For those unfamiliar with the collectible card game market, Magic The Gathering is the most successful and perhaps the best of its kind. For many though, there are two rather large barriers to entry; the game is both dauntingly complex and prohibitively expensive. Magic 2014: Duels of the Planeswalkers on XBLA solves both of those problems in one wave of the wand by streamlining the experience and offering a fairly in-depth tutorial designed for beginners.
While the game is quite noob friendly, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty here for the experienced player as well. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran, a casual fan, or someone who stares blankly at the mention of a 10/10 flyer with haste, you’ll find something to enjoy. Hardcore tournament players will probably shrug, but for the rest of us, Planeswalkers is a fun and inexpensive way to get our fix.
Magic 2014: DOTP is the fourth game in the ‘Duels’ series, now being published on an annual, Madden-esque basis. Each iteration brings new gameplay features, new cards and a bevy of – mostly small – tweaks to the user interface. The yearly incarnations are not cross-compatible in any way. Also, you aren’t allowed the endless but sometimes daunting freedom to use any combination of thousands of cards to build your deck, as you can in the physical card and PC versions. To some this might seem like a drawback, but to me it’s a strength. Unlike the aforementioned football titan, each game in the series is uniquely balanced and most of the players – or in this case, cards – are different from year to year. Hermetically sealing each game in the series allows for new mechanics and different sets of cards while allowing the developer to balance each version independently. It also allows new players a chance to get in on the action without feeling like they have to buy additional content to compete. What you get for your ten dollars is a carefully crafted, stand-alone, limited format; one that costs less than three booster packs of real-world paper cards. (Tournament players routinely spend upwards of $300 building a competitive deck.)
The Magic formula is unchanged in 2014. You and your opponent each begin the match with 20 life points and the object is to deplete theirs before they do the same to you. The most direct way to do this is by casting creature cards (each with an attack and defense rating) which can attack your opponents and/or block incoming strikes. Most creatures have unique abilities and some even fly, but that’s just the beginning. Casting spells can replenish health, counter other spells, do direct damage to creatures and/or players, unsummon cards back to their owner’s hand, make creatures stronger by providing them special attributes and much, much more. Spells are really what give Magic it’s seemingly endless depth and re-playability.
Magic 2014: DOTP features a lengthy campaign mode that offers a light story, a two player versus mode with all the expected trimmings, a four player free-for-all, and ‘two headed giant’ – a surprisingly fun two on two team battle, that can get real crazy real quick, as players share a life total and turn – which requires a good bit of communication between partners. There are eight pre-constructed decks to work with, each with it’s own personality, strengths and weaknesses. Mastering one definitely does not mean you have mastered them all. Not unlike a fighting game, it helps to learn each deck intimately (even if you don’t plan to use them) so that you know how to defend against them. To make matters more interesting, each deck has thirty unlockable cards (most of them rare and powerful) that can be added to or subtracted from your deck to create a personalized play style. Unlockable cards are earned by play or by using an ‘unlock key’, which will cost you a real world dollar.
The big new addition in 2014 is ‘sealed play’, a ‘limited’ format in which all players are given six packs of cards to to build a unique deck. You keep this deck forever and can edit it at any time. That deck can then be played in a sealed versus and campaign mode (where can unlock an additional three packs to add to your pool of cards) that are separate from the standard game. You are given two sealed ‘slots’ to begin with and have the option to purchase additional slots for two dollars each. This mode take some know-how and I suggest starting out with the standard game until you are comfortable. Once you’re up to speed, sealed mode is an unique and creative way to play and is one of the best new additions to this years model.
Overall I was quite impressed with Magic 2014: DOTP. The user interface has been refined and the high resolution artwork is a joy to behold. Cards can be zoomed in on to fill your screen and details that you can’t even make out on the ‘real’ cards come to vibrant life. The artwork is expertly painted and goes a long way to making this the best card game out there. Most cards also have a bit of ‘flavor text’ (often quite funny) at the bottom; another little detail that helps bring the game to life. The only gripes I have are a few unintuitive prompts that can lead to mistakes until you learn how to wrangle them, and some hard to read text. The interface could also be a little smoother and more customizable, but overall it works quite well and rarely gets in the way of gameplay.
What I liked:
Faithfully recreates Magic in a digital format while streamlining and balancing gameplay for the console. The artwork is beautiful, and new additions like ‘sealed play’ go a long way towards making this the best Duels game yet. It’s also an incredible value for the cost and great for veterans and beginners alike.
What I’d fix:
The story is light and fairly cheesy and the user interface is sometimes hard to read. A few confusing and unintuitive menus can be frustrating until you learn how they work.
Be careful to make your selections by pressing ‘A’ before hitting ‘Y’ to continue. It’s easy to accidentally choose ‘nothing’ and loose your turn. Keep an eye out online for promo codes which unlock extra cards that can be added to your decks.