Magic: The Gathering is, in Hasbro's words, the biggest game you've never played. With some 20 million players, the collectable card game (CCG) certainly does have the chops to back up that statement. Its considerable growth - some 66 percent in the last three years - is attributed largely to the annual release of its Duels of the Planeswalkers videogames. Through these, Hasbro has encouraged millions of would-be Magic players to head out to specialty stores and pick up some actual decks for some head-to-head play with real people.
For those who haven't played Magic, or Duels of the Planeswalkers, the high-level synopsis is simple: by using cards from a pre-selected deck, you must deploy a combination of spells, creatures, and other devices in order to bring an opponent's health to zero before they do the same to you.
It is, in other words, an awful lot like Hearthstone - Blizzard's digital-only CCG that's been taking the genre by storm of late. But rather than acknowledge Hearthstone as competition Hasbro considers the growth of the genre as beneficial to all - including itself.
Hasbro even goes so far as to classify Hearthstone as an "action CCG", thanks to its simplified rules and focus on fast play. Magic, meanwhile, it describes as a "strategy CCG," rewarding more considered play and an advanced understanding of the more complicated mechanics. The clear inference is that a subset of players drawn to the genre by Blizzard will soon start looking for something more, and Magic will be right there waiting for them.
Magic 2015: Duels of the Planeswalkers will be the fifth game in the series. Originally equipped with only very basic features, it's clear that fan feedback - and, perhaps, competition - has factored very heavily into the design of this year's edition.
One of the most requested features - comprehensive deck building - makes its first appearance, allowing players to build decks of cards from scratch, in any combination they'd like. The tool by which this is achieved is masterfully implemented, with a combination of powerful filters and assistants that are all presented by way of a very streamlined, easy to understand interface.
This is further backed up by a card browser that lets you see which cards you've unlocked and which remain to be discovered, letting you analyse and plot out your strategy for different styles of play against different types of opponent.
The way you get new cards is new in this year's Magic game too. Simply playing the game will unlock booster packs as you progress - each of which are opened via simulated foil-ripping, much as you'd do with a real pack - and there's now also the ability to purchase new boosters as well, but how much they'll cost has not yet been revealed. As has been the case with previous versions of the game, it will not be possible to trade cards with other players. Importing decks from earlier versions of the game is also not supported.
The basic version of the game will be free to download, allowing you to sample the tutorial stage and some of the content. From there, you'll have the option to purchase sections of the game (based around physical card sets like Innistrad, Theros, Ravnica, Shandalar, and Zendicar) or the entire thing - although prices for all of these options, like the booster packs, remain a secret.
Mechanically, the build of the game tested was a more refined version of last year's experience. The flow through the four phases of combat is more clearly defined, and the layout of the game is much less cluttered - and all the better for it. The minimalist presentation helps keep the focus on the cards, giving the player less excuses for missing an important strategic option. Random battles in certain parts of the story mode also keep things interesting, adding incentive to replay the singleplayer content when your friends are asleep or you just can't face battles with strangers.
Multiplayer is present, but it wasn't part of the hands-on so is as yet untested by Gameplanet. It allows for same-platform multiplayer and supports both random match-ups and friend-play. Beyond that, little else is known about the mode.
The preview session suggested fans of Duels of the Planeswalkers will have every reason to upgrade when Magic 2015 releases, as almost every section of the game seems to have been extensively overhauled. The deck building alone will likely be worth the price of entry for many, and the way in which it has been approached will be reassuring for many more. It's clear that Duels of the Planeswalkers is now a very important part of the Magic brand and Hasbro is treating it accordingly.
If you have an interest in collectable card games or just want to get a preview of the new Magic: The Gathering sets (Magic 2015 will launch before the physical versions of the cards it includes), the new Duels of the Planeswalkers is planned for release in early July on PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iPad, and Android. Downloading the game will unlock a coupon for an exclusive physical card, too, providing some extra incentive for current Magic players to try out the digital version.