Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 review (XBLA)

Review by John Cranston

Paul Daniels. David Blaine. Sooty. All experts in the field of magic. But there’s one name that surpasses them – Richard Garfield – the man who invented the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, which has entranced players across the globe since 1990.

After porting the game onto current-gen consoles in 2009 it has proven popular enough to spawn two follow-ups, the most recent – Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 – was released on June 20th for XBLA, PSN, Steam and iPad users. Is it any good? Well you could say… it’s a kind of magic.

Thinking back I can vaguely remember the day I was first introduced to the world of Magic. It was in my first year at high school and some of my friends had started a lunchtime club in one of the classrooms. On my first few visits all I did was watch in awe at this wonderfully complex game, clutching one of the little paper rule books and wondering just how long it would take me to save up enough pocket money to buy my own.

I wouldn’t have to wait long though, thanks in part to the generosity of my friends and the crafty way in which Magic was designed to make money – my friends had lots of spare cards they didn’t need and this was the world before cyber-flea market eBay existed, so the spares and duds were offloaded to me on the cheap. Soon I had my little deck of monsters and spells and I was ready to battle my classmates.

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From the outside it looked complex, with so many permutations of cards and effects, but it turned out that the game itself was actually surprisingly easy to get to grips with. At its simplest, Magic sees two players construct a deck of cards containing spells, monsters and lands. The lands act as “mana” – the currency by which the monsters and spells can be used. It’s a turn based game which sees the players trying to whittle each others’ life force from twenty points to zero using a combination of cunning and trickery multiplied by the luck of a randomly shuffled deck.

There were five “flavours” of deck, each based on a different principal of magic. White magic generally has a healing and defensive style, black magic has a corruptive and regenerative style, red magic has a direct damage approach, green magic is all about overwhelming your foe with large numbers and blue magic tends toward conjuration and reactive dispelling. Each had hundreds of different cards, but there were also colourless “artifacts” which could be used in tandem, making the decision about what should go in your deck difficult and time consuming.

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Several years and a few hundred pounds later I finally reached the end of my addiction and packed up my cards, the player base was dwindling as people moved on to different games and other pastimes that young hormonally charged people tend toward. But it would seem that not even time could stop the urges in my heart to return to the game all these years later, but having previously disposed of my cards I couldn’t perceive a cost-effective way of doing so and instead I repressed my feelings like any good man should.

For reasons unknown, the PC-only Magic: The Gathering Online released in 2002 completely passed me by, so it wasn’t until the release of 2009’s Duels of the Planeswalkers on XBLA that I got another taste of addiction. Fortunately it also came at a much more palatable cost, as all the cards you need to play this game come included with the price (except for future DLC add-ons of course). Thanks to a relatively competent AI and the global matchmaking available on Xbox Live, you didn’t even need real friends to play with!

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This third edition includes most of the same features as its predecessors, with very minor upgrades to the way the turns are calculated which actually creates a more fluid experience, more akin to how it would be played between actual people. As before there’s a multi-tiered campaign where you must face increasingly difficult opponents and also the traditional multiplayer mode with options for two, three and four player matches. Challenges are still present (and still as difficult as ever) and there’s a new special mode called Planechase (more on this later).

Where the video game version of Magic excels is that you don’t have the hassle of sifting through hundreds of cards trying to formulate what will make a good deck. Instead, ten decks have been created for you to choose from, each of which is well stocked to battle with, but for an incentive to win there are thirty extra cards to be unlocked for each deck. Relatively small micro-transactions allow you to do this instantly, though it’s not essential as the process of manual unlocking is not particularly lengthy.

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Because this is a videogame, you don’t need to learn all the rules before you play, as there are many prompts, tooltips and highlighted areas to show you what you are and aren’t allowed to do. Laborious processes like managing bonus counters, combat damage and other such occurrences are all handled deftly by the game, leaving you to concentrate on tactics, though should you require a little extra time to read card descriptions or talk strategy with a buddy all it takes is a mere button press.

Any newcomers to the franchise would certainly do well to visit the tutorial before playing as it gives a decent overview of what goes on in a match and with some of the cards released in Magic 2013 it can get very complicated, especially against good players who have fine-tuned their decks. On several occasions during the course of this review I found myself tearing out my hair at the level of frustration caused by a particular enemy who just seemed to have an exponentially more difficult deck to play against than everyone else.

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The new game mode in Magic 2013 – Planechase – has been included at the expense of the Archenemy mode from Magic 2012 and is one facet of the game that I felt disappointed in, mainly as it seems to be based entirely on luck. Up to four players face each other, in the centre of the playing area is a special deck of “planes”, cards that infer a special modifier on the roll of a dice. It doesn’t sound much, but when playing it totally removes any reliance on skill or deck knowledge, you’re purely in the hands of the fates, which belittles one of the best features of a collectible game like Magic.

Don’t let that put you off though, as all the other gameplay elements are immensely enjoyable – if you’re into that sort of thing. Reviewing a game like this will always result in the addition of that caveat and sadly I don’t think there’s anything here to really sway people who aren’t already interested. Magic 2013 is certainly the most complex of the available titles and does feel like it has lost a fraction of its charm due to more stale-looking tabletops and less inspiring music than it had in 2012, but I still had a great time with it and look forward to seeing what future expansions do to the game.

Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 scores 8 out of 10.