I tried to make a video for this post, but failed three times in a row. Ug. Perhaps I’ll do it again, because, you know, fourth time is the charm. Today for $10 Tuesday, I decided to take a stab at Magic: The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalker 2012.
It’s not the first time that I’ve played Magic: The Gathering as a video game. In fact it’s more like the fourth. Those of you who’ve been loyal TMZ readers (both of you) for a while will remember a lengthy post last year about various Magic ports. I felt that last year’s edition was somewhat mediocre at best. Still, I’m a bit of a glutton for gaming punishment, so I decided to give this year’s model a try. And coming in at under $10, I figured it couldn’t be too bad.
And it isn’t. But let me start at the beginning.
Magic: The Gathering is a fantasy trading card game designed by Wizards of the Coast in which players take on the role of powerful mages, known as planeswalkers, and do battle with their friends (and enemies). Players must choose which cards to put into their deck, often focusing on a specific theme, such as direct damage, fast creatures, or controlling the battlefield with counterspells. These cards represent various resources (lands, spells, and creatures) are at the player’s disposal.
During the game, the player must make careful decisions about which spells to cast and when to attack, when to defend, and so forth. The joy of the game comes from its multiple facets: strategic deck building; psychological battles, not unlike poker; mathematical calculations and careful knowledge of the rules; and last but not least, glorious fantasy artwork. Really the only reason I don’t play nearly as much as I used to is the cost of the game: the physical cards are quite expensive, and I don’t feel like forking over $100 for cards with each set. And it could easily be more than that.
The prohibitive cost of the game is one of the reasons that I always check out new video game versions of Magic. I would be willing to pay a lot for a game that encompasses the whole of the Magic experience. However, Duels 2012 is not that game.
Duels 2012 removes one of the quintessential parts of Magic: the deck building. Rather than having access to a pool of cards from recent sets (known as a “block”) and building from this pool, the game instead presents the player with a number of pre-made decks to choose from. There are about ten decks in total to choose from, and each has its own niche. Like getting little creatures and equipping them with some sick gear? There’s a deck for that. Like staying alive just long enough to drop an overpowered 12/12 and squish the enemy in one turn? There’s a deck for that. Like dragons? Yep. You get the idea.
In addition to these ten or so decks, each deck also has a small number of cards that can be unlocked and added to the deck. These cards are often more specialized than the cards in the deck, or function better in two-headed giant and archenemy games (see below). While these cards are a nice addition and do allow for some customization, I really do wish that I could build a deck from the ground up. Still, there is enough variety in the decks to give the game a fair amount of replayability and to fit a number of playstyles.
One thing that I love about this edition of the game is the inclusion of a several different game modes to play with your friends. In addition to the standard one versus one duels, there are two-headed giant, archenemy, and challenge modes. Two-headed giant is a two versus two with teammates sharing life and a front line.
Archenemy pits three players against one, but each turn that one player gets access to Schemes, special cards which are played each turn for free and can have devastating effects. Expect to see extra turns, free dragon 5/5 dragon tokens, additional cards, free lands… one Scheme destroys all non-land permanents a player controls… ouch. Because a new Scheme is enacted every turn for the archenemy, there is a sense of dread as that player untaps every turn. The variance in strength of the Schemes can make it frustrating, especially since there isn’t any way to stop them. Still, it’s a very intense game mode and a ton of fun.
The last mode, challenges, may even be more fun than the other multiplayer modes. Challenges put the player in a game in progress and… challenge the player to win the game, often before their turn ends. The first few challenges that are unlocked in the campaign are simple, more along the lines of tutorials. However, some of the later challenges require a lot of deep thinking in order to figure out how to win. They are reminiscent of the puzzles printed in The Duelist magazine back in the day, and are quite fun. I have only unlocked a few of these, though sadly, I don’t think there are many to unlock.
Unfortunately, sometimes it is just downright impossible to see the action in the game. The cards are rather small, even in the one versus one mode, and when you add in two more players, it gets worse. While you can zoom in on any individual card, you can only do so by mousing over it on the battlefield; there is no list view of the cards. I had one experience where I couldn’t assign blockers properly because there were so many creatures in play.
Along the same lines, timing can also be an issue. With all of those complicated rules, using abilities at the right moment can mean the difference between victory and defeat, and nothing feels worse than knowing what to do but not being able to execute it at the right moment. This is amplified in multiplayer games, where the timer ticks very quickly and it is even easier to make mistakes.
As you can imagine, it’s quite a feat to program in all of the special abilities of the cards, and Duels 2012 does a great job of keeping in line with enforcing the complicated rules of Magic. I haven’t found anything that breaks the rules yet, which is a big thumbs up from a rules nerd like me. It’s just a bit hard to execute them at times (regeneration and pump-up creature abilities come to mind).
Is it an amazing game? No. Are there a number of design problems? Yep. But it’s still a lot of fun and has kept me up passed my bedtime playing “just one more game” until the wee hours of the morning the last three nights in a row. Even if I uninstalled the game right now, I would say that I’ve gotten my money’s worth.
I recommend the game to anyone who needs to play a bit of Magic now and again, but doesn’t want to break their bank in doing so.