Magic: The Gathering - Duels Of The Planeswalkers 2013 Review

Magic: The Gathering has been enchanting players for almost twenty years now, but the trading card game has stumbled when attempting to transfer its complex mechanics to the realm of video games. Last year’s Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 was a shaky step in the right direction, but a few balancing flaws and gameplay oversights meant that it was a far cry from sitting down at a table with a few friends. As the Duels of the Planeswalkers series takes its first step towards becoming an annual property like Madden, it must prove that this redundant format is in the best interest of the players or risk losing a significant chunk of its fanbase. Is developer Stainless Games capable of iterating on the Duels of the Planeswalkers formula in a meaningful way within the constraints of a one-year development cycle?

In the case of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Several improvements have been made to last year’s formula that should both please old fans of the series and entice newcomers. Matches simply play out more like a game of Magic would in the real world now. This is thanks in no small part to the feedback that Stainless Games received from the last game. First and foremost, it is now possible to choose which mana you tap when you have multiple colors out on the field. This is a vastly preferable approach than last year’s game took, where the game would choose for you and occasionally render certain tactics or plans useless by spending mana that you didn’t want to spend. The difficulty curve of the campaign has also been addressed. You will be much less likely to get mana-locked or flooded during the early matches in 2013, and early enemies seem to pull the perfect card less often than they did before.

The campaign ladder in Magic the Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013

Of course, if you’re new to Magic none of this helps. Unlike last year’s game, which was punishing and restrictive, 2013 marks the perfect jumping-on point for Magic newbies. Both in trading card form and video game form, Magic continues to be an incredibly deep and rewarding game to play. Its mechanics are dense and difficult to master, but highly rewarding once you have crossed the initial threshold of entry. This year’s game is deeper than ever thanks to the new effects added in this year’s core set and the Avacyn Restored set, so the flexibility to build and execute upon new strategies is greater than it ever has been before. Your options will initially be constrained by the limited decks that the game gives you early on, but once you start defeating opponents and gathering new decks and cards, the freedom to craft your own deck and playstyle is welcome.

All of this depth can be daunting, but a tutorial mode returns to give new players some idea of what, exactly, is going on during gameplay. The tutorial serves as a decent way to introduce the game’s mechanics to novices, but as usual, Magic skills are best gained in the heat of battle and the tutorial doesn’t come close to covering each mechanic that will be used over the course of the game. For new players, a little bit of improvisation is always going to be required. That said, this game can be a great learning tool for getting acquainted with the many systems at play during the average game of Magic, and purchasing this download is frankly at lot cheaper than getting new decks and booster packs at a reasonable $9.99. Just be sure to set the AI to its lowest difficulty, as it can be ruthless on higher settings.

So this year’s game continues to be a great learning tool for Magic novices. That’s fine, but what about the rest of us? Magic veterans should be just as satisfied as the newcomers with 2013 thanks to a few meaningful changes since last year. The campaign is lengthier than before, with more small encounters fleshing it out. These encounters play out almost like puzzles, challenging you to test your deck against one repeating strategy. For example, an early challenge will have you facing off against an enemy who spawns nothing but cheap, 1/1 flying owls. The challenge here is in overcoming this enemy using your Mountain deck, an affinity notorious for its general lack of flyers. You will have to rely on dealing direct damage to the enemy and his creatures in order to keep the onslaught of cheap 1/1s at bay.

Battle effects in Magic the Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013

The presentation has also been spruced up since last year. New 3D backgrounds and voiced story segments add a bit of flair to the proceedings, and a slightly greater emphasis on story makes trekking through the lengthy campaign that much more fun. That said, the story remains paper-thin. Your main motivation for playing through the game will still be to take on the various Planeswalkers in combat, and while the visuals have been polished outside of battle, they’re still largely the same once combat begins. The whole affair feels a bit sterile. Battle is lacking in flair and plain-looking, with weak particle effects and sound effects falling far short of the epic scale that Magic battles have in the minds of the most dedicated players. It doesn’t help that every phase of your turn is accompanied by a cooldown period, which can get annoying in more intense matches as you just want to move on to the next phase of your turn.

If you don’t tire of the limp presentation by the time the campaign is over, a Custom Games mode will allow you to tailor matches to your liking. This mode features multiple gametypes and generally allows for more flexibility than the campaign when setting up your plan of attack. This mode is meant to simulate sitting down with a bunch of like-minded friends and shifting between your favorite game modes, and by and large it does a great job of this.

Of course, you can also challenge others in a multiplayer match online. You will be constrained by which cards you have unlocked in the game when building your decks, so you will want to have progressed at least pretty far through the campaign before jumping online. That said, the competition is perhaps at its most fierce here, and nothing can substitute for playing against a real person, even when you can’t see the look of fear in their eyes from across the table as you crush them. It’s a great substitute for playing Magic in person, but it still can’t replace the feeling of playing a real game. There’s a certain element of humanity that makes the best games of Magic all the more intense, and it’s an element that simply cannot be present when staring face-to-face with a computer screen. The best games of Magic that I’ve played always involved a certain amount of bluffing, almost like poker, and it can be tough to do this over the internet. That minor qualm aside, playing online in 2013 works just fine.

The Deck Manager in Magic the Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013

It’s impossible to overstate what an improvement this year’s Duels of the Planeswalkers is over the 2012 edition. The gameplay has been refined and the campaign balanced so that the whole thing feels much more like it does in the real world. The presentation remains Spartan and the online is still no match for sitting down face-to-face, but the flexibility and depth of Magic shines through nonetheless, making Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 one of the best strategy games for both newbies and veterans.

Score: 8.5/10

This review was based on the PC version of the game.

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