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Duels of the Planeswalkers – Review

Note: I’m posting this here for two reasons. The first is so tcgplayer.com, where I would normally post this, can’t use my blog for ad revenue. Ad links in my content without giving me a share kinda wrankles me. The second is that this pertains to more than just people that play Magic: The Gathering, it’s also for the Xbox folks.

Having said that, Magic is a difficult game, and there’s a lot of information to learn for people that don’t know how to play already. Therefore I’m going to attempt, as well as I can, to define game terms that might not be obvious to the non-Magic player. If you’re interested in learning more, check out What is Magic? from the creators of the game, Wizards of the Coast. I’ll still be here when you come back. If you have any other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments.

So, last week Wizards of the Coast and Microsoft offered up the first edition of Magic: The Gathering for Xbox. Called Duels of the Planeswalkers, it costs 800 points as an Xbox Live Arcade download. And interesting thing, though, is that for all the people that write about Magic on the internet, very few of them seem to have given the game more than a cursory glance. Likewise, the video game-reviewing community haven’t really delved much into the actual gameplay of the game much, only skimming over the presentation of the game. To be fair, it’s been getting largely positve reviews from most videogame sites, but I think that’s because the game is well-polished, visually. I’ll get to that in a bit.

In any case, I’m going to review Magic as both a video game, and as a port of Magic onto the Xbox 360. Furthermore, I’m going to talk a little bit about the marketing aspect of the game, or how the game is an advertisement as much as it is a game unto itself.

Duels of the Planeswalkers as a Video Game

The first thing you notice about the game is the overall quality level of the graphics in the game. This ranges from the mundane things like the quality of the card rendering to the look of the play table to the animation of spell effects. Which, for those who don’t know, means yes, the game is a digital representation of cards that represent creatures and lands and whatnot. But creature cards claw each other during combat, spells that deal direct damage to a player hurl fireballs across the screen, and all the effects seem well rendered and fun.

The sound design in the game is interesting. Special effects, such as the individual sounds for spell effects, fit well and aren’t terribly jarring, unless an effect does something to lots of objects at once. Cards that alter a large number of permanents, like Overrun (which makes all your creatures stronger at the same time), make the sound go a little wonky, because certain effects, like making a creature bigger, have their own individual sounds. So when you make all your creatures bigger at once, it triggers that sound for as many creatures as you have, and it creates a very loud sound effect. One-time sounds, like Shock (which deals direct damage to a creature), make satisfying crackles and flameblast sounds. It’s quite immersive.

The biggest downfall of the audio engine, to me, is the background music. While I think that the soundtrack is done well enough, when it gets to the end of its loop and goes back to the beginning, there’s an obvious stutter, which can be distracting. Aside from that minor gripe (though it’s pretty major to me), sound design gets good marks from this reviewer. Plus, to avoid the loop stutter, you can just stream background music from a networked computer (something I didn’t know you could do with an Xbox til I got one, and it’s now my favorite feature). Gets right around that problem.

Of course, there are some bugs that the game doesn’t deal with very well. I’ve seen it do some questionable things like regenerating creatures that didn’t need it (regenerating is an ability some creatures have to save them from dying) or equipping things over and over (equipment attaches to a creature to enhance that creature’s abilities). Also, it doesn’t seem to appreciate that it can lose by running out of cards to play in its library/deck, so it will draw cards whenever it can, or intentionally play cards that would cause it to “mill” cards off the top of the library. Furthermore, it doesn’t really think that effects on the other side of the table that cause it life loss aside from creatures are much of a threat.

For example: there’s a card called The Rack, which deals damage to a player depending on how many cards are in their hand. The fewer cards your opponent has, the more damage it does. The computer will happily play cards all day long, and take damage from The Rack at the beginning of every turn. I’ve won more than a few games against the computer this way. At this point, you’re not really playing Magic, just explointing the AI. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

But the bugs in the programming and AI are easily cancelled out by the quality of the gaming experience itself.

