Magic 2013 gets card-battling right

The popularity of collectible/customizable card games (CCGs) — be they virtual or physical — can be attributed almost entirely to Richard Garfield’s 1993 release of the original Magic: The Gathering. Since that time, we have seen a large number of variations on the theme in both the electronic and tabletop gaming spaces — but somehow it’s taken until 2012 to bring the grandaddy of CCGs to mobile devices. Now that Magic 2013 from Wizards of the Coast is available as a hefty 1GB free download for iPad (with an optional $9.99 unlock fee for its full content), it’s time for other card-battling titles to see how it’s really done.

“Card battle” titles are enormously popular on the App Store right now. Titles such as DeNA’s Rage of Bahamut and GREE’s Zombie Jombie consistently show up in the top-grossing charts but offer relatively little in the way of substance or actual gameplay, being more akin to simplistic text-based RPGs like Mafia Wars than traditional card games. Conversely, titles such as Hothead’s Kard Combat (co-created by Magic: The Gathering mastermind Richard Garfield), Gamevil’s Duel of Fate and Wulven Game Studios’ Shadow Era provide a closer approximation of the tabletop CCG experience, but struggle to maintain prominent positions in the ranking, perhaps due to their relatively unknown names. By bringing the well-established Magic: The Gathering brand with it, Magic 2013 has the potential to enjoy very strong success — particularly as this mobile version is such a good implementation of the tabletop game.

There are a number of rules variations in Magic: The Gathering, all of which are offered to those who pay the $9.99 unlock fee for Magic 2013’s full version. The most basic form, however, takes the form of a duel between two players, both of whom begin with 20 life points, a hand of seven cards and a well-shuffled deck containing a selection of land, creature and spell cards.

Each turn is split into several phases. In one of the two “main” phases, players are able to play a land card, which comes in one of several different colors. Land cards provide mana, which in turn is used to summon creatures and cast spells. Creatures are used to attack the other player, attack the other player’s creatures and defend against assault from the other player’s menagerie. Decks are typically arranged according to color, each of which has a specific “specialism” — some are good at dealing damage, some prefer defending and some have powerful special abilities. Throughout the course of the game, players will unlock additional cards which may be added to their various decks, giving them greater flexibility with which to approach various situations. The game evolves over time as the player progresses through the substantial amount of content — or, for impatient players, when they pay to unlock the various additional cards and deck builds.

Magic: The Gathering is a notoriously complicated game for newcomers to understand, but this iPad incarnation offers an excellent tutorial which explains in great detail what is happening at each step in a sample game. Moreover, the interface provides a wealth of information which players can refer to as well as a “hint” function when playing on the lowest difficulty setting. It’s the most accessible the game could be made without actually simplifying the rules at all, and is a perfect gateway for those who have been interested in trying the physical card game but were unable to find a regular opponent or found themselves daunted by the vast array of decks available for purchase.

Magic 2013 is also an excellent example of a well-implemented “trial and unlock” monetization scheme. The free content allows players to get a feel for the game and play as many basic duels as they wish, while the $9.99 unlock fee gives access to additional modes of play such as four-player battles and the new “Planechase” mode where central cards have ongoing effects on the entire play area. The full version also provides access to online multiplayer via Game Center. Random matchups are pleasingly quick at the time of writing, suggesting that there are plenty of people playing.

The only real omission, in fact, is a local multiplayer mode where two players would be able to square off against one another on a single iPad. The device’s screen is certainly big enough for this to be a possibility and some App Store reviewers are specifically requesting it, so perhaps it’s something that Wizards of the Coast will consider in the future — maybe along with an Android tablet version. iPhone-toting Magic enthusiasts would also doubtless like a more portable small-screen version of the game, but this would require some significant reworking — and lots of zooming — to be a workable option.

As it stands, Magic 2013 puts other card-battle games on the App Store to shame with well-implemented, proven gameplay and a wealth of content for a one-off fee. For those interested in CCGs as a hobby, too, $9.99 for all the content is certainly a lot cheaper than getting into collecting real Magic cards!

Magic 2013 is currently the No. 4 free iPad app, the No. 3 free iPad app in the games genre, the No. 4 top grossing iPad app and the No. 4 top grossing app in the games genre. Our readers can follow the game’s progress with AppData, our tracking service for iOS and social games and developers.