Review

Magic: The Gathering - Duels Of The Plainswalkers 2013

Gateway Drug

Duels Of The Planeswalkers 2013 brings the “cardboard crack” of Magic: The Gathering to a legion of addicts-in-waiting.

By Russ Fischer • June 28, 2012

The public perception of Magic: The Gathering is characterized by assumptions and stereotypes. It’s a game for kids. It exists to bilk collectors. It can’t be played effectively without a significant investment. It’s too complicated to approach casually or play quickly. Some of these notions are true in part. Most are the expression of the sort of dismissal the “nerd culture” at large reserves for specific subcultures, and none are absolutes. What Magic needs is an ambassador: a smiling agent in a nice suit, able to explain the game’s quirks and prove that there is no one way to play. Duels Of The Planeswalkers 2013, particularly the iPad incarnation, has the license to…kill? Maybe just “sell.”

Magic is a game of a few basic rules plus many, many tweaks and addenda. This edition of Duels is both a handheld walk through the ruleset and a tutorial that’s ready to suggest strategic approaches that go beyond “use the big creatures.” Since the app takes care of the rule calculations behind the scenes and also tells players what cards they can play at any given time, it makes the game system exceedingly approachable.

Magic: The Gathering - Duels Of The Plainswalkers 2013

Some quick background for the newbies. The card game features two major types of cards. There’s land, which produces mana for spells, and the spell cards themselves, which eat up that mana and spit out creatures, damage effects, and so forth. The heart of the game is in customizing a deck of cards with the particular balance of effects a player desires. The difficulty is learning how to parse the wildly divergent effects those cards can have, and devising a broad strategy to deploy them for maximum damage.

Duels Of The Planeswalkers 2013 is a superb way to learn the ropes. The interface clearly introduces the particular way that cards are laid out in a game, and it’s rich with optional explanations of the myriad rules introduced in Magic’s nearly 20-year history. There are encounters that demonstrate specific game strategies, such as the notion that leaving the most powerful creatures out of your deck is sometimes the smartest approach. The iPad interface is superior to that found on a system like Xbox Live, as cards can be swiped into place or tapped to zoom in to take in the card’s art or peruse specific rules. Even without a Retina Display—Apple’s hi-res screens—the game has a consistently high-quality visual presentation. (I played the game for this review on an iPad 2, which predates the current Retina-equipped model.)

Surprisingly, one of the most enjoyable aspects of this version of Duels is a replication of a game mode that didn’t catch on offline. “Planechase” was introduced to the card game in 2009. Players never sparked to it in a big way because, well, it’s a pain in the ass. Planechase augments the typical magic layout with large “plane” cards whose rules and effects can have sweeping effects each turn—the existing board might be entirely wiped clean and repopulated with new cards, for example. In the tabletop world, that’s a cute idea that gets irritating really fast. In the digital realm, the dense card management that makes Planechase such a grind is no problem at all, and the sometimes wacky rules that can lay waste to a player’s careful strategy are rather cute. Played this way, it doesn’t really matter that the anarcho-terrorist spirit of Planechase almost breaks the game; the investment overhead is so low that it is wild and wooly fun.

Magic: The Gathering - Duels Of The Plainswalkers 2013

Duels 2013 has two drawbacks. One is sloth. In single-player games, the app goes through animations and calculations that can’t be skipped, and games take a bit longer than they should. The other, more difficult problem is that there is no way to construct a deck from scratch. Play with one of the existing decks and you’ll gradually unlock cards that can be swapped in and out. But there’s no way to create that wicked green/black/white zombie plant elemental deck of your dreams. (We call that one the “Alan Moore,” by the way.) Duels 2013 is also a lot like prior iterations of Duels that hit consoles and PCs. It does offer the ability to manually choose which lands players tap for any given spell—the lack of which was a long-standing complaint against the game—but otherwise this is an incremental upgrade, at best.

Despite the lack of proper deck-building, this is the best and most instructive way for new players to learn Magic and a satisfying way for long-time fans to keep playing when a tabletop game is nowhere to be found.

Magic: The Gathering—Duels Of The Planeswalkers 2013
Developer: Stainless Games
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Platforms: iPad, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: iPad
Price: $10
Rating: T

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654 Responses to “Gateway Drug”

  1. Chris Holly says:

    I bought this last week, and really enjoy it. Not being nearly good enough (or rich enough) to play other folks competitively, I like the campaign mode and the challenges. It’s a great way to learn. I’m not one of those who want to build my own deck (I’d just screw it up), so that’s not a factor for me.

    And Planechase is just ten sacks of crazy.

    • HobbesMkii says:

      I adore Planechase while also finding it incredibly infuriating. It’s a great equalizer for decks that need help in unlocking cards, but the computer takes so abnormally long to decide what it’s going to do that it’s almost not worth it.

      • George_Liquor says:

         I noticed that too. I was expecting my Xbox to start smoking after a particularly long wait.

        • HobbesMkii says:

           The worst is when it sits there for a solid minute or two and then decides to just end its turn without doing anything more. I can’t tell if that’s terrible programming, or if the developers have created an AI so realistic it simulates the frustrating indecisiveness of real human Magic players.

