Duels of the Planeswalkers Review -
When I heard that Wizards had contracted the small-but-promising video game company Stainless Games to produce an Xbox Live Arcade version of Magic, I was cautiously optimistic. I still play the old Tales of Shandalar game from time to time, and Magic Online is my primary source for the card game. The idea of being able to take Magic to another playing field really appealed to me, and I was hoping that the game would feature a vast array of cards and decks with high levels of customization.
Of course, those of you who've played the game can understand why I was a little let down when I finally got my hands on it. Sure, it's a good game, and a solid implementation of Magic the Gathering, but it's just not what it could be. Still, it's a lot of fun to play, and it shows that Wizards has recognized that Magic players want to be able to take their favorite game to new platforms and systems. One can only hope that Magic games for other systems (the PS3, Wii, or DS maybe?) will follow if this game is financially successful.
The game has a lot going for it, for something so simple. When you pick it up and start to play, you will find that it is undeniably magic. Lands are tapped, cards are played, creatures fight and die on the Battlefield (let's get started using the M10 terminology, eh?) and enemy planeswalkers get punched in the face. It's simple, but satisfying.
One of the things that a lot of people have complained about is that the player only has access to eight decks, one of each color, one with two colors, and two others that are three-colored. I really don't see a problem with it, though. The game is intended to be as accessible as possible, and so having basic decks with mostly vanilla creatures is actually a strength. A friend of mine who has never played Magic before was playing Duels of the Planeswalkers within an hour of picking up the controller, and within four hours he managed to beat me. The fact that no deck has a significant edge in power (athough some decks do have better matchups than others) really helps to level the playing field, and forces players to play smart. They can't rely on their deck or draws to bail them out, and often, they simply have to admit defeat due to mana screw. This enables new players to win, something that rarely happens in real-world Magic. And winning draws new players in.
My problem with the decks focuses more on their customization, which is minimal at best. Each deck starts out with 60 cards, with 17 (for the monocolor decks) or 14 (for the multi-color decks) cards which can be unlocked by defeating computerized opponents. You unlock one card per victory, which means to unlock every card in the game, you have to win an extraordinary number of victories, with each and every deck. Once you've done that, you'll be shocked to find that you can only choose to add or subtract the unlocked cards from your deck. Many of the underpowered or worthless cards that your deck starts out with will be with you every single time you play the deck. Adding these decent newly unlocked cards also pushes you over 60 cards, and while the game adds lands automatically to keep a good 1:3 ratio of spells and lands, it's harder to draw your bombs when you have a 75 card deck than when you have a 60 card one. I have the feeling that the game was set up this way to prevent players who add better cards from having too big an advantage over beginners, but it feels constricting, and it's frustrating to have to play with sub-par cards or go over 60.
The AI is clever enough to be challenging but not smart enough to be frustrating. It has a tendency to be stupid (not holding back men to prevent itself from dying in a counterattack is common) but as the decks are very even in power level, the fact that the computer knows when to hold and when to play combat tricks is really all it needs. It's a bit annoying to have to play against the computer hundreds of times to unlock every card for every deck, but the computer is at least smart enough to make the games enjoyable.
The game itself plays reasonably smoothly. Anyone who has played Magic will be able to pick it up rapidly, but I still suggest that even veteran players should go through the tutorial before playing the game for real. The game is very heavily automated (lands are tapped automatically, for example) so there's a lot of stuff you have to get used to. The biggest thing to get used to is the ´´timers.´´ Rather than using one big timed countdown like Magic Online, Duels of the Planeswalkers uses timers that force you to decide quickly whether to let things progress or not. This is done in place of passing priority, and makes stacking rather difficult. It's hard to respond to your own spells and actions (you'll have to hit X before the other guy and stop the timer in your favor) and so I imagine that if the game had more complex cards, it would be a real serious drawback. As it is, it mostly just forces you to remember to hit X whenever you need to think or respond. This is annoying at first, but easy to get used to.
There's one other flaw in the game in the way that it deals with damage. I was hoping that the game would have the M10 rules regarding damage, and it sort of does. Combat damage doesn't use the stack, so you must put up regeneration shields and pump spells before damage is dealt (hit X!). But when it comes to dealing damage, it's automated unless you select an option for it not to be. And if you select that option, rather than having the creatures lined up as per M10 rules, you simply decide how much damage is dealt to each creature, as in pre-M10. This counter-intuitive, not-like-in-real-life way of applying damage is a big downer in my opinion, especially since the small size of the creatures in the decks forces players to double, triple and even quadruple block all the time.
My biggest issue with the game, though, is the way the online play works. All you can do is combat other players in duels or three and four player matches. Even though the game has a co-op campaign where you and a friend two-headed-giant your way through deck after deck, the co-op campaign is local only, and your friend can only use the decks they've unlocked on your machine. I imagine that most players end up doing what I've done, in that they've simply plugged in two controllers and then played with their main account and a guest account. But since the guest account will only have one deck unlocked, you have to rely heavily on luck for the win. Hopefully this will be corrected soon, I know that the forums consider this the game's biggest drawback.
But despite it's flaws, the game is solid and fun enough to keep me playing. It's a little irritating at times, but the training wheels are there for the beginners and it's easy enough to turn them all off if you know what you are doing. The ´´basically dueling only´´ nature of the online play is irritating, but I can't help thinking they will fix it soon. Also, a key thing to remember is that this game costs, in the end, about ten bucks. That's less than a single round of draft. For all the whining and complaining people put out about this game, it costs less than three packs of cards. For something that's getting all of my friends interested in Magic for the first time, or the first time in a long time, it's totally worth it.
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