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Published July 30, 2013

Dueling In The Planes: An MTG Game Review

The end of summer is here, so it’s time for a new edition of Duels of the Planeswalkers. This year brings some additional game modes, new cards and decks, and plenty of challenging experiences.

It’s a welcome release for both newbies and veterans of the thriving card game, Magic: The Gathering. The game has had video game equivalents since 1997, with mixed results. So how does Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 stack up?

Duels of the Planeswalkers 1Originally released for the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC in 2009, Duels has become an annual staple like the various NBA, NFL, and MLB games. This year adds Android devices to the list of platforms, so it can be played on a smartphone or a Kindle. No iPhone version yet, but it has been released for the iOS, so Apple fans can enjoy it too.

You start the game with some cursory backstory.

You are a Planeswalker, a being that can travel to all sorts of different worlds (called “Planes”) with a natural talent for magical abilities. You meet Chandra, a fire mage, who asks you to find a man named Ramaz. This gives you the excuse to visit the various Planes in Magic lore, including the horror-themed Innistrad, the adventurous Zendikar, and the mysterious Shandalar. As you advance, you’ll unlock cards to use in your decks, making them potentially better depending on your skill level. In time you’ll meet Ramaz and defeat him, of course, and it may seem underwhelming. Fear not, though. Like parsley on a platter, the story only exists to show off the real meat of the game- building and playing your decks.

It’s really an experiment in addictive statistical analysis.
It’s really an experiment in addictive statistical analysis.

Deckbuilding is more strategic here than it is in the outside world because of its limited pool of cards. You start with a few sixty-card decks, and will quickly gain access to more. As you win encounters, specific cards will unlock for the deck you used. To reach the deck’s full potential you must battle your way through different opponents over and over again. It would be tedious if the battles themselves were quick and pointless.

One of the best things about Duels is that it was specifically designed to make every victory feel earned.

Doomed Traveler is doomed.
Doomed Traveler is doomed.

Something Magic has always done right is understood how a gamer plays, not just why. The tabletop game is fine-tuned to be very open-ended, and because of that, Duels 2014 boasts six single-player and multiplayer modes, including Campaign, Sealed, Challenge, Free-For-All, Two-Headed Giant, and the Revenge Campaign. Most of these modes are carried over from previous editions, with minor tweaks made to rules and options. The newest mode, Sealed, challenges you to build a 40-card deck out of six booster packs.

As you progress you’ll win additional boosters to further augment your deck. This is old hat to veteran Magic players, but it represents something that has never been done properly in a CCG-based video game before. It’s a welcome addition.

Magic is the only setting where someone will triumphantly declare they got a Nightmare.
Magic is the only setting where someone will triumphantly declare they got a Nightmare.

The Android version makes good use of the touchscreen. Tap to select a card or targets for a spell, double-tap to zoom in to read rules text, and drag to play a card or select blockers. Be especially careful using the battle timer, though; stopping it to counter a spell or use an ability requires close attention or the window of opportunity will pass in a matter of seconds, and it takes just a second longer to trigger by touch.

All of the controls become intuitive very quickly, and the game gives you ample opportunities to pause and think.

If the game could be improved at all, there are two things Wizards can try: make it backwards-compatible with previous versions of the game, and add the ability to pool all the cards you’ve unlocked to build decks freely. This would spark a ton of interest, and could be designed in such a way that no one strategy could dominate for very long.

Magic does this all the time already in the real world; they call it the Standard environment. The idea is to limit sanctioned matches to two years’ worth of cards, phasing out one set when another set is released, to keep the game reasonably fair and balanced. I see no reason why it can’t be done with Duels of the Planeswalkers.

Magic players are drawn to Duels because of its faithfulness to the original game, but thus far hasn’t been a must-buy from year to year. New editions keep improving on the formula, and this year’s Sealed mode definitely steps up closer to classic tabletop Magic, but the game is still a few degrees shy of awesome.

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  • Greg Trombley

    Greg

  • I'm an RDU-based novelist and passionate champion of scientific progression. Nature and science live side-by-side in my heart. I clean dinosaur bones in my spare time, and love reading about local history. All my articles.

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