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

Magic: The Gathering (abbreviated MTG or Magic) is a long-standing collectible card game by Wizards of the Coast, combining the thrills and risk-taking of poker with the cold harsh strategy and tactics of a solid turn-based strategy game. Over it’s 17-year lifespan it has amassed quite the following and is often credited as popularizing the collectible card game format.

Duels of the Planeswalkers is the latest attempt to introduce Magic to the larger gaming community. It is by no means the ultimate package for a Magic player looking for a PC version, but instead it’s aiming to introduce the uninitiated into the world of Magic: The Gathering by way of a considerably smaller price-tag. And by those standards, Duels of the Planeswalkers succeeds… mostly.

In this review I will be primarily focusing upon the way Planeswalkers works as an introduction to Magic. The pros and cons of MTG itself is a discussion for another time and place.

Planeswalkers looks great – the cards and board are detailed and everything animates smoothly. The game makes it apparent what spells are targeting what cards at all times and on the PC it is easy to move around and quickly examine different spells. However, the same care has not been put into the sound design or music, which can be described as “generic fantasy” and the game takes a surprising amount of power to run smoothly considering that it’s a simulated card game. It is obvious that some care has been put into making the game inviting to newcomers.

To that end, Planeswalkers features a rather short but functional tutorial to teach you the basic rules, and the campaign starts you off with two straightforward single-colour decks. Winning campaign matches unlocks new cards for the deck you’re currently using, and at regular intervals unlocks you new, often more complicated decks. Coupled with the great hints system that regularly keeps you informed of new rule-altering effects you encounter on cards, this slowly eases new players into the complexity that is MTG.

Unlocking cards isn’t restricted to just playing the campaign. Winning matches in most game modes will earn you an additional card, but there’s no way to earn actual new decks outside of the campaign. There are user interface elements that hint on a service for paying to unlock all the cards in a deck or unlock a “rare foil” version of a deck, but as of right now trying to do so just takes you to the page for buying the first expansion set.

In the way of semi-tutorials, you also have a rather interesting challenge mode where you’re tasked with finding a way out of seemingly-lost situations. This is great for two reasons; it teaches players not to give up so easily and in the end it’s just damn good fun.

Additionally, there’s a “mentoring” mode on the game menu that promises to connect you to people who can teach you the game, but this is entirely dependant on there being other people using the service. While I was trying this out, this was not the case. Features like this look really good on paper, but doesn’t really work in reality.

Also in the category of “doesn’t really work” is the co-op modes which lets you play a secondary campaign or custom duels with a friend. This is all well and good except that you can’t play online, and at least one of the players will have to use a game pad. On a console on a big TV and multiple controllers, this is all fine, but on a pc with a 20-24″ display and possibly no windows-compatible game pads around, it quickly becomes a problem. Although all these issues are certainly annoying, most of them aren’t game-breaking in any real way. Unfortunately, two certain issues are.

The most obvious of these is the lack of any true deck building. You’re handed a great deal of  diverse decks and cards, but when you’ve unlocked anything you can’t really do anything with them. Any veteran Magic player can attest to the importance of deck building and leaving it out in a game whose main purpose is to introduce to and teach new players the game seems like a glaring oversight.

The less obvious one is the automatic tapping of land when you spend mana. Whenever you play a spell, the game looks at your hand and decides which lands you’re going to have use of later on in that round, after which it automatically taps mana for you. This is probably an attempt to speed up the gameplay for the gamer crowd, and it works fine for single-colour decks and most scenarios of dual-colour. But in those times where  the game disagrees with you on what lands are spendable, the result can often be the loss of a match. What is curious is that the game lets you turn off most added automation, but in the one case where it is likely to cost you a match, there is no such option.

Developer: Stainless Games

Genre: Collectible Card Game

Time: Highly variable.

Gripes: Lacks deck building, some of the features hardly work, automates some choices that really should be up to the player, surprisingly heavy on performance.

Get it for the: Smooth introduction into the world of MTG, possibly the cheapest way to get into MTG if you don’t have a friend with an extra deck that can show you the ropes, great visual quality.

Disclaimer: I have completed the campaign and challenge mode and played a few matches of all the modes described in this review, except for the Mentor mode for reasons mentioned in the review. This is a review of the PC version of the game.