The first Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers was a huge success when it hit Xbox Live Arcade in 2009, ranking among the top most-played games on that platform. An easy sequel was seemingly a no-brainer, and now Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 has been bestowed upon us..
After playing a good two or three years of the trading card game in high school during the 4th Edition/Ice Age/Homeworlds era, and having loved the living hell out of Microprose's 1997 Magic: The Gathering PC game, I said to myself: "I haven't played Magic in ages, so maybe this game will be fun!"
Turns out I was wrong. Somewhat.
Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 (PC, Xbox Live Arcade[Reviewed], PSN) Developer: Stainless Steel Games Publisher: Wizards of the Coast Released: June 15, 2011 MSRP: $9.99 / 800 MS Points
For players new to the card game, there is a very clear tutorial that guides you through the basics in a single scripted game. Because Duels of the Planeswalkers is supposed to be the more casual-friendly videogame version of Magic: The Gathering, the tutorial does a great job at guiding people through the basics without taking forever to do so.
Each turn in the game is divided in a main phase, a combat phase, and another main phase. During the main phase you lay down land cards that provide mana, which you can then use to lay down things like creature cards and equipment cards on the virtual table. The combat stage is where you let your creatures attack -- who can only attack the opponent -- and where the opponent chooses his creatures to block individual attackers. Most of the attacks you do in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 revolve around summoning creatures and managing them to deal as much damage to your oponent as possible.
A creature has an X/Y indicator, for instance 2/2. That means it can deal 2 damage (power) and receive 2 damage (toughness). Pit two 2/2 creatures against each other, and both will die as damage is dealt simultaneously -- unless special characteristics like First Strike come into effect to make one of the creatures deal its damage before it receives any.
The second main phase is traditionally where you play some cards you held back to prepare for the opponent’s turn, or to surprise him or her with clever tactics after the combat phase has been resolved. The tutorial makes you do things like placing a land card though; something that I've never heard of during the time I played the card game, but this is a casual take on it so let’s roll with it.
Playing a game against the computer in one of the campaign modes seems to be designed to emulate a match against a real player. Every stage has a three second time progress bar with a sound effect that may drive you nuts, during which you and your opponent get the time to "think." However, this results in sitting idly while the CPU goes through its own stages even when it can’t do anything.
If it places one land and doesn’t have a card to play, it will just go through the motions as if it does have something to do and makes you sit through all of it instead of just skipping to your turn. If you happen to not be able to play anything yourself, you'll go through the same motions of waiting for the game to catch up.
Frankly, it's ridiculously annoying if you are not the patient type. A Magic videogame should make it easier and faster to play a quick game, instead of making you even more annoyed with a slow pace than a real life game can make you at times. Except in real life, you can have social interaction while you wait. It doesn't help that the game's time bars get truly obnoxious if you happen to "buff" creatures.
Some creatures have abilities that let you spend mana to increase their strength, for example one mana for +1/+1 to their power and toughness. If you happen to have eight mana to burn, that means you'll sit through eight of these three-second progress bars in a row. Followed by yet another one just in case you weren't entirely sure if you wanted to end that phase like that. A lot of times, you can play Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 while browsing on your phone or laptop and waiting for the game to finally catch up.
The issues with the core interface get worse as the game wants you to press a button to progress in some cases, but refuses to let you skip the progress bars other cases. This can result in you occasionally pressing the wrong button at the wrong time because you're being impatient, and either get an "it is not your turn" message or worse: accidentally skip the entire combat phase of your turn.
You can turn on an option that makes you press a button to progress any of the the main phases so they don't progress automatically, but that doesn't remove the progress bars. If possible, it turns the entire gameplay into the something that matches Ninja Gaiden Black levels of frustration -- except not in a good way.
It's not hard to see the rationale for this system though, as it mimics how an actual game is played out and offers some time limits to speed up online play. One could argue that for casual players new to Magic, this system offers some more structure than cutting up a turn into a load of phases that you have to manually progress through.
The progress bars are also there to give you the option to pause the game and cast Instant or Interrupt spells that can disrupt your opponent's plans before they are played out, or to activate an ability of an attacking or blocking creature for a similar effect. But as you only really use a few buttons in the entire game, the inclusion of a simple "skip" option would've been more than welcome for the many instances where nothing happens at all.
