I’ve been playing a lot of Magic: The Gathering recently. For the uninitiated, Magic is a collectible card game released by Wizards of the Coast in 1993. You play land cards, which provide the mana that you need to summon monsters and cast spells. Magic is mostly played one on one versus another player, which is why the Xbox Live game released last year was titled Duels of the Planeswalkers (see Susan Arendt’s review here). The XBLA game recently got a second expansion pack, which introduced cards and keywords from the latest block of cards in the meatspace game. But even more exciting for us PC gamers, WOTC has also developed a PC version of Duels which will be available June 15th on Steam.
As a PC gamer, I may be biased, but the PC Duels of the Planeswalkers is much easier to control than the Xbox Live game. You can zoom into every card on the table by hovering the cursor and spinning the mouse wheel. And if you just want to get the basics, simply holding the cursor over the card pops up a balloon with the cards most pertinent details (first strike, flying, etc.). Most commands are available through buttons that you can press with the mouse, but nearly all commands are also hotkeyed, which you can change to suit your needs. By default, you can quickly tap Spacebar to pause the game to play a vicious Counterspell or a timely Giant Growth, or hit Tab to cycle through the damage animations. By allowing such fine-tuned control, the PC Duels let’s you forget about the UI and focus on the fun of smashing your opponent with hordes of rampaging … Cloud Sprites.
Another plus on the PC is that Duels offers much more customization. Other than the obvious like graphics detail sliders, you can also choose to remove the attack animations from the game. I don’t know if it bothered you, but once I saw 2 or 3 three of the damage resolution animations, I got bored and wanted to get back to being a Planeswalker. The core of the game is about making choices, not watching somewhat abstracted damage animations. In the XBLA version you are forced to press Y to cycle through each attack, which can end up wasting a lot of time when you have multiple units attacking. But on the PC, you can just turn off said animations and concentrate on the game.
All of the nuts and bolts aside, Duels of the Planewalkers showcases just what an elegant and logical game that Magic can be. Like playing Monopoly over and over again, condensing Magic into its essence by playing it electronically focuses on the statistical analysis. Should I sacrifice this 1/1 flyer to block that 6/4 Craw Wurm? Should I not summon this creature to save mana to counter his creatures on the next turn? Playing Magic this way enhances the strategic decision-making.
The first expansion pack offered more decks to unlock and the latest expansion released for the XBLA version is no different. Most of the cards are pulled from the latest block of sets (Zendikar and Worldwake mostly) currently in circulation for the card game. You get 8 more matches in the campaign mode which allows you to unlock some really kick ass decks, including a nasty Landfall deck. Creatures with the Landfall keyword gain bonuses and abilities whenever you play a land card, so when a deck is stacked with cards that allow you to put a land card in play (even tapped) it can quickly get deadly. You can also finally unlock and play with Nicol Bolas’ “Eons of Evil” deck which was incredibly hard to beat in the original game. It would be great if you could unlock the black vampire deck that is the final boss in the campaign used by Planeswalker Sorin Markov, but they’ve got to save something for the DLC, right?
Playing multiplayer online via Xbox Live is a lot of fun. While playing against the AI is enjoyable, I encourage trying to join an online match as early and often as you can. Most of the people who are in matches have unlocked most or all of the cards that are available for the biggest decks. While that may seem like an advantage against smaller or lesser decks, that doesn’t mean you can’t still win. Even decks stacked with huge creatures get can mana-starved (not enough lands to cast the truly devasting spells) and some of the starter decks have tried and true strategies that have stuck around because they work. I love playing with the blue control deck against the big guys, for example, because I can almost always counter the 5/5 flying dragons that they want to toss at me and piddle them to death with Cloud Sprites and Air Elementals.
If you have a hunger for playing Magic but don’t want to hoof it down to your friendly local gaming store, you now have a few more options in the PC version of Duels available on Steam and the new expansion on Xbox Live. The PC version has the content from the first expansion bundled in, and offers more customization and finer control, while the XBLA game has the most up to date cards and content. Pick your poison. Or mana color. Or whatever.
Duels of the Planeswalkers for PC
Bottom Line: More control and customization allows the logic and fun of Magic to shine on the PC.
Recommendation: Buy this version if you like to tweak your experience and don’t mind not having the latest cards.[rating=4]
Duels of the Planeswalkers: Expansion Pack Two on XBLA
Bottom Line: If you enjoyed the original and the first expansion pack, the newest cards and decks are worth the 400 points ($5).
Recommendation: Pick up this expansion if only to use “Eons of Evil” to smash your opponents into a blue-black goo.[rating=4]
Greg Tito would so tap Chandra Nalaar.