Duels of the Planeswalkers as a Port of Magic: The Gathering

Magic is complex. Like, really complex. Imagine you’re playing Chess, except there’s ten thousand different pieces that all do different things. From a strategic standpoint, it’s very deep. Even in its more limiting formats, the decisions that have to be made are enough to make hardcore gamers and mathematitions wrack their brains. So, translating it into a video game is no small task. Not only are there thousands of possible interacting cards with millions (probably billions) of decisions amonst them, the Comprehensive Rules of Magic are about 150 pages long. Reading those rules is a project, and remembering how they interact is difficult. Even the official judges of the game have a hard time with it. (Seriously, if you know someone that plays the game competatively, ask them how “layering” works.)

So how do you make that easier to digest? Well, simplification is a big thing. There are only certain playable decks in the game, that you can unlock as you progress through the game. Each of those decks has additional cards you can unlock to add to your deck, not unlike buying a booster pack or trading with your friends would do. This narrows the number of cards down to, I think, about 300. This is much easier for the game’s AI to keep track of, and much easier to program into the system. Limiting the number of cards and their abilities hacks out a big chunk of those comprehensive rules.

Likewise, the turn structure is simplified. An official tournament game of Magic consisits of hundreds of passes of priority (or “who gets to play something now”), as well as five distinct phases, three of which are made up of two or more steps. To address this, Duels uses a six phase structure, but not one exactly like the official rules.

At the beginning of the turn your cards untap (or get turned right-side-up), any beginning-of-turn effects trigger, and you draw your card for the turn. This is all done as per the timing of Magic, but it all takes place automatically, and is dubbed the “Begin” step. I’m not exactly sure how the game handles multiple triggers. According to the rules, it would be in what’s called APNAP order: Active Player, Non-Active Player. I don’t think that’s how Duels handles it, but I can’t quite tell.

Then comes the first “Main” phase, when players can play, if it’s their turn: sorceries, creatures, enchantments, artifacts, or lands. (They can also play instants, regardless of whether it’s their turn or not.)

After the first Main in “real” Magic comes the “Combat” phase, which has multiple steps to it. Duels simply turns it into two phases, “Attack” and “Defend”. During these steps, respectively, attackers are declared, and then defenders are declared. Players can play instants or abilities after each of these things are done, and then damage is dealt, and they move on to the next phase, the “Damage” phase. In this phase, damage is dealt. That is all. You can’t respond to it, it just happens.

The last phase is a second “Main” phase, and once the active player passes, the turn ends and the next player gets their turn. This cuts the “End of Turn” phase from the official rules, and squishes its effects into the second “Main” phase.

This simplifies things quite well, and in order for players to respond to things similarly to the way they would in paper Magic, they can stop a timer to play their cards or effects. If nobody stops the timer, as soon as it winds down, it goes to the next phase of the game. This is a deviation from both paper Magic and Magic: The Gathering Online (or MTGO) in that you are a little pressured by the clock on every decision. Sometimes you just want to pass, but you’re forced to wait. Sometimes you want to play something, but aren’t fast enough and can’t. It’s frustrating, but it’s probably the best system the designers could come up with.

The game supports multiplayer “free-for-all” variants, as well as a format called “Two-Headed Giant” (or “2HG”), in which you and a local friend can compete as a team against another Two-Headed Giant opponent. After playing in a few multiplayer games as well as a few 2HG games, I’m satisfied with the game’s handling of multiplayer, although there are some annoyances. First, cards in a multiplayer game are rendered very, very small. Sure, you have the ability to zoom in on individual cards, but it’s difficult to do so for every single card, all the time. The other is that, in 2HG, creatures with landwalk abilities (they can’t be blocked if the opponent controls a land of a certain type) only can use that ability if the player directly across from you has a land of that type. Supposedly this was programmed into the game to make it “simpler”, but I think it invalidates a lot of good cards in the 2HG format.

