Magic Duels: Review 2: The Bugs Strike Back

So, just about a year ago now, I wrote a completely scathing review of the tumultuous mess that Magic Duels was at launch.

Given the online nature of the game and given that it “perpetually renews” itself whenever new cards come out, I figured I would get back in and see a handful of things for myself.  Notably:  whether or not the game was more stable, whether or not the game fared better in my books if I had more cards [and a greater pool of potential deck lists to pull from] and whether or not Stainless had listened to the sheer avalanche of complaints about the game’s launch state.

That last question?  That’s the question that binds them all.

The Good

Like Time Walk gives you an extra turn in the game, I figured I'd try playing Duels one more time...
Let’s try that again, shall we?

I want to start off with the good, because there are a handful of things that Stainless has done since I picked up the game that make it far, far better than it ever was at launch.  But bear in mind, we’re talking about two or three small things.  The ocean of bad that surrounds this game swallows all of these things up in an instant.

Quests are far better.  I can’t overstate this enough.  At launch, there was potential for you to receive a kind of quest where the game saddled you with a particular deck and you had to go out and beat the AI or other opponents with that deck.  These quests were AWFUL.  Not only did you have very limited control over what happened as you added cards to your deck, but you never got the sense that the computer was offering you the most powerful cards from your pool to build with.  The results were a dismal failure.  You’d load up an opponent and die, repeatedly, while trying to complete your quest.

Now?  You get to make your deck every time.  And the payouts are better.  Odd as it seems, when I’m playing Magic:  Duels, I feel like I’m getting better money-for-time than I am with Hearthstone.  [indeed, Hearthstone’s payouts have remained mostly miserly in the two+ years that game has been running, even as more and more sets have been released.]

The second big fix is stability.  The servers are far less likely to buckle under the weight of players.  Some of this I might ascribe to drop-off – the game at launch was certainly not what most people expected or wanted, so the player base that’s been left behind are the die-hards who – across six months [!] of not having a major fix, have stuck with the product they’ve been offered.

The third and final good fix is matchmaking, which actually happens now.  There are still problems, of course, because this is a game penned by Stainless, but we’re getting there, slowly but surely.  Who knows?  In ten years, this platform might work as intended!

The single player story is FAR better.  Stainless learned from their prior, rather lackluster story-based decks and missions.  The story-telling is still abysmal, but the decks you pilot are far more interesting for the new Innistrad and Gatewatch campaigns.  I especially want to call out the last two missions of the Gatewatch campaign as being superb.  You get to play with tremendous power [including some cards you will never actually see in Duels – a cruel tease if ever there was one] and it leaves a far better impression than the awful, awful quest you embarked on in the original Origins game.

The Bad

OK. Maybe not.
The patch! It’s coming! And it will make everything OK! Promise!

Whoo boy.

I’m not even sure of where to start.

So, I mentioned that the game didn’t have any big fixes for almost six whole months.  Well, what happened was that there was going to be a pretty major patch that was going to launch with Oath of the Gatewatch, but then Stainless – in their peerless and infinite wisdom – basically told the players “we’ll release these cards with the new set.  We have a great, new patch coming with the set that will fix a lot of stuff!  It’ll be great!  You’ll see!”

So for SIX MONTHS [!] [fixes to buying cards notwithstanding and server stability issues] the game cruised along, broken as ever.  This meant that many of the issues I bought up in my original review still stand.  You still can’t talk to people on your friends list in the game.  Matchmaking with friends is still an incoherent mess.  The game just randomly crashes, because…reasons.

On 6 April, 2016, a new, large patch arrived which dropped new cards into the game and fixed some persistent problems players were having.  But this – as I keep re-iterating – is Stainless Games.  And it wouldn’t be a major patch without major broken-ness.

So, the good news – again – because there’s so little to write about here:  an opponent conceding now leads to an actual end-game where you can just take your rank and money and run.  If you DESPERATELY want to, you can still beat up the AI.  [but this, of course, in true Stainless fashion only works in very particular situations.]

Two-Headed Giant FINALLY gets coin rewards for winning.  [but again, this being Stainless, this only happens in very particular situations.]

And then, of course, my favourite-favourite:  deck selection defaulting to the last-played deck.  Thank God for that.

There are some other, small quality-of-life changes, but most of these are small enough to not really bother with talking about.  And that’s it.  Six months later.  That’s all she wrote.

The bad is…getting worse, somehow.  Stainless figured it’d be a good time to change the way priority worked in the game – as if it weren’t murky enough already.  In Magic, you see, once you cast a spell, you have what is known as priority.  Once the spell is cast, there’s a little window where people can react to that spell being cast by – say – deciding they don’t like that spell and wanting to stop it.  This is known as “passing priority.”  The game – the paper game, at least – handles this in a very graceful way, with opponents passing priority until they don’t want to do anything anymore.  At this point, the game sees all the spells and resolves them – last in, first out.

In Magic Duels, priority was never really the game’s strong suit.  They wanted it to be a beginner friendly experience [which is terrible for everyone, by the by] so they streamlined.  In the new patch, they streamlined SO MUCH that they completely broke the flow of the game, rendering it unplayable for some given particular deck-builds.

They also – with Wizards/Hasboro’s consent – lopped cards right out of your collection, because these cards were deemed “too powerful.”  There was NO in-game warning about this.  If you were glued to sites covering the game, you would be aware that a quite powerful artifact that was used in nearly every deck was suddenly – and irrevocably – replaced with a very vanilla dude that adds absolutely nothing of strategic importance to the game.

Stability has – somehow – been poorly optimized for this particular patch.  Get too much on screen and suddenly, the game starts stuttering.

One of my other favourite “bugs” [although, I imagine this isn’t so much a bug as a “quiet nudge” to make you buy cards] is that there are new quests in the game that feature the new mechanics.  If you own none of those cards, you can’t do those quests.  But you also can’t complete them in the story-mode that happens to have a smattering of those cards, too.

So.  Yeah.  Stainless being Stainless.

I logged another fifty or so hours for this review and I think I am rather content to say that Stainless hasn’t learned a thing.  My initial impression of the game still stands.  If you’re looking for a reasonable implementation of a Magic game that’s free-ish to play, RUN AWAY LIKE THE DEVIL.  This is not that game.