2009’s Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers was a great game. It was a good way for people new to Magic: The Gathering to learn how the game works and understand what a fun, strategic, and challenging game it can be. It was also fun for Magic veterans, even ones like me who haven’t played the card game in over 8 years, to be reminded of how much fun the game is.
The Duels of the Planeswalkers series plays as a slightly simplified version of the collectable card game (CCG) it is based on. By simplified, I mean that a lot of the mechanics and math is done for you, so you just have to focus on the strategy. It has a good tutorial system and helpful pop-up tips that come up during matches whenever new elements are introduced. This is a great, not too intrusive way to explain the game and its mechanics to people
The matches play out in almost exactly the same way as the real-world version. You and another player start out with 20 lives and you need to use your deck of cards to get your opponent’s lives down to zero, before they can do the same to you. Due to the vast number of cards available, Magic: The Gathering is a very strategy-heavy game, where you have to play to your strengths and also try to anticipate and react to what your opponent does.
The game’s presentation is fantastic; the art-style is slick and communicates what is going on very nicely. The sound effects, however, are completely forgettable and I often played on mute so I wouldn’t have to hear the repetitive sounds that play for the different actions you take.
Another major problem I had was with the controls and user interface. It is obvious that this game was designed with console controls in mind (and pretty good ones too, if I had to guess) but it has been done in a way that actually makes some of the menu navigation frustrating when using a mouse and keyboard. This is mostly evident when using the game’s Deck Manager. While the Deck Manager here is upgraded from the last game and allows you to remove or add any cards from a particular deck (it still limits you to the cards of that deck and does not allow for custom decks to be made, which is very limiting and a real shame), the process of doing this is painful. You cannot scroll through your cards or simply move your mouse over the card you want. No, instead you need to click with your mouse or use your arrow keys to move through your card left or right, one at a time. This is tedious, boring, frustrating and in no way takes advantage of the obvious benefit a mouse could bring. This problem is also present in the main menus, which also makes them annoying to get through.
There’s a very cool and interesting cinematic at the start of the game, but it’s the only story element to appear anywhere in the title. To be honest, I’m not even sure why they bothered having that in there at all if they weren’t going to tell any other story throughout the rest of the experience. It’s a shame because having more to the story would have made playing through the game’s campaign more interesting, and given you more of a drive to go from match to match – other than simply… getting to play more Magic.
There are 3 campaigns – sort of. I said “sort of” because one of them is just the first campaign against tougher versions of the same enemies with upgraded decks. The second campaign, called Nemesis, is much more interesting. It’s a 3-player co-op match (either with friends online or AI allies), against a much tougher AI opponent with more health and some very powerful cards up their sleeves. Playing this with friends is the only real way to go, as the AI simply is not up to the challenge. These matches can be a lot of fun and require you to work together and come up with team strategies to defeat your foe.
The other multiplayer offerings seem pretty standard; you can play with up to 4 players, either in free-for-all or in 2vs2 matches. Unless you have friends who are also going to buy this game to play with, I cannot recommend the online aspect of the title. Most games I got into took forever to fill-up with players or, even worse, when they were full, the host didn’t seem to be around to start the game. There’s also no in-game chat system in the lobby, so you cannot even find out what the host is doing while you wait for a game to start.
Magic: The Gathering is a great game and Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 does a great job of bringing that experience into the virtual space – even if it’s in a somewhat simplified form. If you ever had any interest in the series, I’d recommend you pick this up (or at least try the demo). However, if you played the first game and still enjoy that, there isn’t too much of a reason, in 2011, for you to upgrade to the 2012 version; the difference between the last game and this one is just too small for it to qualify as a proper sequel. Yes, there are some new cards, and the artistic presentation has improved; but at the end of the day, you are still playing a virtual – and slightly simpler – version of Magic: The Gathering – very little has changed.