As a response to overwhelmingly critical fan feedback and other CCG rivals like Hex: Shards of Fate and Hearthstone, Magic Duels: Online is the competitive evolution of the Magic: The Gathering video game series, as well as a necessary apology. Last year's Magic 2015 tarnished the Duels of the Planeswalkers name with a microtransaction model, starter-deck shenanigans, the loss of several favorite modes, and a sluggish user interface. This time around, Wizards of the Coast has addressed and amended many of these issues with a free-to-play, updateable version of the game that, despite several shortcomings, should bring most fans back into the shuffle.
Given that its competitors have also gone free-to-play, it makes sense that Magic Duels: Origins has no longer placed the series behind a paywall. It easily broadens the audience and diminishes any problems by merely ending the complaints with “…but it's free.” And you won't need to worry about the crummy microtransaction models that usually plague freemium games. Not only will you receive a starter box full of enough cards to make an average deck right out of the gate, but you can obtain booster packs, which gives six cards that you always don't have, using in-game gold earned through versus battles and story mode. Better yet, there's no premium currency, and you can purchase coins using real money if you want.
Granted, it will take you awhile to earn the 150 gold pieces needed for a booster pack given that an Easy AI battle nets 5 coins apiece (a Hard AI battle nets 15 coins) and every battle takes about 10-15 minutes. You can gain chunks of gold by completing quests, side objectives that ask you to finish battles using specific types of decks, and 20 coins for a battle against an actual opponent. However, quests can be extremely specific, requiring you to defeat foes with certain hybrid-color decks using the specific Deck Wizard instead of the freeform Deck Builder (perhaps this is a bug?). The Deck Wizard allows you to make a deck quickly using a step-by-step process, which is great for new players but not being able to alter these decks fully limits this feature. Plus, I wasn't able to connect to opponents numerous times and the disconnect rate can be obnoxious, so I wish there was some kind of fight-request waiting feature that would place players in a queue of some sort.
The first arc in story mode which features a white deck using the planeswalker Gideon serves as a dynamic tutorial that teaches you the basics. Every once in a while you can interrupt gameplay to complete a skill quest that explains simple creature abilities like trample and first strike; expert MTG players will want to complete them anyway for coins. How they're incorporated is seamless, with the skill quest simply descending onto the playing field. Unfortunately, there is no database for skill quests if you want to revisit them or head through one you haven't gone through yet.
Also, the difficulty for the other four planeswalker arcs jumps drastically and, for better or worse, should be considered a challenge mode. The fixed decks you're given to defeat the opponent are often underpowered, facing another deck that's seemingly the perfect counter to yours; for instance, a fast creature deck against your very slow library-burning or graveyard-digging deck. Add luck to the mix, where you'll need just the right amount of mana and the right cards at exactly the right time, and you should expect to restart matches over and over again. A few of the 50-coin boss battles are worth the challenge, though, so that makes up for the rather sharp difficulty curve.
The core set of Magic Duels: Online comes from the recently released Origins set (well, a strong portion of it at least), and all of the familiar MTG gameplay remains intact with the exception of planeswalkers, which is a much needed addition anyway. Wizards of the Coast promises to expand on the current complete set of approximately 300 unique cards over time as new sets are released, although it's strange that the collection wasn't fuller by simply adding cards that already exist in the game's story mode like Corrupt and Traumatize. It's disappointing that there's no mode that highlights the new planeswalker addition too, but at least the fan-favorite Two-Headed Giant variant has returned for multiplayer shenanigans.
Magic Duels: Online reforms the Duels of the Planewalker series with an approachable, free-to-play edition that serves as a fertile platform for all future MTG games. It has issues with an awkward difficulty curve, a Deck Wizard that can't be fully edited, and a limited number of cards, but the freemium microtransaction model is non-intrusive and, with effort, you can collect all of the cards without paying a dime. The bitter aftertaste of Magic 2015 has been safely washed away.