When Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 was released a few months ago, it introduced full deckbuilding and cards only attainable through an additional purchase. We didn't like it. An expansion for the game makes those premium cards available simply by winning matches.
Full disclosure: Wizards of the Coast flew me to Honolulu, Hawaii recently for Pro Tour: Khans of Tarkir, and to unveil this new expansion (I'll have more about the Pro Tour later this week).
I actually want to talk about that a little bit — we're gamers, so we're going to play the metagame, right? After that negative review in July, a Wizards of the Coast brand manager wanted to talk on the phone about it, just to get more specifics on what I disliked about the game or what would have made it better. Then came the Pro Tour press trip. What we can take away is that Wizards feels the success of Duels of the Planeswalkers is very important to the overall health of Magic: the Gathering. And while it's impossible to track exactly how a new player who starts buying cards and playing at Friday Night Magic got into the game (I asked them if they had any data on that), a streak of year-by-year sales increases for Magic roughly coincides with the existence of Duels of the Planeswalkers. It's an interesting correlation.
There's also an apparent responsiveness to fan outcry. That phone conversation in July left me feeling optimistic that they really wanted to know how to make a better game. I'm actually a bit stunned they reversed course on the premium cards. We can be cynical and talk about how the backlash against microtransactions must have hit their bottom line (I don't doubt that it did), but simultaneously recognize that the people who make the game have a passion for it and want people to like it.
That brings us to this new expansion, Garruk's Revenge. It adds a new single player campaign that's actually a prequel to the story of the main game. You'll play against a series of decks, culminating in a battle against the masked assassin Garruk decapitates in a cut scene in the original game. These games are played using a fixed deck — you don't get to customize it at all. However, it changes subtly as you move through the campaign, starting out as a mostly green deck, then incorporating more and more black cards with each new match. This represents Garruk slowly being corrupted from within. It's kind of a neat way to tell a story through card selection.
Once you beat the campaign, you can then go through and play those matches using any of your custom decks. At that point you'll also have unlocked a set of new cards that will be available for custom deck building. These cards are unrelated to the Garruk decks — it's just a set of cards that unlocks when the campaign is defeated. There's some cool stuff in there too, including more multi-colored lands for those of who like to build 3-color decks.
The biggest change, of course, is that those premium card packs that were once locked away unless you wanted to drop an extra $30 on them are now fully unlockable by winning multiplayer games. You can still buy them if you don't feel like playing games to unlock them (or literally have more money than sense), but now every card in the game is attainable without spending extra money.
This is a huge change, and it overcomes the game's biggest problem. It isn't the game's only problem (the menu user interface is abysmal, and the AI is pretty terrible). The limited game modes can leave you wondering what to do with all those cards you've now unlocked — if you want to play against random computer decks, each plane's "explore node" is the place to do that, but I had to figure that out through trial and error. It's not intuitive at all.
The fact that the cards are unlockable only by playing multiplayer games actually gives the game more focus in this area. I typically don't play multiplayer, but if the game is pushing you in that direction and more explicitly saying, "Here's how you should be playing, against other humans," that's fine. I'm happy to play that way if there's a reason for it.
If my original assessment of this game was, "This would be great if not for the premium cards," then getting rid of that roadblock makes things pretty clear. Finally, a Duels of the Planeswalkers that lets us build our own decks! That's pretty cool.
Garruk's Revenge will be available on Steam and Android on Nov. 5, with other platforms to follow.