Duels of the Planeswalkers lets you play Magic: the Gathering on your computer or gaming console, against the computer or online friends. It’s a standalone game — no card collecting — and it gets updated every year. It’s sort of the Madden of strategy/puzzle games, and this year’s edition is fantastic.
Last night I had this killer headache, and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized it was 3:30 a.m. and I’d been playing Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 for about seven hours straight. So it’s that kind of game.
DotP is to a large extent designed to be an on-ramp for new players to learn the game and eventually move on to real Magic. It works very well at that, with a tutorial, a somewhat simplified version of the game, and intuitive tips that explain new game situations as they arise, but that are easily dismissed. You’ll notice a bit of marketing here and there, as the game encourages you to check out Friday Night Magic or buy some M13 theme packs, but there’s not much of it and it’s very unobtrusive.
The thing is, this works as a strategy game even if you have no experience or interest in ever playing real Magic. It’s like a puzzle game with a huge number of variables and options that keep repeated playings fresh and interesting. There are ten decks to choose from, and each one has 30 cards to unlock. You can customize your deck to a great extent, deciding which cards to leave in, and which ones to take out. With a variety of foes to fight against (not to mention other humans), plus “challenges,” which are literally puzzles which set up a situation that forces you to win the game with a given set of resources within one turn, you can expect to get a lot of play out of this game.
Experienced Magic players who are just looking for a quick game now and then are going to love some of the new changes. New infographics give you at-a-glance data on your deck, such as creature strength, versatility, and the mana cost of the cards in the deck. Multi-colored decks now allow you to select which lands to tap to pay for spells, eliminating a major frustration of earlier versions. There’s an end-step now, so you can trigger instants and creature abilities before your opponent wraps up his or her turn. These options can be turned off, so newer players don’t have to worry about them until they have a stronger grasp of the game. The designers have stepped up the deck construction, too — there aren’t quite as many clunker cards, the decks seem to have more synergy, more fun and interesting cards are included, and they overall feel more fun to play.
One of the coolest new features is a new (to DotP) multi-player format, Planechase. With three or four players, this perfectly duplicates the paper Planechase format, where a deck of plane cards have global effects that shift the game, and players can roll a die to change planes or activate a triggered effect. It’s a fun, chaotic way to play, although games can take a long time.
There are a lot of small touches that make the 2013 version shine, too. There’s a player status page that shows off some neat stats like the largest creature you’ve ever had in play, which color deck you tend to use, what achievements you’ve unlocked, and other stuff. As you move through the single-player campaign, you’ll visit several different planes from Magic’s recent and upcoming expansions, and the loading screens use new art to depict locations within each plane. The full screen art looked stunning on my TV, so amazing I sometimes caught myself staring even after the game was loaded and ready to play. The length of the campaign is extensive and challenging, and it feels like it has a richer connection to Magic’s backstory than before. You’ll definitely get more of a feel for the worlds you visit and the enemies you’ll face.
There are a few flaws, of course. The AI is still a little dim at times. The campaign is interspersed with “encounters,” which are like weird matches against a deck that only uses 2 or 3 cards in a set pattern. At best, some of these are mildly interesting, but many of them are profoundly boring. Also, the interface still seems optimized for playing on a computer. I’m sure it looks fine if you’re playing on Steam, but I was playing on Xbox from a couch an average distance away from the TV. On-screen text can be terribly hard to see, and I have normal vision. The letters are simply too small.
Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is available on XBLA, Playstation Network, Steam, and now on your iPad. With new refinements and a deeper campaign with tons of unlockables, I have to recommend it. Did I mention it only costs $10? Plus it’s free on the iPad, although unlocking some features costs extra.