Magic: Legends Review — Beta Luck Next Time

Generally speaking we try not to review games before they release too often on this site — we’ve broken the rule before, usually for games deep into Early Access, and we’re going to be breaking it again for Magic: Legends in open beta. The reason for this is two-fold: first, an open beta is a near-complete product that should have all of the systems in place to give a good idea of what the final product will look like in 1.0, even if it still has some bugs to clean up or network problems to iron out.

Second, and most importantly, the cash shop is live. The cash shop for this game was live even in the closed beta testing server load the day before the beta opened up. The moment the game opened its doors to players in any format, you had the Store tab in your pause menu enticing you to start feeding them money for premium currency and encouraging whale behavior. I think it’s incredibly reasonable to treat that as the cut-off point where the game is live and it’s perfectly fair to talk about it as a product people are, quite literally, paying money for…even if the game model here is allegedly free-to-play.

And I don’t think I can really recommend spending a lot of time with this title at the moment. I certainly can’t endorse giving them money for it. We’ll start with the good things.

Routinely pull framerates that dip to 5-10 FPS in this section of Benalia which, well, looks like this.

Magic: Legends is based on the Magic: The Gathering collectible card game. At some point in the past couple years Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast dropped “: The Gathering” from most of the branding; it’s unlikely to ever come back. Like everything else about the old MtG brand, it’s a rough edge that has to be smoothed away until — I said I’d start with the good things. Right, so the concept is that you’re an unfathomably powerful wizard called a planeswalker, which essentially is shorthand for “the protagonist of reality;” a planeswalker is what you’re playing as when you play a game of Magic: The Gathering with a deck of cards. So the conceit of Magic: Legends, then, is that player-characters should go about with a mechanical framework that simulates drawing and casting spells… in the context of a point-and-click, Diablo III-like ARPG.

There are actually some decent ideas here for that. You assemble a deck of 10 cards, which sadly aren’t actual spells from the collectible card game (a baffling decision, given the breadth and depth of content they have to pull from) but are reasonable generic facsimiles of the kinds of things that they print as spells, and you cycle through having them in your “hand” of four spells at any given time. Each has a mana cost that’s to some extent cosmetic until, presumably, high level multi-color play, because instead of playing land cards like in the collectible card game you have a mana bar that grows over time, and grows with proportional mana colors to the presence of those colors in your deck — if you’re running 7 white cards and 3 red cards, for instance, you should expect to generate just over two white mana for every one red mana that appears on your mana bar. Putting the card analogies entirely aside, what you’re basically doing is picking ten effects to cycle through constantly and figuring out what the best balance is of “big stuff that hits hard” and “stuff that costs less so that I’m always rolling in mana and able to keep casting.” There are some limitations here — so far you don’t seem to be able to do straight-up gimmick decks like in the collectible card game, you’re capped on how many creatures you can take and how powerful they can be, and at low levels at least every deck feels like a kind of samey “One Of Those Decks you made as a kid with whatever you got in boosters” — a little bit of white weenie creatures, a little bit of healing, a little bit of red direct damage. Then you proceeded to lose every game you played against that twenty-two year old down at the local shop who knew what he was doing, and the one time you did win, he demanded to count your deck, palmed your Serra Angel, and pronounced you a cheater because it only had 59 cards in it. Still kind of bitter about that one.

Here’s the deck builder. Looks a lot like Magic: Arena in these menus.

Opponent mismatch isn’t the problem here with these low-level decks, though; the matchmaking in the game’s very structured PvP sees to that. It’s that outside of the healing mechanic which lives mostly in white and green, pretty much every color has the ability to deal direct damage and summon annoying little creatures, and sort of has to; it’s an ARPG, after all. But it’s a good template and there’s a lot of room to innovate and expand in that space given time and additional content packs. That’s the good news, and if you had to pick one thing to be the good news in your new game, “the main combat loop and mechanic” would probably be A1 with a bullet.

Sadly it’s pretty much the only good news. This is a dire effort from Cryptic, though most of it is technical and not entirely out of the realm of being something they could come back from. The game looks like a late generation PS3 title or something that’s been upscaled from mobile, but plays, in 2021 on a GeForce 1060, like it’s trying to pump out cutting-edge graphics. Cyberpunk 2077 runs far better on my machine on Medium defaults than this title does on the same. Turning off the shadows makes things a little better, but not much — and that’s something you have to do from the client command line in chat, because the graphics options are locked down in the actual UI as if you’re playing a console title. You have to consult a backsolved list of commands — forums posters are your friends here, if you’re an old enough internet vet to have a trusted forum you go to — in order to muck around with actual graphical settings. Or, say, turn off server chat. That apparently also wasn’t an open beta launch priority, though it seems to be fixed now.

