For those new to all this, the clue's in the title: it's all about champions duelling with a bit of might and magic, innit? Duel of Champions comes from a storied lineage of Might & Magic-based collectible card games (CCGs), and among its many changes is a defining one: this is free to play, and on iPad to boot.
Certain genres suit the free-to-play model like a glove, and CCGs is one - not least because their physical predecessors were all about 'micro-transactions' in the form of booster packs. Ubisoft has past form in this area, too, with the sublime Assassin's Creed Recollections showing that Uncle Yves' troops have a good handle on the balance between reward and real cash.
Duel of Champions' model works thus: you get the game and a choice of one deck for free, after which you earn currency by playing. As seems to be trendy these days, the game divides its currency into two pools of differing rarity (Gold and Seals), and both can be used in the store to buy booster packs, full decks or big expansion boxes. I'd earned around 1400 Seals after 12 hours of play, enough to buy the 'Void Rising' expansion box and a few extra packs - or in other words, a truckload of cards.
However, Duel of Champions does have one area of meanness: preset decks are treated as self-contained entities. You can't use any of the cards from the decks you own while making a custom deck, just cards from packs. This isn't a massive problem, but it does somewhat lessen your enthusiasm for buying either one or the other. Is it necessary to put cash in? Well, yes and no. It's possible to grind a lot of stuff, but the boost from a little cash injection is noticeable - I only wish they hadn't subdivided the shop into so many packs.
The real question, of course, is whether Duel of Champions is any good. It is very good indeed, a smartly worked-out variant on CCG standards that has plenty of its own ideas but also nicks a few good ones from the competition. Battles are one-on-one across a mirrored game board; each player has a hero card, which is placed behind eight card slots, which are split into two columns of four. So a forward line of four melee fighters, a back rank of ranged troops, and the general directing stuff. The board also has space for Spell cards that can work across rows or down columns, an area off to the side for permanent army buffs, and at the bottom two Event cards - more on these later.
The system takes a bit of getting used to and hinges on how you 'level' your hero. Most heroes start with around 20HP and certain low stats. Cards have a general resource cost as well as requiring from the hero a certain level of Might or, indeed, Magic before they can be played. Every turn the hero's resources rise by 1, and every turn you can also choose to increase one of Might, Magic or Fate. The winner is the first to kill the enemy hero, and they can only be attacked when the space between them and your attacker has no defenders - so dominating and overwhelming even one line, with the right mix, can scoop the whole thing.
The on-field strategies reflect how the heroes are being levelled. Creatures that require a lot of Might tend to be simple bonecrushing monsters, while those with a high Magic cost are devious tricksters. My first deck featured the necromancers. (Think carefully about the faction you choose at the start, by the way, as it dictates the cards you'll be using for a long time.) It is an awesomely-constructed army, with gradually tougher creatures themed around poisoning enemies and reviving dead allies. Not as hard-hitting or fast as certain other decks, it's a gradual build-up of your own power into an overwhelming mass, all the while sapping your opponent's strength.
Another deck is themed around pirates, but these are pretty awesome pirates. It's a rush deck, basically, but the nature of Duel of Champions' board means that a rush deck can be genuinely overwhelming. An especially neat touch in this one is the combination of cheap creatures that let you draw additional cards, but only have 1HP and no offensive value, with other creatures that get buffed whenever an ally dies. Careless opponents end up buffing your early rush and even wary ones can't run from a fight forever. If this fails, the pirates fall back on giant ogres and amazing centaur archers that can attack any enemy on the board. Simple brute force, really, but a pretty effective plan B.
All of Duel of Champions' preset decks have noticeably different styles, from direct-damage spellcasters to hellish armies built around inflicting area-of-effect damage on your bunched-up cards. They also have their own 'Event' cards, the board's final element. Each player has eight of these, which are mixed together and randomised, with two face-up at any time and flipping over between each turn. Their effects can be anything from passive buffs (all magic-based monsters getting +1 attack, for example) to letting you pay resources to draw more cards, or even killing your own creatures. It's an idea that's heavily inspired by Magic: The Gathering's Planechase variant, but for my money actually improves on it - the specificity of the Events, their regular turnover and the element of randomness make them an enormously important and dynamic aspect of late-game battles.
Duel of Champions' single-player campaign is a short one divided into three sections with a fierce difficulty spike across the final few battles; it's an easy way to earn some Seals. Online multiplayer is where it's at, of course, and on both iPad and PC the matchmaking is flawless. I've had serious problems with Ubisoft's Uplay service in the past, but Duel of Champions segues effortlessly from search to game in seconds and has only suffered a mystery disconnect once.
One-on-one duels reward you with XP and gold as well as a persistent ranking score, but there are also daily 'tournaments'. The inverted commas are because this isn't a thrilling knockout structure, or even a league, but just an aggregation of thousands of players who are awarded gold on a sliding scale dependent on results. The idea of tournaments is a good one, but this kind of structure doesn't do it for me.
While we're on disappointments, the deck builder is perhaps the biggest. It contains all the options you want but presents them in a horribly cramped and counter-intuitive fashion. Deck-building is handled by moving cards from an upper window to a lower one, and both of these are given too little space to breathe - it's hard to see the cards properly on a 24" PC monitor, never mind the iPad, without pulling individual cards out. And the problems don't stop there. The iPad version is horribly optimised, with the text on cards displaying in low-resolution fuzzvision in the deck builder - perhaps because it is the PC deckbuilder crammed on a much smaller screen without any significant UI changes. From the publisher behind Assassin's Creed Recollections, the slickest CCG on tablets, this is a lazy effort.
Might & Magic: Duel of Champions is a great card battling game, and only a few niggly details hold it back from being even better: the lousy locked decks, the half-baked multiplayer tournaments, the quick and dirty iPad port. Nevertheless, it offers something fresh and creates battles that feel like two massed armies clashing across their ranks. It's a game that doesn't just have clever rules but keeps on surprising you with new depths to them, twisting things around with a brand new card. You can never quite tell with these things until months later, but right now, Duel of Champions feels like a keeper.