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Review: Magic the Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers


Nearly sixteen years ago, Wizards of the Coast unleashed the first set of Magic: The Gathering cards upon an unassuming public. Originally designed to be a portable and easily accessible game that could be played during downtime at gaming conventions, Magic's simple rules and intuitive, fantasy-inspired cards caught on with the general public and birthed the highly successful collectible card game genre. However, over the last decade and a half, thousands of new cards and two major rule revisions turned the previously simple card game into a complex and often unforgiving hobby.

Concerned with dwindling numbers of new Magic players as a result of ever-increasing barriers to entry, Wizards of the Coast announced that July 2009 would see the release of Magic 2010 -- the first major rewrite of Magic's core rules in nearly ten years and the first core set to introduce new cards since 1993's Alpha and Beta series. Not surprisingly, Xbox Live Arcade's Duels of the Planeswalkers is a significant piece of Wizard's efforts to recapture the imagination of the mass market and introduce both new and old players to the Magic 2010 rule set.

Ultimately, Duels of the Planeswalkers is an engaging, albeit flawed, implementation of the classic card game. Combining the changes of Magic 2010 with a few changes unique to the Live Arcade title -- no mana pooling, shared priority, and elimination of formal stack rules to name but a few, Duels of the Planeswalkers delivers a streamlined Magic experience that feels like a video game while still maintaining the deep strategic experience that players have come to expect.

Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers (Xbox 360 - XBLA)
Developer: Stainless Games
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Released: June 17, 2009
MSRP: 800 Microsoft Points ($10.00)

In order to help players become accustomed to playing Magic on a console with a new set of rules, Stainless Games packed Duels of the Planeswalkers with numerous modes targeted at teaching and reinforcing the core rules of the game. In addition to the standard tutorial mode, Duels of the Planeswalkers features two interesting and unexpected modes that greatly improve retention and understanding of how Magic is played.

The first of these modes is the Mentor mode, which allows experienced players to be matched up with new players in online mentoring sessions. While much can be learned from the tutorials, there is really nothing like learning Magic interactively with an experienced player. Stainless Games, obviously cognizant of this fact, was wise to include mentoring via Live in the final product.

Another unexpected and enjoyable aspect of Duels of the Planeswalkers is the Challenge mode. For those unfamiliar with the Duelist magazine challenge puzzles from the 1990s (upon which the Challenge mode is based), the game presents you with a number of scenarios and then asks you to figure out how to kill your opponent in a single turn. While enjoyable in their own right, the challenges are also an excellent tool for players that have just completed the tutorial to test their knowledge of the game's more complex rules. While none are insurmountable, there is one puzzle in particular that may initially prove challenging to even veteran players. Overall, the challenge mode is a really successful addition, although I would have liked to see more than eight puzzles. Hopefully we can expect more in future content packs.

Once the basics of Magic have been learned, players are most likely to turn to the campaign mode, which allows players to challenge computerized opponents before stepping into the wilds of online play. The campaign mode is surprisingly robust. While a mere 16 battles long, the campaign mode offers 130 unlockable cards, a wealth of customization options, and a more difficult campaign mode that keeps additional playthroughs fresh.

The game's AI is surprisingly good, if a bit quirky. With a game as complex as Magic, getting an AI to even feign competency is difficult; however, Patrick Buckland of Stainless Games seems to have crafted the best AI to ever appear in a Magic game, an admittedly minor accomplishment. The Duels AI can be set to three different difficulties -- Mage, Archmage, and Planeswalker -- and while the AI's skill is noticeably different at each level, the biggest change seems to come from the fact that the easier difficulties stack the bottom of the AI player's deck with the more annoying or game-changing cards. While competent and sometimes challenging, the game's AI also falls victim to a number of quirks. For instance, the AI is often so concerned with losing a creature that you can bring combat to an absolute standstill by casting Pariah on one of its creatures. As a test, I was able to use this technique and then pass through 26 turns without playing a card, eventually decking my opponent. Small quirks like this give you a look under the hood of the game's engine, but should be easily repairable in future updates.

In addition to a fairly competent AI, Duels of the Planeswalkers features a really gorgeous interface. The playing field is crisp and does not distract from what is going on in the game, while a number of visual cues -- translucent arrows, sparks, fogs, etc. -- clearly indicate how the cards in play interact with one another. Additionally, the cards look beautiful when fully zoomed in (simply highlight a card and push the right trigger) and remain easily distinguishable while on the playing field. Without a doubt, this is the prettiest of Magic's numerous digital translations and provides a wonderful look at the artwork that cannot even be fully appreciated on the standard playing cards. My only complaint about the user interface is that there is no indication of how many lands are on the table. While this is not a problem in the early stages of the game, it becomes cumbersome to try and count how many of each land type are in play during the late game.