Here are your menu options for graphics; everything else has to be set through in-game client command line. This looks like a final UI presentation.

A note about controls: this game is made for controllers. It doesn’t control particularly well there, but it doesn’t control poorly either; your spells go on your face buttons, your class/basic attacks and specials go on bumpers and triggers, and while movement is still pretty floaty everything does what it needs to do. On keyboard and mouse, however, things are a bit rougher. This is the first ARPG I’ve ever seen hard-bind the camera control to the right mouse button — traditionally the most important button in an ARPG because in most default setups, it governs your main active skill. For Magic: Legends it is the one button in your entire keyboard and mouse setup that you cannot customize or rebind, even to the middle mouse button. Frankly it’s just kind of bizarre. Other than that, it’s a bit weird to get used to active abilities on 1-4 as well as Q-R rather than potions, but that might only be an issue for those coming from a more ARPG-focused background as opposed to MMOs, which Cryptic has spent more time developing, and might explain some of the speed bumps here.

Making a professional video game is a very hard thing to do that requires a lot of effort, much of it thankless and inevitably paid off by people in the Q&A forums and on Twitter screaming at the live team, and people like me writing unkind things about the product that the devs — in some cases legitimately! — see as unfair, because it means I didn’t click the right thing or am blaming the game for what’s really an underlying hardware or driver interaction or this thing or the other. I have sympathy for that, and the thing about an open beta is that it’s a time for sober assessment and figuring out what things need to get better, both technically and from a design perspective (the equipment system design, done through relics, is especially dire; I dread ever trying to change any of that stuff because of the combination of system jargon and obscured second-order effects making it hard to see what I’m actually doing). One thing none of this applies to, however, is the writing and story production. And that is…dire.

This is your first introduction to the world of Magic: The Gathering as envisioned by Magic: Legends. It is dire. It’s unclear what direction Ral Zarek’s voice actor is getting here to make him deliver his lines this way — not that the lines should have made it into the booth in this state anyhow — and there are times at which it just doesn’t sound like a professional performance. This almost certainly isn’t Cryptic’s fault, or not wholly their fault; Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast are the IP holder and the buck on how the brand is presented and managed stops with them. They decided this is how they wanted Magic: The Gathering represented in Magic: Legends, and to be perfectly frank, it fits in with the long and steady decline of the brand into a property that chases trends — trying to be the Avengers here, trying to be League of Legends there — rather than having an identity. Ral Zarek himself is a blown out copy of a copy of a copy of the characters that made Magic: The Gathering interesting when it was emerging as a brand; you can draw a pretty plain line from Urza’s generation to Jace’s generation to this little knob and his merry friends, and it’s trending down the entire time. In a way this might be a pretty faithful rendition of the brand’s vision of this character, if cheap and lazy in its production values. Needless to say, the game gets much more tolerable when planeswalker dialogue starts being skippable, and even more so when you start mainly interacting with characters who don’t get voice acting at all. Zarek’s performance might be the most grating, but every voice actor hired for this project is being coached down to his level.

Would you even be able to identify this as a modern Magic product if it wasn’t shoving Squee in your face?

As for the shop, I certainly didn’t spend money to try stuff out in there, but what’s on offer does appear to not be limited to cosmetics — in the lootbox-esque “booster pack” system, you do appear to be able to get spells, which is one of the axes on which this would become pay-to-win, given that acquiring spells without paying for them is moderated by a number of in-game currencies you have to grind out (if you guessed that each color in the color wheel had its own separate grindable currency that you need to purchase spells and upgrades, you get a no-prize). Don’t worry; the frame rate might be lousy, the boss arena transitions might be bugged, quests might break on you once every thirty minutes or so, but I’m sure the credit card processing system works just fine.

Final Verdict:

It’s free and that’s what it should cost to play in its current state. If you have any kind of addictive personality when it comes to modern game monetization or have found yourself in the past cutting corners by just sneaking into the cash shop after a couple cold ones four hours into a gaming session, don’t even install this. The brand veneer is insultingly bad, sure, but we veterans of this kind of game are used to stuff like that; once you can skip it, it’ll be fine. There is a kernel of a really interesting central ARPG mechanic buried in here, and if properly watered and trimmed, Magic: Legends could become something really interesting. But they’ve got a lot of work to do to get to a place where their business model is worth rewarding with your money.

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