Reviews of games within series always feel slightly polarising. There is a constant dilemma of who the target audience should be, whether they be hardened stalwarts of the genre or completely unaccustomed. Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalker 2013 (the third release in the series) is reaching that difficult stage, particularly with its money draining annual release strategy. The review is made even more divisive by the fact this game should receive entirely separate conclusions depending on whether the reader already owns a previous release. So, let's make this simple. If you own the 2012 edition of the game, released last year, then skip down to the paragraph that begins with 'but here is the problem' and perhaps shed a tear for the overt commercialism of your favourite game. Otherwise read on.
Magic the Gathering is the most popular collectible card game on the planet. Sure it's a niche market, but its dominance over the genre has brought it out from those horribly stereotypical geek basements into the light of the masses. The popularity of this very series has proven that. In the original physical manifestation of the game two players (although larger forms and other variations of the game do exist) build a deck out of their collection, draw seven cards each and then do battle.
The cards in Magic the Gathering can roughly be grouped into three categories: land, spells and creatures. Land is 'tapped' (a term that indicates you are using a card) to allow the casting of spells or creatures. All cards are grouped into colours (White, Black, Red, Green and Blue) and these colours roughly dictate what kind of effect you can expect each to card to contain. The joy and success of Magic comes from its complexity.and the one golden rule: that the wording on the card is final. The genius of this is that it results in cards that can have entirely strange and unpredictable results, from tosses of coins resolving battles, to restarting the entire game and resulting arguments over semantics. Admittedly, most cards fall into slightly more generic categories but that constant unpredictability brings with it a wonderful heightened sense of enjoyment.
Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalker 2013 can be considered somewhat as Magic lite. An introduction to the complex world beyond. Yet, lite should not be taken to mean weak or simple. The gameplay, which shares the exact same core mechanics as the physical card game, is still intense and thoroughly enjoyable.
Players start off with two basic decks to choose from and as they defeat opponents they unlock new decks as well as extra cards for their chosen deck. Unlike the original game, where players may build a deck from any card they find lying around, here all cards are resigned to their decks and the only deck building involves choosing whether to include or exclude the given cards. It is a huge chunk torn from the card game’s mechanics, but arguably it actually makes battles more streamlined and tactical. Players will build up knowledge of what to expect when they face off against each other: a fight against the Born of Flame deck will see fireballs flung at you at every opportunity, whereas when you battle the Dream Puppets deck, expect your cards to disappear into the graveyard beyond your control. All of the ten decks that come with this year’s version are themed in similar ways and are perhaps more concise and interesting than any previous release.
The joy of Magic the Gathering is almost perfectly simulated here. Complicated ideas, such as interrupts (where players hit a button to play a card outside of their turn) or towering multiples of damage are all calculated simply and efficiently which comes as a blessing to anyone who has witnessed real card games where huge swathes of time is lost simply deciding the conclusion of an attack. In some ways it is actually more pleasant to play the card game on a computer, especially with the ability to play against fairly competent, if often painfully slow, AI opponents, or fellow human players from anywhere in the world.
There is something of a plot involved as you build the decks and defeat enemies, but it really only amounts to a few words displayed on the screen and some rather woeful and repetitive cut-scenes. The game never really alludes to an epic fantasy saga behind the card battles, but as you advance across different planes the backgrounds change, which at least gives some sense of progression.
As well as the standard battles against other Planeswalker decks, Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalker 2013 also features encounters which are effectively fights against a deck that plays the exact same sequence of cards each turn. These battles cleverly provide a change in direction as well as teaching new players some of the abilities of certain cards. The first encounter for example is against a pack of birds, with a new bird appearing each turn. Birds have the flying ability, which means they can only be blocked by creatures with flying. Players therefore have to calculate strategies to deal with this and the learning curve is pleasantly smooth for novice players
Making a welcome return, ten new challenges provide yet another area to stretch those tired old grey cells. Here players are thrown into a battle already in progress and have just one turn to resolve it using the provided cards. Usually these challenges make players consider how to play cards beyond their typical usage and often can be surprisingly complex with completely baffling solutions.
In fact everything about Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalker 2013 feels exceptionally well presented, not just as an introduction into the wider world of Magic cards but as a standalone game to while away many hours, battling against the computer, online against other players or even cooperatively with a friend in the two vs two player ‘two headed giant mode’...
But here is the problem. Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalker 2013 is, perhaps rather predictably, an almost exact copycat of last year’s release (which in itself was dubiously alike to the first). So much so, that it is surprisingly hard to distinguish between the two. The user interface, with its flipping pane menus, the barely noticeable music, the loading screens and the battles themselves remain virtually identical. Even the decks, though they are based on the this year’s physical card releases seem suspiciously similar. There is a another powerful creature based green deck, another aggressive flame spell based red deck and another blue deck that uses the opponent's strength against him. The whole game feels incredibly stale if you have already pounded through either of the previous years. Sure, there are more cards to unlock and more decks to face, but it is all becoming a rather repetitive experience.
There are two new features that the returning player should be aware of: The ability to tap specific land, which was glaringly absent in previous releases and could, on some rare occasions, ruin entire strategies and the Planechase mode. The first feature is useful, but really should have been there all along and thus feels more like a bug-fix than a shining new ability. The second feature is an entirely new battle variation that replaces the Archenemy mode from last year’s release.
In Planechase mode, four players enter into a free for all battle. The difference is that in the centre of the board is a Plane card which is accompanied by a die. The Plane card dictates an effect depending on the outcome of a roll, effectively adding another layer of randomness to the game. In theory it could be an interesting addition as battles could swing in a player’s favour based on a lucky roll of the dice. Unfortunately the effect the Plane card usually has is so overpowered that players will eschew all strategy for the cause of simply rolling the die and hoping for a favourable outcome. Planechase often feels like a ridiculous game of chance, with dice being flung every second, rather than a majestic battle of minds that the card game should represent. It is a weak replacement for the Archenemy mode, which at least could be entertaining when played cooperatively.
Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalker 2013, is certainly a fantastic game and a worthy edition to any strategist’s library, however one cannot help thinking that the same could have been said about last year’s version. The decks are marginally more interesting, the presentation marginally more stylish and the user interface is marginally more efficient, but this barely amounts to a whole new game and the downgrade from Archenemy mode to Planechase negates most of the improvements. Developer Stainless Games seem to have made little to no progress on the real problems with the game. The same AI exploits and bugs still exist and the loading times are just as bewilderingly long. Admittedly we are still only talking about a downloadable budget release, so the actual bill that a player has to foot to play each successive year is relatively low. But, when you consider the additional expense for new decks, which can only be used with the appropriate year’s release, it all begins to add up. And as the players in the multiplayer lobbies flock to the latest version, leaving empty echoing caverns behind, forcing your hand into upgrading, you cannot help thinking that this annual release schedule strategy is a really low blow.