I’ve been torturing myself over the last couple of years by playing free-to-play stuff on my phone. The habit kind of picked up around the time that I got my Nexus 6, which was the first phone I owned that had a screen that felt like it lent itself well to gaming; my Nexus 5 and everything before it just felt a bit too small to do much on. But I’ve invested a bunch of time into stuff like Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, Desert Golfing, Monument Valley, Plants Vs. Zombies 2, and a few other things to help pass the time while I’m on the bus or on the toilet. Most of my recert playtime has been directed at Magic The Gathering: Puzzle Quest, so I figured I’d write up some thoughts on it!
At its core, this is pretty faithful to the design of PQ1 and PQ2; you pick a planeswalker, each of which have unique abilities, then go through a classic Match 3 game to try and earn them mana with which they cast spells and use their special abilities. Getting bigger matches gets you more mana and the chance for an extra turn, and, of course, there’s always the potential for one of those oh-so-satisfying chain reaction matches where you get ten times as much mana as you normally would during your turn. (Well, satisfying when it happens to you; it’s incredibly vexing when it happens for your opponent, especially when you happen to behind in the match.)
Unsurprisingly, the game also retains Magic’s card-based mechanics. You have a virtual “deck” which requires a minimum of ten cards to be in it, and as in real Magic, it’s best to not go above the minimum. Each card can only be added to a deck once, but somewhat confusingly you can draw the same card multiple times in a row. Most cards will require multiple turns of matching to charge up its mana cost and get it on the field, so you do run into semi-awkward situations where you draw a fresh card that would be perfect to cast and have to choose between continuing on with charging up your existing card, or flipping over to the new hotness. Cards retain any mana charge they have when you shuffle them around, though, so the flexibility is pretty useful.
The biggest change here from baseline Puzzle Quest is creature-summoning, which is obviously a pretty core part of Magic. You can summon up to three creatures at a time, which sit on the board and pound your opponent each turn. That’ll be the core method of dealing damage to your opponent’s life total, with the occasional direct damage spell possibly contributing. There are also “support cards,” which are basically Magic enchantments that are cast directly onto the field with a countdown timer. Each time you match a gem that has a support cast onto it, you reduce the countdown timer, so you’ll want to try and match your opponent’s supports and avoid having your own get matched. It’s an interesting design method that can add some strategy to which matches you want to make aside from always going with the obvious “match the gems that are going to get you the most mana” tactic. Sometimes matching gems that will give you less mana will be worth it if you can get rid of a troublesome support card, although that’s really only true in the case of the rare and mythic supports. (About which more later.)
Most of the creature cards retain the abilities that they might have had in the real MTG game, such as Lifelink, Defender, and so on. The core ways in which creatures attack have been adjusted to fit the asynchronous gameplay, though: creatures don’t tap to attack, and most critically, creatures can’t be assigned to block. Every creature you cast will automatically attack your opponent’s lifebar directly, unless there’s a creature on the board with Defender (which will force opposing creatures to attack that creature) or Berserker (in which case the creature will attack any creatures on the opposite side before going after the opposing enemy). This reduces the utility of things like Trample or Deathtouch, since most creatures aren’t going to be able to attack opposing creatures unless they get a Berserker buff from somewhere, which is a pretty rare occurrence.
The simplified creature combat is probably the only way this game could be made playable on mobile, due to the way it speeds everything up and eliminates having to wait for your opponent to assign blockers or cast spells during your turn, but it does tend to make for a lot of winner-take-all types of games where the player who gets a suite of big matches early in the game and gets a couple of powerful creatures down will start whittling away at the opponent’s health bar and take an unbeatable lead. The AI is juuuust dumb enough to do things like pass up obvious five-matches and thus bypass extra turns most of the time, and doesn’t always seem to prioritize cards that are great for the situation they’re in (it doesn’t seem to be too aware of whether it’s in the lead or playing catch-up in terms of health count), which will give you enough of an upper hand to make the early matches fairly easy.
