Magic: The Gathering. It’s one of those things that has always been slightly beyond my geek radar. I’ve never played it, thought about it, discussed it or even had any knowledge of it before my Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 review code turned up. Seeing it as a challenge that was well out of my comfort zone, I strapped myself in to begin my education.
In a time when fast and frantic gameplay is King, Magic sits quietly at the back of the room, looking straight into the eyes of other games and gently scratches its nose with its middle finger. This is a card game, and there’s no attempt to make you believe otherwise. If you know the rules you’ll feel instantly at home, and conversations I’ve recently had with others who have played these games in the past suggest that this is still a rock solid game in terms of sticking to the rules. I won’t go into detail explaining how the game works; if you already know you’ll skip it, and if you don’t then I’ll do a crappy job of explaining it anyway, so onto the console version without delay.
The controls are simple enough, flicking from one card to the next is easy, and zooming in to view the card highlighted is only a button press away. Let’s face it, a game like this isn’t exactly going to stretch the buttons available on the controllers and everything is mapped in a way that makes it quick and easy to do whatever you want.
Graphically the developers haven’t done a great deal to make this much more exciting than a game involving actual cards on an actual table against an actual person, and aside from a few swishes and flashes when someone makes an attack there’s nothing very special. If the idea of this was to grab a whole new audience they really could have done some more with the combat elements, although I appreciate this might have upset the Magic purists who have probably long since snapped this up along with the other version from recent years.
Getting started is almost as confusing as trying to find your way round Oxford without a sat-nav. There’s a great tutorial which covers all of the main areas of playing and the first few games against the computer are fairly gentle, but things soon get tougher. In fact winning your first game presents you with the deck manager, allowing you to adjust your pack with newly rewarded cards that give you more powerful attacks, defence or whatever else. Instructions here are totally absent, and newbies like me will probably press a few buttons, frown a bit and finally decide to ignore it all together. There’s information elsewhere on the Interweb about all this, but some in-game help wouldn’t have gone amiss. I’ve been asked by a Magic fan if this has been enhanced from recent years, and whether you can freely edit packs and create your own, and the bad news is that you can’t. It seems the one feature fans have been asking for is still hiding in a dark basement somewhere waiting to be unleashed by the developers. Maybe next year…
As with most things in life, the more you try things out the more obvious they become and things start to become a bit more straight forward. While this is happening the AI is also getting a bit more ruthless so the curve is matched pretty well on both sides. There’s a few variations on the game mode, one of which involves a dice roll to mix things up a bit and confuse matters again just as you thought you were coming to terms with everything, and there’s a range of challenges on top of 2, 3 and 4 player options.
As a beginner it’s nice to feel how you’re getting to grips with everything, but when you realise there are earlier games in this series which apparently also served as introductions to the world of Magic you can’t help but wonder why fans would keep buying this year after year. It worked well for me in terms of getting to know the game (although I’m unlikely to stick with it) but I can see that some of the shortfalls might wind up those who really love the game. The biggest issue for me was not being able to save a game part-way through, and when you might only have a 15 minute session free it makes it pointless to even start a match-up; not ideal for those with a tight gaming schedule.
I’m glad I got to review this though; it’s broken a few stereotypes of what it’s all about and I can see the appeal, but ultimately it’s still a card game which hasn’t gained much from being on a console. If you’re intrigued though and want to give it a go then it’s not a bad shout.
Reviewed on PS3 & Xbox 360