Review / Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers (PC)

I’m won’t to lie to you, I’m not into fantasy-based collectible card games. Nor any other type of collectible card game, for that matter. And what’s more I know practically nothing about them. So when the review code for Duels of the Planeswalkers landed in my inbox, you’ll forgive me for immediately picturing socially-awkward teens twitching over rarities, and older beardy blokes speaking Elvish.

And this is coming from a bloke who loves fantasy role-playing videogames. It’s not hypocritical though, there is a hierarchy, after all.

So why am I the one tasked with reviewing this thing, the source material for which I have only sneery ignorance? Magic: The Gathering has a rich history, after all. It is the definitive CCG, with 17 years of iterations, expansions and improvements under its wizardy belt and a universe that has spawned novels and anthologies. It has also inspired numerous videogames, not least the massively popular XBLA release of which DotP is a port. It’s a thing, y’know. People care about it.

But here it is; Duels of the Planeswalkers isn’t really for the hardcore, it’s for newcomers like myself. It smooths the card game’s sharp edges, hand-holding and coddling you through its initially labyrinthine rules. It eases you into the experience via a tutorial and never lets go with the constant use of pop-up hints and tips. There’s a sizable learning curve regardless, and early on you’ll occasionally wonder what the hell is going on, but you’ll get there. And when you do you’ll have some idea of why the game is so popular.

DotP casts you in the role of a sorcerer, taking on opponents with the ability summon creatures or spells via special cards. Unlike its tabletop counterpart, you do not build your own deck. Instead, a number of pre-made decks have been included. These are augmented as you progress, but you can’t really customise or combine them. It’s a concession to the beginner, making the game all the more accessible, yet it also cuts the heart out of what many consider to be Magic: The Gathering‘s most compelling aspects.

Furthermore, a lack of deck-building places extra importance on your draw. As such, luck plays far more of a role in your success than the M:tG proper. Real fans will baulk at the prospect.

Elsewhere, however, DotP is a surprisingly literal translation. While RPGs increasingly obfuscate the numbers and calculations beneath a slick shell, DotP lets it all hang out, with little in the way of battle animations or fanciness. It merely provides a digital representation of the tabletop setup and plays out from there, placing raw mechanics at the very forefront.

Thankfully, the mechanics are just robust enough to withstand such scrutiny. But nevertheless, the presentation is very dry. It may be a deterrent to some.

In the game’s main campaign, DotP proves to be a considerable test of your tactical acumen, with a series of opponents that quickly ratchet up the difficulty levels. However, it’s the Challenge Mode that brought me the most joy. A series of mind-bending scenarios that task you with using only limited resources to escape from seemingly impossible situations, it’s massively gratifying.

It’s also a good training ground for where the real action happens, online against real opponents. It’ll be a while before you can compete on a level playing field with these guys. I got repeatedly beaten to a pulp.

Ultimately, the issue is not whether Duels of the Planeswalkers is a good game or not – it is – but whether it suits your tastes. If you’re after a glitzy, accessible, instantly gratifying experience, then you’ve come to the wrong place. DotP is an altogether more slow-paced affair, one that makes several concessions to the newcomer, yet rewards the investment of time and the mastery of its intricacies.

So, in short, easy to see why so many have fallen for Magic: The Gathering‘s charms, and Duels of the Planeswalkers is a decent introduction. Despite a slight dumbing down, there is still plenty enough depth to keep you interested and a decent spread of game modes across which to exercise your skills. But beware; it isn’t for everyone.

– It’s a collectible card game without any collecting
– The presentation is ultra-dull
– Simplified experience from the full game…

+ …allows a greater degree of accessibility to newcomers
+ Scope for strategic play is impressive
+ Challenge Mode offers up some brilliant scenarios