Unfortunately that balance flips around a bit as you march up the difficulty scale. There are a few different campaigns to go through at this point, each with multiple wings of twelve or so encounters. The first couple of wings will usually consist of easy-to-beat enemies with decks full of weak cards, but eventually you’ll be facing opponents with rare and mythic cards, and sometimes whether you can take them down comes down to getting an amazing opening hand and a few huge mana matches before they have a chance to lay down their big bads. You really don’t come across many mythics and rares in your own daily booster packs, so coming up against decks with super-cards is a bit daunting unless you’ve invested a bit on packs. (You can get some by checking in every day, and investing in the harder-to-acquire mana crystal currency, but both of these methods are pretty slow).
Obviously in the “real” Magic The Gathering, rarer cards are going to generally be better than commons, but MTGPQ takes that notion to an interesting extreme, since you get plenty of commons and uncommons for free, but will (probably) have to lay down some cash to get a good set of mythics and rares. (I’ve been playing on and off for a few months now without paying for anything and have a grand total of 6 rares and 4 mythics, out of 278 total cards, to give you an idea.) To give you an example, this is one of the worst commons I’ve come across, an 18 mana creature card with an OK at best ability that will rarely swing any matches in your favor:
If you bump yourself up to rares at the same mana cost, you get cards like these:
Or, as an extreme example, there’s Avacyn, who at the moment is only available via purchase or through a special event (or at least, was at the time I wrote this a few months ago):
So you can either pay 30 bucks and get Avacyn or get a Cutthroat for free! Choices, choices. Granted, this is a bit of a cherrypicked example, but there are a lot of crappy common cards in the game that wind up feeling pretty much worthless when you get them in a booster.
Obviously any free-to-play game is going to have some compromises expected of you if you want to keep playing for free beyond some arbitrary difficulty wall, but the Zendikar wall here was somewhat startling in its steepness. Seeing the Desolation Twins hit the ground when you’re still playing with 4/4 and 5/5 creatures is disheartening, to say the least. I mean, Desolation Twin is undoubtedly powerful in real Magic, but getting up to ten mana when you’re restricted to a land per turn is going to be difficult in any high-speed tournament setting. Getting to 21 mana in MTGPQ can be achieved in two or three turns with the right array of mana gem matches, and if you drop that card early in the game it’s hard to imagine anyone getting past you without some specialized response cards.
I managed to get through all of the campaigns with Koth of the Hammer, who’s beastly if you manage to match some red gems up front, but it’s been tougher to repeat that success with the other planeswalkers I've been using. Some of them have special skills that simply aren't very useful, so they wind up being much more difficult to win with when you get to the upper difficulties.
Another annoyance here is that cards are continually added to the game, but new single-player content is not produced for those sets. You're apparently supposed to throw those cards into the multiplayer aspect, but I don't really play much multiplayer anymore, so I've kind of hit a point where there's simply not much for me to do except play the same fights I've already gone through.
One of the things I do like about MTG is that you only have to check in 21 times a month for the big monthly reward of a big pack of five boosters, but I haven’t managed to get there yet, and the daily boosters for me have been an endless succession of unexciting commons and uncommons. (A lot of games will make you check in basically every day to get the best rewards, which is annoying.)
Anyway, I started writing this like six months ago and I haven’t played too much of the game since then. I wound up spending like 500 gold on a card pack that offered a single Mythic card and got an Evolutionary Leap, which is good (Reinforcing a creature casts another copy on top of it, basically doubling/tripling/whatever its power and toughness), but very slow and requires a creature to be of any use. That took a while to build up (gold is the tougher currency to obtain in the game unless you pay for it), and I didn't get much out of it, so I kind of stopped checking in! I still load it up from time to time but most of my phone stupidity lately has been spent on other stuff, which I'll write about soon! I didn't wind up spending any money on it, so I guess in the end I liked MTGPQ for what I spent on it! This blog is over; thanks and you're welcome!