      • X_the_Anonymous_Man_or_Woman says:

         Personally I’m hating Planechase, but mostly because the game seems to always have the other players targeting me first and killing me.

        • HobbesMkii says:

           They always target me in every mode. Everything about Duels wants me to try it with human opponents.

        • Chris Holly says:

           Interesting – in the five games I’ve played, I can’t say that I’ve been targeted more. In fact, more often than not one person will target me, the other two will gang up on the other computer player.

        • HobbesMkii says:

           @twitter-189093521:disqus I find that the computers are biased towards first people with no creatures out, and then towards people who are closest to death. Usually, that’s a pretty sound strategy, but sometimes it means they’ll play against their long-term interests in order to just knock another player out.

        • X_the_Anonymous_Man_or_Woman says:

           @HobbesMkii:disqus I’d play against you if you’re ever looking for human opponents.

        • HobbesMkii says:

          We need to do it, then, X. I think ToddG would probably be down, too.

      • The_Misanthrope says:

         @HobbesMkii:disqus :  The flip side is getting into a duel with someone online and the other player being really fast.  Yeah, it still goes through all the routine animation, but it seems much faster when you for finishes his turn quickly.

  2. Effigy_Power says:

    I loved the last version, but I must say, I’d love to play this on Android… My Asus Transformer can play a ton of stuff and doesn’t lag behind the iPad in power, so I am still hoping.
    Mind you, I hope they fixed the problem from the last person, where you couldn’t choose what lands to tap, which was an issue with some multicolor decks.

    • RussFischer says:

      They did fix that issue — on the iPad you just repeatedly tap on the card you want to play, and you’ll see a cycling highlight of land choices to power it. Works well enough.

    • Channel 8 News says:

      It is fixed, however there is only one multicolor deck (black/white), so it doesn’t matter all that much. Yet.

      • Cliffy73 says:

        Choosing which lands to tap is also necessary in some of the puzzles included in the game, but I agree it isn’t needed in the vast majority of situations.

  3. Evil Jeff says:

    After a steam thread on another forum I said I wanted this game and someone bought it for me.
    That was a story.

  4. Planechase is a casual format, not a competitive one. It “caught on” just fine with its intended audience, and a second edition — featuring most of the planes and phenomena that are in Duels 2013 — was just released last month.

    • rvb1023 says:

       Nah, I would say Planechase was definitely relegated  to an oddity quickly, if only because it becomes a rush to get it stuck on a mutually beneficial plane and then mostly forget it’s there.  It really interrupts the flow of the game when playing with the actual cards.

      After reading this review and discussing it with a few friends, it appears that the automated format of the game helps alleviate pacing issues that would otherwise arise from the format.

      • If you’re using a communal plane deck, sure. But I prefer tailoring planes to the deck I want to use. That way there (probably) isn’t one that is mutually beneficial and there’s more incentive to move the battle to one of your own “back yards”.

        My point is that they wouldn’t have released a second version if the 2009 edition tanked.

  5. zebbart says:

    Do you have to keep buying cards, or does the $10 purchase price provide equal and adequate access? I quit playing 10 years ago because I didn’t want to have to keep spending hundreds of dollars and throwing out obsolete cards, but I’d love to have a way to get back into it and play with far flung high school friends if I can do it for $10 and not have to store boxes cards.

    • RussFischer says:

      The $10 unlocks, or allows you to unlock through play, ten decks. Given that you can’t do very much to customize those decks, your mileage with that as a wide option to play may vary, but it seems like enough for me. There will no doubt be additional decks offered for IAP, but that’s down the line.

      • zebbart says:

        Can you not switch cards between the decks? If you can, 900 cards is a pretty decent well to draw from. At least it would have been back when I was playing 4th edition.

        • RussFischer says:

          Through play you can unlock those 30 additional cards for each deck, and then swap them in and out of that particular deck as you like. (Though as best I can tell, you can’t change the land pool for a deck.) 

          But you can’t move cards between decks, so it’s not like you’ve got 900 cards from which you can build a fully custom deck. 

    • George_Liquor says:

      You can unlock individual cards as you play through the campaign, or you can purchase keys to unlock an entire deck. From what I understand, the video game version contains just the current year’s core deck and maybe some expansion cards. It doesn’t include cards from previous years.

      • Cliffy73 says:

        The cardpool for the game isn’t identical to the current set (which comes out Saturday). It shares a lot of cards, and the legendary creatures who show up as sub bosses in the game are all new in the new set. But there’s a bunch of other, older, cards that show up in various decks in the game because they fit the deck concept.

        This isn’t a replacement for Magic Online, which is just an electronic version of the paper game — where cards rotate in and out every several months, and you have to buy (virtual versions of) the new cards if you want to play in the current competitive formats. Duels is a definitely stripped down version, as is necessary to have a game comprehendable by the AI. I dig it very much, as I don’t have the skill or the time to play a lot of in person matches.

