Review by halberd25

"Its core mechanics may be better, but this one feels much more tedious than the others"

This year's installment of “Duels of the Planeswalkers,” a somewhat streamlined version of the popular trading card game “Magic: the Gathering,” has arrived. A number of improvements have been made to the game's formula, but its back-to-basics approach has become even more basic when compared to last year's edition. While past games were able to feel like solid games in their own right, “Duels 2013" actually feels like a marketing vehicle. Though it can still be enjoyable, especially when played with friends, the inclusion of blatant advertising and nickel-and-diming tactics similar to those in free-to-play games serve to frustrate and cheapen the experience.

For anyone unfamiliar with “Magic: the Gathering,” the collectible card game has players build decks and duel to the death. To play cards, players must use “mana” they gain from different types of land they control. There are five colors of mana, each aligned with a particular type of land. For example, blue mana comes from islands, so islands are a staple in decks that contain blue cards. Decks can utilize any or all of the mana types, though they commonly revolve around two or three colors.

The game tends to offer enjoyment not only through the gameplay itself, but also in constructing the decks beforehand. Many players enjoy seeing how different cards work together and envisioning new ways to win.

While the deck combinations in real life are virtually infinite, previous “Duels” games have received some criticism for their extremely limited deck building suites. The first game featured eight decks that all began with 60 cards in them, 60 being both the smallest legal deck size and the standard size most players use. Through continued dueling, players could unlock 15 new cards for each deck. They could simply add those cards in, or — more commonly — swap out the junkier cards with the newly unlocked cards to get back down to a nice, lean 60 cards.

Though the lack of customization frustrated some players, these restrictions did keep the playing field fairly level. While there is always strategy involved in deck-building, the physical card game tends to reward the players with the most money to spend. There are simply some cards that are more powerful than others, and those cards tend to fetch the higher prices. By restricting players to limited card sets, “Duels” placed more of an emphasis on intelligent play, while still allowing for a narrow focus on deck tweaking.

“Duels 2012,” the second game in the series, offered players 10 decks in its basic package. Each deck still had a pool of 15 cards to unlock, though this was later expanded to 20 each with an expansion pack. Five extra cards may not seem like much, but every card added means another one can be removed to get back to a deck of 60. Not only that, but the decks in “Duels 2012" were a lot of fun to play. Ancient Depths was a particularly fun, blue/green deck built around playing massive creatures at a surprisingly fast rate.

Like Ancient Depths, many of the decks in “Duels 2012" were multicolored, meaning they contained more than one type of mana. There is nothing wrong with mono-color decks. Every color has its own strengths. For example, green mana can generally cast large, powerful creatures at cheaper-than-average costs.

While that's certainly a nice quality, green is lacking on other fronts. It usually lacks flying creatures. White and blue decks can often focus on attacking from the air and soar over those green goliaths. Green does have some solutions of its own, but pairing green with white or blue can give it some powerful fliers to attack in the air and on the ground. Alternatively, pairing green with red or black can offer green some nice destructive spells to destroy those fliers outright.

These are crude, oversimplified examples, but the point stands. Having a multicolored deck, as opposed to a mono-colored one, tends to make the game more complex, more interesting and more diverse. It usually offers a more flexible play strategy and a more powerful deck overall.

I've gone to such great lengths to explain this because the initial deck offering in “Duels 2013" is a huge disappointment when compared with last year's iteration.

There are still 10 decks available in “Duels 2013,” however nine of those decks are mono-colored, leaving only one multicolored deck. This is in comparison to “Duels 2012,” which had four multicolored and six mono-colored decks. Granted, there are still different strategies to employ within a single color. White, for example, has two mono-colored decks in “Duels 2013.” One is a “white weenie” deck, with a focus on creating massive amounts of small creatures and making them stronger or simply overwhelming the opponent. The other mono-white deck tries to gain as much life as possible and stall the game until larger creatures arrive, while focusing on cards that benefit specifically from gaining life.

Even with these two different strategies, the massive overlap of mono-colored decks is disheartening. Overall, the gameplay and the strategies feel less dynamic than in “Duels 2012.” This is in spite of the expanded card list.

Each of the game's 10 decks now has 30 cards to unlock. This may seem like a blessing, but in many cases it is not. In the life-gaining white deck, for example, the extra cards are mostly just more variations on ways to gain life. In “Duels 2012,” tinkering with a deck could actually change the way it played. Trinity of Elements was a blue/green/red deck that came in the final expansion. By editing the deck, players could remove blue entirely and create a quick, aggressive contender. It was also possible to keep blue in and focus on stalling tactics, pushing into late game and winning with massive creatures that were difficult to remove.

This kind of flexibility feels absent in “Duels 2013.” Players are given 10 decks that each have one strategy in mind. It may be possible to customize a deck, but it will still fall within the strategy the developers have chosen. Now with more cards for each deck, unlocking new cards feels like more of a chore than ever.

Another aspect of the game still sorely missing is the ability to change land counts. Most decks in the game use about 24 or 25 land for a 60-card deck. There is no way to change this, and decks rarely need that much land. This still results in late-scenarios where players draw land after land, searching for an answer. With so many cards to unlock, this would be the perfect time to allow players access to the deck's mana base, but the developers missed this opportunity entirely.

