Magic: The Gathering is a role-playing card game wherein you battle other players using a host of magic, artefacts and creatures to whittle their life away.
It's reminiscent of Dungeons & Dragons, which was no doubt an inspiration for the initial concept in 1993, especially considering publishers Wizards of the Coast are behind both of these great games. However the game is vastly different to the Dungeons & Dragons behemoth.
Now, after years of waiting, a decent digital iteration of the famous game has been brought to the Xbox 360 Arcade Marketplace in the shape of Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers. Will it be a successful implementation of a classic formula, or will it disappoint by going for mass-market appeal?
Duels of the Planeswalkers involves battling Planeswalkers. These are powerful wizards who you'll fight with your spells and minion creatures. Planeswalkers are masters of their elements, and can use their full summoning powers against you. As a collectable card game, the decks and cards are made up of different coloured decks, i.e. a white, blue, black, red and green deck. These are available in the game and simply need to be unlocked by defeating the A.I., though unlocking all the cards for each deck will take a large number of games. Each deck represents the creatures within it, for example a white deck is full of beneficial cards (such as those that can heal), whereas a green deck is all about growth and powerful creatures. A black deck is generally filled with nasty spells which can take an opponents health down rather rapidly.
Each deck has unique strengths and weaknesses, which can be used very successfully against an opponent if luck is on your side. The green deck has an enormous weakness to flying creatures, and in many cases the sheer strength of a green deck can be taken down by very few flying creatures. Luck plays a factor, as when decks are made up they are shuffled and therefore what cards you draw is almost entirely down to chance.
Planeswalkers can discover (play) lands to act as mana which can then be used to summon creatures from their hand. Similarly, mana is used to summon spells and artefacts, and is essentially a form of currency in a game. This means that the more mana a Planeswalker has, the more minion creatures and spells they can summon in a turn. Creatures have varying attack and defence, with some being rather daunting in their strength. Similarly magic spells have varying effects, but also varying cost with some spells being able to remove all of an opponents creatures from play.
Rounds involve assaulting the enemy with your minions and spells, while they have the chance to defend with their own minions. The minions are all represented by their relevant cards, and not with some fancy graphical battle engine, though this really encourages you to use your imagination, and thanks to the beautiful artwork this is made relatively easy. Due to the range of spells and creatures, and decks and abilities that creatures can have, Magic: The Gathering becomes one of the most complex collectable card games available. Fortunately though, the Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers Xbox 360 Arcade title has such a well implemented help and information system, as well as a tutorial, that this is a negligible factor.
This tutorial system is thorough and helpful, and somewhat fun. It is brief and to the point, and really helps the player to get a grasp of the basics. A fantastic feature is the the pop-up help which highlights card attributes that you as the player have not seen before, explaining their features. Thankfully, this help feature is never far away, even when you forget a feature, as you simply have to highlight the card and tap the left bumper to bring up the help window again, already showing the relevant information. Rarely are tutorials and help systems done so well, and its a relief considering the depth of what is being taught. There's no way with words to describe the strategy and depth that Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers requires and provides. A bonus really is the beauty with which it is presented.
The cards from the original card game are beautifully drawn and drive the fantasy, and these are 100% implemented into the game with all cards being visible, and quickly able to be zoomed in on by using the triggers. The game board itself looks fantastic too, with the avatar of your player and of your opponent being visible, and all cards viewable on the table. The battles are well done, in that both cards are pulled up (attacker and defender) and the defence points are taken off each relevant to the attack points of the other card. This is animated, but is done in a way that is tolerable and won’t drive you nuts after the first few times that you do it. They can also all be skipped, which is great later on when a fast game becomes a good game.
Overall the visual implementation of the game is done incredibly well, considering how easy it could be to irritate players with a graphical overkill. Its clean, and easy to use for the most part, and should appeal to new players and Magic: The Gathering veterans alike. I found myself sinking hours and hours into the game, simply not able to get enough of it. The A.I. provides an excellent challenge and is more cunning than I would have liked at times, but certainly provides a challenge worthy of a human opponent.
The game allows you to play a campaign to beat the Planeswalkers, which is the area where you will unlock extra cards for your decks. This can also be done with a friend on the same console in a kind of co-op. What is very unfortunate is that this co-op mode doesn’t extend onto Xbox Live making it impossible to play cooperatively with a friend. However the usual ranked and casual games are there to play, against either a single online opponent or multiple opponents. This is done really well with round timers ensuring the matches don’t take too long, but long enough to plan your moves and make your attacks. A mentored mode is also included where you can help new players learn the ropes, or join friends to teach them how to play. The only real difference between a normal vs. game and mentored mode however is that there are no round timers, meaning that you have enough time to ask your mentor for help and get the support you need, without the added pressure of time. At the end of this you can give your mentor a rating, which can help you find good mentors from bad. This is a nice addition, though with the solid tutorial and help system it does feel somewhat unnecessary.
Duels of the Planeswalkers is a game that requires only a small amount of skill to get good at, but considerable experience to master. You will need a good knowledge of the opponents deck and of your own, and will need to hone your skills. Thankfully, Duels of the Planeswalkers is so enjoyable that this becomes a breeze. It has never been so fun to play Magic: The Gathering, and it's hugely satisfying to consider the wealth of new players being introduced to what always has been a very fine card game. The game virtually cannot be faulted. It is yet to be seen however if players will be sold new cards through downloadable content, though it could be assumed that they will. However at the right price point even this should be quite manageable.
Needless to say though, the decks provided with the game are certainly enough to give the game a damn good thrashing. A nice bonus is that if you get in quick with buying this game, Wizards of the Coast will provide you with a free limited edition Magic: The Gathering playing card to get you started on building a real deck.