Magic: The Gathering is often considered the godfather of the Trading Card Game (TCG) scene, and with good reason. Watertight mechanics and a slew of annual updates have kept the franchise one step ahead of its competitors for almost two decades, boasting a global player-base in excess of 12 million. However, despite being one year shy of its twentieth anniversary, it has only recently become a significant name in the video game industry.
There have been games based on Magic: The Gathering in the past, though very few have lived up to the name, Battlegrounds and BattleMage being two aged examples that were less than flattering.
What fans really wanted was an unadulterated virtual world in which they could play the beloved trading card game from the comfort of their armchairs, and that’s exactly what Wizards gave them in 2002. Magic: The Gathering Online is still going strong, the publisher continually updating the service with new products whilst hosting thousands of matches every week.
However, in forging a dedicated web-based community they’ve created an aura of exclusivity, further galvanised by the stigma that is often attached to online-only PC gaming. Accessibility was an issue and one that Wizards has since remedied with its annualised downloadable series, Duels of the Planewalkers.
Available on a variety of gaming platforms (including iOS) 2013 is the third instalment of the series, and though very little has changed since its inception, this is without doubt Magic’s finest video game adaptation to date, not to mention an ideal starting point for newcomers.
The art team that work on Magic: The Gathering are a phenomenal bunch. Each card's portrait is vibrant and luscious, injecting an added spark of life into an already fantastic experience.
This lack of any meaningful exposition was one of our few niggling complaints when we reviewed 2012 last year; it may not be significant to the game itself, but with such a bustling in-game universe, it just seems like a missed opportunity.
Card battles adhere directly to the tried and tested Magic template. Default duels are fought between two players, each with a health count of twenty. The objective is simple; to either reduce your opponent’s life to zero, or have them draw a card from an empty deck. It sounds easy enough at first, though there are a myriad of ways to claim victory. On the flipside there are an equal number of ways in which your opponent can turn the tables to obliterate you.
We won’t recite the official rule book in full, but here’s the gist: to take a swipe at your enemy, you need to stock up on land cards that create a stock of mana. Once you have enough, this will allow you summon creatures to the battlefield as well as a variety of other spells including enchantments, instants, and artefacts.
Magic: The Gathering is as much about defence as offence, often forcing players to decide between casting a spell/attacking with a creature or waiting to see their opponent’s next move. It’s true that, since its 1993 debut, not much has changed, each passing iteration only helping to add flesh to the bones, giving the player more tools to experiment with and new game modes to explore.
Aside from straight-up duels, the campaign (which is split into two halves) also accommodates puzzle-like challenges. There are ten in total, each one dropping players into a pre-built scenario, requiring an ample dose of patience and understanding of the game’s numerous concepts.
Encounters are a little less intense, though can be equally challenging. Scattered throughout the campaign, these duels pit players against opponents with very specific strategy patterns. For instance, one Encounter is against a black mage who has few creatures, though uses a plethora of spells to expel your cards from the playing field and even your hands.
No matter how good you are at reading an opponent, or how strong your deck is, luck will always have its part to play. This TCG trope is most evident in 2013′s marquee game mode, Planechase. From a distance it comes across as a four-man battle royale, but becomes a hell of a lot more complicated upon closer inspection.
Situated in the middle of the battlefield is a deck of “Planar” cards accompanied by a single six-sided die. In essence, these cards determine where the battle is taking place, each location or “plane” imbued with its own unique attributes. These can determine how many cards you draw, the mana cost of spells, and even the strength of your creatures, not to mention a plethora of lethal side effects.
By spending mana and rolling the die, players can either “planeswalk” to a new location, or activate its secondary ability. With so many mechanics and workings to keep an eye on, it can get hectic pretty quickly. Finally gaining purchase on the victory ladder only to have the rug pulled from beneath you in a single Planewalk is infuriating, yet boundlessly exciting at the same time.
- Magic: The Gathering at its finest.
- Simplified, turn-by-turn gameplay without need of a rulebook.
- Artwork is terrific as always.
- Campaign has plenty of replay value.
- Multiplayer spans all three game modes.
- Planechase will keep players on their toes.
- Doesn’t exactly make the most of its luscious fantasy settings.
- The absence of a proper deck builder will start to annoy returning players.
- The “endgame” could do with a bit more development (more decks, player rank/progression etc.)
Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is exactly what fans of the series will have come to expect: a clean-cut refinement with very few barriers to entry. It still has its shortcomings (the lack of a fully-operational deck builder being a recurring one) but has yet to show any signs of fatigue, mainly thanks to an extended campaign and core mechanics that have stood the test of time.
With that said, Stainless could have been slightly more adventurous in regards to new content; fully-3D battlegrounds and a comprehensive online ranking system would really help sell it as a true video game experience. However, with one of today’s timeless hobbyist properties at their disposal, few can blame the developer for playing its hand conservatively.
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