Insomnia | Reviews

Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers

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By Chris Gesualdi / July 24, 2009


Duels of the Planeswalkers is the latest attempt to bring the excitement of the popular Magic: The Gathering trading card game to the digital realm. It's something that's been tried before, with results ranging from a bizarre trackball-controlled arcade game that was never widely released (Magic: The Gathering - Armageddon), to a machine that prints money. However, relatively unknown developer Stainless Games seemed to have the right idea in mind when they announced their take on the franchise. Rather than taking this already popular game and trying to shoehorn it into a new genre, their plan was to simply stick to the basics, creating a full-fledged simulation of the card game itself. DOTP promised to provide a streamlined version of the Magic experience, one allowing for the kind of old-school spell slinging that would intrigue both seasoned veterans and new players alike. It's sad then to see the finished product: an apparently rushed title, with piss-poor A.I., asinine design decisions and one of the most humdrum representations possible of this otherwise thrilling card game.

For those who don't know Magic's rules, here's a basic run down. Both players start with a deck of cards and 20 life points each. Decks contain a mixture of spell and land cards, and each player starts with a seven card hand they can progressively "mulligan", trading in for a hand with one less card than the last. You can play one land a turn, which in turn can be "tapped" (turned sideways) to pay for spells. If a spell costs 2R (two and a red) you would tap two land that produce any color of mana and another land which produces red mana, the most common being a mountain (likewise, Islands produce Blue (U), Swamps produce Black (B), Plains produce White (W) and Forests produce Green (G)). There are various types of spells, from one-time effects like instants and sorceries, to powerful artifacts and relics which alter the rules of the game, and likely most important, the creatures, which one uses to attack their opponent and reduce his life total down to zero. It's a game that seems simple at first glance, though like most great games, begins to reveal its complexity the further you delve into it. The game has its critics, and Wizards of the Coast has made more than a few missteps over the years, though fifteen years after giving birth to the collectible card game genre Magic is still the most popular such game out there. Which is why it's such a shame to see this license go to waste.

Duels of the Planeswalkers is simple enough. The main draw at the beginning of the game is the Campaign mode, a series of card battles against computer controlled foes. As you make your way through the ranks you'll unlock new cards for your decks, as well as earn the right to use the decks of your defeated opponents. The problem though is that there's simply no flavor to the experience. The opponents you're supposed to be facing are some of the more renowned faces of recent Magic lore, the epic Planeswalkers who determine the fates of all of Domanaria. Something like that anyhow. There's a whole backstory to the game but I'm not enough of a nerd to start reading novels based on the cardboard dragons I like to toss around. But there's no story in this game proper, no world to explore or even a simple bit of dialogue between you and your opponent. Just the name "Jace Beleran" or whomever you're supposed to be facing in the corner of the screen, which could simply read "Blue Deck" and accomplish roughly the same thing. For a game called Duels of the Planeswalkers, I never once felt I was playing against anything other than cold, unfeeling A.I. -- which may actually be for the better, as the reputation of these fictional faces is quite sullied by the utter incompetence of these computer players. I assumed Garruck Wildspeaker was a big oafish brute of a man, but I also assumed he at least had the sense to leave some mana up for combat tricks.

Now, one can be forgiving in the case of A.I. for something as complex as a card game like Magic. With the near-infinite number of card combinations available, it would be rather unreasonable to expect a computer to display the same level of competency as a human player. On the other hand, however, there is bad A.I. and there is blatantly incompetent A.I., and the computer players of DOTP fall into the latter category. Simply put, the computer has no ability to recognize the kind of situations where its actions should be grossly obvious. When I have enough creatures to attack for the win on next turn, my opponent should not be attacking in with everything and leaving none of their blockers back. Conversely, when my opponent has a 2/4 flyer on the board and I have no creatures of my own, they should be attacking me like there's no tomorrow. These are situations that seem like they could've been solved with one line of code, yet for some reason occur regularly within the game. Sometimes they even seem like possible glitches, such as in the first case, when I attacked for the win and my opponent regenerated the tapped and useless Dredge Skeletons he probably shouldn't have been attacking with. A regenerator works great as a blocker, standing in front of a big guy and living to tell the tale. Though in this case it had little effect other than stalling the "You Win" message for a few moments.

