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Magic: Legends’ beta hides an enjoyable co-op adventure behind a sluggish start

By finally embracing internet play, Magic: The Gathering — the Dungeons & Dragons of trading card games — is more popular than ever, and longtime publisher Wizards of the Coast isn’t content with just one big online game. Taking cues from tabletop juggernauts like Warhammer 40K, the card game giant is committed to diving deeper into video games with Magic: Legends, an action RPG designed to ride on the coattails of popular isometric looters like Diablo, Path of Exile, and Minecraft: Dungeons.

We’ve explored the game’s opening chapter through the PC open beta, but the jury’s still out as to whether this is a diamond in the rough or a title that leans heavily on preexisting greats while misunderstanding the hook.

Ace in the hole

Action RPGs garner their clout by enabling players to effortlessly bash dozens of monsters every second with a dizzying selection of spells and abilities. It’s about feeling like a paper shredder indiscriminately churning through junk mail. With big sequels like Path of Exile 2 and Diablo IV on the horizon, Magic: Legends needs a gimmick to stand out against the greats, and by embracing its card game roots, it may just have found it.

Magic: Legends combat

The skills, spells, and abilities you use in Magic: Legends are dictated by the deck you build along the way. Each class has its own permanent abilities bound to primary buttons like the left/right click and triggers on controllers, but your core damage-dealing potential comes from the cards in your stack.

Things start concerningly slow with just two ability slots, but after breezing through the tutorial and opening act, each face button on your controller will hold a powerful ability that vanishes on use. Another spell is randomly “drawn” from your deck, taking its place after a short period of time. Before long, you can even turn into your class’s answer to The Incredible Hulk. The game just does a terrible job of telling you what you’re working toward.

Marrying skills to cards drawn from a deck presents a fantastically fresh idea on paper: A way to diversify a genre that, for outsider, at least, can look worryingly repetitive. This inventive new system offers a fix for the genre-wide issue of having too many spells and not enough slots, but the random nature of it all can lead to a frustrating lack of control or strategy in the fights that truly matter. That makes a case for senselessly spamming otherwise useless abilities in the hopes of something better taking its place. The idea of summoning minions and monsters is also too literally taken from its card game origins, creating situations where it’s hard to tell who’s friend or foe.

Empty spaces

Another major aspect of a successful ARPG MMO stems from exploration — something Magic: Legends leans heavily on its lore-centric Planeswalking feature to enable, but currently struggles to really make a case for. Though each world looks relatively large when you open up the mini-map, completing quests to progress the story rarely feels like anything more than using the fast-travel system, completing the same terrain puzzle over and over, and collecting your reward.

Though visually gorgeous at times, the overworld is disturbingly quiet — and it’s impossible to tell whether it’s a stylistic choice or just that a level of detail and polish hasn’t made it into the open beta. General chat is busy spamming codes for free goods that will never arrive or understandably commenting on the visible lack of optimization, yet you’ll rarely see more than three other players roaming the realms.

In rival titles, there’s a push — a level of urgency to progress that’s fed by the hook of the gameplay and compels you to explore the world, bashing monsters down for loot and taking part in the events and quests you come across as you seek extra goodies. Even with the odd overworld event to complete, the MMO aspect feels bewilderingly lonely; loot is practically nonexistent, there’s nothing but ambient noise to build up the world around you, and you won’t come across all that many monsters to make good use of your skills. There’s no spark in the solo adventuring.

Bring a friend

Once the odd quest thrusts you into a private lobby, though, you get a taste of what where Magic: Legends can truly shine: Co-op. That shouldn’t be a surprise given the always-online aspect of it all. Though the missions are relatively compact, there’s a simple enough premise based on the few I managed to spend time with.

Magic: Legends spells

Sprinting around to defend objects from increasingly larger waves of enemies delivers what the overworld experience lacks. Spells have weight and feel powerful. Keep the reasons to use them coming, and you have a generally enjoyable adventure in those 10-minute cooperative windows. Hit level eight, and you’ll be able to invite friends to go along for the ride, opening the game up to where it might just manage to hold your attention.

Though Magic: Legends could find an audience in its multiplayer adventures, its monetization practices could keep it from ever reaching its prime. Without players to stoke the queues of cooperative play, there isn’t much left. Running solo is a dreadfully drab affair. By offering spell upgrades through loot box-style booster packs — dangling the carrot of paying to catch up with co-op buddies who happen to have more time to organically gather the goods — there’s the very real risk of poisoning the well before launch.

While still very rough around the edges, the potential is evident once you push beyond its sluggish start. There’s certainly room for improvement, but Magic: Legends presets a solid foundation that’s simply held back by some questionable ethics.

Magic: Legends open beta is available to play on PC through the Epic Games Store and Arc Games.

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