I know I usually write about Commander, but today I wanted to give my perspective on another way to enjoy the Magic: the Gathering universe. This past Monday, I played in the Magic: Legends Prerelease event, and after four hours of gaming on stream and a few more afterwards, I have some thoughts about the game and its potential future.
Full disclosure: As part of my participation in the prerelease event, I was given access to the beta starting on Monday (the open beta started the following day), 100 codes to give to viewers so they could participate in the prerelease event and a code for a Planeswalker Bundle of in-game items that retails for $39.99.
Magic: Legends is a loot-based Action RPG developed by Cryptic Studios. If you’ve ever played Diablo, Path of Exile, Grim Dawn or similar games, you’re on the right track.
Your character is a planeswalker, roaming the realms of the Magic multiverse and doing heroic things. At the beginning of the game, you get to choose between one of five classes, each aligned with one of the colors of Magic:
- Geomancer, a melee attacker using the power of earth. Starts with a red deck.
- Beastcaller, a pet-focused class that uses axe attacks. Starts with a green deck.
- Sanctifier, a supportive healer and buffer with angelic allies. Starts with a white deck.
- Mind Mage, an illusionist who can manipulate energy orbs. Starts with a blue deck.
- Necromancer, a reanimation specialist with dark magic. Starts with a black deck.
Minor gripe – the classes aren’t listed in WUBRG order! You can unlock all of the classes on a single character over time, so there’s no real need to make a second one unless you want to play with a friend on precise parity of power level.
Once you pick your starting class, customize your character and choose a name, you’re thrown right into the action with a tutorial featuring Ral Zarek. He’ll teach you how to use your abilities – you have a basic attack that costs nothing, a special attack on a timer and a defensive/evasive ability that’s also on a timer. You also have a “spark bar” that fills up over time – you can use portions of it to recover mana or fill up the whole thing and fire off an ultimate ability.
More importantly though, you have a selection of 12 spells in your deck! You can have four of them in your “hand” at any given time, and as you cast them, they’ll disappear temporarily, only to be replaced a little bit later by another one – yes, you’re drawing cards from your deck.
They’ll pop up in different spots on your action bar, so you’ll have to learn the icons and remember what does what. You’re also limited on how many spells you can cast by your mana – you can have up to 12 and it regenerates while you’re in combat. The colors of mana you have access to are determined by the cards in your deck – right now, two colors is the maximum, and the balance of colors of mana in your bar is set by the balance of mana costs in your deck. For a little more context, let’s take a look at the Library!
The main focus of character improvement seems to be collecting more cards to put in your deck and then leveling up those cards. Once you have more than 12 cards, you can start customizing your deck.
Spells include attacks that deal damage, offensive utility spells that debuff or even take control of monsters, defensive utility spells that heal or buff you or your creatures, draw cards or increase your mana regeneration, enchantments that create lasting effects and creature spells. You might be tempted to fill your deck with only creatures and cover the screen in a massive army or just take all your high-power creatures and play them, but you’re limited to a total of 12 “creature points” in your deck – each creature card has a point value based on its strength.
You start with a monocolor deck and find more spells over time, but you also find Spell Pages for specific spells that allow you to upgrade them. The more you upgrade a spell, the more its numeric values increase! Spell pages come slowly and only for spells you’ve unlocked, so you may find yourself buying and selling with the Consignment Broker, an NPC that lets you sell excess spell pages and other items you may not want, for gold and then buy items other players have sold.
This isn’t the only character progression metric, though – there are a few more systems.
Equipment is looted from defeated monsters and applied to one of six slots – helm, armor, gloves, boots and two accessories. If you find a duplicate equipment, it allows you to upgrade the copy you already have by increasing its numerical modifiers or swapping out its secondary stats for other options.
Artifacts are basically trinkets in three rarities: lesser, greater and legendary. You can equip three lesser, two greater and one legendary artifact at a time. Each one has a different effect on your spells and can be upgraded with gold and relic fragments, which come in various rarities.
You can see that each piece of equipment and each artifact has a little sword icon with a number next to it – that’s the power level of that item, which contributes to your Loadout Score. That’s a distillation of your character’s overall capability and your readiness for higher difficulties. There are four such difficulties – normal, hard, expert and master. Hard recommends a power level of 400 or higher, while expert and master don’t unlock until later.
There’s even more progression though. Your classes unlock more abilities when you level them up, you unlock traits when you max out levels in classes, you get reputation by completing dailies in regions and you can upgrade your character even further by spending mana in your own little piece of the Meditation Realm, but the ones shown above are the core systems.
