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Magic 2014 review: Master magician


The single biggest request since the Duels of the Planeswalkers series began three games ago has been for fully customizable decks. Before now, players couldn't tweak their land count, but the feature has finally been introduced to the series by way of Magic 2014: Duels of the Planeswalkers.

This feature alone makes Magic 2014 superior to its predecessors, but Stainless Games went further by overhauling the series' campaign mode and adding a new Sealed Deck variant into the mix. Stainless also completely redesigned the HUD elements that appear while in battle, making turn orders and actions much easier to understand at a glance.

Magic 2014 is a careful dissection of the three games preceding it, addressing nearly every issue that has surfaced since the series began.

Gallery: Magic 2014: Duels of the Planeswalkers (5/7/13) | 5 Photos

The first noticeable thing about Magic 2014 is its increased production values. The campaign has a story and cutscenes with voice work, besting earlier barebones campaigns with a coherent tale focusing on one Planeswalker – a magic-slinging individual who can cross between the different planes of reality.

The campaign is also bolstered by sheer providence of not being a ho-hum series of matches against different decks this time around. Special match variants called Encounters are also sprinkled in, pitting you against a deck that has one strategy in mind. Initially, your opponent will do the same thing over and over with only a few cards, but as you progress the loops become more sinister and varied. Unlike the puzzle challenges of the past, which required you to best the challenge by figuring out the special winning formula, these encounters require players to recognize the deck strategy and respond accordingly.

Stainless Games also took care to rethink how information is presented to players during each duel. Around your player icon, a health bar keeps your life total visible; each phase of a turn is loudly proclaimed with bold letters, and an option to automatically zoom in on played cards keeps you informed of spells without having to manually zoom in yourself. Plus, it pauses the turn, giving you ample time to counter a spell or cast a response. In previous games, you couldn't always manually pause in time to respond, or the game would simply lock you out of a response altogether.

Sealed Campaign is the other big new addition in Magic 2014. Players open up a series of booster packs – consisting of randomized cards – and construct a deck from scratch. The element of randomness and freedom in Sealed Campaign makes it an excellent companion to the linear, regimented events of the base campaign mode.

Multiplayer, while largely the same as last year's game, does at least build on its foundation by offering Sealed Deck play. Of the available modes, this is as close as you can get to a real-life game of Magic: The Gathering in Magic 2014.

Magic 2014: Duels of the Planeswalkers is proof that Stainless Games isn't rubber-stamping these games every year, instead taking critical feedback and adjusting the experience accordingly. Magic 2014 doesn't, however, do much to bring new players into the fold, or much to teach the systems of Magic: The Gathering beyond rudimentary tutorials. Small prompts following each action seem to be the game's only means of aiding ignorant players.

For those familiar with Magic: The Gathering, Magic 2014 offers a great blend of modes and smart improvements to dueling that make for a far less frustrating experience than previous installments. Magic 2014 is the jewel in the Stainless Games crown, and a shining example of the rewards of iterative development.

This review is based on a download of the Xbox Live Arcade version of Magic 2014, provided by Microsoft.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no."Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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