Review: Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013
Card games and board games in video-game format have always felt a little odd. But there’s one clear advantage to the digital transition that’s perhaps best exemplified by a somewhat complicated and possibly off-putting fantasy card game like Magic: The Gathering.
This is the video-game version of that card game you’ve likely seen played at pop-culture conventions, in school libraries and university dining areas at some stage over the past 20 years: an enduring, exceedingly popular strategy game with gorgeous fantasy artwork. But despite its obvious appeal to the Dungeons and Dragons crowd, its face-value intricacies have likely prevented many others from dabbling.
At its simplest, a game of Magic is a duel between two magical characters that can summon and command powerful creatures. The objective is to reduce your opponent’s life points to zero by attacking them directly, while clever use of some cards can block or prevent such attacks. However, many cards can only be played under certain conditions, and keeping track of everything in a physical card game of Magic is surely a convoluted undertaking.
And that’s the beauty of Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, the third digital version – particularly for newcomers – is that someone else is there to field all the finer details. It’s great having AI to point out which card can be retrieved from the graveyard under a certain condition, and exactly how many attack points a particular card now has after being augmented by a spell card. I’m not sure I could run a by-the-book match of the physical game with any degree of confidence, but the digital version of Magic: The Gathering serves as the perfect moderator. As such, it’s also the perfect introduction to the game for intimidated newcomers.
That’s not to say that the AI in Magic holds the player’s hand to the point where their participation is rendered pointless. Much of the strategy in Magic stems from precisely when and in what order cards are played. The AI points out when certain cards can be played, but the key decisions of ‘when’ and ‘how’ those cards are played – which will ultimately determine the outcome of any match – are up to the player. Of course, there is a degree of luck involved, and players must strive to best utilize the hand they’re dealt.
But the AI doesn’t just take care of all the busy work – it also does a great job of ensuring the player actually understands what is happening. It explains the rules of the game to players in a non-intrusive manner, with frequent pop-up reminders as to when certain cards can be activated. Of course, these reminders can be easily and individually disabled as soon as players feel that they’re au fait with that particular rule.
Magic 2013 features a single-player campaign with a relatively throwaway story, but there is also the newly introduced Planechase mode: an every-man-for-himself, four-player battle made more interesting with an extra deck of cards that changes the ‘plane’ in which the battle takes place. Changing the plane (dictated by a player’s role of a dice) imposes or removes certain conditions that may make or break a player’s bid for victory. It’s a nice touch that keeps things interesting and gives novices a fighting chance against more experienced players.
Of course, there’s a suite of multiplayer modes on offer, including an online version of Planechase, along with the stock-standard one-on-one duel, two-on-two team battles and more.
The bulk of this review is based on the Xbox Live Arcade version, although I was intrigued enough to check out the iPad version as well. The touchscreen interface of the iPad is ideal for a game like Magic, and so I’d have to say (in an unusual twist for someone like myself) that it’s my preference out of the two versions. Besides, the artwork looks even more gorgeous on that retina display!
Magic 2013 is just the nudge I needed to get over my hesitation to dive headlong into this longstanding and intriguing card game. I’m still not certain if I’m up to playing the physical version, but I’m surprised how much I took to the digital version. It’s a clever, addictive and challenging game with a lot of depth while simultaneously managing a high degree of accessibility.