Opening Turn: Magic: the Gathering: Duels of the Plainswalkers 2013

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Yes, that is probably the most blatant overuse of colons in the title of an article that I’ve seen in quite awhile. Anyway, I promised two blog posts this weekend, and here I am, delivering on that promise. Mostly because I’ve actually played two games this week, and /can/ deliver on that promise. But first, this one needs a bit of foreword regarding the author’s previous experience with Magic: the Gathering. I started playing it pretty much at the beginning (though not the /actual/ beginning. Roughly 4th edition or so), when I could talk my parents into buying me booster packs. I played it off and on through grade school and middle school, then a little in high school, and then off and on in college because it was something that pretty much everyone had played at least one game of at one point or another. I never did competitive play, but my skill level has progressed a little past ‘casual player’. So, I picked up the ‘Duels of the Plainswalkers’ games to fulfill the urge to play some casual Magic without having to purchase cards, and to be able to play against a computer controlled AI. That being said, how has it measured up so far?

What is it?: Duels of the Plainswalkers started out as what I see as a development experiment. I sort of imagine the design team sitting around the table with a couple guys from Wizards and saying, “So, can we actually make a Magic game for XBLA that is accessible enough for casual players but retains as much of the core mechanics as it can to appeal to mid-level players?” Or, as I like to imagine it going, “Can we turn M:tG into an arcade game, sort of like Street Fighter with cards?” And the first game was more of an experiment than anything. There were bugs, and there were mechanics that didn’t quite work, you couldn’t customize your core deck and a lot was automated, and some of the decks were just plain unbalanced. However, amazingly, the game picked up a lot of momentum, likely due to a release on Steam (which is the one I first played). Enough momentum, apparently, to warrant getting yearly releases.

What version are you playing?: The Steam PC version. I think the game is better suited for a mouse than for a controller anyway, so that’s something to keep in mind. The game runs great on PC, and looks slick even on low settings. I won’t knock the XBLA version, as that’s the version that probably draws the most players, though.

And so what’s been improved in this year’s release over Magic 2012?: A bit, but not as much as 2012 imporoved over the first release. The interface is basically the same as in 2012, and you retain the ability to customize your base deck (which is still wonderful, because it was stupid not to let you do that). Probably the biggest improvement is the ability to manually tap your lands when casting, which anyone will tell you is absolutely essential in a multicolored deck. With this addition, the game has finally jumped from being solely for casual players to being something that anyone wanting some quick M:tG action can get behind. The only thing missing, really, is the ability to control how many lands are in your deck to suit your intended playstyle.

Is there anything new? Yeah, there are a few new features. In the campaign mode, there are encounters you can play between challenging actual plainswalkers that are presented as weak decks that play the same cards in the same order. On the surface, you’re told it’s so that you can see how decks react to certain types of enemies (weak fliers, for example) and it works pretty well for that. Really, though, it’s just an easy way to grind new cards out of your decks without having to go through a hard opponent every time. I’m more or less okay with that. There’s also a ‘Planechaser’ mode that plays sort of like a board game, but I have yet to dig too far into that. Archenemy is still around, too, as are the various multiplayer modes (two-headed giant and the like).

But you still can’t really build your own decks, right?: No, but I’m okay with that. The intention wasn’t to deliver a completely customizable Magic experience, but rather to deliver a completely balanced once. For example, you don’t go into competitive Street Fighter play expecting to build a completely new fighter, moveset and all, from scratch. Rather, you expect that the game be completely balanced, that no one character is excessively cheap against every other character, and that your ability to win come down to choosing the correct character for the correct situation and then that your own skill and reflexes can follow through. This is like that, in card form.

Do I have to have played the last two versions to get this one?: No, not really. If you have, you’ll appreciate the improvements, and if you haven’t, this version effectively obsoletes the previous two so it’s a good place to start. 

Let’s say I have played the last two versions, are the decks different?: Yes, they are, as that’s one of the main reasons for making a yearly release anyway. Things have been rebalanced, and while I haven’t gotten too far into it yet, I can tell you that Chandra Nalaar’s deck adds fliers, making it actually useable, and Garruk Wildspeaker’s deck still relies on big creatures and growth, but ditches Grizzly Bears as its cheap opener (finally) and adds in the ability to control which of your opponent’s creatures block yours. It makes me excited to see how the other decks measure up, if even these two basics show such good change.

Anything else that stood out?: On the plus side, zooming in on cards to activate their abilities, as well as selecting enchantments and equipment to target with effects has been streamlined so it isn’t so annoying anymore. On the minus side, sometimes it just randomly sticks a timer on your main phase which, if you’re not paying attention, can cause you to accidentally skip half your turn, which could be devastating if you’re not paying attention. On the ‘meh’ side, if you have an Alienware computer it throws out some nifty keyboard  LED effects, but this really only affects a small subset of the PC gaming population as a whole, and if you’re easily distracted it might be best to turn those off anyway.

Would you recommend this game?: Yes, to casual players who want an easy way to try Magic, to middle-level players or busy players who want to play without actually having another person around or who  would rather drop ten bucks on this than whatever it takes to get enough cards to make a good deck these days, and to people who want a tight, balanced multiplayer Magic experience.

[This review is reposted with my permission at Attack Initiative.]

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