Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers, by Stainless Games, was recently released on Steam and has been available on Xbox Live since 2009. This review is of the Steam version, not that I noticed much of a difference between two versions, and I played on the default difficulty. Completing the single-player campaign and challenge puzzles took approximately 8 hours of playtime.
Duels of the Planeswalkers is an incredibly simplified and boiled-down take on the classic Magic: The Gathering collectible card game. To put it simply, Magic: The Gathering is a competitive game pitting two or more players against each other. Each player has 20 health points and when that number is reduced to 0 for one player the game ends. Players can inflict damage by summoning creatures that can attack other players or by playing offensive spells. Of course, there are cards that also restrict player options, heal, or genuinely complicate the otherwise straightforward gameplay. Everything is purchased with mana, which is typically generated by land cards, and this makes Magic: The Gathering a game of strategy, skill and luck.
If one is looking for access to thousands of cards and infinite deck building options, Duels will disappoint without question. What Duels does provide is a quick, barebones Magic: The Gathering experience. The complex rule-set is still there, to the point that many people on the Steam forums were, for example, confusing aspects of the “blocking” mechanic for bugs. For instance, if a plain, attacking creature is blocked by another creature, the attacker will do no damage to the intended target even if the blocking creature is removed from play by other means before the attack is carried out, like a spell or ability. If this sounds confusing, that’s because in truth it is. However, Duels through the tutorials, single-player campaign, and the challenge puzzles does a decent job of teaching the ins and outs of Magic: The Gathering.
Which is probably why Duels exists; it’s a gateway drug for the card game, which is the real moneymaker for Wizards of the Coasts. In my experience playing the card game back in high school though, the guy who spent thousands of dollars on cards won. While this could just be a case of somebody who is really good at these kinds of games being inclined to spend a considerable amount of disposable income on them, it’s ultimately a non-issue in Duels. By limiting deck construction to a few choice inclusions and exclusions, balance between decks is relatively simple to fix should something need to be addressed. Additionally, it’s impossible for somebody online to create a deck that will completely nullify yours and ruin the fun in the strategy and skill aspects of the game.
Unfortunately, new cards for the pre-constructed decks must be unlocked one at a time by defeating the AI in the single-player campaign in Duels. This is incredibly tedious and rewards players who have either the time to grind out wins, or are less than scrupulous gamers who have been saving games right before victory and abusing this to get new card unlocks quickly. A much better option would have been to feed players new cards as they progress in the single-player game, but then unlock everything after completing the campaign. Unless this is patched, playing online against other players doesn’t seem like it will be plausible to me, and it makes it difficult for me to try and suggest that my friends purchase it, especially when I am 20 or so cards ahead of them with an advantage that just should not exist in Duels.
I briefly touched upon land cards earlier, which are the necessary resources to cast spells. A major flaw of Duels is that it is impossible to manually select which land cards are used and when. If playing a mono-color deck (with one color of mana and spells, like red mountains and red spells) this is a non-issue. Where this comes into play is in the few decks that have more than one color, like an elf deck with black swamps and green forests. You might want to spend all of your black swamp mana and save your green forest mana for a spell later, but one card might arbitrarily and unnecessarily use a green mana when casting, which ruins your strategy. Hopefully this will be addressed in a patch.
As things stand though, Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers is fun to load up and play against the computer when I have 15 minutes of free time. For a $10 game, Duels is probably the most economic way to play Magic: The Gathering with the most options. Two copies of the game provides access to eight or so decks (times two), and while I’ve been out of the card game for awhile, starter and pre-constructed decks were ~$10 a pop, so the value of Duels is undeniable in terms of content provided. I can think of much worse ways to spend money if Magic: The Gathering, the card game, ever looked even remotely interesting to you.