card game as it stood when the game was made, frozen in time and yet with a clean visual interface and implementation of the rules. It manages to hit enough of the genuine game’s notes without being the same game, which is noteworthy. At the same time, it’s also a bit buggy, and it doesn’t exactly do the source material any favors.
You’re probably looking for a bit more, huh?
For those of you who have only just emerged, blinking, from the year 1992 or before, welcome! You’ve figured out computers remarkably quickly. Also, Magic: the Gathering is a card game in which players take the role of two wizards engaged in a duel, theoretically. In practice, it’s more like two players take the role of two players who really enjoy playing a version of poker that involves phrases like “I tap to attack” and “take 2 damage” and “then Steve flipped the table over because he is a manchild who has never understood that it is possible for someone else to be a better player.”
What I’m getting at is that the game is really about enjoying the idea of a fantasy battle with the thinnest veneer of a story, and that works out. I’ve said before that it’s a really hard property to base a game upon outside of a digital version of the card game, which is exactly what Magic 2014 is aiming to be.
The obvious drawback here, of course, is that MtG is at its heart a social game. Yes, the groups that occupy my local gaming store are not people whose company I’d otherwise enjoy, but the stereotypical social pariah does not make up the whole of the game’s player base. It’s a fun game to sit around and play with friends, and more often than not half of the fun is playing with those people. There’s a multiplayer mode here, of course, but it’s not quite the same thing. Still, the game itself is still fun, if it’s implemented properly.
Some of my playtime was marred by a rather awkward bug that prevented many of the interface elements from interacting properly with my mouse, unfortunately, which soured me on the game a bit. There were also some bugs with music looping here and there, so it doesn’t seem to be the most stable version of the game I’ve seen. That being said, the music is secondary and mostly winds up being generic vagueness anyway, so that’s no great loss.
When it is working, the game is… well… a perfectly functional version of the tabletop game without frills. Which is good and also aiming really low, when you consider that the whole reason why this stuff consists of pictures on cards is because you cannot actually throw a fireball at someone in real life.
I understand that part of the point of the game is getting people into the card game, and why would you pay to play the cool video game just to turn around and play the less-interesting cardboard version? Except, of course, for the fact that people do that all the time, as evidenced by the number of Pokémon cards in my home. They fulfill different niches. Playing an abstraction of an abstraction of a fantasy battle is at least not as hideously reductive as the various Yu-Gi-Oh! games, which go down even more pointless levels (a simulation of a dramatization of a recreation of a fictional abstraction of a fantasy battle), but still. You are turning an expensive piece of hardware into a set of cardboard markers.
More to the point, this version of the game is oddly crippled. Your ability to build and customize decks is sharply limited from the start, and from what owners of the full game have said also highly reliant upon DLC – which breaks one of the main selling points that the game has (i.e. not having to constantly buy packs of cards). Combine that with the fact that the AI on the normal level makes a lot of really base-level stupid plays like walking into stupid trades and combat tricks over and over, and you have a game that seems perfectly tailored to be unappealing for everyone who enjoys the tabletop game.
At the same time, I can’t be too critical of the game, because it is doing exactly what it advertises. If you want a digital version of the card game and don’t care too much about the limitations or the DLC issues, it’s ten dollars to pick up, and it does what it promises to do. The interface is clean and straightforward, the tutorials solidly demonstrate how to play the game, and the cards on display are neither pure amateur hour nor insanely complex. It strikes a lot of nice balances and is, ultimately, admirable in its construction.
The question isn’t whether or not it delivers what it promises, though; it’s whether it delivers something worth having.
If you’ve missed playing the tabletop game, this will provide you with some of the rush at hopefully a fraction of the price, but it won’t really be the same thing. It’s a shot of methadone after you’ve already transitioned away from heroin. If you play the tabletop game already, all this provides is a tool so that you need never not play that same game at all times. It’s very good at delivering what it wants to offer, but that’s really not a compliment.