The story takes you between five areas – Gavony (black-aligned), Tazeem (green-aligned) and three parts of Dominaria: Tolaria (blue), Shiv (red) and Benalia (white). It seems like you can experience these in any order you choose (except Tazeem, where you start) and jump back and forth at will.
In each area, there are separate stories as well as overworld objectives to complete – Mana Towers, Mythic Encounters, Reliquaries and more. Each area also has various missions, which are short, instanced dungeon-type content where you can select difficulties and apply World Enchantments to increase your loot drops from monsters and bosses. First-time completion awards a new spell, while repeat completions are great for farming up Aether and Planar Mana – two currencies used for various upgrades.
Have I missed something? Almost certainly – but I’ve only played for a couple of days, so we’re still scratching the surface here.
Unsurprisingly, the Magic lore really drives the game forward. Running around Tolaria fighting Acolytes of Mishra and battling Grotag goblins in Tazeem is exactly what I want out of this game, and it seems like the game (so far) has really captured the feel of each world I’ve visited. I often blast right past quest text in ARPGs because, frankly, that’s time better spent killing monsters and looting. In this game though, I’m interested in what Ral Zarek has to say, what Nissa is up to, who Jodah is suspicious of and so on.
The game’s focus on deckbuilding is really cool. I’ve already had one or two instances where I was hoping to top-deck a specific card and did just that! Once I play more, I’ll have more cards to experiment with and I suspect I’ll spend hours trying to find synergies and build perfect decks. Even early on I’ve been thinking about my mana curve, so it’s clear that the system matters immediately once you have choices.
Of course, being powerful and building the best deck is awesome, but what we really care about is looking cool, right? There are tons of options to customize your character’s base look and the look of their equipment. As you find more equipment, you unlock those items’ appearances to use on your character regardless of what you’re actually wearing.
The Tailor (NPC that lets you change your equipment appearances) didn’t seem to take any currency away from me in exchange for the changes I made, which is a nice departure from WoW and Diablo. You can also rename your character with $5 worth of premium currency, though I doubt I’ll be changing my character’s name – TheSequel ToJace feels like a real keeper.
Magic: Legends appears to have lots of depth and many hours of gameplay built in. Five planeswalker classes to level up and more to acquire as the game goes on, four difficulty levels plus additional modifications like World Enchantments to increase challenge and loot drops and lots of different currencies to farm in order to upgrade your little piece of the Meditation Realm all add up to lots of goals to achieve. As long as those difficulties continue to feel tough enough as you scale up in power, that’s enough to keep me around for a while – as long as the endgame content doesn’t feel like the same thing over and over again, anyway. Path of Exile handles this with over 100 maps, while Diablo 3 leans on procedurally-generated Rifts – I don’t totally know what the endgame looks like yet, but if it’s these same instanced missions I’ve been doing this whole time, I hope there are tons of them.
You know that feeling you get when you throw a fireball at some demons in Diablo and they explode? The experience is crisp, from name-locking onto the enemy and casting your spell all the way to the piles of gold spilling out of the defeated monster.
Magic: Legends doesn’t quite have that. Spells and abilities feel pillowy rather than having that sharpness – it’s a bit hard to express – and since you’re so locked into a deck full of various random creatures in the early game, I didn’t feel super connected to the events that resulted in the defeat of my enemies.
Speaking of those spells and creatures, the good part of this game is supposed to be building your deck and sequencing your spells to set up synergies and combos. However, in the early game, you’re so limited on cards that you’re just casting whatever comes to your hand willy-nilly in order to clear out monsters.
ARPGs are best when played with friends – I grew up playing Diablo II with people I still talk to on a weekly basis, and one of them, my friend Tim, played a few hours of Magic: Legends with me. To say we were disappointed to be unable to party up right off the bat was an understatement. Even after finishing what seemed to be the tutorial, we still had quite a bit of gameplay before we could battle alongside each other, and even then, there was some bugginess in terms of getting both of our characters into the same overworld. Logging out and in fixed this pretty quickly, but that was still frustrating.
We encountered a few different bugs during our gameplay. One of my friends who intended to take the afternoon off to play got so frustrated with graphical issues, even on the lowest settings, that he decided to get back to work instead, and he has a good computer with a legitimate graphics card that shouldn’t be having such issues. Tim had some graphical issues too, with card art in his hand being scaled down so much he compared it to impressionist paintings that didn’t really resemble the card art shown in menus at all. I’ve had my share of graphical issues, like my Water Elemental’s graphics going missing or some icons just blacking themselves out at random.
