History Repeats Itself
When you have a formula that works, why bother changing it? Magic: The Gathering has certainly had a winning gameplay equation in its card game for years now, and this was replicated quite successfully with 2009’s Duel of the Planeswalkers game on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. Offering multiple unlockable pre-made card decks, an off-line campaign, and robust online matchmaking for heated card battles, there were still a few quibbles that could have been improved upon.
Three years and two iterations later, Duel of the Planeswalkers 2013 comes along and pushes almost every aspect of the original game to new heights, successfully reigniting the competitive card spark within me. With a few improvements where they needed to be made, a brand new gameplay mode, and new cards and decks, Magic 2013 brings a lot of juicy goodness to the table without reinventing the wheel.
Plane as Day
Magic 2013 offers several single-player campaign options. Of course, there’s the normal campaign consisting of duels with other Planeswalkers and encounters using pre-stacked decks to defeat, for a total of twenty-two unique match-ups. As you move through the campaign, you’ll unlock new decks from each vanquished foe, and each time you use a deck victoriously, you’ll also unlock a new card for future use with that particular deck. Aside from this mode, other single-player modes are unlocked on your way through the campaign; Challenge mode makes a return with ten all-new, mind-melting Magic tests of skill, and Revenge mode pits you against improved versions of the Planeswalkers, with deadly new tactics and crushingly fierce deck skills to overcome.
But the biggest new addition is that of Planechase mode, which introduces a heaping helping of chaos into the structured pacing of your run-of-the-mill Magic match. To put it simply, Planechase is a standard 4-man match-up – every man for himself – with the addition of two devastatingly devious new variables: plane cards and the planar die.
As if battling it out with three others wasn’t enough to keep up with on a mental level – with every person creating strategies, casting spells, and scheming for board domination in so many ways, it’s easy to lose oversight -, Planechase mode takes all of these machinations, puts them in a blender set to “Scramble to Shit” mode, and hits the “On” switch; in addition to your and your opponents’ spells to keep track of, the setting of the game will now have a direct effect on the outcome of each round. At any given time, the active plane card will show where you and the other combatants are holding court, and each plane card has its own active or passive effects. For example, Mount Keralia will damage creatures and players alike, based on how much pressure has accumulated within the volcano (one counter for each upkeep phase it was active), or the plane of Prahv, which restricts all players to either casting a spell or attacking with creatures each turn, but not both.
Then there’s the planar die, which goes hand-in-hand with the plane cards. During each turn, you may cast mana to roll the die (more mana means more die rolls), but each player does so at their own peril. Rolling the planar die may have no effect on the game at all. However, by rolling the die, you take the chance of planeswalking to a brand new location (with new game parameters) or activating the current plane’s “chaos” ability. Chaos abilities are further activated effects, either helpful or harmful in nature, which unpredictably toss the game into further turmoil. Chaos abilities can include anything, from Grove of the Dreampods’ ability which lets you return a creature from your graveyard to the battlefield, to the plane of Stensia’s ability to let all your creatures do instant damage to any target player for one turn.
Heading into a Planechase duel is a gamble at best; with an unpredictable deck, an even more unpredictable planar die, and three opponents all out to destroy each other, it’s virtually impossible to make any strategy lasting longer than a turn, and each upkeep phase requires a brand new battle plan to be laid out. However, for the thrill of an unpredictable element, this is at the very least an interesting new addition to the Magic formula.
That Human Touch
As anyone who’s been around any of the previous video game iterations can attest to, multiplayer is where the real meat of the game lies. Once you’ve unlocked all decks, cards, challenges and modes, going online for some human competition opens the game up to virtually limitless replayability. Participate in standard 1-on-1 bouts, or take on two or even three opponents at once. Two-Headed Giant mode, where two teams of two go head-to-head with each other, returns once again, and the new Planechase mode is also available online, for fast, frantic gameplay – this one’s for the true experts who can set up complex attack and defend lineups in their sleep.
Don’t expect to find much in the way of mercy when you head online, though; the competition is fierce, the new cards and spells devastating in their efficiency, and each deck is balanced for unique gameplay approaches. Whereas the “Pack Instinct” favors epic beasts that pack a devastating punch, Ajani’s “Celestial Light” deck is all about hit point preservation, and so on. It helps that each deck is rated in its creature size, speed, flexibility and card synergy before you choose which one to take into battle with you. In addition, a dedicated deck manager provides details and stats on how many cards of varying casting costs are in a deck, and the percentages of creature spells to other types of cards. Each deck starts with sixty cards, and can be expanded up to ninety by using it victoriously; as in the last game, however, you still have the option of removing certain cards that aren’t to your liking from a deck, as long as you end up with a deck of sixty or more cards. The ability to combine and create your very own custom decks, however, is still not included. Players too impatient to unlock cards the tried-and-tested way can pony up some real-world cash to gain deck unlock keys, and quickly take a maximized deck into battle with you.
I found the versatility in decks to be refreshing, though not novel by any means. Some decks are meant for setting up an unbeatable defense, while others thrive on chipping and nipping away at the opponent’s health in incremental amounts. The decks are well-balanced across the board, with skill and luck being more determining factors in match outcomes than which decks are being used. One notable exception to this I encountered was when playing against the “Crosswinds” deck, which includes a specific lethal two-card combination that effectively shuts the opponent out of the game for the remainder of the game, granting the player using it unlimited back-to-back turns; perhaps this will get altered with a future patch (feel free to use this trick yourself for now, just don’t tell anyone you heard it from us!).
The Final Verdict
Ultimately, while Magic 2013 retains all the charm and addictiveness of its predecessors, it hasn’t progressed leaps and bounds beyond what last year’s offering brought to the table. Planechase mode is a welcome and inventive, but ultimately a time-costly one that’s likely to cause more than a few undeserved ragequits. Other than that, it really comes down to whether players want access to the new cards and decks. If, however, you’ve been absent from the virtual Magic tables for a few years (like myself), this year’s installment will offer a much sleeker, sexier layout with plenty to like and love. It is tailored just as much toward long-time fans as it is toward players new to the fold, with a fully voiced tutorial and the ability to learn more about a card’s special features (like “Vigilance” or “Hexproof”) on the fly mid-match with the push of a button. The artwork continues to be gorgeous, and the animated menu backgrounds and cutscene sequences based on actual card artwork are nice touches (though the time spent on loading screens for even simple actions is a bit heavy-handed); just be aware that the core game hasn’t changed much, and you’re in for ultimately more of the same. But – in my humble estimation – in the case of Magic, that’s a good thing.