Before you read any further, let’s start with a very open (and brutally frank) confession. What I know about the finer points of playing Magic The Gathering would barely fill a very small, and somewhat rambling, paragraph. Kind of like this one.
When I initially starting to write about Magic The Gathering: Duals of the Planeswalkers 2012, the latest download release from Stainless Steel Games and Wizards of the Coast, I’d approached it the same as I would any other. After all, playing video games for any number of years lends you the certain skill set of being able to dive into most titles, no matter the genre. Tempered with an open mind, it’s a handy set of skills for anyone to develop.
However, it quickly became apparent that coming to the Magic series as a total beginner, it would be impossible for me to blag something together with enough detail to lend it even a vague air of respectability.
Now that’s out there in the open (and it feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders), I should be clear that the ramblings that follow aren’t meant to be a buyers guide to the game. After all, anyone versed with the finer details of the fantasy battling card game certainly isn’t going to need someone like me to tell them whether or not they should be parting with their cash.
Instead this is the experiences of a total n00b, written for other total n00bs who might still be on the fence about trying the game to see if it’s for them. As much as Duels of the Planeswalkers is complex and involving, it’s still a series that intrigues a lot of people on the other side of the glass, looking in. The question is whether Planeswalkers 2012 does a good enough job of introducing itself and breaking people in so they want to find out more?
Looking around it quickly became apparent to me that there are countless reviews of the game out which will tell you it does make this easy; something along the lines of “This game is super-easy for beginners to get into…” but will then go on to say they’d played a Magic the Gathering game in some form at least once, even if it was some time ago. Meaning by default they aren’t best placed to comment from a beginners viewpoint at all.
Of course, this isn’t the first time a Duels of the Planeswalkers title has arrived on PSN and XBLA, the first release coming out in 2009. Even with my limited knowledge, the basic premise behind the games seems quite simple and is, of course, based on the traditional card game. Each turn sees players being dealt a selection from their chosen deck to defeat their opponent. Essentially this contains an assortment of creatures and allies, along with spells and modifiers to try and tip the odds in their favour. Key to all of this is the concept of Mana. In order to deploy anything more fancy, the player must build up their Mana reserves by playing cards with various location types (swamps, fields, glaciers etc depending on the deck being used).
So with such a basic premise behind the game, the next step is how it introduces you to the intricacies of playing. Thankfully it features a tutorial level and tool tips regarding the actions, basic card types and how to play (which can also be toggled off once you’ve read them and never want to see them again). The introduction holds your hand quite well, but then quickly lets you loose on your first real opponent.
For me this was where the real trouble started.
Follow the instructions… what could possibly go wrong?
Despite following everything I’d been taught up to this point and even playing on the easiest setting, the training stabilisers had well and truly taken off the bike. But instead of a slightly wonky sojourn along a gentle undulating path, the game takes you to the top of a steep hill lined with thorn bushes and gives you a mighty shove, cackling insanely all the while. The end result is something akin to coming off into a metaphorical muddy ditch, catching you teeth on the handlebars and embedding gravel and twigs in your elbows.
No matter what I seemed to do, the AI was less than forgiving. In fact it was utterly unforgiving in its attempts to humiliate and frustrate me. Of course the cards are dealt randomly and like any good card player you have to make do with the hand dealt to you, but even then the game just seemed to have it in for me.
While I was busy trying to lay down enough Mana cards to even deploy an attack or defence card, the AI was busy lining up multiple attack cards. This resulted in me loosing the few attack cards that I actually managed to lay on the table. Not too much of a problem, except the problem then flipped the other way and my replacements ended up being nothing but Mana cards and no other offence or defence cards to back it up. After all you can’t defend yourself with a field of grass…
By the time anything of note arrived in my hand, death wasn’t just knocking on my door, he’d let himself in and put the kettle on. This swift end to my first attempt was tinged with complete confusion. But, willing to believe I’d simply been dealt a bum hand and cack-handed, I tried again.
For well over an hour.
Until finally, and against all reasoning, I managed to win. I couldn’t tell you how it happened. By this point I’d stopped trying to play tactically as I was getting me nowhere fast.
Weary from this, but somewhat elated that I’d actually won, I tried the second battle. And the cycle of defeat started again.
I’m a firm believer that games are given introductions outside of paper manuals these days because they’re the most important part of drawing you in. Even more so in a niche game like this. That aspect certainly didn’t seem to be in the forefront of the developers minds when they put this game together. There’s clearly too many intricacies to the finer points of playing regarding stats and what will counter-act what, and you certainly can’t hold that against the Magic the Gathering game itself. After all, a card game doesn’t become as popular as this without having layered depth to it. The problem for my uneducated brain was that this title simply doesn’t do a good enough job of explaining things and just left me floundering with little clue as to why I was actually loosing.
While the game does feature additional decks and the ability to customise them to your preferred load out, presumably making things a little easier once you get a footing which suits you best, there’s a chance most people will have lost the will to keep trying after experiencing defeat after crushing defeat. Or rather, it will put off people like me who end up feeling that they’ve somehow lost over 50% of the IQ level since booting up the game.
While it does feature an online mode, the title doesn’t lend itself to tutelage by a friend because your opponents cards are hidden. So it seems that if you’re still interested in getting into Magic the Gathering, the best way to do it is still to find a group of patient people who play the physical card game and would be willing to mentor you. And at least be afforded the satisfaction of being able to physically assault them if they frustrate you too much.
Sadly for me the steep learning curve means I’m still on the outside of the Magic the Gathering bubble for now, looking in with my nose pressed up against the glass. I can only advise others to try and demo versions available and see if it’s for them.