First released way back in the 90’s, Magic: The Gathering is a rare bastion of stability in our mercurial times. Those were the years of games like Doom and Mortal Kombat II; in other words, the stuff of nostalgia and bargain bins–maybe, on occasion, antique stores. Yet somehow, Magic continues to get better and stronger despite the passage of time. That’s especially apparent in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, which presents a welcome improvement over the previous releases.
If you’ve never played Magic before, the basic concept isn’t really too complex. In most cases, two players, or “planeswalkers,” sit opposite each other with a customized deck of cards, using it to build up mana and unleash powerful creatures and abilities on their opponents. Each player has 20 health points, and they do their best to whittle the other guy’s points down to zero. Occasionally, as in Duels 2013, you’ll have the chance to play against multiple players, but the one-on-one duel to the death has stood at the heart of the Magic experience since the very beginning.
As with chess, though, such simplicity masks a rich and rewarding tangle of strategies that someone could devote their lives to learning. After nearly 20 years of expansions and rule tweaks, Magic has built up a dizzying arsenal of cards that’s become so complex that even the series’ most fanatical followers have trouble keeping up with them all. The ideas behind the five basic deck colors haven’t changed over the years; for example, red is for brutal, in-your-face tactics, while blue is more about control. The abilities on the cards allow everything from simply removing an opponent’s cards to intricate actions that damage both the opposing player and their cards in play. The result is a game that’s about 20% luck and 80% skill, and it’s frankly intimidating if you’re approaching it for the first time without a friend.
That’s why you won’t find a better introduction to the franchise than Duels 2013. Indeed, it’s not much of a stretch to think of the Duels series as an entertaining and adequate tutorial for playing the physical game. You may never have the chance to fully master things such as the sideboard with Duels alone, but you also don’t have to worry about exasperated sighs from veteran planeswalkers when you try to use an Enchantment at the wrong time. In Duels, the computer helps you master all that with hints in the “mage” mode, which prepares you for the online free-for-all mode that will likely pit you against someone who’s been tinkering with Wizards of the Coast’s famed decks for longer than some of us have been alive.
Duels 2013 doesn’t stray too far from its two predecessors, but there are still enough changes here to warrant a look. For one, Duels 2013 features manual mana tapping or the ability to choose which “land” card you put into play, which is a must when using a deck composed of more than one color. In the past, Duels usually chose the card for you, and it created needlessly complicated adjustments when it chose the wrong one. It’s also filled with other tweaks that enhance the whole experience, ranging from trackable stats that help you size up your opponents in the multiplayer to a rating system that lets you see how one deck fares against another. It’s all still a little slow due to the lack of a button that allows you to skip through all of the steps if you don’t have much to play on a particular round, but the rest of the gameplay is so refined that it seems like a minor concern.
The decently sized single-player campaign also does an excellent job of demonstrating the abilities and general strategies associated with the decks in play (10 of which are new). This more than makes up for the story line, which, aside from some brief cinematics with the evil dragon Nicol Bolas, barely exists. After you’ve defeated all the bosses, you can undertake the same campaign in “Revenge” mode with tougher AI that more closely resembles the decisions real players make. That’s important if you plan to play in any of the multiplayer versions, and I found that I learned more from the specialized secondary scenarios that teach you how to deal with tougher tactics than the bosses themselves. In my case, I had the hardest time fighting a blue deck that consisted of little more than mana cards and blocks, but I learned enough from the encounter that I’ll probably know what to do if someone ever tries that cheap, but challenging, strategy in a multiplayer game.
Even so, it feels regrettable that we still can’t design our own decks in an advanced mode of some sort, particularly since I love playing with a green, blue, and white deck that’s impossible to recreate with Duels’ predesigned decks and limited customization options. Players have begged for this option ever since Duels came out, but it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see it; it would put Duels in direct competition the existing Magic Online, which gives the ability to buy and sell individual cards, much as if you were playing the physical game. The income reduction would probably be devastating. Even if Wizards of the Coast can’t or won’t allow us that degree of customization, it would be nice if we weren’t required to have 24 land cards when we’re trying to cram as much power as possible into a compact, but efficient, deck.
Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is easily Stainless Games’ best effort at providing an accessible, yet challenging version of Magic to date, and the new decks and improved gameplay are satisfying enough to trump most concerns arising from the new Plane chaser mode. Longtime fans will likely bristle at the continued absence of fully customizable decks, but Duels 2013 includes an impressive array of cards that somewhat makes up for this. If you’re worried about the ten dollar price tag for a game that’s arguably just a polished version of last year’s release, consider this: if you’re a real Magic fan, you’ll probably spend more than that on booster packs every month.
This review is based on a review copy of the PSN version of Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 by Wizards of the Coast