Back in the Stone Age before Ms Lovelace and Mr Babbage invented the computational difference engine, it was customary for gentlepersons in polite households to sit around a table after supper for a round or two of a popular card game of choice. That is to say: games involving the random distribution of a pack of artfully drawn playing cards. Perhaps Bridge, or Rummy, or whatever passed for a Victorian equivalent of smash hit collectible card game Magic: the Gathering (MtG).
Duels of the Planeswalkers is the latest computer based version of MtG available on Xbox Live, PSN, and Steam (PC). The game presents a single player campaign vs the AI at varying difficulties, assorted multiplayer PvP configurations involving either friends or random online players, a deck manager, ranked head-to-head play, achievements, and co-operative multiplayer options that pit players against a boss equipped with special raid-type cards.
Remember this is a simulation of a card game. Otherwise you might be confused at the cut scene with voice-over at the beginning which could be the intro to a any fantasy RPG of the last five years. You might find the snippets of background story on the various AI characters that pop up before each match to be distracting. You may even wonder why a card game needs a backstory in the first place beyond “You are portraying wizards who will fight by casting spells and summoning monsters as represented by your cards. Go!” The fact that M:tG is published by Wizards of the Coast who also produce Dungeons and Dragons may be a clue to all the roleplaying flavour.
Magic: the Gathering has always benefitted from having rock steady game design at its core. It is a fun game with plenty of depth, attractive cards, a rabid following, and highly competitive tournament play. I am not going to describe the structure of the game in depth here, if you don't know it and are curious you could do worse than trying the demo for this game. M:tG is also notorious among gamers for being one of the most successful versions ever of the CCG (collectible card game) model, so associated costs of buying the rarest (often the most powerful) cards can be high for a hardcore card player. Duels of the Planeswalkers frees the player up from the collecting side of the game, providing ten virtual premade starter decks and allowing you to win extra cards for each deck via success in the single player game.
Introduction and Single Player Game
The single player game steps you through the various phases of each turn, and allows you to stop the clock whenever you need more time to either think or read through the rules text on your cards. It was enough to nudge my memory back to the distant past in which I played Magic: the Gathering when it first came out, and after a couple of hands I finally got lucky (or improved) and stopped losing against the AI all of the time. It feels comfortably self explanatory at the beginning, but I still find there are specific rules or card types where I don't quite get the timing issues or remember when each hand starts and ends. More practice definitely helps, as do the optional solo puzzle segments which are the equivalent of the chess puzzles that litter the gaming pages in broadsheets: ie. it's your turn, this is your current hand. You have three health and your opponent has 22. Can you win in one turn?
Campaign setting starts you off with a choice of a handful of decks to play, and you then play against a succession of AI wizards, each of whom uses a different theme of deck. The importance of decks in M:tG can't be overstated, but it's enough to know that different types of deck play very differently. For example, the fire deck is stacked with direct nukes, the vampire deck uses vampire summons and life leeches, and the artifact deck involves artifact items and creatures. You will eventually unlock ten different decks, each of which can be maxed out by unlocking 16 extra cards via in-game victories. If you don't fancy that, you can buy the maxed out deck for a small amount as DLC. You will also find through experience that some decks provide a stronger counter to others (for example, fire is strong against the illusion deck).
The game helpfully shows the cards laid out in front of you as if you were playing in real life, and special effects for attacks are kept to a minimum. Cards portraying flying monsters are shown as hovering above the table and monsters which can cast spells will be shown casting dinky fireballs at each other, but otherwise it's pretty clear that we're in card game land now and the computer is there to facilitate rather than to offer an Archon style arcade shootout.
The core game itself is as brilliant as the card based original. The AI puts up a solid fight and was easily a good match for me at Archmage difficulty (the middle of the three difficulty options), although I do wonder if Jace (one of the computer opponents) has some kind of evil cheating mechanism in his illusion deck. The cards are attractive, the rules are mostly clear, and computer arbitration makes for a more chilled out atmosphere than splitting hairs with the hardcore 14 year old across the table. The game is turn based, although you'll need to also pay attention to the timers if you want to play an instant card out-of-turn.
My main gameplay niggles are that it is far too fiddly to select the cards when one monster has several enchants or items stacked up on it. It could also be made much clearer when each turn starts and ends, as this is quite important when you play an enchant that only lasts for one turn. There are also minor UI inconsistencies in how you play cards which can do a variable effect depending on how many land cards you choose to play with them. Ultimately these add up to minor frustrations in a game that does a top job with its goal of simulating a complex card game.
After you finish the single player campaign, you can continue into revenge mode which repeats the same matches at a harder difficulty, allowing the AIs access to better cards. Alternatively you could try the Archenemy mode, where you play each match alongside two friendly AIs and co-operate to beat a much harder opponent. There's plenty of gameplay here, especially if you are keen to max out several of your decks and hit all the achievements.
Multiplayer and Advanced Options
Multiplayer options include one-on-one matches, two vs two, co-operative matches similar to Archenemy mode, and allow you either to invite your friends or try to pick up a random player. Alternatively you can experiment and get in some practice by assigning one of the AI decks to any of these slots too -- for example if you want to play two vs two with a housemate in your team against two opposing AIs. Opponents were scarce on Steam when I tried, which is probably just as well given my (lack of) skill. But as with any game that relies on random opponent matching, it's worth bearing in mind that time of day and general popularity issues will affect how quickly you can get a random game.
I haven't yet mentioned deckbuilding because although it forms a core part of Magic: the Gathering play, it isn't a key part of Duels of the Planeswalkers. There is a deck manager screen which allows you to swap cards out of your favourite deck and preview the unlockable cards which you have not yet accessed. I found it awkward to use and it was difficult to gauge whether running with a reduced deck made for a more effective game or not. In M:tG there are countless websites to help out but it felt largely pointless here. For fans of statistics you can also check the ratio of monsters to land in each deck; the deck builder won't allow you to remove land cards (which are added automatically) or add arbitrary numbers of copies of your favourite overpowered card.
Extras in the game include a link to a Wizards of the Coast website with a voucher to print out and turn in at your local game shop for a free starter deck of Magic: the Gathering cards. This is clever cross marketing as the local game shop is likely to be one that hosts regular Magic nights, and once Wizards have your email address they will regularly send you extra information about the game (you can unsubscribe easily though.) This free deck means that the cheapest and easiest way for a prospective new M:tG player to get into the game is probably to pick up a copy of Duels of the Planeswalkers, practice on the single player mode, and then print out the voucher and go pick up the free deck and see about getting into a game.
Duels of the Planeswalker is a solid implementation of M:tG, and provides a lot of juicy card based play with vaguely hinted backstory for its reasonable price. If you follow up on the free deck and find local human opponents, it could even be the entry point to a whole new hobby. Duels also doesn't push the collectible aspect of the hobby, allowing you to access all of its unlockable cards via play. But do be aware that this is not the same as Magic Online, a web based game run by Wizards of the Coast that does fully implement the CCG via digital cards and booster packs, and has no AI mode. The games are not interchangeable so you can't use your Planeswalker decks to play Magic Online, or vice versa.
The one remaining puzzle is why Wizards attached 2012 to the title of the game. Gentle reader, I wonder if they sipped too much of the after dinner port while picking through their cards and forgot which calender year we are in.