This is a first for me in that I’m reviewing what is basically a video game about Magic. Duels of the Planeswalkers is an electronic game version of Magic playable on PS3, Xbox or PC. It is a simplified, stripped-down version of the cardboard game we all know and love, and long-time veterans of the game may very well find themselves turned off by the simplifications and lack of depth in the gameplay mechanics.
On the other hand, it’s nice to be able to play uber-casual games of Magic at the drop of a hat without having to have another willing participant handy. For someone like me who loves Magic to death, but doesn’t get to play nearly enough to sate my appetite, the Duels line of games offers up a lot of gameplay for a very affordable price, and is a fine way to hold me over until Magic night with my friends.
Here’s the basic gist. You have an assortment of pre-assembled 60-card decks. Each deck has a number of ulockable cards that you can use to tune/improve/personalize those decks. What you don’t get is access to the whole universe of cards. Deck customization is also annoyingly simplified to the point that you can add and subtract non-land cards while the system adds lands on your behalf. That means that if you play a given deck a bunch an notice you draw too many lands most games, there’s no real way to change the land ratio of the decks.
There are a lot of other restrictions, simplifications and shortcuts taken to streamline gameplay as well. I’ve experienced a fair amount of frustration at not being able to hold priority to perform a sequence of intricate stack tricks that I know for a fact are legal in the cardboard game, but the DotP game messes up my plays because it doesn’t do priority right. However each iteration of the game seems to improve slightly on these issues, while still maintaining that streamlined, beginner-friendly mode of play.
And really, that’s what us old fogey’s have to remember. WotC sees the Duels franchise as an entry point for new players, so the game isn’t really made with us in mind. Of course, they still manage to make the game FUN to play even if it’s annoying sometimes that you can’t do the expert-level plays you want to make. Duels 2012 added Archenemy as a playable game mode, and Duels 2013 goes one better by adding Planechase to the game. Playing Planechase with a bunch of computer opponents isn’t quite the same experience, but it’s nonetheless a buttload of fun. Sometimes the AI will make inexplicable decisions and display the same horrendously bad threat assessment that real opponents will often display, so that adds to the realism/frustration a bit, but it’s also kind of hilarious when the AI-controlled Bolas deck wastes a Terminate your Firewing Phoenix when the Ajani “player” has a 5/5 Ajani’s Pridemate and is 1 life point away from his Serra Ascendant becoming a 6/6…
It’s also annoying but funny that certain Planes seem to make the computer afraid to roll. Whenever we’re on Akoum, for some reason, ALL of the AI opponents just stop rolling the Planar die. Period. Even if they have ZERO enchantments in their deck. Meanwhile I played a game where it was down to me vs. Ajani, and we were on Zehpyr Maze. Ajani had about 100 life and a 40/40 Ajani’s Pridemate. I had ground blockers, but was swinging for all I could with my flyers. Meanwhile, on his turn all Ajani had to do was roll Chaos once to give his Pridemate flying, and I was dead. Yet turn after turn he refused to roll. Even with 12 mana in play and no cards in hand, he wouldn’t roll.
I haven’t played through the game 100%, but I’ve completed the Planechase mode and played through the main campain, including all “Encounters”. Encounters are a new thing in this iteration – you play a normal game of Magic, but your opponent has a “stacked” deck, meaning they draw and play the exact same cards in the exact same order every single time. The trick is that they are getting “god draws” for whatever it is they’re trying to do. For example, one Encounter features your opponent playing a Forest and dropping Helix Pinnacle. Then every turn after than he drops a Cloudpost and a Wall of Vines and starts powering up his Helix Pinnacle with absurd amounts of Cloudpost mana. At a glance, it seems easy enough, but with all those Cloudposts, that Helix Pinnacle will hit 100 counters in no time at all. You have to figure out how to get past those 0/3 blockers and deal 20 before the Helix Pinnacle does you in. Encounters are cool, and they start out ridiculously easy and build to a challenging yet fun level of difficulty as you progress.
