Duels of the iPad 2013

Dave Astels is a programmer, developer, and passionate member of the Magic community (@dastels_mtg on Twitter). With his passion for iOS applications, and deep experience in building them, Dave takes a more critical eye to the things we take for granted.

After two years of having Duels of the Planeswalkers on Steam, Xbox, and Playstation, Wizards of the Coast has released the latest version on the iPad.

I've played using the Steam version so far. In fact, that was my entry back into Magic after a brief hiatus a couple years ago. But with Duels 2013, I've switched to the iPad.

This is huge. Now you can play Magic anywhere, anytime. It's a free app with a deck and basic play available out of the box. That makes it an ideal introduction for new players who want to give Magic a try before investing (and we all know what kind of investment being serious about Magic requires). Then, you can unlock all the play options for an in-app purchase of $10—less than a single intro pack or event deck. You can then play against the AI and unlock more cards (or pay $0.99 each to unlock decks).

There are the previous modes of play (one-on-one with the AI in campaign mode), Challenges (which are like Mark Rosewater's Duelist Magic puzzles), Two-Headed Giant, and online play against other players. But Duels 2013 adds Planechase, either against three AI opponents or other people. The iPad version uses GamesCenter for hooking up with other players.

The game has three experience levels that you can choose from: Mage, Archmage, and Planeswalker. When you start the game, it asks you how much experience you have with Magic, and it sets this accordingly (of course, you can change it in the settings).

This version is the first that moves away from being primarily a beginner product. You can specify how you want to tap lands, you can manually assign damage, and you can retain priority in phases. That means you tell it when you're finished with a main phase, for example. Deck editing has also advanced significantly from Duels 2012.

That said, it's still great for beginners, with the defaults making as much of the play automatic as possible. Additionally, there's a nice overview of how to play Magic as well as a tutorial that you can work through that teaches you both the game and how to play it in the app.

Unlike the Magic Toolbox iPhone app, this iOS product is very well executed. They pretty much did a perfect job of bringing Magic to a tablet environment. It uses the touchscreen to maximum advantage, and it feels fluid and natural.

Now, as wonderful as it is and as much as I'm impressed by it, it does have a few problems.

It's a huge app. My 3G first-generation iPad can barely cope: It crashes at least every few games, and I had to do a full reset in order to get a Planechase game to even start.

There are numerous cut scenes and bits of video that are completely extraneous to actual gameplay. While fine on a PC or console, these take up space (that could be used to store more apps or content) and time (while downloading) on a handheld. I question whether their value offsets the cost. Also, the first time they play, you don't have the option of skipping them. It would be nice if they didn't show up when you choose the Planeswalker mode.

The game takes a while to start up. This makes it less appealing to simply fire up and play a game when you have a few minutes free. Okay, so you fire it up and play a few games . . . No problem, except that it crashes after a game or two, and you have to start all over again. To be fair, the suggested platform is an iPad 2. I'm mostly happy that it works at all on my iPad 1.

After beginning this review, I upgraded to the most recent iPad. Duels 2013 sings on it. It has yet to crash, it starts quickly, and it comes back from being backgrounded without a twitch. This lets you truly grab it and have a quick game at any time. Animations are smooth, and the graphics are sharp and clear on the retina display. Well, most of them are. The play-surface graphic doesn't seem to have a retina version. The cards look amazing, though.

So, while it's fun on an iPad 1, it really needs a later model to shine.

Duels 2013 on the iPad is fabulous. It now incorporates Planechase, and the multiplayer interface is beautiful. The next thing I'd like to see supported is Commander.

Summary

Duels’s coming to the iPad is one of the biggest advances in Magic: The Gathering since the stack.

I was tentatively exhilarated when I read the announcement, and Wizards and Stainless have followed up in style, creating a wonderful mobile Magic play experience.

Finally, that's one fewer thing I need to fire up Windows for.

I'm dastels on GameCenter.