My first thought was to up the difficulty, though still my opponents continued to make the same basic mistakes I'd expect of complete beginners. Only later did I hear the likely true rumor that the difficulty level has no actual bearing on the A.I. Instead, it simply makes it so the computer becomes more likely to draw more of his powerful cards. What the developers fail to realize is that even if you did stack the order of a Magic deck so that all your best spells were on top, a player able to plot an actual strategy would still have a much greater edge. Even on the highest difficulty setting, where my opponent continued to draw devastating spell after spell, I was usually able to win simply by exploiting his inability to think even a turn ahead. As an example, after losing several times to the rather overpowered final opponent, I realized that largely all he was doing was tapping out for guys and attacking ad nauseam. And so I committed one of the ultimate Magic sins: I not only continued to pitch my hand in for new ones, but I decided to keep a four-card hand with absolutely no land in it. My reason being that this hand held a Wrath of God, Magic's famously devastating "Destroy all creatures" effect. Sure enough, my opponent overcommitted to the board, dropping way more creatures than were necessary to kill me as I eventually drew my fourth land and blew up all his guys. He was left with no creatures in hand, letting me stabilize at 3 life and mostly steamroll my way to the end of the match.

In a perfect world, however, I could be content to ignore Campaign mode. After all, though a satisfying campaign mode is wonderful (Gekitotsu Card Fighters was a hell of a game) the true draw of any card game is the opportunity for an exciting multiplayer experience. Unfortunately though, Stainless Games has forgotten the thing which makes Magic fun to play above all: customization. Sure, you can play online, but the only decks available to you are the ones unlocked during Campaign mode. This means you'll essentially be playing the exact same matchups from the Campaign, this experience made only marginally better by the fact that humans are now piloting them. Worse yet there is no deck editor to speak of, no possibility to create your own unique deck from the cards unlocked. Perhaps the most important part of Magic, or any other collectible card game, is the deck building process: sitting down and sifting through stacks of cards, trying to find that perfect balance of spells with which to crush your opponents. The real thrill in winning a game of Magic is not simply in winning, but in knowing you achieved victory through your superior mix of cards. It's a major sin to begin with that the decks offered are so lacking in flavor, but to deny me the option to make my own is unforgivable. And on top of all this, not only can you not create your own decks, but your options to edit the already existing ones are needlessly limited. Though you'll unlock new cards as you go (17 for each deck), you can only add them on top of the original 60 cards provided, never removing any. Playing more than 60 cards is another of Magic's cardinal sins, and to see it encouraged is horrendous. Not to mention that a deck should maintain a good ratio of land to spell cards, and seeing as both the 60- and 77-card versions of the decks have the same number of land in them, there's something obviously wrong here.