Cards are still unlocked after each victory, both offline and online. Upon each win, players gain access to one new card for the deck they were using. In “Duels 2012,” multiple copies of the same card could be unlocked at the same time. While there may have been 15 cards to unlock in total for each deck, if there were two or three of the same card to obtain, players would get access to them simultaneously. “Duels 2013" disbands the groups of multiples and spreads them throughout the unlocking process. This means that players will have to win 30 games with a deck to unlock all of its cards. Simple math reveals a total of 300 wins necessary to unlock all of the cards in the game.

Unlocking new content usually offers incentive to players to keep playing. In “Duels 2013,” though, the amount of work required seems awfully disproportionate to the rewards offered. It's fairly common to spend five or 10 minutes playing a mundane encounter to unlock another copy of a card that is already in the deck. Chances are, you might not want the card that's in the deck already, let alone another copy.

Unlocking new cards is somewhat necessary to proceed in the offline campaigns, and it's crucial to remain competitive in online multiplayer. Because of the sheer volume of cards and the tedium involved, unlocking new cards feels less like making fun new discoveries and more like farming and grinding in RPGs and MMOs.

Of course, the process can be skipped. It's possible to unlock all the cards in a deck with the click of a button (and a nominal fee of $1 per deck), though the feature is strangely absent at the game's launch.

Anyway, here we arrive at the crux of the matter; the game is a massive marketing vehicle for Wizards of the Coast.

The ads in the game, while not extremely commonplace, are absolutely shameless. When they're “unlocked,” the game files the ads under the “extras” category suggesting this is what players are really working for. The end goal the developers have in mind is to see all the ads in time for the release of Core Set 2013 in July.

Several screens even taunt players with powerful Planeswalker cards, which are strangely absent from any of the decklists. Planeswalkers were introduced to the physical game and “Magic: the Gathering Online” a few years ago, but the “Duels” series has yet to include them. Some might say they would offset the balance of the game or confuse new players, but Core Set 2013, a set designed with the basics in mind, will include them. Again, it all points to the developers strongly encouraging players to buy physical cards.

As for the single-player campaign, it has been slightly re-worked. In addition to facing the unlockable decks, there are new encounters throughout the campaign. Thankfully these are optional because they tend to get repetitive. Encounter decks break the rule where decks can only contain four copies of any one card (excluding basic lands). They play a simple strategy that repeats itself over and over. The developers state encounters can be useful to test a new deck strategy since they are predictable, but they tend to be obnoxious. At least they offer an easy and fairly reliable way to farm for new card unlocks, but they are still tedious.

Puzzle mode returns again, where players are given pre-constructed scenarios and must figure out how to win in one turn. There's also the new Planechase mode, which replaces Archenemy. Planechase is a four-player free-for-all with a deck of over-sized cards that sits in the middle (which is slightly different from the “true” rules of Planechase). Card in the planar decks represent locations or events. The location cards have a continual effect that alters the game for everyone. During a player's turn, he or she may roll a planar die. Four of the sides are blank and are without consequence. One side of the die activates a second ability on the plane card, and the final side will remove the plane card from play and turn over a new card from the planar deck. If it's a location, the abilities take effect immediately and play proceeds. If it's an event card, the actions occur, and then a new card is flipped over from the planar deck.

Planechase is an interesting mode that could be a lot of fun with human players. Large free-for-all games of “Magic” often require delicate political negotiations and alliances. All of that intrigue is lost when playing against AI, however. They seem to do what they please, which is often ganging up on the human player rather than teaming up against whichever deck could eventually pose the greatest threat.

All of the previously mentioned complaints are a shame because the core mechanics behind “Duels 2013" are certainly improved over “Duels 2012.” ”Duels 2013" finally includes the end step. Though novice players are unlikely to notice, it's a key step in the physical card game. Players' turns are divided into several phases, and the end step was conspicuously missing from the other “Duels” games. Certain abilities trigger in the end step, or it may behoove a player to take action during the end step as there are certain limitations to what can be played during it.

The game also recognize optional triggered abilities. “Duels 2012" forced players to read any card that says they “may” do something as they “must” perform this action. There were instances were players would be forced to harm themselves against their will. Again, though novice players may not appreciate this subtle change, more advance players can now play their decks more properly.

Targeting has been improved as well. In “Duels 2012,” it was often tricky to target the correct card in a stack of enchantments and/or equipment. Now players can zoom in and sort through the stack of cards attached to a permanent to ensure they target the card(s) they intended to.

This is also the first game in the “Duels” series that allows players to toggle how they want to tap their mana. Previously, the AI would try to guess how a player was going to play and force them to use their land in a specific way. It often predicted incorrectly, and this is possibly the most welcome addition to the game, but it's not really being utilized. Mono-color decks do not need to worry about how to tap mana, as it's only an issue when playing multicolored spells and juggling different land types. Since 90 percent of the decks or mono-colored, only one launch deck actually benefits from this new addition.

Past trends and this strange omission of multicolored decks both point to DLC decks sure to come.

“Duels of the Planeswalkers” could be a strong series of games in its own right. To make it so, Wizards of the Coast will have to stop babying its players. Sure, the games may encourage some players to begin or return to playing the physical card game. It seems more likely that the “Duels” series ultimately appeals to those with some knowledge of the game, but who don't have the time and money to invest in the cards, or don't have players located around them to play with. By making “Duels 2013" more of recruiting tool than its predecessors, Wizards runs the risk of ostracizing a whole group of semi-casual, veteran players.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 06/25/12

Game Release: Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 (US, 06/20/12)


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