A couple of years back I was bored one afternoon and browsing the XBox Live Marketplace. I didn’t have any real expectation of finding a game that would get me through the afternoon, let alone something that would have real staying power for me, and I would revisit time and again. When I saw that there was a Magic the Gathering game, it was suspicions that became aroused, not interest. Out of a kind of morbid curiosity I selected the game and read a little more into it, saw that a couple of my friends had played it, and that it seemed to be a self-contained engine of a game, and not simply another attempt to sell me Magic the Gathering Online in a repackaged form (don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against MTG:O. In fact, it’s a clever idea to reach people who either don’t have an active local Magic scene, or hate their local Magic scene, but if I had money to waste on Magic, I personally would do it at my local comic store).
But, oddly, the complaint that I keep hearing from people about Duels of the Planeswalkers (aside from some more quantitative complaints, which I’ll get into) is that it’s a self-contained thing, not a beautifully rendered amalgamation of all Magic ever.
You may bring whatever expectations you wish into your gaming experiences, but I find it’s better to try and keep things a little bit in perspective. For a $10 XBox Live Arcade title – a game that by definition is not a full retail game – you are expecting a full pool of Type II cards, a fully operational deck builder, and carte blanche to build as many decks as you like and play them against other humans? How much money does that privilege cost in real life? If some quickly-researched netdecking can be believed, a couple hundred bucks will buy you a top end deck in the current meta (and someone bought those cards at $4 for each randomized pack or whatever at retail, let’s not forget). Let’s say each ranked DCI event costs another $7 as an entry fee. So for one singular deck, you must expend hundreds of dollars, and much of that income reaches Wizards of the Coast. Then, if you wish to change decks, you’re likely to need more cards. Wizards will release new expansions, and you will need still more cards. All of this generates revenue for the company that is printing the game (and all of the creative people behind its design, etc.) and you honestly approach Duels of the Planeswalkers with the expectation that it’s going to just replace the CCG model forever?
So now that that soap box moment is out of the way, let’s talk about the game. 2013 is the latest upgrade to the now-yearly franchise. Much like regular Magic’s Type II environment, DotP can be seen as a sealed ‘block’ of decks of cards, and it evolves year by year. The game-play improvements in 2013, then, are very slight, since the game of Magic hasn’t changed much. The most meaningful one is the long-awaited ability to manually select your own lands to tap for Mana instead of letting the CPU select them for you (the CPU attempts to do this intelligently, but unfortunately, the CPU has no idea what it’s doing). The main difference is, therefore, the entirely new pool of decks that players can customize and compete with. The game launched with 10 available decks which come with a basic pool of 35 cards (plus the necessary land to make the deck function of course) and an additional 30 unlockable cards. The cards are unlocked – unfortunately – one by one, by winning duels, or if you’re lucky enough to be playing the console versions, by the purchase of Deck Keys (those cost about $1 of your real money each) which completely unlock the deck in question. This represents a large increase in possible customization over the selection offered by 2012.
The decks themselves are primarily monochrome, which is a shame. I understand that Wizards probably sees DotP as a tool to draw people into the world of Magic: The Gathering either on or off line, hoping to gain more lifetime players who are eager to experience the full game. However, many players do want to enjoy DotP as a game in its own right, and while monochrome decks are easier to play and make a decent introduction, the truth is that the Magic decks you’re going to see even at a local Friday Night Magic tournament are going to include a lot of paired colours for a simple reason – each colour is deliberately designed with shortcomings. Black has access to many easy fire-and-forget creature destruction spells and no enchantment removal at all. White has only a tiny splash of creature removal (and each of their ‘removal’ cards has a drawback printed on the card!) but many good cards for destroying enchantments or artifacts. If you combine the two, you can have both of those strengths, and cover for the weaknesses, at the expense of a deck that can be less reliable (since you must now possess two different colour resources) and harder to play. The trade-off is almost always worth it.
Hopefully DLC (it’s already in the works, of course!) will expand a little bit on this, and throw in some more two-colour decks (and a few fewer absolutely atrocious 3-colour decks. Please?).
As for the Planechase mode, I haven’t got much to say. I’ve never liked Planechase because it can really take a long time to play a single game of it, so I’ve avoided testing it extensively. I can say that it works just like I remember it working in real life, and it can definitely be fun if you have the patience to stick with it. The unpredictable and powerful effects of the different twisting Planes can really throw a traditional match-up on its head. Combined with the inevitable chaos of FFA multiplayer, and you definitely have a format with legs – no two games of Planechase will ever be exactly the same.
I suggest that you think of Duels as a Magic format much like Captains or, frankly, Type II… and enjoy it for what it is; a closed Magic experience that doesn’t cost you a lot of cash out of pocket to play. The added levels of customization (regrettably, still not the ability to pick how many lands your deck has in it. Grrr!) make the environment more varied than ever (mind you, I did not suggest the environment was balanced. It’s much too early to speak on that) so it’s definitely a game that’s got some depth if you’re willing to take the time to learn the format and delve into its own quirks and strategies.
The game reportedly suffers from numerous bugs. I have not encountered any that are more severe than the ‘mild annoyance’ variety, but I suspect there are uglier ones to be found in those innumerable lines of code somewhere. I wish I could say this was uncommon for releases in 2012, but I try to remain honest when I write these columns.
So there it is. I find Duels to be a fantastic addition to my summer, and I’m more excited than ever to waste countless hours trying to determine the best combination of 60 cards in the fixed pool that makes up my blue deck that will best let me control the decks I’ve seen people playing this week. Oh, and if you pick it up, do try it out with a friend in Two-Headed Giant at least once. It’s riotously fun.