Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 came out somewhat suddenly this past week, and goosed by the promotional Scavenging Ooze I downloaded my copy immediately. Then I messed around with it for several hours, to get a sense of how Duels 2014 stacks up with its predecessors. The answer? It’s complicated! Shocking.

So, it might be useful to provide some background on the relationship I have with these games. When I was a wee lass my interest in Magic was cemented by a little game called Shandalar. It was silly, and overly complicated, but the RPG element was amusing for a computer gamer, the free build option let people like me (who had a child’s collection) play with Black Lotus and other ridiculous cards, and it even had a few special cards that flaunted the computer engine by making effects happen randomly. It was a lot of fun, and it sold me on the potential of Magic, but on a computing device.

Of course, having this experience lead me to try out the Xbox game (Battlegrounds) when it came out (there were a few of these games released between Shandalar and Battlegrounds, but they weren’t on my radar). And boy did Battlegrounds stink! It was so bad that I never managed to go particularly deep into it. You controlled a mage, on one side of a dodgeball court, and you moved your avatar around to swat at your opponent’s creatures when they crossed over to attack you. Plus there was some weird, non-land mana system? And you could cross over and swat your opponent, at some cost? It was a train wreck.

Clearly Wizards wasn’t hitting the sweet spot of simplification with these products, as much as I loved Shandalar. And MODO doesn’t really count, since while it is definitely played on a computer, it’s just a virtual Magic game, not a Magic-themed video game. Which is a fine distinction, I know, but it’s true! MODO is different.

But then they released Duels of the Planeswalkers, and it became clear that they had a sense of where they should end up. The original Duels excelled as a teaching tool, but it was also just fun to play independent of your level of play. When you didn’t have the time to crack open some packs, or find another real person, you could jump on the Xbox and play a few rounds of something that was basically Magic, but less broken and crunchy. And when Duels 2013 added in multiplayer content I was ecstatic. New hosts of people were being introduced to the joys of multiplayer politics and threat assessment, and it was pretty awesome.

Duels 2013 may have been the apex of this trend. This is not to say that D14 is bad, per se. The game still has many of the positive, interesting play options available to previous iterations, and the sealed deck builder is fascinating (more on that in a second). But it has problems both in its design and execution, and they’re worth pointing out.

The first (and biggest) issue is that the load times have gotten out of control. Maybe it’s because I am playing it on an iPad 2, and not the new hotness, but Dana’s been having the same problems on all of her Android devices and some of them are cutting edge. No matter what the cause, it’s a huge distraction, and for some reason waiting on the thing to start for 90 to 120 seconds makes the slow pace of the game all the more irritating when things start going. The solemn pace of the game has always been somewhat annoying, but this makes it worse.

Unlocking new decks is now more of a chore as well. You start with the archetypical green kitchen table deck. It’s got some decent bodies, nothing too special, and then you win with beats or overrun. Unfortunately, you have to finish the entire plane of Innistrad before you get your next deck, and it’s a white weenie build that doesn’t play out particularly differently than the green one.

Now, I get why they slowed down these things (well, all but the load lag). To make Duels more effective at teaching people how to play Magic, they’re hand-holding through a Campaign mode that grades people up in deck difficulty. That’s fine in theory, but in practice it just makes the game less fun. To keep you from unlocking decks immediately on the planes, you’re thrown against a bunch of goofy “theme” decks. In Innistrad these decks tend to just be boring, not particularly difficult. But one of the first decks in Zendikar (incidentally, the planes are organized in a totally weird way) is a land destruction deck that just spawns out copies of Spire Barrage and Roiling Terrain, and my god was it frustrating to play against.

Plus, as part of the oversimplification process, D14 still has some of the more irritating quirks of its predecessors. You still unlock cards through victories, and they still automatically put those cards into your deck, even when they’ve wasted a slot on Angel’s Mercy as some sort of perverse teaching incentive. It would have been fairly easy to add in a prompt when you unlock a card: “would you like to add this to your deck? Y/N?” And that’s the easy fix…the hard fix would involve rectifying whatever technical issue prevents easy entrance and exit from the Deck Manager. When you leave the Deck Manager you get booted out to the front screen, no matter what, instead of coming back to where you left. It seemed like less of an issue before, but with the D14 lag issues it makes you want to smash something. Something expensive. Like an iPad.

But, these criticisms aside (one last one: they cut or hid multiplayer), there are definitely some positives that balance out the lot. M14 doesn’t look amazing, but it seems like a solid format and offers some interesting cards to play around with. And the sealed deck mode is cool, although it follows the sealed league tradition of giving you more packs over time, which is slightly less relevant to real experiences. Stop trying to make leagues happen, Wizards! It’s a good thumbnail of the process, although the inability to lay things out like on MODO means that sometimes sorting through the mass of cards can be confusing, even with the relevant filters.

End of the day, though, I still recommend buying the silly game. It may be slow and a little too lowest-common-denominator, but for less than a price of a draft there’s enough there to spend at least a night at it, and probably more.

So…. Value!

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