Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 

Magic the Gathering is perhaps the most popular game of its type, and also one of the hardest to play. On the outside, it is a card game where you need to buy more to have more options. But looking deeper into it reveals a tactical nature. Building your own deck is billed as “half the fun”, and they’re not wrong. Some people have a great time when they have a sudden realisation of a killer combination. The introduction of the online version brought a horde of enclosed individuals together. Other interpretations have not had as much success. This is probably because of the limited card pool or odd variations used in order to sell the game to the mainstream. Xbox Live Arcade is the latest platform to wield the Magic the Gathering torch with Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. There is an old phrase used in the Victorian times. “Children should be seen and not heard”. This is exactly how to describe what is going on here. While the design is pretty basic yet appealing, the sound design leaves a lot to be desired. This seems to happen more when playing with the mono-black deck than any of the others, though sometimes you’ll have the spectacle of having a Venerable Monk groan like a Wookie. If the sound effects are bad, the music is worse. There is variety, over the same general theme though. The best way to describe it would be the theme from a Hollywood Epic crossed with the theme from a dodgy 1970’s blue movie.

What will happen this turn? (Answer: White player casts Holy Day. The ultimate way to say "Denied!"

The gameplay is thankfully faithful to the source material. Normally this is said for anything that resembles a remake, but this is definitely not that. It is the most accurate digitalisation of the trading card game that doesn’t involve having an online connection. Since this game came out just before the new core edition rules though, there are subtle differences to how you might know it. The cards in each deck are designed to be about as complicated as 2+2 and as accessible as an Amsterdam window dancer. A good thing too as this is evidently designed to teach people how to play Magic the Gathering. At the cost that it is going for as well, you’d be surprised at the amount of variations of gameplay. There is a pretty standard campaign and co-op mode. The latter being the two-headed giant variation of the game. You can take the fight online, and also take part in a bit of “mentoring”. A very helpful tutorial makes understanding how the game is played easy.

Perhaps the most interesting inclusion is the challenge mode. The basis of each of these is simple: Win this turn. The practice is far from it however, as more often than not the creatures the opponent controls far outnumber/outmatch those you control. Solutions are clearer once you see the weakness behind enemy lines. This is perhaps one of the most interesting features as it helps players think their way out of desperate situations. It is useful for the actual trading card game as well. The only issue is, there aren’t enough of them.

There are around seven decks to unlock, each consisting of one or more of the five colours. In each, there are a number of unlockable cards you can obtain as you win games. While it is free cards essentially, the amount of what is actually any good differs between decks. You are bound to get four of the life gain for playing a spell of your colour spells unlocked, but maybe only one or two decent game winners. Then there is the deck construction element to the game… Wizards, let’s get one thing clear. If you want to entice people into playing a game, enable them to experiment with the decks themselves. Don’t limit it to the cards players unlock during play. The amount of times I just wanted to get rid of the bats in the black deck is just amazing, but due to some programming fiasco you can’t remove them at all.

I don't care if you fly, you're not stopping me from killing your master!

The potential for downloadable content is there. Already there is talk of a few new decks being introduced, new planeswalkers and new cards. The good news is that also means new puzzles in the challenge mode, though how many there will be is undetermined. The range of downloadable content out now is slightly disappointing as it is purely of a cosmetic nature. If you aren’t happy with the look of the game table then what is currently out might suit you down to the ground. Otherwise, it’s best to stay tuned for more DLC.

Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers is perhaps the most accurate representation of the popular card game without being a direct version of it. The list of cards is limited, but provides enough to win games. While the majority of the modes are fairly standard, the inclusion of the challenge mode is one I vastly approve of. While the visual department deserves heaps of praise for making a simple looking yet vastly appealing game, the sound department deserves a very brisk slap across the face for giving an uninspired and baffling result. Overall it is a fair attempt at recreating the magic of an almost ten year old franchise to the digital array but a limited card pool and a peculiar voice leave it falling flat, like a spell that has been countered by a blue instant spell.

Expansion Pack 1

This comes in the form of two things: 1st a free pack allowing you to play against people who have the expansion but you don’t get the cards/modes. The second costs 400MS points, but grants you three new decks (including the Relics of Doom deck that Tezzeret wields), new cards for your older decks, a new campaign mode leading to a fight against the dragon planeswalker; Nicol Bolas, a new co-op campaign, extended puzzle mode and achievements. Whew! While it certainly is a cash in by creating new decks, the idea of new puzzles and the like is welcome. The new cards for the older decks certainly enhance the style of play rather than invade it. The idea of multi-turn challenges complete with bluffs is just brilliant and really taxes the mind. There are a few bugs at the time of writing with certain affects not working as well as they should. First Strike damage on online games can now freeze for an unknown reason. Overall though, probably the best priced DLC for what you actually get!

Expansion Pack 2

The setup is much the same as the first one, in that you get a few new decks including Nicol Bolas’ “Eons of Evil” deck from the last expansion, a new campaign for single player and co-op play with vampire Planeswalker Sorin Markov as the big bad guy; new challenges and achievements. There are two differences though. First, the game will ask you for a version update before playing as they’ve overhauled the system to make it more efficient. So gone are the forced AI “thinking”, life gain happening once and general effects that could waste game time. The second is that wording and rulings have also changed to work more like the changes introduced with the Magic Core Set 2010, making it far less confusing than it already is. The only snag with all of this is that loading times have increased dramatically. Still, most some of the  bugs have been taken care of, but like a game of whack-a-mole; you hit one problem and another one appears. Now you need to worry about “assigning damage to multiple creatures” and playing the first expansion co-operatively and being able to progress. Perhaps this is something they will sort out at some point when they release the NEXT expansion. On top of new achievements, there are also a couple of Avatar unlocks including the really sweet “Magic Cards” prop. This also costs 400MS Points, and has a free multiplayer only version for cheapskates.

Expansion Pack 3

Okay, you know roughly what you are getting now, roughly speaking. New decks, new challenges and a new end-game boss whose deck you cannot unlock. If you liked Sorin Markov’s deck in the last expansion, the vampires can now be controlled by you. There are also two other decks, the first is a mono-white Soldier deck that can fish out and equip creatures with some effective weapons whilst being pretty good defensively. The Red/Blue deck however is the true star as it is seriously burn and counter spell heavy. The synergy here is ridiculous because some creatures get bigger or un-tap if you play certain spells. The challenges are incredibly devious in execution and take more thought to completely solve properly. They also make you worry more about timing this time around. There are a couple of new things. Firstly you can now buy keys to unlock either the full deck or the Premium Foil version of it. This is a bit of a rip-off to be honest, but the matchmaking feature of being able to switch on and off certain dlc decks is fairly handy if you don’t have all the packs. New achievements are a little too easy. One of them can be triggered by having your opponent sacrifice their solitary land. Once again, this only costs 400MS points (or the equivalent in other digital currency) and there is the free version that enables you to play against people with these decks.

All three DLC are available for all formats.