My long, dark tea time of the gaming soul came in 1995. I was one year out of college and having no luck finding a regular Dungeons & Dragons game. I was working at a daily newspaper in Stroudsburg, within walking distance of a comic book store on Main Street. And it was there that I found my substitute: Magic: The Gathering.
The collectible card game was decimating the local role-playing game community; while it was difficult to get even a one-shot D&D game together, pick-up games of Magic were always waiting at the comic shop.
I was desperate. I needed my gaming fix. So I did what had been unthinkable in college: I put away my polyhedral dice, and started buying Magic cards. I spent two or three years playing Magic, finally giving it up once I was able to get the Blackrazor Guild campaign off the ground. During that time I had a lot of fun delving deep into the game's mechanics, constructing different concept decks, and spending way, way too much on boosters.
All of this is a long way of saying I liked Magic. I had fun with Magic. But I couldn't afford Magic, and I was happy to get back to my D&D game. That door closed on my gaming life. At least until August, when it opened up against on my Xbox 360.
That's when I bought Wizards of the Coast's new Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planewalkers on Xbox Live Arcade. The mechanics of the game remain true to its analog counterpart: two players battle one another using decks of themed cards. These decks consist of land cards, which are played to produce mana, which in turn is spent to summon creature, spell and artifact cards into play.
Each creature card has a certain cost. For example, the Goblin Mauraders require two red mana, which means you'll need to play and "tap" two mountain cards (the act of tapping unleashes the magic in the cards) in order to summon your goblin legions. Creatures have offensive and defensive values (for example the Goblin Mauraders have an offense of 1 and a defense of 1); when attacking, the offensive value determines how much damage they do to the opposing player or other creatures, when defending, the defensive value determines how much damage they can take. Each player has 20 life points; the first to beat their opponent down to 0 points wins the game.
There's more to it than that of course -- spells and artifacts can do damage directly, bypassing the need for creature feature battles, many cards have special powers that make them immune to attacks or introduce some quirk into game play -- but the game at its most basic.
The original analog game is a collectible one; cards are bought in booster packs (or, if you're like I was, you just go out and buy a case...) and are used to build decks. The Magic Online game coaxed players into purchasing digital versions of the cards they already had. Fortunately, Duels of the Planewalkers is a self-contained game that comes with eight pre-made decks ... and no need to buy any more.
You start with a green deck and battle your way through 16 single-player campaign battles. Each victory unlocks a new card in your deck, and certain milestone victories unlock new decks entirely. Early on your opponents use single-color decks (e.g. decks built around a single kind of mana, such as green for forests, blue for water, white for plains, black for swamps and the aforementioned red) but as the campaign progresses you go up against decks that use two or more colors. These tend to be much harder to defeat than the single color ones, as they've got more tricks up their sleeves. Single color decks usually have a specific theme, such as an "goblin deck" that focuses on geting as many goblinoids into play as quickly as possible. Multicolor decks are more nuanced, and can have a better chance at responding to surprises that your opponent might through at you.
Rounding out the game is a challenges section featuring seven chess-like card problems for you to solve, a co-operative campaign, and online play.
Duels of the Planewalkers is remarkably true to its paper counterpart. Each player's tableau is laid out on a virtual table. You can use game controller to quickly and easily zoom in on any card. A 20-count timer counts down between each phase, giving players the chance to cast any instant cards they might be hording. It can be a bit challenging to get your cards off on time, especially if you spend too much of that time thinking, but you can pause the timer in single player games.
The game's tutorial is a breeze, and since the majority of the game's rules are found on the individual cards, its easy to pick up and easier to play. That said, I did have the benefit of playing the game for three years, and I was surprised how quickly it all came back to me. I was also pleased at how quickly games could be played. Once I had a good grasp on the rules again, I was able to knock out games in 15-20 minutes. That time frame makes it a great game to pick up, play for a half hour or so, and then turn off to get back to real life.
Duels has a good amount of replay value; you can play through the campaign multiple times, and each time it gets harder. And you'll want to play it again: each deck unlocked in the single player campaign represents a different approach to the game, and it's a lot of fun to see how differently these decks can play.
It'd be nice to be able to build your own deck from scratch, but honestly I was happy to play with the pre-builts and simply unlock cards. The online play is the one area where the game really fell flat. While the mechanics work just fine, the people you play against are killjoys who bail as soon as thing start going badly for them. While I'm sure this isn't universally true, my opponents ditched in four out of the five games I played.
Granted, this is the curse of all online games, but it seemed paticularly bad in Magic; I can't remember ever having such a run of bad luck in Carcassone, Catan or any of the other Xbox Live Arcade games.
The game costs 800 gamer points which translates to $10.00. If you're a Magic fan, especially a lapsed one like me, it's a must buy, and an affordable one at that.