Holy crap, is it really 2012 already? Man I have to reset my Mayan calendar to … nevermind, we’re screwed.

Magic is one of those games that never seems to go away. As I’ve documented elsewhere, I played Magic before and well after it was cool, but here in 2012, with semi-annual sets and endless unit sales, Magic is alive and flourishing. Even the Canadians are doing it, and doing it well.

A lot of the recent success is due to a little game called Duels of the Planewalkers, which debuted on Xbox Live Arcade in 2009 before seeing a release on Steam and PSN in 2010. The game was a bite-sized version of the collectible card game, sure, but it was enough to entice former Magic fans, like yours truly, as well as a new breed of gamer that might not have picked up a starter deck at their FLGS if they hadn’t tried it out online first. That’s due to the excellent design of Stainless Games in delivering a package that felt true to the source game, but without the need to throw down excessive amounts of cash on cards or to consume Mountain Dew and Cheetos in public.

Wizards of the Coast, designers and gatekeepers of Magic the Gathering, tapped Stainless to work on a new version, and Duels 2012 is a great attempt at modernizing the interface and polishing the chrome. Keeping up the metaphor, they installed some new options onto the old chassis, like Archenemy and Two-Headed Giant multiplayer modes, while fine tuning the engine with a more advanced single-player experience. And while you still can’t design your own decks from scratch, you can at least now remove extraneous cards after you’ve unlocked some great 11/11 behemoths in the campaign.

The ongoing fantasy storyline of the Magic universe hasn’t always been the IP’s strong suit but at least Wizards is trying. In the Duels 2012 campaign, you play against several Planeswalkers with their own personalities, like Chandra Nalaar the firey lady with goggles, and Jace Beleren, the blue trickster mage always out to stifle your magics. In all honesty, I never grokked the story behind all these characters, but I still like that they are there. The loading screens before each match are still interminably long, but the weight is softened by the tidbits of a tale parceled out there … at least until you’ve read them all.

User interface is king in a game like this, and I liked the small alterations in how the information in Duels 2012 is presented. Gone are the static numerals for life totals, they are replaced by an easier to read at a glance life bar for each player. The different phases of your turn are more clearly displayed, and the status bars to wait for phase to end make sense rather than circles.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some nagging problems. Even when playing against the AI, the built in wait times for each phase seem a bit silly. Such pauses make sense when you are dealing with actual people who need to make decisions on the other side of an ethernet cable, but I feel like much of my time playing Duels 2012 is spent waiting for status bars to fill. Good thing I had Weird Al Yankovic’s new album to listen to in my game room or I would have been miserable. There’s only so much I can listen to Duels 2012 atmospheric soundtrack before it starts to sound like Pure Moods.

Playing against the Archenemy is a fun diversion. You can play as one of three teammates against an uber-opponent with twice the life and extremely powerful “scheme” cards that play each turn. Teaming up with a friend with local coop or online is cool to take down the big guys in the campaign to unlock more goodies, but random multiplayer Archenemy didn’t hold my attention. Maybe that’s because you never get to play as the Archenemy, but that could be my bully fantasy talking.

The Two-Headed Giant option is fun, though. This Magic variant has been around awhile, with two teammates sharing a turn and a life pool of 30. Matching up with people online is a lot like 2 vs. 2 in a game like Starcraft II, you could get a teammate that’s really skilled or one that can drag you down so I wish there was a Two-Headed Giant campaign to go with the Archenemy one. Well, I guess that has expansion pack written all over it.

I’ll play a random ranked match or two online when I feel jaunty, but I’m much more of a single player at heart so that’s why I appreciated the advancement in the AI and the interspersed challenges in the campaign. Playing on the medium difficulty will certainly kick your ass and have you hitting the menu to restart the duel more than a few times once you get to the harder Planewalkers like Sorin Markov’s damn vampire deck. The Archenemy campaign is even more brutal, and you need a combination of skill and luck to persevere, never mind the tough final match against Karn in the double-secret campaign called Revenge. The AI will make a boneheaded move or two, but, in general, is a worthy opponent.

The downfall for a game like Duels 2012 is that it only provides a taste of Magic without delivering the real fun of coming up with a concept and assembling a deck from many different parts. Crazy core fans might be enticed by the new cards previewed here that will appear in the 2012 set, but there is little else for them. The ease of play and the well-made interface is much more focused on the casual player, and if you always wanted to see what Magic was like, downloading Duels 2012 is a great place to start. Just hide your wallet before you go into the game store or you’ll soon find yourself $200 poorer.

Bottom Line: The engine of the game hasn’t changed, but the chrome is super-polished and new multiplayer modes are great new features.

Recommendation: If you’ve never heard of Magic, Duels 2012 is worth playing if you like games with equal parts strategy and luck. If you have heard of Magic, you should probably download this game unless you have 4 Black Lotuses up your sleeve already.

[rating=4]

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Developer: Stainless Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform(s): PC, XBLA, PSN
Available from: Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network

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