Magic 2013 brings (the Xbox version of) Magic to the iPad
The iPad is ideal for card games -- its size and wonderfully inviting touch screen makes it excellent for representing physical cards on a digital device. That's why, back when the iPad was first introduced, one of the most popular apps was a simple deck of cards, a virtual set of graphics that you could move and slide around the screen as needed. Traditional card games have always been well-represented on the iPad, and collectible card games really shine. As the iPad has matured, we've seen more and more virtual card games arrive, from Hothead's popular Kard Combat to enjoyable titles like Ascension and Shadow Era.
For the longest time, however, Wizards of the Coast has declined to bring its monstrously popular collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering, to iOS. There have been popular versions of Magic on both PC (and even in the browser) and on game consoles, but up until this summer, there was no official way to play Magic on iOS. Fans had even released makeshift versions of the title on the App Store at times, all of them crushed by Wizards of the Coast's legal threats.
Finally, about a month ago, we got what we'd been waiting for. Magic 2013 is an official version of Magic, the full game playable on the iPad's gorgeous screen, with all of the modern game rules and strategies (mostly) intact. But is this the version we've been waiting for, or is it yet another stopgap to let Wizards exploit the brand on iOS without actually pulling players away from its core physical card game?
In short, this is the game you've been looking for if you're a Magic fan. It's as close as you'll get to playing real Magic almost anywhere, and it's plenty effective at imitating the real thing. The biggest drawback of Magic 2013 is that it's basically a port of the popular Duels of the Planeswalkers console series rather than an all-new iOS version, so all of the complaints about that series (that you can't truly build your own decks, and that most of the content is buried in a segmented campaign) are still mostly valid here. But otherwise, this is Magic, and all of the features that you'd hope to find in an official Magic game, including multiplayer online play, unlockable cards, Two-Headed Giant and custom game modes, and any other little extras, are all here for the taking.
The base game is free and that is just a tester version. It offers just five levels, and doesn't include any of the larger features or card unlocks. A very reasonable US$9.99 unlocks everything else. While you can buy other cards or packs, the single $9.99 charge will get you most of the Magic you want: A full 30-match campaign, 10 decks to choose from and multiple opponents, including that online mode. There's no problem with content here at all. The digital game obviously isn't as flexible as the offline game (where you can put together your own strategies or play any number of custom rules), but given that Wizard definitely doesn't want to stop selling physical cards, all of the limits here are completely understandable.
The biggest issue with Magic 2013 isn't in what it has, but in what it doesn't, and that's an iPad-specific interface. Again, the interface is lifted straight from the console version, which itself was originally designed to work with an Xbox 360 controller. As a result, Magic's digital cards just don't feel as real as they should. You do swipe cards up to play them, but tapping to attack simply moves them into position, and cards tap themselves rather than having you push them to the side. It's mostly an aesthetic argument, but still -- the iPad's screen is so well designed for tactile interaction that it's disappointing the developers didn't take more advantage of it. Wizards is probably leery of investing too much in a brand new version of the game, so hopefully later versions will have a more touchscreen-specific interface.
The other issue with porting over from the console version is that games tend to run a little slow. The game moves through each phase with plenty of time for either opponent to jump in and cast spells or play cards, and all of that waiting seems less workable on the iPad's closeup screen. Again, this is the fault of the way the game was designed (and, to a lesser extent, the way Magic works in general), but I can't help but think that if the game was remade completely for the iPad, it would run just a little smoother than it currently does.
Once you figure why everything moves as slowly as it does, however (and you'll have no problem doing that if you're an expert Magic player already), there's not a lot of other issues. The cards are clear, colorful and easy to read, and matches work just as they do in real life. The game's graphics are actually a little flashy for Magic, I thought, but they're also well-designed, and the music is pretty good as well.
I don't know if this is the ideal version of Magic. Personally, I will probably tend towards playing the game on the Xbox, since that's where this version started and that's what I'm most used to. But we do finally have Magic: The Gathering on the iPad, and it runs as well as you'd want an official Magic app to run, with all of the boxes checked that you'd need. Hopefully, when the next version of the game comes around (Wizards has been releasing both new digital and physical versions on a somewhat annual basis), iOS will get a copy of the game that's been designed just for the excellent touchscreen it's rendered on.
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