The venerable fantasy card game, Magic: The Gathering, has just made its debut on mobile by way of an iPad app titled Duels of the Planswalkers. The closest we've had to a Magic game on iOS so far has been Shadow Era, which admittedly did a decent job, but it's awesome to see the real deal available.
The core mechanic for Magic is fairly simple: you and your opponent each have 20 life points, and the goal is to reduce them to zero using offensive spells and creatures summoned to your command. In order to cast spells, players must use lands under their control to produce mana points. That mana is colored based on the land type, and powers equivalently-colored spells from your hand; for example, islands produce mana to be used in blue spells, which tend to revolve around illusion and the mind. White, blue, black, red, and green spells all have their own themes and cooperate well with some other colors (such as white and green for light and healing) and oppose others (white and red for order and chaos).
Each player takes turns, which involve drawing a card, playing a land, attacking with creatures, casting spells, and if there are too many cards in your hand, discarding. Lands and creatures indicate that they're in use by being "tapped" sideways, and are "untapped" at the beginning of every turn. There's a detailed and helpful tutorial and lots of pop-up tips built into the game for those that are new, but veteran planeswalkers can skip it and get right to the action.
For every game you win in the campaign, you earn one of 20 unlockable cards per deck for added customization. There are rare foil cards available too, but you can skip the whole rigamarole of earning your cards and just buy decks outright through in-app purchases. I would have really liked to have the ability to build decks from scratch, but the game seriously streamlines things and only unlocks cards for specific decks. It sure would be nice to have trading capabilities over multiplayer to complete the experience.
There are a bunch of game modes. First, there's the single-player campaign, where you chew out AI planeswalkers. Between campaign games are Encounters, which are themed battles with consistent strategies that you have to defeat. There's also a standalone Challenges mode available later on that provides particularly tough scenarios to play through. After defeating a planeswalker the first time you earn their deck, but you can always go back to the campaign to unlock more cards from their color. A new mode to the series is Planechase, whereby game conditions randomly change based on a third deck's draw; the story goes that you and your opponent are battling across multiple magical realms, each with their own properties. Revenge games are the last campaign type, which pits you against AI with highly-optimized decks. Custom single-player games and online multiplayer games have a few more modes, including Two-Headed Giant (2 vs. 2 with shared health) and free-for-all. That said, there is definitely enough variety in gameplay to keep you coming back.
Controls are generally smooth and ripe with swipe gestures to flip through your hand and play cards. At first, subtle techniques are hard to figure out, like activating creature abilities. Even with a great help system with all of the rules plainly laid out, I feel that new players will be quickly overwhelmed with the mechanics and even slight control mishaps might turn them off from Magic altogether. Aside from that, the visuals and audio are really good for a card game.
There are cutscenes, 3D effects, and extremely high-quality artwork imported from the tabletop card game. Unfortunately all of that high quality comes at a hefty cost of nearly 1 GB of room, which can be a lot to ask for if you're using a 16 GB iOS device.
In Duels of the Planeswalkers, you get access to a red, green, and blue deck and a single campaign game for free. You have to pay $9.99 in order to unlock the full game, which includes special challenges, new decks, and online multiplayer. There are a wide variety of achievements and leaderboards available, both of which are tracked in-game as well as through Game Center.
Magic might have a bit too much of a geeky vibe for some players, but Duels of the Planeswalkers is a real treat for those of us that loved the game in high school or are still regularly playing. Shadow Era has shown that a free-to-play model for trading card games is fairly viable. With such a massive backlog of cards to use, Wizards of the Coast should have been able to deploy something similar, or at least rely enough on in-app purchases to not resort to a $10 pricetag.
Overall, Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers does a great job of bringing a renown franchise to mobile, and I suspect over time it will only get better.