Online play is much like the campaign mode, but conducted against a live opponent. While I did not have a chance to try vocal communication (my headset is currently broken), I did have the opportunity to unwittingly test the Vision camera functionality. I say unwittingly because I did not initially know that Duels of the Planeswalkers supported the Vision camera. As a result, it was not until I had completed 5 or 6 matches online that I realized I was broadcasting live video of me laying in bed next to my sleeping girlfriend playing Magic at 2 o'clock in the morning. Learn from my mistake: Remember to unplug your camera or head over to the options menu before playing this game online.

Online connectivity was good. I was able to quickly find matches and never experienced any lag or connection loss. However, I did have a few opponents quit the game right before I dealt the killing blow. While the game does not display a win/loss ratio, a quick message to a contact at Wizards of the Coast assured me that the game records a loss against players that quit early.

In addition to the standard 2-player online game, Duels of the Planeswalkers also includes both three and four player games as well as Two Headed Giant (known to non-nerds as 2 v. 2). My 3-player experiences were good. As any two players may choose to team up on the third, 3-player Magic has never been a highly competitive game, but it was a refreshing change from the standard fare. My Two Headed Giant experience, on the other hand, was abysmal. Two Headed Giant, like the Co-op Campaign, are the only two aspects of Duels of the Planeswalkers that I did not complete in my 35+ hours of playtime. The reason I was unable to enjoy these modes is that they do not support co-operative play over Xbox Live. If you wish to play co-op campaign or a 2 v. 2 multiplayer game, both you and your teammate must be playing on the same Xbox. I understand that strategy and communication are important aspects of team play in Magic, but with Xbox Live's integrated voice and video chat, there should be no need to restrict players from playing with friends online. While I am not hopeful that online co-op will ever be introduced, it would be a welcome addition.

Despite my general enjoyment of Duels of the Planeswalkers, the game also leaves quite a few things to complain about. For starters, the deck editing features are inexcusably restricted. I understand that Wizards wants Duels of the Planeswalkers to be accessible to players of all skill levels and that fully customized decks may ruin the experience for new players equipped with only the base cards. However, I cannot understand why Duels of the Planeswalkers does not allow you to at least remove cards from your deck.

For those unfamiliar, Magic requires players to build decks with a minimum of 60 cards. In order to prevent new players from having to learn deck building mechanics, Duels of the Planeswalkers starts each player off with several 60-card decks and allows players to unlock an additional 15-17 cards per deck (15 cards for multicolor decks and 17 cards for monochromatic decks), which can then be inserted into the original 60-card deck. However, while cards may be added to the decks, none may be removed from the core 60 cards. While this provides a basic level of customizability, it also makes the decks land-heavy at 60 cards and unreliable at 75-77 cards. As a result, numerous online games come down to holding off your opponent and taking turn after turn drawing land or other useless cards until one player finds a "kill card." While playing with preconstructed decks significantly lengthens the average game from the 4 and 5 turn maximums often imposed by fine-tuned decks, many veteran Magic players will be extremely disappointed with the lack of customizability.

My final complaint involves a number of technical bugs present in Duels of the Planeswalkers. While some players have reported occasional freezing (I have yet to experience this), the more annoying technical quirks result from cards not working quite right. For instance, the already powerful Dread (a 6/6 creature that automatically destroys any creature that deals damage to you) becomes downright ludicrous when the game misinterprets its ability and allows it to automatically destroy any card that deals damage to you. There are a number of other minor problems with card abilities, but Dread is undoubtedly the worst of the bunch. As of this morning, Stainless Games delivered the first update to Duels of the Planeswalkers in order to address some of these technical issues. While I have not yet had the chance to try to recreate the Dread glitch, Stainless Games's quick response leaves me optimistic about the game's long-term stability.

Despite a number of quirks, there is a lot to love about Duels of the Planeswalkers. For a mere 800 Microsoft points, Duels of the Planeswalkers offers up 8 preconstructed decks of 60 cards (with an additional 130 unlockable cards), a full tutorial, a campaign mode, 8 Duelist magazine-style challenges, an online Mentor mode, and numerous options for competitive online play. After 35+ hours of play, Duels of the Planeswalkers is still an engaging and rewarding experience and the prompt support being provided by both Wizards of the Coast and Stainless Games makes me very optimistic about the future of this game. As it stands now, Duels of the Planeswalkers is easily the cheapest and user friendliest way to get involved with Magic and provides a nearly perfect experience for those who want to relax and play Magic from their couch. For die hard Magic players that demand a more robust card catalog and deck editing options, Wizards of the Coast offers Magic The Gathering Online, which is significantly less accessible and far more expensive to play.

If you have any interest in trying Magic for the first time or if you're an old player that just wants an inexpensive way to jump back into the game, I cannot recommend Duels of the Planeswalkers highly enough. While the numerous glitches present at launch prevent me from giving this game a higher score, it remains an easy recommendation for anyone interested in the collectible card game genre or looking for a great value in their Live Arcade titles. At the very least, your $10 investment into Duels of the Planeswalkers will net you a promo code redeemable for a foil rare card and 30-card deck from wizards.com.

Score: 7.5 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)

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