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.
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.
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.