Review: Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers (PS3)

Title: Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers
Format: PSN Digital Download
Release Date: November 23, 2010
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Developer: Stainless Games
Price: $9.99

Starting Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers I’m immediately transported back to my middle school days. Wolfing down lunches to get in a quick game, looking forward to going to the library to trade some cards, or just lounging around reading up on the latest deck building strategies, this was my life circa 1996. I played from the advent of Fallen Empires through the dawning of Weatherlight, for those not in the know that’s 1995 to mid 1997. From then on I would intermittently check back in on my former obsession, occasionally picking up an Inquest or, even more rarely, grabbing a pick up game with equally lapsed players. My waning interest in Magic coincided with my burgeoning interest in video games. Funny how one nerdy pursuit tends to be replaced by another? So I was overjoyed to hear about Duels of the Planeswalkers, a downloadable title that served as a digital intro to Magic. However, until recently, it was only available on XBLA. That changed this past November when I had to give in, drop $10, and plug back in to my former obsession.

For those who don’t frequent comic and gaming stores or who have been out of the nerd cultural loop for the last 20 years, Magic is a collectible card game. You have a deck and your opponent has a deck, you take turns playing cards, using strategy, bluffing, and guile to reduce your opponent’s life to zero. That should tell you if you want to play this game. If you have seen an actual game being played and weren’t intrigued, even for a nanosecond, then keep walking because this digital iteration isn’t for you either. However, if seeing two people stressing out over what card to play next, smack talking after a great play, and/or trading deck building tips piques your curiosity then this PSN download is geared towards you.

For any game to transition from tabletop meat space to the digital realm it needs to make sure all the mechanics work perfectly. That is Duels of the Planeswalkers greatest strength; you are actually playing a game of Magic. All your turn’s phases are there, you are playing with actual cards from real sets, and the included decks are tuned around specific strategies that are geared to each color’s specializations. However, these tuned decks are simultaneously a great boon for the title and a weak point. Being able to just pick up a deck and use it right away without having to edit it significantly eliminates a barrier to entry that can be huge for new players. Veterans on the other hand know that being able to modify decks, to add your own flair and strategy is what keeps the game interesting. As you progress through single player matches you gain cards that get added to your deck, but only these cards can be edited in or out of your card lineup. Want to drop a few cards to speed up your deck? Too bad! Care to drop a weak creature now that you’ve gained more powerful brutes? You can’t. This failing ultimately limits the appeal of the game, as within a turn or two you know which deck your opponent is playing and most of their tricks.

Playing Magic can be a logistical nightmare. Trying to understand how various effects resolve, the turn order, and the best time to attack can wear on even a veteran player. Thankfully Duels of the Planeswalkers eliminates a lot of the guesswork, but having a useful interface that only allows you to take actions when you actually have relevant cards and the mana available to play them, otherwise skipping over portions of your turn when you can’t play anything. This greatly speeds up games. On the other hand they have slowed down fast effects, giving players a stop command that allows them to react to attacks, spells, and other cards, if they can. This ying and yang of simultaneously speeding up the elements that can bog down a game and slowing down actions so you can react really allow the complexity and strategy of Magic’s design to shine through.

Magic, in most of its forms, is played on a tabletop and that aesthetic has been brought to Duels of the Planeswalkers. Each player has their play area represented as a portion of the screen, visible to all players. Their hand, which only they see, is lined up at the bottom of the screen. The zoomed out view of the table may put off new player’s who aren’t as familiar with the cards being played. However, each time a a new card is played it shows up as an enlarged image on the screen for the opposing player to read. In addition, at any time a player can zoom in on a card in play or in their hand to read what the card says and the effect other cards are having on it. For a game that boasts multiple stacks of cards and a hand that all needs to be displayed at once, Duels of the Planeswalkers has come up with the most elegant solution I’ve seen in a digital card game.

The music and sound effects of any digital version of a board or card game are meant to blend into the game, not stand out and this holds true in Duels of the Planeswalkers. Tracks between matches and during menu screens are typical percussion fueled orchestral tunes with slight rock/metal overtones that fit the fantasy setting well.

Sound effects are blended expertly into gameplay. Each action, whether drawing a card, dealing creature damage, or having an effect resolve is accompanied with an appropriate sound bite. It’s comforting to hear the sound of blow landing as you damage your opponent, not just having a static life total number count down.

Magic is all about competition between players, and Duels of the Planeswalkers makes sure you know it. Beyond the rock solid game mechanics on display in the single player game, for multiplayer a turn bar has been added. This gives a player a set amount of time to take their entire turn. This makes sure you don’t have player’s spending twenty minutes deciding which creatures to attack with. However, this system allows enough freedom to set up the complex strategies so common in great Magic duels. These simple solutions to complex problems make this gameplay engine a high water mark that any future card-based games will have to live up to.

An amazing gameplay experience, for both single and multiplayer, can’t hide that this game is just short of realizing its full potential. It’s truly unfortunate that with so many great decisions going into the gameplay engine the developer’s decided to hamstring players with limited deck editing options.

If you always wanted to see what all the Magic fuss was about buy this title. If you are a lapsed Magic player, like I was, and you want to see what new cards and strategies have been added to your old obsession, definitely check this out. However, if you are actively playing tournaments and are deeply embroiled in the contemporary Magic scene there is really no reason for you to pick this title up. Your $10 would be better spent on some booster packs. Because of these caveats Duels of the Planewsalkers is the interesting, but flawed David Blaine to Magic the card game’s timeless Houdini.


Written by Justin Spielmann

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