I’ve been aware of Magic: Legends ever since it was first announced that Cryptic Studios would be working on a “brand new RPG based on Magic: The Gathering,” back in 2017. I took a few guesses at what form that game would take, saying that it would likely include “summoning creatures … running alongside their wizard masters and causing all kinds of havoc.” It’s never been among my most anticipated games, but it’s something I at least kept on my radar and put in the “maybe I’ll give it a try” category.
Last week, more than three and a half years after I made those initial guesses, I finally got a chance to play that promised game, in its near-final form. The open beta for Magic: Legends starts on March 23, so you’ll be able to try it for yourself then, but for now, you can make do with my week-early first impressions. Those were generally positive, and while I don’t think I’ll fall in love with the game, what I played was enjoyable enough that I could see myself making a real effort at progression – up to a point.
I was guided on my tour by Principal Lead Designer Adam Hetenyi, who told me right off the bat that Cryptic had long since distanced itself from that (MMO)RPG label it initially applied to Magic: Legends. The game firmly fits the ARPG mold now, with all that entails.
It does have one major gameplay element that sets it apart from most ARPGs, and it’s the thing that I’ve been most interested in knowing more about and trying for myself: the randomized hotbar. Unlike in most ARPGs – or even MMORPGs – your spells cycle through your keybinds, so you’ll never know exactly what’s in what slot. This is how the game attempts to emulate the Magic: The Gathering card game, where your cards come up at random and you’ll never know exactly what you’ll get.
But is that something that can be adapted to a video game? My answer thus far is … maybe. I know, you’d probably like more, but the fact that I didn’t come out as instantly hating the system, which I feared, is something of a win here.
I acknowledge that I was at something of a disadvantage in my session, in that I was playing an advanced deck (your deck/loadout consists of 12 cards that cycle through your four hotbar slots). When I actually play the game, I’ll start small, building up my deck as I go and obtaining new cards/spells that I can familiarize myself with more slowly, rather than having 12 unfamiliar abilities all thrust upon me at once.
Well, make that 15 abilities. In addition to your 12 spells, each character class – such as Necromancer, Sanctifier, Mind Mage, or Beastcaller – has a pair of static abilities on a cooldown, as well as an ultimate ability. These are determined by your class and can’t be changed. On the other hand, the classes also don’t limit your deckbuilding in any way. You can play as a blue-inspired Mind Mage and still fill your deck with red spells if you want.
Even with that handicap, I felt reasonably comfortable with identifying and properly using about half my spells by the end of my hour-long play session. I think the UI could do a little more lifting to help me more easily identify my spells and cast them in the proper strategic manner – my mental choices were typically only divided between “direct damage” or “creature” with little concern for whether I was playing the right damage or creature spell – but it’s a system that could work, given a little more familiarity with my cards.
On to the actual adventure! I selected a mission from the continent of Tazeem on Zendikar and made my way to the lush but dangerous jungle with my Necromancer and his red/white deck. I’ll be perfectly honest in saying that I stopped playing Magic right around when Wizards of the Coast started really putting effort into its lore – and I was on a time limit – so the story of the mission mostly flew past me (though Cryptic was kind enough to provide me with a guide that reminded me of all of it). In true ARPG form, you go around, kill stuff, get loot, complete objectives, kill more stuff, and so on. The final fight against Noyan Dar naturally required a bit more thought, since he summoned hedrons that I had to dispose of before taking down the boss himself.
I had the time to try a second mission in Gavony, which had me playing a Mind Mage and visiting three magical generators, defending them from enemy attacks and trying to keep them online long enough for their power to circulate back to an NPC at the start of the mission. It was meant for multiple players, Hetenyi told me, but I did all right on my own. (Again, being overpowered helped.) It’s nice to see that there will be a variety of encounter types, so you’ll be able to mix things up a little bit in your gameplay.
My focus was so heavily on my rapidly shifting hotbar that I barely noticed my class-specific abilities and used them only rarely. That meant that I didn’t play the two classes very differently, but again, if I started small and worked my way up, I might find more use for their abilities. Both classes I played had mid-range auto-attacks, but others, like the Geomancer, prefer to get up close and personal and smash things.
There was a lot going on in every encounter, with my Planeswalker summoning creatures, watching them attack (and die) while flinging out more spells on his own. I was playing alone, but I can only imagine how chaotic battles involving multiple characters must get. Trying to cast your spells in a particular order to maximize their efficiency, such as something that boosts goblins when your goblins are on the field (and before they die), while also managing your static-ability cooldowns and watching your mana, and keeping track of what your enemies are doing … it’s a lot to keep track of.
With all that being said, even with my lack of experience and random button-smashing, I found the mission rather easy. That was because I was playing with a fully decked-out character and on the easiest difficulty level, but it shows me that the game should be playable, and progress should be possible, for players of all skill levels. If it gets too easy, you can dial up the difficulty for greater rewards and faster progress.
Packed full of loot
As someone who (ahem) cares about inventory management in games and is especially turned off by the “loot explosion, click on everything” aspect of most ARPGs, I was delighted with Magic: Legends’ approach. There is loot, but it’s not overwhelming, and you can simply move over the various glowy bits to collect them. You’ll then deal with them when you get back to your base after the mission.
And what do you get? There are three major progression mechanics in Magic: Legends. Spells and spell pages are the obvious ones. Spells grant you new abilities that you can slot into your loadout and they progress in power as you obtain spell pages to level them up.
As in any RPG-style game, your gear also plays an important part in your power level. As expected, the various categories – head, chest, gloves, boots, and two rings – provide stat bonuses to your Planeswalker. You can swap out some of those abilities for different ones if you want to tailor your build in a certain direction, trading offense for defense or similar. Artifacts come in various rarities, and a Planeswalker can equip six of them – three Lesser, two Greater, and one Legendary – to further boost their abilities in something akin to most games’ trait systems.
You’ll receive some loot from the game but then there’s always the cash shop. If you’re familiar with how it works in other Cryptic games, you’ll feel right at home here. There’s Gold that you collect in-game, which can be spent on the Broker, the game’s equivalent of the auction house. There you’ll find spell pages, world enchantments, and various unlocks, including full booster packs full of spells.
Those packs can only be obtained from the game itself by spending real-money currency, Zen. You can also refine some of your Aether, a currency you receive from the game, and exchange that for Zen, to make those purchases. I’m a little hesitant to judge the system before I see it in action and see what kinds of prices things go for, but if it’s worked long enough in Star Trek Online and Neverwinter, it might be acceptable to players at large.
The final card
As I indicated at the start, I’ve been a little ambivalent about Magic: Legends since its proper announcement and initial reveals. ARPGs really aren’t my thing, and I haven’t been a Magic player for years. Toss in the fact that I haven’t played a Cryptic game since dabbling in Neverwinter around its launch, and it all made Legends something I was aware of but not excited for.
After getting a chance to play the game for myself … well, I wouldn’t say I’m excited, exactly, but I’m willing to try it out, at least in small doses. I think it will be difficult to play at a high level, as chaotic as the game seems to be, and I still need to reassure myself regarding its monetization and progression rate, but there’s the potential there for me to enjoy it, at least on a casual basis. The scaleable difficulty should be a plus in this regard, letting me ramp things up if I’m getting too bored with the basic difficulty.
I know that’s not exactly the highest of praise, but it’s honestly more than I expected. I actually want to play Magic: Legends now, at least for a little while. I want to level up my Planeswalker(s), earn some spells, and try out some combos. Will I stay with it for the long run? That’s tough to say, but at least I’m willing to try, and that’s really all any free-to-play game developer can hope for.