Nicol Bolas is the “Boss” of the game, and his deck basically does one thing: accelerate to a back breaking sequence of Cruel Ultimatums. It’s a tough battle, at least for the deck I was playing (Chandra’s Mono-red burn deck). You basically have to keep playing him until you either get a “god draw” that can win before he hits 7 mana, or you have to hope he wastes a couple extra turns digging for his first Ultimatum. But once he casts the first Ultimatum, there’s a ridiculously high chance he’ll follow it up with a second on the next turn – which means your chances of winning at that point are ridiculously low! It was somewhat frustrating and it was probably the least fun matchup I played throughout the whole game.
That said, what the game gets right, or at least does way better than the first two versions, is the deckbuilding system. For starters, the basic deck design is VASTLY improved over the previous versions. The lists are tighter, more focused and more powerful than ever, yet still have the janky-but-fun casual feel to them.
Even more importantly, they greatly increased the number of unlockable cards, allowing for greater customization and diversity.
And even more importantly that that, they made customization matter. In previous games, unlocking cards usually just mean you got more of the same, or more powerful but still similar options. In other words, you could make the deck better at doing what it does, but you couldn’t really change what the deck did. In 2013, you have a higher number of unlockables, plus the decks were designed with more than one idea in mind, so that by the time you unlock everything you can significantly alter a given deck’s core strategy.
Take the Chandra deck for example (Since it’s the only one I’ve invested a lot of time with so far). It has four basic types of cards: cheap, aggressive creatures with Haste and/or pump abilities, Phoenixes (creatures with Flying and the ability to come back from the dead), pinpoint burn and mass burn. Almost every card in the deck or the unlockables fits one of those four criteria – yet they all play a different role, so the deck is vastly more fluid than any previous iteration would allow for. You can take out most of the burn and focus on aggro-ing out creatures with just a smattering of burn to clear out blockers. Or you can remove all but the Pheonixes and just burn EVERYTHING all the time.
Best of all, most of those cards matter in different ways. Some of the matchups seem like they’d have been impossible for a mono-Red deck to win if it weren’t for the fact that the Pheonixes gave you a lot more late-game reach than most Red decks are capable of. Sometimes Dragon Hatchlings and Pyre Chargers will be solid gold MVPs of the deck, and other times you want to side them all out in favor of MOAR BURN! In the previous iterations of the DotP games, with most decks, you could unlock everything and just build a “Best deck” version of the deck and just steamroll past any opponent with little or no alterations to the deck. In 2013, though, constantly tweaking your deck for the next matchup is a real part of the game, and it’s not ucommon at all to win one match, and then for the very next match you have to DRASTICALLY overhaul your deck in order to win. To me, that’s a HUGE plus, as it keeps the game fresh, keeps the decks from getting boring, and it adds more depth to the fairly simplistic gameplay.
The fact that I was able to complete the entire campaign mode with a mono-red burn deck is, frankly, awesome. Mono Red Burn is one of the hardest archetypes to make flexible enough to be playable against a wide array of other archetypes. But, while it took a fair bit of effort and was an uphill battle all the way, I managed to even beat the mono-white lifegain deck! With mono red! At one point my opponent was at around 70 life and I had less than 30 cards left in my deck. But I got there. Impressive, that they were able to design even a burn deck so that it could at least stand a chance against anything the other decks could throw at it.
Anyway, the deck design and added depth of customization are about the biggest boons you could ask for in the DotP line, and 2013 delivers on that quite well. The decks are still very much “casual” in feel and design, but actually resemble something you might actually chose to build and play, rather than looking like horrible Sealed decks with extra rares thrown in. The best part is that all these improvements come at no extra charge – the game retains its $9.99 price point, which is phenomenal considering that it actually offers as many, or more, game play hours as most $60.00 disc-based games. It’s not Skyrim, obviously, but logging even 40 or 50 hours on a ten dollar game? That’s actually pretty rare in videogames.
To sum up, DotP 2013 still suffers from many of the issues that plagued the earlier releases, but has improved more than enough to compensate for those shortcomings and brings enough to the table to be very much a pleasant diversion for even the longtime Magic player. I am already looking forward to the DLC for this one, though that’s not to imply I’m getting bored with the core game already.