We’ll admit, we were a little scared at the prospect of reviewing a Magic: The Gathering game, as the collectible card game upon which Duels of the Planeswalkers is based has a reputation for depleting the social lives and funds of players with astonishing haste. We don't want to offend fellow games-fans (and after playing we're definitely Magic coverts), but mental images of the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons leapt to mind when the topic first came about.
Not only that, but Magic: The Gathering is also held as being one of the more complex and difficult tabletop games for newcomers to pick up. On one side we were scared of spending all our pocket money on booster packs, on the other we were worried about not being able to get our heads around the game and being shown up by players a quarter our age.
After 45 minutes of sparring, it comes to this!
When it comes to Duels of the Planeswalkers though, things are a little different. Duels is pretty much a straight port of the tabletop version, so it has the same complexities to deal with, but the fact that it’s a computer game means that you’re not just stuck learning from a instruction leaflet and trying to figure it all out by yourself.
In fact, developer Stainless Steel Games has provided a number of ways that novices can learn the basics. There’s an interactive tutorial which walks you through a sample battle, a comprehensive in-game manual, regular tooltips and hints (which pros can turn off), a mentoring system for those that prefer human guidance and a singleplayer campaign too. You’ll likely want to best the singleplayer before you even try to go online, as the words ‘Go easy on me’ don’t seem to exist among Magic: The Gathering players.
Boiled down to the absolute basics, Magic: The Gathering isn’t all that hard to get your head around though – it’s only in the nuances for individual cards and damage types that the game starts to vex. Players essentially take the roles of the eponymous Planeswalkers and must attempt to defeat each other by using spells and summoned creatures, represented by cards.
Gameplay is broken into rounds, with multiple phases per round. You usually start off by playing Land cards, which act as your Mana for casting later powers, then you move to summoning and attacking. You start out with very few deployed resources, which means your best attacks are off-limits, but after a few turns have passed then you’re able to cast with the best of them and can instigate huge battles on the board.
The fact that you’re essentially a strategist for these conflicts, rather than a direct participant, means the closest analogue to Duels of the Planeswalkers is the classic Battle Chess. In fact, just as Battle Chess presented itself clearly as a boardgame (rather than some grandiose strategy affair), it is interesting that Duels of the Planeswalkers has also stayed true to its roots. All monsters and spells are depicted only as cards, rather than as little animated characters, which makes Duels feel pleasantly simple, if a little dull at first glance.
Unfortunately though, that drive for simplicity isn’t consistent throughout Duels of the Planeswalkers’ graphical choices. It’s a little annoying to see that, even though there aren’t any little goblins scurrying around blanketed in fancy particle effects, Duels still requires a 256MB GPU with Pixel Shader 2.0. That’s not going to be a stretch for even older desktops, but it does make playing this on your netbook a bit of a problem, which is a shame when Duels is otherwise ideally suited to playing on such a device. Especially when my girlfriend insists on using my PC to watch a River Cottage marathon.