I have never been one for card games; there is one exception to this rule though: Magic the Gathering (MtG). While it may have taken me a while to discover the wonders offered by the worlds of the Planeswalkers, when I did discover it a few years ago I jumped in, both feet first. My first intro to the world of Magic came with the first release of the modern Duels of the Planeswalkers, back in 2011. The scaled down, digital version of the collectible card game was enough to hook me into the world of Magic and inspire me to learn the ins and outs of then 18 year old game. While my knowledge and tastes for the game have evolved beyond the simplified digital version Stainless Games had created, I still find myself going back to the series with each subsequent release in order to get my “fix”.
Last year’s release, Duels 2012
, made some major improvements to the digital formula and brought it much closer to replicating the real experience of the real card game. Next week, the latest release, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, finally be released and we will get to see if the new title improves the series even more. I have been fortunate enough to play with a preview build of the game over the past week for the PC and think while the title continues to inch closer to delivering the true Magic experience, there is still some room left to go.
Welcome to the world of Magic
The first thing that I have noticed about this year’s edition of the game is that it strives to engulf the player into the world of Magic. This game goes beyond being a simple digital version of the card game and aims to teach players more about the various worlds, or Planes, within the Magic universe.
There is a lot of emphasis on setting the scene in the various planes you will battle on such as Innistrad and Shandalar. The campaign mode in particular, takes to each of the planes and gives you specific details regarding its traits and inhabitants. You will face off against dark enemies on the likes of Innistrad for example. It is made very clear that this is a dark and haunted plane where the undead run rampant.
These traits are also shown off in the new cut scenes features as you both enter new planes and face off against prominant planeswalkers. Garruk Wildspeaker for example is introduced with a an animated sequence and a biographical loading page. The same treatment is given to other prominent names you will face off against such as Chandra and Jace. Of course, the end-game involves a duel with the fiercest Planeswalker of all: Nicol Bolas.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
On the gameplay-surface, Duels 2013 looks a lot like its predecessor(s). The interface and general feel of the game has gone unchanged. Players choose from a variety of pre-made decks, all based on various characters and themes from the Magic universe, and face off against both human and computer controlled opponents. As you win matches, you will unlock additional cards for your existing decks and even unlock new decks to be used; the further that you proceed into the game, the more complex the decks become.
The base decks available in the preview build were all mono-colored decks and will likely be the base decks available the first time that players start the game. Each of the decks, will have 40 cards that can be unlocked by winning matches with them, which should keep players busy for a while. In all, there appear to be 10 total decks for usage but more could be unlocked or coming via DLC in the future.
Of course, once you start unlocking additional cards for a deck, you will want to head into the deck construction mode to tailor them to your liking. This is the one area where there is still plenty of room for improvement to be offered. Unfortunately, Duels 2013 offers the same customization options as its predecessors: alteration of the preconstructed decks. There is no option to fully construct a deck of your own from the cards you have earned access to during your campaign.
This is undoubtedly the one feature that is holding this game back from competing with the real experience. The customization options offered in deck construction in the actual card game is what has kept fans coming back for almost 20 years. While I can understand not offering the entire card catalog digitally in order to preventing competing with their own product, it would at least be beneficial to allow players to have free reign over the cards featured in the game.
From the perspective of play mechanics, there has been one major alteration in the form of tapping mana. This time around, when you are utilizing multi-colored decks, players can choose which mana they will be tapping to cast a spell. In the past the game has done this for you and with moderate success. There are only a handful of times during my 100+ hours across both of the previous games where I was unhappy with the mana that the game chose to tap for casting a spell requiring more than 1 type of mana. In those rare occasions where it happened though, I found my strategy and intentions in the particular games almost completely ruined. If you have ever played the game of Magic, you will know exactly what I am talking about.
That won’t be an issue this year. Hovering your mouse over a spell will cause the required amount of mana to be highlighted on the playing field; this gives you an idea of what the game intends on tapping in order for you to cast the spell in question. While I couldn’t fully test it in the preview due to being constrained to single-colored decks, I was able to select different lands on the field to cast, even if they were of the same color. This gives me some insight on how it will / would work if multiple land / mana types were in play. It is a simple addition that true Magic fans will absolutely adore; I just question why it took them so long to implement it into the game.
Prepare to Planeswalk
Another huge edition to this year’s game is the Planechase game type. Similar to last year’s Archenemy mode, Planeschase brings another deck into play which alters the playfield for those involved. This time around however, the alterations brought to the game by the Planechase cards will affect everyone involved, not just those assuming the role of the Archenemy.
In this new mode (new to the video game), a deck of special cards if present in the middle of the screen. When the round begins, the top card is revealed and it gives special conditions or alterations to the standard game rules. It may say something like, “while playing this Plane, all flying creatures will receive a bonus of +1 / +1“.
The deck is also accompanied by a die; the six-side die contains 2 special sides and 4 blank sides. The blank sides offer no effect while the other two sides will either trigger the reveal of a new Planechase card (or new “Plane”) with new features or trigger a special ability listed on the card. Each player is given one free roll of the die with each turn and can pay for additional rolls using their untapped mana. Sometimes, when you have run out of spells to be cast, you will find yourself spending your mana on extra rolls, which keeps the player(s) involved even when they have run out of cards in their hand.
The great thing about the Planechase mode is that you never know how things are going to go. Some matches will be over in a matter of minutes while others may go as long as an hour or more. I played one game where it was down to myself and another player, they had 623 life points and I was down to 6; although the situation seemed very bleak, I came out on top. The only way that I was over to overcome these odds was thanks to some devilish Planechase dealings and the luck that came with the roll of the die. This will undoubtedly become a favorite amongst players online when the full version launches.
Good things to come... hopefully.
Unfortunately, the preview build of the game was extremely limited and very short. What it did show me though in terms of the new mechanics of the game has me excited for the launch next week. There are a ton of new cards, the introduction of both new and old mechanics such as Rebound and numerous Innistrad features. Plus, something that true fans will appreciate, the first glimpse of some new cards that will be featured in the upcoming 2013 Core set. As long as Stainless and Wizards of the Coast continue on the road of improvement as they have these past two years, the future will remain bright for this series. Now if they can only loosen the constraints on deck building, then we could have a serious alternative to the real thing.
Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 will launch next week, on June 20, 2013 for the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, Steam, and iOS (iPad).