I've always wanted to learn how to play Magic: The Gathering, but the huge financial investment, coupled with the sheer amount of information you need to amass in order to be any good, always made it seem too daunting a task. Duels of the Planeswalkers (XBLA), solves both of those problems beautifully, letting newbies learn the game at their own pace without asking them to sacrifice their life's savings to get at the really "good" cards. Even Magic veterans will find a thing or two to like.
If you're completely unfamiliar with Magic: The Gathering, allow me first to marvel at your ability to dodge a huge aspect of geek culture for the past decade, then tell you that it's an intricate, well-crafted card battling game that you play from your hand of color-coded cards. The object of each game of Magic is to reduce your opponent's hit points to zero by pummeling him with spells, creatures, and artifacts. With hundreds of cards at your disposal, you'll have no trouble finding a style all your own, but you'll need to be flexible, too: Techniques that work against one opponent won't make a dent in the next one.
The first challenge of learning a game like Magic is simply becoming acquainted with the myriad of cards you can use, but Planeswalkers helps ease that burden somewhat by forcing you to use a specific deck. You start off with a relatively simple green deck (Forest-based magic) that you have to use to finish off the first several opponents in the Campaign mode. By the time you defeat the enemy that gives you the Red deck, you've learned enough about the basics of the game to begin expanding your repertoire. By the time you make it to the White deck, you've learned even more, and so on throughout the entire Campaign. You choose the specific deck you'd like to use before going into battle, and will swiftly learn what color works best against what. You can unlock new cards for your various decks by using them to defeat other players, both AI and online, but the core cards for each deck remain the same, no matter what.
This lack of customization will justifiably frustrate more experienced players - part of Magic's appeal is the ability to craft your perfect deck of destruction, after all. But by limiting players to very specific deck constructions, Duels of the Planeswalkers not only helps new or more casual players focus on mastering the basics, but also levels the online playing field. If everyone has the same cards available to them, winning will be more of a matter of skill than bank account.
To help you hone your technique, Planeswalkers offers Challenge mode. Each Challenge presents the same basic premise: You can win the game in one turn if you can just figure out the right way to use the cards you've been given. In some cases, it's pretty obvious, but in others the solution is a deliciously devious manipulation of the cards that will show you the true depth of Magic's gameplay. The sad news is that there are only eight Challenges to be had in Planeswalkers; we'll have to hope that more will come as future downloadable content.
When you've completed the campaign and the challenges, it's time to dive into versus play, which you can do over Xbox Live, or locally with a buddy. You can even team up for some co-op play, in which you and your teammate square off against a pair of opponents. It's called the "two-headed giant" campaign, because although you each control your own deck, you share hit points - the same goes for your opponents. It's an inventive way to add another level of strategy to the game, and somewhat helps work around not being able to blend individual decks however you'd like.
Duels of the Planeswalkers has a lot going for it, but is still rough around the edges in places. Maintaining a connection for online play can be frustratingly problematic (try making your own match and letting players come to you, that seems to work most of the time) and the cards don't always seem to work the way they should. One dragon, for example, has a special ability that allows it to deal a certain amount of damage to your opponent based on the number of lands you choose to tap. Great ability, except I never found a way to actually use it. Either it didn't get programmed in, or the way to use it is so well-hidden and counterintuitive that I couldn't find it after several minutes of searching. Either way, it cost me a match.
Bottom Line: Duels of the Planeswalkers is easily one of the best introductions to Magic: The Gathering that a new player could hope for, and throws in enough features to keep experienced players happy, too. It has a few bugs and could stand to offer more cards and challenges, but still delivers an addictive and satisfying experience.
Recommendation: If you've never cared about Magic before, Duels of the Planeswalkers won't change your mind, but if you've always wanted to give it a try, this is the way to do it.
Susan Arendt is still too chicken to play against actual human opponents, but she's getting there.