We ended our first night of gameplay on a frustrating note with a mission in Tolaria that we simply couldn’t complete. Halfway through a boss battle, I got locked out of the boss arena, while Tim couldn’t click on the objective inside of the arena and was doomed to fight an unending swarm of Experimental Scorpion mobs until we decided to call it quits for the evening. Obviously, it’s still beta, but it was frustrating to experience a game-breaking bug.
“Spells and abilities feel pillowy rather than having that sharpness – it’s a bit hard to express – and since you’re so locked into a deck full of various random creatures in the early game, I didn’t feel super connected to the events that resulted in the defeat of my enemies.”There are also some interface and quality of life issues that I think need to be cleaned up sooner rather than later. The experience bar, one of the big focuses of ARPGs, isn’t visible in the normal HUD – you have to open the menu to see it. Card names in your hand are visible in the interface for controller play, but not the one for mouse and keyboard play. The map isn’t very good, and it’s made worse by the decision to allow you to rotate the camera – the overall map locks north to the top side of the screen, but you might be facing the opposite way. The party interface is enormous, and when it’s not blocking movement toward the left side of the screen, it’s overlapping with quest text. On the map, you can’t create a waypoint or select an objective you want to focus on, so if you go near an objective you’re not interested in, you’ll see arrows pointing you every which way but where you’re trying to go.
The base mouse and keyboard controls feel a little awkward, but that may just be my personal preference. After some remapping, I found a scheme I was happy with. I didn’t love playing on controller, but I may give it another shot.
Currency is a little confusing. Gold is the main in-game currency used with vendors, but you also collect Unrefined Aether as you play. Each day, you can “refine” a maximum of 50,000 Aether – once it’s refined, it’s usable for some in-game upgrades but also tradeable on the Currency Exchange for ZEN, the premium currency. The conversion rate is driven by player supply and demand – you put up buy and sell orders – but as of this writing, it’s at about 400 Aether to 1 ZEN (down from 550 yesterday), meaning you could theoretically farm up 125 ZEN per day at the current rate. You can buy 100 ZEN for $1, which makes this conversion rate look pretty dismal.
For context, a Booster Pack, which contains some amount of classes, traits, spells, equipment, artifacts, world enchantments, spell pages, relics and boosts along with some Empyrean Shards, another premium currency used to buy specific items, costs 300 ZEN, and the Battle Pass costs 1000 ZEN. There’s also Chromatic Mana, Planar Mana, Eternal Echoes and Orbs of Shadows, and I’m not even sure what half of that does. I like complexity, but this might be a little much.
Equipment and artifacts seem redundant so far, but we’ll see if that changes over time.
I’m cautiously optimistic, with an emphasis on cautiously.
I’m slightly concerned about the small pay-to-win aspects of the game and would have really preferred a Path of Exile-style model where microtransactions are focused around cosmetics almost exclusively, but the ability to convert some amount of in-game currency to premium currency makes things slightly less worrisome.
If you’re not doing PvP, you’re also not really competing against other players, and since the Broker is a consignment system with prices set by the game rather than a straight up auction house, I don’t think the gold economy will be wrecked by people opening booster packs and selling off unused spell pages. I’m not totally clear on how the Broker’s prices work, though, so if there’s some supply and demand algorithmic functionality that changes the prices, we could see a few very expensive spell pages and many worthless ones.)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against paying for things in free-to-play games. On the contrary, I think if you’re enjoying such a game and you can afford it, it’s great to support the developers. That said, I think F2P players who party up with Battle Pass users will experience plenty of FOMO, and that kind of pressure frustrates me. That said, the ability to convert Aether to ZEN makes that feel a little less painful.
I’m also a little concerned about the amount of bug fixes that seem to be on the developers’ plate – between graphical issues and gameplay bugs (along with some issues with spelling and such), it appears there’s a lot of work to do, and with two console versions due this year along with the official PC release, that’s somewhat concerning. I have no insight into how development is going or anything like that, so I think this is something to monitor rather than something that should drive people away from the game entirely.
I’m going to keep playing (and streaming) Magic: Legends, so you might hear small updates from me in the future, but I probably won’t write another long form article about it. We’ll see if it sticks around in my gaming rotation or if its spot gets usurped by a Path of Exile league or the impending Diablo 2 remaster – only time will tell.