Other than these issues which may severely affect the amount of fun you will have with the singleplayer campaign, the virtual table you play on works really well. Cards can zoomed in for full detail, although I wouldn't recommend playing the game on a standard definition TV. Tips are also available for some of the cards' special abilities and features -- some of which will be new to people who stopped playing Magic years ago. All the information you could want is at your fingertips, and it's relatively easy to find for all types of players.
The game's singleplayer modes are split between three campaigns, simply called Campaign, Archenemy, and Revenge. Campaign sees you progress through fights against a handful of AI opponents, with optional puzzle-like challenges that can only be solved in a certain way. The challenges are fun, if not very hard once you figure out how the game wants you to approach them. Revenge is basically Campaign with the AI opponents in a different order of appearance. Archenemy is the big new addition to Magic 2012, and lets you and two others fight a single AI opponent with 40 hit points (instead of the regular 20) and special abilities.
Archenemy is more interesting in multiplayer, not in the least because it's nearly impossible for new players to have any idea what is going on when there are two AI players doing all kinds of things alongside you. Sadly, you can't have a player be the Archenemy, which makes it more of a throwaway mode that is frankly far too easy to win for any type of player.
Multiplayer on the whole is pretty well executed. Although trying to find a quick match either kicked me out of a room or returned a "this game is full no longer available" message fifteen times in a row on Xbox Live, choosing a custom match will give you a list of available games of the type. It's a breeze to either set up or find your type of game.
Free-for-All and Two-Headed Giant -- a mode in which two players share a combined life pool and need to communicate what actions to take as a team -- are available for both Player Match and Ranked Match, while Archenemy is exclusive to the Player Matches alone. You can either play with an online buddy, or get into a multiplayer game with local players which is very nice.
Archenemy in the campaign mode can also be played with two other local players, or you can take the campaign online by creating a lobby for your campaign game with the press of a button. While singleplayer won't impress anyone, the multiplayer offerings are more than enough to provide players with content that lasts as long as their interest does.
Whether Magic 2012 will hold your interest will depends on a couple of things. The game only lets you play with pre-built decks of 60 cards, each with up to 16 unlockable cards. You can customize those decks, but you can't create and save a real custom deck made out of all the cards you own and earn in the game. It's disappointing, and an obvious result of the casual focus of the series.
Luck is also a major factor, just like in the real card game. It took me almost ten tries to beat the very first campaign match regardless of difficulty, which made me rage-quit the game twice. In retrospect I was just extremely unlucky, and after passing that first opponent the game was pretty easy to beat using the exact same strategies I used in my early failures. Thankfully you can restart a game easily, even if doing so loads the entire match all over again instead of instantly restarting it.
The result of the limited decks and the almost zero effective customization options at your disposal (from a Magic player's point of view) turn Magic 2012 into a pretty pointless game for any veteran. I almost had fun in a couple of games, but in the end I felt more bored with watching progress bars fill up and waiting for the game to allow me to play it.
But that's the thing with this game. It's not a game that is meant for hardcore Magic fans or veteran players. Casual people seem to be having a lot of fun with it online, just like they did with the game's 2009 iteration. If you are new to Magic: The Gathering and you have some like-minded novice friends, the game offers plenty of options for you to explore what Magic is about and you can have a ton of fun both online and offline.
If you are a veteran, you're not going to find a lot of challenge here. The lack of full customization, the pre-built decks, and the resulting lack of any truly deep strategies simply turn the game into a pointless endeavor. You might also think you are a really good Magic player in real life and that it lets you mercilessly destroy novice players online, but the game's luck factor and balanced deck selections are not going to let you overwhelm any of the casual players based on skill and knowledge alone.
Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 can be a great game for the kind of novice and casual player who has the friends to play with, and who has always had a passing interest in the game but never wanted to pay the trading card game's entrance fee to properly learn it. To those players, the game is like the Transformers G1 cartoon: it's meant to ultimately sell more of the real life product by using a different medium to "tap" a new userbase. That doesn't mean it can't be fun though.
For the experienced players, the game will likely bore you to tears and there's a chance you'll only see the glaring omissions and interface annoyances. I know I did, and I know I will never play this game again if I can help it. But I also know I'm not the audience for this game, and I simply have to accept that. Then again, perhaps you are more forgiving and patient. Whatever kind of player you are -- or think you are -- I suggest you try out the demo first to see if you are part of the intended audience or not.
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destructoid's previous coverage: Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012