Magic: ManaStrike is Netmarble and Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering mobile tower-defence strategy game. The game uses 3D animations of some classic planeswalkers and summoned creatures for a PvP driven strategy game.
Players use a deck consisting of seven cards and a Planeswalker to defend their three towers against an opponent, while also working to take down one or more of their opponents towers. It’s a pretty familiar format, and most gamers will find several similarities between ManaStrike and God Hand. The tower-defence system being used in ManaStrike has become popular in mobile titles recently, as several mobile games have a similar gameplay experience: Defenders 2, Crystal Kill, and Tower Duel to name a few.
This is not the first time Magic: The Gathering has hit mobile, as the card game was ported directly to mobile in 2013 as Magic: Duels, and also got the PuzzleQuest treatment in 2015. There are even ways to play Magic: The Gathering Arena on mobile as well.
However, Magic: ManaStrike is a pretty large departure from MTG. Sure, you still have Planeswalkers and creature cards, as well as a mana pool, but it eschews much of the complexity of MTG for a 3D tower defence gameplay. This isn’t to say that there’s no difficulty or complexity in ManaStrike, but it’s a completely different way of viewing your favourite MTG cards and the transition can be a bit tricky. But at least you can be comforted by the quality 3D renders of your favourite characters and the soothing vagueness of the soundtrack. Though, every now and again your Planeswalker will repeat one of two stock phrases, which will become frustrating over time.
The game is PvP centric, as you can only compete in ranked competitive matches when outside of community events, which means it’s not a game for the faint of heart. You don’t come under fire while offline, which is a plus, but every match either adds or removes points from your ranking score, with no possibility for friendly exhibition matches or an AI-controlled story mode. The game only features 89 cards and 18 Planeswalkers. It’s also just launched with a full content season of free and paid MagicPass rewards. Which makes Magic: ManaStrike a bit more accessible for those who are daunted by the card game’s massive library and long meta-history. And there is obviously a ton of room for ManaStrike to grow.
While the game is clearly aiming for a Fortnite Battle Pass system, the rewards from the premium Magic Pass also affect gameplay. You can unlock new Planeswalkers with the premium pass, as well as additional card packs and currency which allows you to upgrade your creatures for increased attack power and health. Which makes it kind of a pay-to-win system, which is absolutely frustrating for free players. While the Magic Pass does offer other skins for existing Planeswalkers as well as emojis and cosmetic icons, the fact that you can earn currency and card packs and additional Planeswalkers (at the moment, Ob Nixilis and Calix are available only through the Magic Pass) through the premium pass does affect gameplay for non-paid players. While you can earn gems to exchange for the Premium pass, the rate at which you earn them is incredibly slow. So free players will only be able to access the premium Pass every few seasons.
And because Planeswalkers have specific gameplay abilities, and are not just decorative options, the Magic Pass is absolutely an unbalanced system. But at least the free version of the Pass provides frequent rewards, unlike other pass systems. And you can at least earn your way into it eventually. So, it’s unbalanced but not as unbalanced as it could be. And that’s certainly something to keep in mind.
The gameplay itself manages to strike a perfect MTG balance of being easy to pick up but difficult to master. The tutorial features Nicol Bolas as the players adversary, and while it does show you the bare basics, the tutorial isn’t particularly lengthy or in-depth. If you need extra help, there is a training mode. But it’s hidden within the “card” deck editing menu.
Each match is pretty much identical. Each player gets one Guardian and two Towers that need to be defended from the other, and they can summon units on their half of the arena. The exception is that players are also able to summon units within proximity to their Planeswalker, which allows you to make a robust, moving army in your enemy’s territory for however long your Planeswalker survives. This is a pretty great strategy for overwhelming your opponent and rushing the other side of the map, which can be handy with the more tanky Planeswalkers like Ajani. It also allows you to summon shields for glass cannon Planeswalkers like Liliana.
The various different coloured decks are rather well balanced, but the usual rules apply where low-level black is incredibly difficult, while high-level green is harder than the other colours to master. Hybrid decks are unlocked by purchasing specific hybrid Planeswalkers, though not all hybrid combinations are represented with the current slate of Planeswalkers: Black/Red is notably absent, but there are two Black/Green Planeswalkers.
The game matches players by their rank, but you progress in rank with more and more rank points each level, so there’s a decent bit of variation in skill between each rank. As you only earn rank points from winning battles, there is no way to fail your way to success. In fact, the game is rather punishing if you aren’t great at real-time card-based tower defence PvP. Outside of small daily rewards, you can only earn currency and card packs by winning matches and meeting specific daily goals in matches, which means you can easily get stuck in a losing streak. And because you don’t know your opponent’s deck alignment before a match starts, you can’t choose to fight only against colours you know you’re good at. Which is hard enough anyway, because the various decks are relatively well-balanced though some are better at charging early while others build toward later-game wins.
Because there are 89 different cards to choose from, there’s a decent bit of deck customization, though certain Planeswalkers naturally match up with certain creature cards. Which is a pretty solid holdover from the base game. However, the 7-card deck and 4-card hands (occasionally you can get a 5-card hand if you’ve got Jace activated), can feel incredibly limiting.
Honestly, ManaStrike is a solid adaptation of Magic: The Gathering. I just wish there was more to it than endless PvP matches and occasional community events (which consist of the exact same gameplay). Because each match functions the same way, the game can be boring to play for longer than it takes to rake in your daily rewards and log off. Which is a common balance for mobile games. But as any fan of MTG will tell you, the fun of Magic is its variation. Even with the same decks and rules, no two games are identical. ManaStrike lacks that versatility and complexity.
As far as the mobile component of the game goes, the controls are engineered to work well on a touch screen. However, the game is absolutely draining on battery and cell data, and the server connection drops easily on data if you aren’t in 5G or LTE service areas. Unfortunately, that makes this a “plugged in and on wifi only” game. The large patch sizes also make wifi a must for ManaStrike.
Which isn’t to say Magic: ManaStrike is a bad game. But it could be better.