Writing off Magic: Legends as “just another Diablo-style action RPG” is an easy knee-jerk reaction to its isometric hack-and-slash gameplay, but it’s not an accurate one. Despite Cryptic Studios’ action RPG-meets-deckbuilding hybrid including plenty of surface-level similarities to Blizzard’s genre-defining series, there are just as many differences—both good and bad—that help it stand out in its own way, even if not always in a positive light. The deck-building concept really does set Magic: Legends apart in fundamental ways, I’m just not sure all of those ways are a good thing. You’re never really comfortable in Magic: Legends because your strategy is always changing and evolving based literally on the hand that you’re dealt.
In Magic: Legends you take control of your own Planeswalker, but the options for customization lack enough detail to feel meaningful. In the Magic universe, being a Planeswalker means you’re an extremely powerful spellcaster that can “planeswalk” between realms at will, use powerful sorcery, and summon creatures to fight by your side.There is a story about uniting forces across the Magic Multiverse with some above-average voice acting, but after battling through it for about 30 hours, I honestly don’t remember anything of note. There are a handful of epic moments and it’s certainly flashy, but its characters and plot are all just so uninteresting. Action RPGs are rarely known for having great stories to tell and Magic: Legends is certainly not the exception.
Where it does break the mold is in its card game-inspired dealing out of abilities, and it adds a lot of variance to combat. When building your deck you get to pick 12 different cards from your entire library, and those are drawn into your four-card hand randomly. Which means, for example, for one combat encounter you might not have any summons at all and need to rely on ground-based AOE spells and your default attack, whereas 30 seconds later you might only have four summons in your hand to cast instead. Since you never really know which of your abilities will show up at any given moment you can never fall into a routine of popping off abilities over and over again.
Just like the card game it’s based on, every ability in Magic: Legends is divided between five types of mana, each of which is native to a given class. The Necromancer, for example, uses black mana, which is all about death, draining life, and raising corpses — which explains why the logo is a skull. The Beastmaster, on the other hand, is a green mana class (with a tree logo) that’s all about rapid growth from plants and beasts themed in nature that all herd together. Where it gets interesting is when you unlock the ability to have more than one color in your deck, so you could supplement the undead hordes of a Necromancer with powerful burst sorcery spells that deal quick burn damage with some red cards. There’s a lot of flexibility there, and tinkering with your deck composition is the best part of Magic: Legends.
The randomized cards also come with some notable downsides. For one, I found I didn’t get the feeling of momentum and steamrolling through zones as you grow in power like I do in most action RPGs. Instead, everything just sort of plateaus after the first five hours. And there’s diversity in the sense that you have lots of choices in what cards to put in your deck, but the actual difference between abilities is often negligible and superficial – summoning a zombie boar that stands there and headbutts people is just a slightly different version of a skeleton that stands there and slashes people with a sword. You quickly stop making meaningful progress and turn to collecting spell pages to gradually improve the cards you like best while crossing your fingers and hoping you’ll get the ability you want at any given moment.
Eventually you’ll earn enough cards that you can build out specialized decks: for example, you might focus a deck on mostly summoning creatures, or specialize in shooting off powerful spells. Although most of the time I’ve just ended up with a hybrid deck since it’s always the most efficient and effective option. If you don’t have any creatures to soak up damage and handle the swarms of enemies you won’t be able to survive long enough to fend for yourself – and if you don’t mix in some big damage-dealing magic attacks, fights will take way too long and get tedious. Co-op teams could synergize playstyles together, but there isn’t much benefit to that since the mechanics of casting a fireball and summoning a creature are still the same – everyone just feels like they’re a ranged caster.
Enemy AI, meanwhile, is so bland and lifeless that you can almost always count on them just rushing in a straight line towards you. Typically they’re either very small or very large and slow, but regardless of size and speed they run around in small packs and don’t seem to have any notion of avoiding your attacks with unique movement patterns. Some shoot things at you, some stand there and slash at you, and all of them die within a few seconds at most. That sums up the entire lineup of enemies – they’re all drearily predictable and it makes the combat uninteresting.
