Reviewed on Playstation 3
Magic: The Gathering (MTG) has been the quintessential collectible card game for nearly 20 years but, until recently, it hasn’t made a splash in the video game market. There have been numerous MTG games in the past but none found success until 2009’s Duels of the Planeswalkers. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is the third game in the series bringing the newest set of cards to consoles along with some gameplay improvements and new game modes.
In MTG you assume the role of a Planeswalker, a powerful wizard who travels the multiverse to battle other Planeswalkers. Your deck of cards represents your magical skills; It contains the various spells you know as well as the creatures and weapons you can summon to protect yourself or damage your opponent. Both players begin the game with 20 life and must use their deck of spells to take their opponent down to 0 life. There are thousands of MTG cards, each with their own abilities and sets of rules, for you to choose from. Building decks and strategies can be complex but is a huge reason why MTG games are diverse and can be so much fun.
Detailing the intricacies of gameplay and deckbuilding are out of the scope of this review but those interested should check out the official How to Play MTG video series.
To a new player MTG can be extremely intimidating but Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 does a great job easing you into the deep gameplay. New to the series is a fully voiced tutorial level that holds your hand step-by-step through a choreographed battle. Some of the more advanced abilities are left out of the tutorial but during gameplay you can access detailed explanations of any cards on screen at the time.
When competing against the AI there are three difficulty levels to choose from. You can even change the difficulty mid-battle if you are having a rough time or need more of a challenge. The AI is definitely capable and should be a challenge for most players but veteran planeswalkers may find it too easy, even on the highest difficulty. Sometimes, when there is a large number of cards on screen, the AI can take a very long time to make decisions and will start to make dubious and inefficient choices. Winning under these circumstances is unfulfilling, especially because it tends to happen towards the end of long and previously difficult battles.
After the tutorial you can participate in the Campaign mode. In the campaign you face off against the AI, occasionally unlocking new decks to play with when you win. Most of these battles are traditional 1 on 1 duels but some feature the new 4 player Planechase mode as well as some puzzle-like battles called Challenges and Encounters.
One the more unexpected changes to this year’s game is the introduction of a very slight element of story. Every few battles in the campaign you change locations and are given a brief description of the plane you have traveled to, and before certain battles a short cut scene or text bio is displayed giving you some background on the origin and motivations of your opponent. These additions feel pointless when delivered in such small doses and failed to interest me in the MTG lore. Believe it or not, the stories of the MTG universe are featured in dozens of novels and have a huge following, so there is an opportunity for narrative to have a place in the series and I hope they improve on this in future iterations.
Outside of the Campaign there are three playable game modes: Two-Headed Giant, a 2v2 team battle; standard Free For All with up to 4 players; and the new Planechase mode which adds special cards and dice that modify the rules of the game on the fly. All three modes can be played online or offline.
There are 10 decks in total, covering a wide range of play styles. Each deck also has 30 unlockable cards which are awarded to you one at a time after each win. Once you unlock enough cards for a particular deck you can choose to remove a limited number of cards from your deck but this is the full extent of the customization allowed. There is no way to fully mix and match cards to create your own unique deck. This is a big disappointment because deckbuilding is such a integral part of the strategy and engagement of MTG. Fans have asked for full deck customization since the start of the series but Wizards seems content with only offering it in their PC title; Magic Online, a microtransaction based game that allows full deck customization, trading, and online play.
Even with occasionally wonky AI and a lack of full deck customization, Duels 2013 is a simple and extremely fun way to sink your teeth into MTG. Truly dedicated players looking for the complete MTG experience may want to check out Magic Online but at $10 (about half the price of a physical deck) Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is truly a great value for players of all skill levels.