Another year, another Magic: The Gathering core set draws near. Magic 2013 promises to be the most exciting core set yet with brand new cards showing just how the designers continue to innovate in the games long by beginning the cycle that would take it to 20 years old. Of course, this also means an update to Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, which not only changes things up slightly in its mechanics, but also brings a new multiplayer variant to the mix. Is this broth worth sampling or do we have a conjured abomination on our hands?
Just like last year, the first thing that you notice is that the animated artwork from last year is present a lot more this time around. Instead of just being confined to an opening cinematic, you will also get Planeswalker reels before a biography appears detailing just who they are, who they’re associated with and what kind of being they are. Given that the plot is essentially “Nicol Bolas has challenged you, but you must defeat the others before facing him”, this is a welcome bit of flavour text. Oddly you will also face off against non-Planeswalkers with decks, but they don’t come with pre-created biographies. Accompanying music gives battles a sense of tension, but beyond that is a little unremarkable. The only real voice-over is during the introduction sequence; a missed opportunity given the team at Stainless Games created a cinematic for each of the Planeswalkers.
The campaign structure has been shaken up to give the player the feeling they are actually walking from plane to plane. Each plane has the traditional 1v1 bouts against an AI controlled Planeswalker, but also has brand new Encounters. These are essentially duels where the AI has a set plan and the hand to achieve it every game, with your goal to beat them to the punch. Some are ridiculously easy, as the Encounter that churns out 1/1 Flying Birds every turn demonstrates, but others such as the Helix Pinnacle deck require more thought than first glimpses would indicate. They do break the rules for deck building by including more than four copies of certain cards, so in terms of the actual card game they’re unrealistic, but they’re a nice diversion all the same.
However, while the additions are indeed welcome, there is still the niggling feeling that there could be more to the feel of the campaign. Beneath the bonnet it is still the same structure as Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012, just with an ounce more flavour. Some dialogue with the other Planeswalkers would have shaken up the tried and tested Arcade style formula.
Minor tweaks have been made to the gameplay itself and all of them are important to bringing Duels of the Planeswalkers ever closer to the real life Magic: The Gathering card game. Everything that made Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 fun to play is present, but included within the options are the ability to “Hold Priority” and “Manually tap Mana”. Holding Priority means that you can have some more time to think about things, assess the situation and plan your moves carefully. This is fairly minor at best, but being able to manually tap Mana while casting multi-coloured spells is a godsend. As the AI doesn’t always know what your plans are, it may tap the wrong land, resulting in a wasted turn. This option essentially eliminates that risk and is very welcome to more advanced players. The inclusion of the End Step is also no longer missed as certain abilities are best triggered in this step were not able to be cast in previous iterations. In terms of the AI, it still has funny moments, but is overall competent enough to give a challenge.
Power is the route to success in Magic: The Gathering, so it is only fitting that the decks you use follow suit. Of the decks tested, the strategies are robust enough to win games convincingly and have clearly defined strategies that suit their colour. The Red deck you have when the game starts burns brightly, while the White deck unlocked further on is a formidable army of human soldiers. More unusual decks such as the Blue deck that drains through your opponent’s library like water down the sink and the Black/White Exalted deck that abuses the mechanic in question are also welcome fits. Each win in a battle or encounter grants you a new card to use in your decks, which you can switch in and out with ease. The decision to be able to modify your deck fully last year is back, making this probably the most exciting line-up yet.
Challenges have been put back to their own separate section, with ten in total. Most are pretty formulaic in their solution method, but one or two stand out from the crowd. One allows you to solve the puzzle in five different ways by eliminating one of the Praetors each time. Some may feel familiar to seasoned players, but they still provide a unique challenge each time. Aside from the Revenge campaign path which recycles the enemies found in the main campaign, there is a brand new variant in the mix: Planechase.
Yes, gone is the slightly broken Arch Enemy variant and in its place is a remarkably fun experience. Planechase matches are usually a four-player free-for-all, but with one key difference – you fight on an ever-changing battlefield. Each Plane has a lingering effect that either helps or hinders players, with players being able to roll a die to either activate its Chaos Ability or Planeswalk to a new plane. With a free roll each turn and subsequent rolls incurring cumulative cost starting at one colourless mana and new Phenomenon cards act as extra stipulations that have equally crazy effects, the variant is as crazy and unpredictable as it sounds. While I’m still holding out for Commander to make an appearance, Planechase is a fantastic addition to the franchise and is well implemented here.
At its heart though, the card game is best played with other people and this is where Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 shines brightly. Fundamentally, the online client isn’t too different from last years’ model and that isn’t a bad thing in the slightest. You can play with up to four players, online and locally. Two-Headed Giant (2HG) is an option once more and even Planechase makes an appearance. There is a distinct lack of innovation besides Planechase though in the online space. When the AI isn’t around to ruin your dreams (or in our case befuddle our minds), the multiplayer component is just as good as it was last year. I would have liked to have seen some kind of Tournament Mode where players face off against each other in a league that simulated real life/digital Magic: The Gathering tournaments, but that can also be a most wanted feature for next year’s inevitable instalment.
As an introduction to the world of Magic: The Gathering, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 triumphs by emulating the success of last year’s product while including all important changes and tweaks to the formula. The decks are solid and fun to use, while new encounters and challenges give the campaign much-needed vigour. Planechase was certainly the better multiplayer variant to include and I’m certainly happy to see the back of Arch Enemy. Effort has been made to spruce up the campaign so it doesn’t feel as forced, but somehow these endeavours haven’t quite had the intended effect. But by having a solid online and local multiplayer mode to round things off, it succeeds in what matters – gameplay. To put it in words any Magic player can relate to: The rules text for Magic: The Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is solid, but I wish there were more Italics.