The two biggest gripes I have with the game’s conversion to Xbox are deck customization and the way lands are tapped for mana. (Lands tap for mana, which is the resource used to pay costs on cards. At its core, Magic is a resource management game.) The only cards you are allowed to add or remove from a deck are those that you unlock for it over the course of the game. You cannot remove cards that are part of the “fixed” portion of a deck. (As a side note, some of the unlockable cards are pretty questionable. I’m personally insulted when I get one of the “life-gaining” artifacts.) Finally, the game taps lands for you, rather than allowing you to choose which lands you’ll use to pay for costs. This can lead to some pretty awkward situations when you want to play two cards or play a card and use an effect. Suddenly, the order you play things in this situation makes a difference, when normally it wouldn’t. I’ve lost a handful of games to this, so it’s not a huge deal most of the time, but you’re never really sure when it will strike, and that’s bad.

Duels of the Planeswalkers as a Marketing Tool

The main thing about Duels is that it’s not meant to be a replacement for Magic. Honestly, I don’t think it’s meant to be an addition to most typical Magic players’ collections. I think the game is meant to reach out to a specific audience that may be Magic players that have never been exposed to the game, or “lapsed” Magic players that moved on to video games. I think Wizards sees Xbox as a threat, and they are using Duels as a “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy.

The game is well-suited to that kind of turnover, I think. The tutorial system works well, and includes rules that would be likely to come up in any game of Magic. Whenever you zoom in on a card, you can use the right bumper on the controller to get detailed information about the rules on the card, most of which comes straight from the official Magic rulebook. Likewise, from what I can tell, the “How to Play” section of the “Help & Options” menu seems to be an almost verbatim copy of the basic rulebook, and it includes a detailed glossary for those interested in learning the different types of abilities (like trample or protection). There is also an online “mentor” program for Live, but I haven’t used it and therefore can’t comment on it. Also, the loading screens have fun gameplay rules that explain things like mana cost (how much it costs to play a card) or nuances of playing instant spells. It also includes website addresses for the Magic Pro Tour, the professional Magic-playing circuit, and other neat things.

Will the game be enough to get people to cross over and play paper Magic? I don’t know. The game is difficult to teach and learn. Every “elevator speech” I can think of for it either doesn’t make it sound remotely interesting or makes it sound incredibly nerdy. And I think it’s that second aspect that I think throws the most people. Despite how complex and interesting the gameplay may be, some people still can’t get past that “You are a planeswalker…” tagline. And I’ve met more than my fair share of “gamers” that still look at Magic players like lepers or plague victims. So… will it work? Time will tell. Regardless of whether or not it does, Wizards probably won’t tell anyone unless it’s a giant success. That’s kinda how they operate.

Conclusion

For 800 points (or about $10), Duels of the Planeswalkers is a decent buy. Considering the quality and playability of some of the other Live Arcade games I’ve seen, this one seems like a steal. Add to that the fact that Wizards charges about $13 for a preconstructed “intro” deck, and you get a number of such decks in the game.

I’m not a fan of some of the concessions they made when translating Magic over to Xbox, and I think some players might be a little shocked if they try to make the transition from Xbox to “real” Magic, but the game will always have a learning curve. The customization in deckbuilding is restrictive, but not a deal-breaker in my opinion. Whether or not the shine wears off for me remains to be seen. Now that I’ve beaten the single player campaign, it’s going to be difficult to convince my wife to assist with the Two-Headed Giant Co-op mode to unlock the game 100%, though.

Will the game appeal to non-Magic players? I assume so. I’ve found that most people that are willing to actually learn the intricacies of the game tend to stay with it a long time (my brother and I have been playing for over a decade, as most of my friends have.) Does it appeal to Magic players? It does to me. At least, for ten bucks it does.

edit: updated at 10:40EDT (fixed a link, made a correction inre: phases)

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