I’ll be upfront about the fact that I don’t really like Magic: The Gathering all that much. Twenty years of development and refinement of the collectible card game has created something that is almost impenetrable for a new player like me. Like many popular and long-lasting games, it has developed a vast, intricate metagame that can seem incredibly complex to new players. In bringing it to the PC in the form of the Duels of the Planeswalkers series, have Stainless Games managed to make something that both satisfies new players and long-time veterans?
In a word, no.
Magic The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 represents the card game pretty accurately. A tutorial offers explanations of the basics: How to use land cards, how to attack and how to block your opponents attacks. It’s enough to get a new player started, but won’t give you much of an idea of how cards of different elements, different buff cards and spells interact with each other.
This makes the game quite intimidating. The single-player campaign is structured so that you fight a series of opponents, of ever-increasing difficulty, and even the early opponents can knock you over if you don’t know what you’re doing. This isn’t helped by the game’s control scheme. For reasons best known only to Stainless games, the d-pad is used for camera rotation, and the analogue stick for selecting cards. For anyone who’s ever played a menu-heavy game before, this is infuriating. Other strange decisions include tying the major action button (on the PS3, at least) to triangle rather than the traditional X. While the game always indicates which buttons will do what, having to constantly check will slow new players up, and even an experienced player will find themselves occasionally tripping over the odd control choices.
Visually, the game represents the cards of M:TG quite well. The artwork of M:TG has always been one of its standout features, and the cards are represented exactly as you’d expect. Larger versions of some of the art are used as loading screens, and there are simple animations to form some of the cutscenes. This representation is all you get, however. If you’re expecting something like monsters to come out of the cards when you fight, or unique settings for each battle or anything like that, then you’re out of luck. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 gives you the cards, all the cards, and nothing but the cards.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the battle arena wasn’t so bland. A grey table with various lines carved into it and a light-up centre ring that implies there should be more action than there really is. Maybe M:TG purists will prefer it this way, but honestly, I was hoping for something a little more Lost Kingdoms.
That’s really all there is to say about Duels of the Planeswalkers. The game offers a few different campaign modes, including a new Planechaser mode which allows up to four players to battle it out, and introduces a die-rolling element to the gameplay. Ultimately, however, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is something of a confused beast. A lack of flair and a strict translation of the card game makes it intimidating for new players, while the core M:TG players would be more likely to just break out their decks and play each other on a real, actual table. At least the controls won’t be so frustrating when they do.
Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is available now for PC, PS3, XBox 360 and iPad. PS3 version reviewed.