If you’ve ever played (or tried to play) Magic: The Gathering, you know it can be tricky to get started. Between the complicated rules, intricate strategy, and the roster of more than 12,000 unique cards, it’s not a game that would traditionally be called “accessible.”
Duels of the Planeswalkers is Wizards of the Coast’s attempt to make an “arcade” version of Magic, with a streamlined play experience that still keeps much of the original CCG’s depth and strategy. The DotP series debuted two years ago, and has been a major success, both as a video game and as a way to introduce new players to Magic: The Gathering. Duels 2013 is the third yearly installment in the series, and offers the most compelling experience yet.
If you’re unfamiliar with Magic, the very simplified synopsis is this: Each game represents a magical duel between powerful wizards called Planeswalkers. To win the duel, you must reduce your opponent’s life total to zero, which you accomplish by casting spells and summoning creatures, all of which are represented by the cards in your deck. There’s luck involved (you start with seven cards, and draw one per turn; draw none of the cards you need and you’ll lose the match), but there’s a lot of strategy as well, as you decide when to play which spells and when to order your creatures to attack and defend. Duels of the Planeswalkers offers this core Magic experience in a digital form, with nice graphics, a single-player campaign to defeat, and ranked online multiplayer.
Special effects keep the card-on-card combat in Duels of the Planeswalkers entertaining.
Where it differs most from traditional Magic is in deck construction. In paper Magic, building your deck of 60 cards is a major part of the game. Even if you play the smallest format, there can be more than 1,500 cards to choose from, and tweaking your deck to beat the people you play with is an addictive and expensive meta-game. Duels of the Planeswalkers essentially does away with deck-building, instead offering you a choice of 10 premade decks, each designed around a different theme. As you play and win matches with a deck, you unlock additional cards (up to 40 additional cards per deck, including 10 that are only available through promo codes that are available for free online), which you can substitute into that deck at will. Choosing the right cards to add to the base decks is skill-testing, and offers a nice bit of customization, even if you can never change the basic nature of the deck.
A side note: Many people have been calling for a more full-featured deck editor in the DotP series, but we’d be very surprised to see it happen. The simple fact is that people buying cards to build their decks is the core of Wizards of the Coast’s business model. If you enjoy Duels but want the full deck-building experience, they’ll be happy to direct you to your local game store or the official Magic Online digital client, where you can buy cards just like everyone else—for $4 a pack.
If you own last year’s installment of Duels of the Planeswalkers, you’re probably more interested in whether it’s worth paying the $15 to upgrade to Duels 2013. This year’s version is definitely more evolutionary than revolutionary, but should still hold some surprises for returning players.
As you play through the game’s singleplayer campaign, the most noticeable new feature is the addition of “encounter” levels, which play differently than normal matches. In an encounter, your deck and hand play as usual, but your opponent plays a predetermined series of cards, regardless of what you do. The opponent’s actions can be straightforward (the first simply plays a single small creature every single turn) or complicated (one plays a creature that can return from the dead every turn, then kills all creatures on the board every four turns). Some encounters can be very difficult, and many cannot be beaten by every deck—picking the right one is part of the challenge. The predetermined nature of the encounters makes them play like an interesting hybrid of a normal match and a “puzzle” match, where you must win in a single turn with a specific set of cards. They’re a welcome addition that gives the campaign more depth and variety.
The other major change is the inclusion of the “Planechase” format, which replaces last year’s “Archenemy” format. Planechase is a multiplayer game mode where four players compete in a free-for-all while also playing cards at random from a central Planechase deck. Each Planechase card fundamentally alters the rules of the game, making for a chaotic match where you can have a commanding lead one turn and be totally screwed the next. It’s a fun format, though the wild shifts can be frustrating.
In puzzle matches, you’re given a complicated premade game board, and told to win in one turn.
Of course, the main draw of any new entry in the series is the list of new decks, which make up the core of how every game plays out. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013’s lineup of all-new decks is a bit of a mixed bag. The five “basic” decks are very similar to last year’s: They feature plenty of new cards, but if you spent much time playing with last year’s basic red deck, for instance, this year’s will feel like more of the same. It’s a shame, then, that the other five decks feel like something of a letdown. Some of them are a lot of fun, like the blisteringly‑fast goblin deck, or the black-white “Exhalted” deck, but others fall flat.
There are 40 cards to unlock for each deck—way more than in previous years. Unfortunately, many of the unlocks aren’t worth adding to the deck, meaning they only serve to delay you from getting at the later unlocks that you really want. Additionally, nine of the 10 decks are single-color. In the past versions, there’s been a nice mix of one- and two-color decks. It’s rumored that Wizards of the Coast is planning a multicolor DLC pack for the game in the next few months, but the selection available now is a bit lacking.
All in all, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is by far the most polished and fun game in the series to date, and we’d highly recommend it to anyone looking to get into Magic. If you’re a returning player, the game offers new decks, encounters, and puzzles to conquer, but it’s not a must-buy—you may want to wait for more information about the upcoming DLC before you make your decision.
Overall presentation is as good as ever; encounters are a fun new addition.
Deck lists aren’t too exciting; may not be enough new features for returning players.