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Magic: The Gathering goes Diablo, but with classic cards — and it’s free

Hands-on with Magic: Legends, entering beta on PC March 23

A still frame from the CGI trailer for Magic: Legends. A lone woman wielding an axe, aided by a friendly griffin, attacks a group of armored demons before a pristine castle on a hill. Image: Cryptic Studios/Perfect World
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Magic: Legends, a new action role-playing game, looks a bit like Diablo on the surface. But the new free-to-play multiplayer game from Cryptic Studios has a pace and style all its own. The hook is in how it applies the mechanics of its original source material, the Magic: The Gathering collectible card game. We discovered that and more during a special hands-on preview late last week.

In Magic: Legends, players take on the role of planeswalkers, powerful spellcasters from the Magic lore. Each one has their own basic combat specialty. For instance, the Geomancer fights with her fists while the Necromancer has a whip-like censer for her mid-ranged attacks. The classes also have simple and ultimate abilities to match those flavors, one to do damage over time, and the other to charge up and cast for massive damage once or twice a round.

A sample of gameplay in Magic: Legends. There’s a set of hotkeys along the bottom of the screen and a mini map in the upper right-hand corner.
A Necromancer takes out their aggression on a larger enemy. The blue half-circles denote allies — including goblins, skeletons, and an angel — aiding in the fight.
Image: Cryptic Studios/Perfect World

Players can use the mouse and keyboard just like in a traditional ARPG, clicking on the ground to mark a destination for their character and wailing away with the attack keys. Alternately, a WASD movement mode allows MMO and FPS players to adapt more easily. The basic combat is fluid and fun, although at the moment the enemy AI behaves more like like a team of children playing soccer than a proper fighting force.

Where things get interesting is with the game’s hotkeys. Players stack up a short deck of 12 spells before launching into battle, all drawn from the long history of Magic: The Gathering. They use the tropes common to the card game as well, requiring a certain amount of mana to cast, and with damage and defense values listed in the classic X/X style. But they all show up in your hand — that is, your list of hotkeys numbered one to four — randomly.

Just as in a traditional analog game of Magic, players never know what hand they’ll be dealt or what cards will come up over the course of the game. That means you’ll need to adapt on the fly. Maybe your favorite combo will only turn up once or twice every few minutes, or maybe you’ll be dealt a hot hand and tear through enemies with ease.

A planeswalker casts a giant axe, which goes spinning through enemies inside a purple cloud. The environment looks like an old timey London street.
A kind of objective-based horde mode available as part of the preview tasked players with keeping a series of generators clear of enemies for a set period of time. Note how the controller layout differs from the PC layout above, placing spells on the button pad instead of the number keys.
Image: Cryptic Studios/Perfect World

I did have a bit of an issue with card recognition during my first playthrough, however. While the spells are drawn from Magic lore, the art on those spell cards is not. That makes sense, in a way, since there’s not much real estate on those tiny hotkeys along the bottom of the HUD. It would have been nearly impossible for the rich, detailed art from the modern card game to make sense at that scale.

Either way, it will take real skill to perform on these maps, which throw a punishing amount of damage at players.

So how much content is available at launch? The game’s developers told Polygon to expect about 30 hours out of the gate, with somewhat less required to unlock all the basic spells for the game’s five planeswalker classes. Beyond that, repetition is the name of the game. You’ll be able to team up with other players to tackle particularly challenging difficulty levels, and get rewarded with all the building blocks you’ll need to craft new cards and improve old ones.

After launch, fans can expect a steady stream of new content for the free-to-play game to roll out over time. Narrative content will always be free, developers told us, and include new storylines, new enemies, new regions, and more. Microtransactions will not include things like power or progression.

Most importantly, there won’t be any “leveling friction,” developers said, meaning that players won’t be limited in the in-game content they can consume based on how powerful their character is in-game.

Magic: Legends will enter PC open beta on March 23. The full game will be released for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One later in 2021.

The Magic: The Gathering franchise as a whole is still going strong. Netflix recently announced it was working on an animated series set in that universe, and the latest set of cards — Time Spiral Remastered — is a throwback sure to delight lapsed fans and collectors alike.

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