    • HobbesMkii says:

      For your $10 you get ten sixty-card decks that are pretty well balanced against each other (although, it’s not perfect). They each have an additional 30 cards each that can be unlocked by winning (meaning you have to play and win a round with those decks 30 times each. Or 300 winning games of Duels). I imagine there will be some DLC that will be new decks, as in the 2012 iteration.

  6. Colonel Mustard says:

    Please forgive a dumb question, as I was never able to play/learn much about the original game:

    Do you lose cards out of your deck if a game turns against you, or will the provided decks always have the cards you were originally given?  I’m having violent flashbacks of the days spent trying to put together a FFVIII deck without losing my good cards.

    • duwease says:

      Nope, there’s no card wagering here.  Each deck has its own cards specifically for that deck.

    • George_Liquor says:

      Certain spells can let your opponent take control of one of your cards during the game, but once it’s over all your cards return to you.

  7. duwease says:

    Man, this is my game of the year.. been waiting for this one.  Although 30 unlocks per deck is taking *forever* to unlock, it’s actually still quite fun as most of the cards are good enough that you’re always debating what to cut out to keep the deck small and effective.  Can’t wait until I finally finish all the unlocking and take these bad boys online..

  8. X_the_Anonymous_Man_or_Woman says:

    One thing that’s been driving me kinda nuts about this is the timer speed. It just seems that unless I have a sorcery or a creature card my main phases just fly by unless I remember to stop the timer. As a result sometimes I’ve been screwing up my turns just because I took a second to zoom in on a card to read it.

    • duwease says:

      You can turn that off in the options, so that you have to hit “Continue” to move to the next phase.

      • X_the_Anonymous_Man_or_Woman says:

         Oh, I didn’t see that… or a couple other options that I should change. Thanks. =D

    • HobbesMkii says:

       I turned off the auto-phase thing, but I wish it gave me control over my opponent’s turn as well. I always forget to press the “stop timer” button in order to play an instant.

      • X_the_Anonymous_Man_or_Woman says:

         Yeah, that sometimes happens to me too. I also hate it when I’m watching what’s happening on my opponents turn and it’s switched to the end turn phase while I’m watching his stuff finish only for me to have no pressed stop timer.

        One thing I miss from playing the xbox versions is that there was just a button for it so I didn’t have to bother with mouse clicks.

  9. The Sputnik Sweethearts says:

    Oh my god I want this to come out for OSX so bad. I loved the card game growing up but I stopped having people to play it with and the money to keep up with the new decks. 

  10. Channel 8 News says:

    I’m more than a little irritated by those who call for the ability to construct decks from scratch in the Duels of the Planeswalkers series. DotP was always conceived of as a way to introduce new players to Magic: The Gathering, not the ultimate digital edition of the game.

    Wizards of the Coast already offers that version, which has been out for just over ten years. It’s called Magic: The Gathering Online. This is the version that allows full customization of decks. The catch is that you must collect each individual card, either through purchasing (with real money) digital booster packs, or by trading with other players. As you probably guessed, it’s just as expensive as paper Magic: The Gathering. That’s the idea.

    As for this version, I’m really into it, aside from a few minor quibbles. I’m not thrilled that of the 10 decks on offer, a whopping 9 are mono-color. I’m sure this will be augmented by DLC, but it doesn’t really show off their much-touted new ability to tap the lands of your choice. Also, Planechase isn’t nearly as fun as Archenemy, which was the special mode included with DotP 2012. However, having 30 cards to unlock for each deck from the beginning (was only 12 or so for previous games, with more added each DLC) definitely gives you plenty of room to play in the deck manager, especially since they brought back to ability to remove any card from a deck, and not just the unlocked ones. And a proper mill deck is always welcome! All in all, I’m glad I bought it twice (iPad and Xbox).

    • The_Misanthrope says:

       Can you change the amount of land in a deck?  Because that shit drove me crazy in my version (pre-2012).

    • X_the_Anonymous_Man_or_Woman says:

       I loved Archenemy and wished they had kept it for this one.

    • Django Zeaman says:

      Having played MTG Online for 2 years, then taking a break for 2 years due to how awful the interface was and the servers continually crashing…then playing again for 6 months but noticing little improvement, well, I can understand why people want the full Magic experience ANYWHERE BUT MTG Online.

      MTG is a lovely, lovely game, one of my all-time favorites. But MTG Online is one of the most frustrating, maddening video game experiences of my life. I work in game development and I’ve written long posts about how to improve it…but ultimately the game AI is hard to program (though that doesn’t excuse the poor UI) and the underlying code of MTGO was just not written for a large number of players.

      I hope someday they sort it out…but I fear that will be a decade from now.

  11. Gus Mastrapa says:

    I am a big fan of the mostly fixed decks in these games. I like that opponent decks are mostly known quantities. Playing in the wild can feel like constant ambush by a crazily toolboxed deck. Here, you know what you’re up against and can try to respond.

    • HobbesMkii says:

       I find it’s kind of like an RTS in that regard. But instead of distinct races or cultures, you’ve got certain decks that essentially function in the same way RTSs rely on the Rock, Paper, Scissors mechanic for balance.