As much as I enjoy the variance that’s introduced by the randomized hand format, I found that it meant I never really settled in or ever felt comfortable with my build. Combat in games like Diablo 3 eventually becomes therapeutic in a way, like I’m a seasoned fighter dancing a ballet of violence through hordes of enemies. But in Magic: Legends, I was always second-guessing myself, and constantly glancing down at my hot bar to see which ability I wanted to use instead of trusting my instincts and letting it flow.
Magic: Legends Screenshots
That’s exacerbated by the fact that you have to deal with a tremendous amount of visual noise going on at all times. Spell effects are extremely gratuitous even from level 1 and once you bring one or two more Planeswalkers into the fray via co-op it’s utterly impossible to tell what the hell is going on when the fireworks start. Combat is just continuous explosions and clutter filling up the screen, and you’re never given a chance to take a step back and get comfortable with your playstyle before a dozen more enemies flood into range.
Visually, it all just smears together because of the bland art style where most regions look the same and characters are designed as though they’ve been ripped out of an ultra-generic mobile MOBA. Compare that to the evocative, iconic, and insanely detailed artwork emblazoned across each and every card in the actual Magic: The Gathering card game and it’s deeply disappointing. Cryptic Studios has done some wonderful and distinctive work on the art of Neverwinter (its D&D MMO), Star Trek Online, and even Champions Online (RIP), but Magic: Legends is certainly a step down in that regard.
The overwhelming majority of Magic: Legends is focused on co-op PvE content, but you can engage in 1v1 duels for fun if you want. Unfortunately, next to no one seems to care about this feature (despite the CCG focusing almost entirely on the concept of dueling) and it serves no purpose other than to be a middling distraction. The arena map where fights take place is cramped even though it’s almost entirely empty, and there doesn’t appear to be any level-based matchmaking systems at all. It’s very likely that if you’re not max level you’ll just get one-shotted by your enemy over and over.
Since this is still Open Beta I don’t want to be too harsh on the performance side of things—Cryptic has already made some big changes and improvements in the first couple of weeks since launch—but it’s impossible to ignore in a game with a fully operational cash shop and paid battle pass. The framerate constantly drops to a chug despite running it on a GeForce RTX 2060 Super, Core i5-9600 @3.7GHz, and 32GB RAM. (The website’s system requirements only list a GTX 750, i5 @2.3GHz, and 8GB RAM.) It’s especially noticeable after fast traveling or starting a new quest. Sometimes playing in full screen mode led to more issues, while other times it played better windowed. And more than once I was completely disconnected mid-quest, forcing me to restart the entire mission.
Besides that you can buy convenience items like XP boosters, increase the power of specific spells you own, and even buy ‘booster packs’ that aren’t actually booster packs at all. To long-time Magic fans that term means you get an assortment of random cards with the chance of getting something rare, but in Magic: Legends it just means a small chance of getting something good, like a new class, and then a couple specific spell cards, a bunch of gear and equipment, and a few convenience items like XP boosters on top of that. There’s also a sixth class (Dimir Assassin) in the cash shop already available for $25, but if you really want to grind you can get it for free at the highest tier of the battle pass—which takes forever to grind out. The paid track of the Battle Pass is $10 and the Premium Pass with the first 15 tiers unlocked is $25.
While there isn’t anything too egregiously game-breaking in the cash shop in Magic: Legends, it all just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Cryptic has clearly designed everything in such a way that it feels tedious and inconvenient to play without dishing out cash regularly. Significant chunks of content, such as class-switching, are blocked off unless you pay or grind for a significant amount of time. The best cash shops entice you to spend money with rewards you genuinely want, rather than prevent you from having a good experience and satisfying progression without paying. So far, it seems Magic: Legends falls into the latter category.