Magic: ManaStrike is the best MtG video game yet, because it's nothing like the card game

This new Magic: The Gathering spin-off game is nothing like the actual card game, but maybe that's for the better.

The best way to experience the lore of Magic: The Gathering is undeniably through the original card game or novels, but a brand-new mobile game, Magic: ManaStrike, thrives by taking familiar characters and doing something totally unexpected with them.

ManaStrike might just be the best MtG video game of all time. It's also unlike anything we've seen before.

Developed by Netmarble Corp. and published by Wizards of the Coast for release on January 29, Magic: ManaStrike is a new mobile real-time strategy game set within the universe of Magic: The Gathering — and it is my new addiction. It's also the best Magic: The Gathering video game out right now.

Fans of Magic: The Gathering Arena might disagree, but playing the physical version of the card game will always be better than the digitized version. And there aren't any other MtG games right now that even compare to ManaStrike in terms of exciting gameplay and novel ideas.

Magic: ManaStrike is the furthest thing from what you might expect of a Magic: The Gathering video game, mainly because rather than anything resembling the popular trading card game, ManaStrike instead delivers a curious mix of Yu-Gi-Oh! anime and Multiplayer online battle arena games (MOBAs) like League of Legends. The experience feels a bit obtuse and incomprehensible at first because there's nothing like it, but the lovable characters from MtG and the fast-paced gameplay keep things engaging and exciting before blossoming into full-on addicting.

How to play Magic: ManaStrike

Everyone's favorite group of Planeswalker heroes is at the focus here.

Wizards of the Coast

ManaStrike still utilizes a card-based system like the original, but instead of a 60-card deck, you assemble decks that consist of one Planeswalker and seven other creatures, spells, or buildings. Everything also falls within the familiar five colors of Magic (black, blue, white, red, and green).

Deck composition is limited by the color of the Planeswalker, a hero character with a unique ability you can summon several times within a match. As your mana gradually builds over time, you spend that energy to cast cards and your seven-card deck will make certain cards available depending on your actions.

Here's where the Yu-Gi-Oh comparison comes in. Playing a card literally summons the creature or building into active play. This is ostensibly what happens in every iteration of Magic: The Gathering but seldom is it visualized in a meaningful way. In ManaStrike, when you cast Giant Growth on your Baloth, the huge beast actually does get much bigger. It's a lot less nuanced than the original card game, but it's necessary in the more visual world of video games — which is something most Magic games forget.

The goal of any 3-minute match is to overwhelm your opponent's section of the board and destroy their Sub Guardians and/or central Guardian. Sub Guardians are worth one victory point, and destroying the main Guardian ends the match while granting you two additional points.

Both Guardian types function like defensive turrets (a similar mechanic in most games like League of Legends) and will defend themselves against any assailants. The final minute of every 3-minute match activates the titular "ManaStrike" as both players' mana recharges at a rapid pace, leading to more frenetic and intense finales to every match.

Endless replayability

Wizards of the Coast

Because every match is so short, it's easy to play ManaStrike in these delicious, snack-sized portions.

At its worst, ManaStrike can get a bit dull and repetitive. A lot of casual players will just mash buttons and activate abilities without understanding what's going on, which is extra frustrating when it works against a more talented player.

You can win that way, but you won't win consistently. Even this early in the game's meta, it's clear that ManaStrike is simple on the surface but deceptively complex the deeper you sink your teeth in.

Creatures within a deck can interact with one another and combo in interesting ways. Some can only attack buildings, others can fly, and others might only attack ground units. That's to say nothing of a building that might deploy defensive troops in regular intervals or a spell that might deliver a quick surge of damage output under pressure.

It becomes necessary to put though into deck composition and to play cards at strategic moments rather than dumping everything onto the field at once and overwhelming an opponent.

New lore fails to deliver

The villainous Nicol Bolas resides over every battle, collecting information about his enemies.

Wizards of the Coast

Within the overarching lore of the card game, ManaStrike has a genuinely interesting premise involving The Gatewatch group of Planeswalkers that resembles Marvel's Contest of Champions. Jace Beleren, Chandra Nalaar, Nissa Revane, Ajani Goldmane, and Liliana Vess are playable characters from the outset, leading their different teams into battle with unique abilities.

"After losing a war with the Planeswalkers, Magic: The Gathering's most powerful villain Nicol Bolas creates a parallel universe to find the Planeswalkers' weaknesses," the official premise reads. "Players enter a contract with Nicol Bolas to provide combat data by controlling Planeswalkers and units in his universe."

It makes for a colorful, action-packed new way to interact with some of the coolest characters to come out of Magic: The Gathering, but the game experience itself is sadly lacking in more exploration of the lore.

Despite the premise, there's little to no story to speak of. The core ManaStrike experience is instead an endless stream of these tight little battles as you collect new cards, rank up your characters, and eventually unlock more Planeswalkers. There are events and even a monthly battle pass called the "Magic Pass," where, for less than $10, you can unlock a slew of tiered rewards.

There's not a ton of substance to explore within ManaStrike, but it's in an excellent place at launch to develop this exciting new subgenre of mobile games makes for the perfect mix of strategy card games with MOBAs.

Magic: ManaStrike is now available on Apple's iOS App Store and Google Play.

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