The developers' ostensible attempt to streamline the game, meanwhile, is yet another complete failure. In a high level game of Magic, there is a very important priority order, rules which define who can currently play spells and why. For a game which has to recreate the tournament level of play like Magic Online, this is both a necessary and sometimes tedious part of the experience, with the computer pausing the game to check for a response every time, say, attackers are declared or the turn is about to end. However developer Stainless Games' stated intention was to have their version of the game feel like a more casual experience, so they introduced a new way to handle these phases. They simply broke down turn into the most common steps, the beginning of the turn, the main phase, the attack step, the block step, and the second main phase. Each of these steps is governed by a timer, which when depleted automatically proceeds to the next step, though it can be halted at any time by pressing a button. The idea is to keep the game moving, allowing players to take their time in these phases if needed, but to have them effortlessly pass otherwise [Kind of like how BioWare handled Baldur's Gate's combat system, then... --Ed]. The real problem is that this is simply a rather clunky way to handle this situation [Yep, Baldur's Gate all over: what happens when you try to morph an intrinsically turn-based game into a pseudo-real-time one. --Ed]. Many times I've meant to assign blockers, looking at the board for the right strategy only to forget to pause that damn timer. In fact, one online strategy guide I read for the multiplayer mode advised people in otherwise hopeless situations to simply attack like an idiot and hope their opponent will forget about the timer and be unable to block. This obviously has the opposite of the intended effect. Yes, it keeps up the fast and exciting pace of a casual game without the intrusion of complicated rules, but also adds an unnecessary level of tension for the management of this awkward system. Other attempts to simplify the experience fall flat as well. Perhaps one of the most inexplicable pieces of design present in the game is that you are no longer responsible for tapping your own lands to produce the mana for your spells. Instead, you now choose the card which you want to play, and the computer takes care of the land for you, tapping what it assumes to be the correct combination. This does indeed speed up the game, and in a deck with only one color it is a non-issue. But in decks with two or three colors it's an obvious problem. I watched an interview with one of the developers claiming the game always taps your land in a way that leaves the majority of your spells up, something which has turned out to be entirely false. The first time I played a multicolor deck I held nothing but two red spells in my hand, watching in disgust as the computer tapped both of my mountains to play the first leaving me no way to play the second. Again, this seems like something that should've been caught in testing and very simple to fix, though with the deluge of other problems lingering within the code (including clunky controls and interface) I'm wondering if they did any testing at all.

I've read many reviews of DOTP from Magic players who've said "It's not for me, but seems like a good fit for beginners". This is a statement I cannot even begin to agree with. I've always viewed Wizards of the Coast as not doing enough to help beginners get off on the right foot when entering the Magic community. The printed Core Sets of cards are the flagship product for new players, featuring cards without many complicated rules or functionality, however among these is often a large group of useless unplayable cards that encourage bad strategies. DOTP does the same thing, including cards that are the closest thing to useless in a regular match. A good example is the single copy of Memory Erosion in Jace's deck, an enchantment that makes your opponent discard two cards from the top of their deck every time they play a spell. Since an alternate win condition for Magic is having your opponent run out of cards to draw, this kind of spell can be used as a viable strategy. But it's important for a Magic deck to focus on one primary strategy, not a hodgepodge of whatever can be stuffed in (not to mention how hard it is to make a 60-card deck run out of cards, let alone one with 77). Then there's the blatant inability of the A.I. to teach good habits. As another example, a good rule in Magic is to wait until after combat to cast creatures. Since creatures can't attack the turn they come into play, waiting until after combat leaves your mana open to play combat tricks, or better yet to bluff your opponent into thinking you may have such a trick in your hand. Yet every time without fail the computer would tap out to play some dumb guy, swinging in with their creatures so I could block without worrying about what they might be holding. Not to mention that none of the decks require any thinking to play. There are no interesting interactions, no exciting combos or cool tricks to pull off. Every deck seems to have been designed the same way, the main strategy being playing out bigger and bigger creatures until hopefully you draw some big game-ending spell or simply overwhelm your opponent. Magic is much more than a game of creatures crashing into each other, though DOTP would hardly give you reason to think otherwise, with the available cards getting no more complicated than "Draw four cards" or "Give a creature +3/+3".

Now the developers were under many limitations in developing this game, most obvious being that they couldn't make anything that would compete with the already established Magic Online community, as well as designing something that would be approachable by both complete novices and already established players. In the end however they've done little to appeal to either, leaving us with a rather bland and stale representation of an otherwise great game. It's a shame to think what could've been had the developers had the sense to take some cues from other successful games in this genre, stellar titles like, again, SNK's Gekitotsu Card Fighters, or even the original Microprose Magic: the Gathering PC game. The most honest praise of DOTP I've heard so far is "Well, at least you get a free card for buying the thing", which is about how I feel. Hopefully my foil Garruck Wildspeaker is in the mail as I write this, and when it arrives maybe it'll be shiny enough to distract me from the consternation I had to endure to obtain it.