Review: Magic: The Gathering - Puzzle Quest

By Tanner Hendrickson 21 Dec 2015 0
A match-3 made in heaven A match-3 made in heaven

If there are two things that reliably distract us from the doom and gloom of the Mt. Hexmap Writer’s DungeonTM, they’re match-3 RPGs and CCGs. Imagine my surprise, then, when word came that a combination of the progenitors of both genres—Puzzle Quest and Magic: The Gathering-was in the works. However, my excitement was checked by the lackluster recent releases in both series–Marvel Puzzle Quest and Adventure Time Puzzle Quest suffered from poor free-to-play balance and Magic Duels has been basically non-functional for months. Thank goodness that Magic: The Gathering – Puzzle Quest was able to overcome most of the shortcomings of its predecessors. It’s the video game equivalent of a chocolate peanut butter cup: two familiar tastes that are even better together.

Magic: The Gathering – Puzzle Quest takes the best, most compelling components of both its series and smashes them together. From Puzzle Quest it takes the concept of dueling an opponent through turn-based gem matching. From Magic it takes strategic deck-building, the thrill of opening blind booster packs (though your milage may vary on that one) and beautiful card art.

Much like the old annual Duels of the Planeswalkers releases, you play as Planeswalker that has a limited pool of cards from which to build their deck, based on one of the five Magic mana types. From there you build a deck of ten cards, with limits on the numbers of creature, support and spell cards depending on the level of the Planeswalker. Once you’re done crafting your deck, it’s time to battle.

Battles are handled a little differently from both Puzzle Quest games and Magic. Unlike other Puzzle Quest games, there are no longer gems that directly damage your opponent. Instead, damage is inflicted via summoned creatures and spells. Unlike in Magic proper, where specific mana is needed to cast each spell or summon a creature,  only a certain amount of any mana type is needed, with bonuses and penalties applied based on the current Planeswalker and their level. For example, Nissa gets extra mana if she matches green gems, but less mana for matching black gems. Another key difference lies in how the deck functions. While you only can choose ten cards to put in your deck, those ten cards can be drawn any number of times.

Above the mana gems are six slots for summoned creatures, three per Planeswalker. Casting multiples of a creature will reinforce them by adding to its stats instead of taking up another slot, and only creatures with the defender trait can block attacks to your Planeswalker. Summoning sickness is still present, and creature traits and abilities have been tweaked and translated to fit into the game’s ruleset while still maintaining the spirit of the original card. Support cards “possess” a random gem on the board and can be destroyed by making the displayed number of matches with the gem. These cards give you a bonus of some sort each turn until the gem has been removed.

The core gameplay is satisfying both as a Puzzle Quest game and a Magic: The Gathering spinoff. Each of the Planeswalkers has a well-defined play style and the limitations on the deck-building actually make it easier to find satisfying synergies. The Magic-lite battling adds a significant layer of strategy on top of the classic Puzzle Quest formula. It feels much less like a free-to-play cash-grab than the last two entries in the Puzzle Quest series and is by far the most worthwhile entry since the original game.

At the moment, there are two game modes: Story and Quick Battle. Story mode is a series of battles against opponents that slowly rise in level and complexity. Simply winning the battle will award you some of the free currency that is mainly used to level up your Planeswalker, but there are also two secondary objectives that will usually require a certain Planeswalker or deck build to achieve. Those will give you a surprisingly generous amount of the premium currency that’s used to purchase booster packs, which are the only way to get more cards. Quick Battle mode is currently the game’s only multiplayer mode, and you play against random players who are close to your selected Planeswalker’s level. As far as I can tell, it’s similar to other games in that you’re only playing against an AI with someone else’s deck. There’s no way to play against a friend right now, which is disappointing. There is a third tab for “Events”, but tapping it only reveals a “Coming Soon” message right now.

It’s best not to think too hard about the story match-ups. It’s best not to think too hard about the story match-ups.

I’m sure that you’re nervously waiting for the free-to-play hat to drop. Worry not! The free-to-play implementation here is very generous—maybe even too generous. The premium currency, Mana crystals, are easily acquired through the secondary objectives in story mode and through daily log-in bonuses. The secondary objectives offer a satisfying challenge that force you to change up your play style, and the game is so enjoyable that I’ve had no problem logging in daily to collect my reward. Mana crystals are only used to purchase the other Planeswalkers and booster packs. The other currency in the game is used as experience points for your Planeswalkers to level up and can only be earned through playing the game or by purchasing the one-time-only “Starter Pack” for $8.99. Leveling unlocks significant bonuses for the Planeswalkers, including health increases, reduced health regeneration periods, changes in card-type limits, mana bonuses and new skills. I’m honestly surprised that there aren’t more opportunities to buy them, considering the impact leveling can have on how a Planeswalker is played.

Yes, there are timers in place, but they almost never get in the way of playing. Here’s how they work: A Planeswalker’s health will carry over from battle to battle. If you are defeated in battle or take a significant beating on your way to victory, you can use one of five instant-heal potions (that regenerate over time), wait around five minutes to heal, or switch to a different Planeswalker. I’ve almost never had to stop playing because of a timer.

You’ll still have to think strategically to get the most out of the game without spending money. For instance, the game gives you a fair amount of Mana crystals right out of the gate. It’s possible to blow them all on booster packs without realizing that you can buy all of the other Planeswalkers with them. If you don’t, you’re going to end up with a lot of cards you can’t use. The always-online requirement is disappointing too, but it comes with the territory. Ultimately, the game lands closer to Hearthstone than Clash of Clans on the free-to-play spectrum. Hopefully it stays that way and is able to sustain itself as-is.

Sometimes the game freaks out and gets… creative with its numbers. Sometimes the game freaks out and gets… creative with its numbers.

While the core gameplay in M:TG-PQ is fantastic, there are still some kinks that need to be ironed out in the bits that surround it. The AI can be very slow at times, and right now there is nothing you can do with duplicates of cards you own, despite the game showing how many there are. There are a surprising number of interface glitches and quirks for a game that had a soft-launch period. Numbers and text have become unreadable jumbles on more than one occasion. Text descriptors run off the iPhone screen. The deck auto-improver doesn’t let you see the card text on the cards it wants to swap. Plus, hand management is very finicky for how often you have to do it. These bugs and quirks never got in the way of my enjoyment of the game, and there have already been updates with improvements since launch.

D3Publisher and Hibernum have found a winning combination in Magic: The Gathering - Puzzle Quest. The added strategic layer to the Puzzle Quest formula was just the kick in the pants the series needed, and the free-to-play balance is more than agreeable. Any fan of either Puzzle Quest or Magic: The Gathering would do well to check the game out. After all, it’s free! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some gems to match.

Played on an iPhone 6s and iPad Air 2.

Review: Magic: The Gathering - Puzzle Quest

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