Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014: brilliant decks, flawed sealed playS

The annual refresh of the casual console version of Magic: The Gathering gets high marks for fun, well-constructed decks, but the highly anticipated sealed deck mode leaves a lot to be desired. It's still a great MtG fix for $10.

The core of the DotP experience is playing the game's built-in preconstructed decks, unlocking new cards as you move through the campaign or face off against friends or random online opponents. This core experience continues to improve. The in-game interface received a few welcome tweaks, like a single "Attack All" button that lets you send your entire force into the red zone at once. Actual game play works as smoothly as it ever did, so there weren't many problems to address here.

The decks are customizable, just as they've been for the last two editions. From the starting deck of 60 cards, you'll unlock 30 more, one for each game you win (there are 10 decks total). You can swap out some of the lesser "stock" cards for the upgrades you unlock, and you can even significantly change how the deck operates by carefully choosing which cards to include. This time around, you can even adjust the number and types of lands in your deck.

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014: brilliant decks, flawed sealed playS

One of the biggest upgrades is the general quality of the preconstructed decks. The decks are simply better, using a wider variety of cards and offering quite a few fun deck building options. There's a strong tribal theme, with many of the decks focused on a specific creature type. For instance, Liliana Vess' deck, which in prior editions was sort of a generic black deck with some discard spells, is now a focused zombie theme deck that can generate truly hideous numbers of walking dead. And of course there's the Sliver Hive deck, which we debuted a few weeks ago. Another standout is a green ramp deck that lets you crank out tons of extra lands per turn, until you're ready to play some of Magic's biggest creatures, the powerful, otherwordly Eldrazi.

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014: brilliant decks, flawed sealed playS

DotP 2014 does have some flaws, however. The first is the size of the text on the game screen. This has been a problem since the first version, and not only has it not been fixed, it's gotten worse. Simply put, many pieces of game information are in a font far too small to be seen. I mostly play on my Xbox, at an average distance from my decent-sized TV screen. The player's life totals are literally impossible for me to read — I'm just guessing at them if I haven't been keeping track in my head. Other things like number of cards left in the library or even creature power/toughness are equally difficult to read.

Now, this is an inconvenience for me, with perfectly fine, uncorrected eyesight. From an accessibility standpoint, it's a total disaster. If you have vision problems and were hoping to enjoy some Magic on your Playstation or Xbox, you're just out of luck. It's really inexcusable, because it doesn't stem from a lack of real estate in the interface. There's plenty of room on screen to simply make those numbers larger! The problem is somewhat mitigated if you're playing on your PC via Steam (where you're sitting much closer to your monitor) or on a tablet, but even so the numbers are too small.

The other disappointment with DotP 2014 is the sealed deck mode. Every year the game includes a variant play mode (last year it was Planechase, which was a lot of fun even if games could last ages). There was a lot of excitement when sealed deck play was announced — building a deck out of random cards you open in virtual "packs" can be a really fun experience, with a lot more variety than playing against the same constructed decks over and over.

I imagine a lot of players envisioned sealed play working something like this: you access Xbox Live or Steam and enter a queue of, say, four players. You each open your packs and have 10 minutes to build a deck, then play a few round robin games against each other.

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014: brilliant decks, flawed sealed playS

Instead, you open your packs and build a deck, then play through a sealed deck "campaign" to unlock three more packs. When you go online, you play with that same sealed deck. You have two slots to save two different sealed decks, and you can always delete one and open some new packs, but this really loses the "open some packs and play against some other people who also just opened some packs" fun of sealed play. The packs also seem to draw from a pretty small pool of cards, so if you build a blue and green deck, it's going to look pretty much like anyone else's blue and green deck.

Duels of the Planeswalkers is perpetually hamstrung by some kind of mandate to not make it "too close" to actual paper Magic, for fear that it will cut into the market. So instead of playing a great sealed deck format and thinking, "This is fun, I want to try it at a real game store," new players get a half-assed sealed deck experience that misses the point and isn't very enjoyable.

Flaws aside, DotP remains an excellent game that hits a lot of the right buttons for Magic players. A quick nostalgia fix for some, an introduction to the game for others, and even a way to scratch the Magic playing itch at 3:00 a.m. when the local game store is shuttered, and all for a pretty modest buy-in. The game is currently available on Xbox, Playstation, Steam, and for the iPad and Android tablets.