Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers

It's not a big tournament. By the standards of Magic's peak in 1999, it's average: The Sheraton Cambridge. A small ballroom. A banner for "Your Move Games," the hosting store from Sommerville, MA.

I'm embarrassingly old to be in the room -- over 30 -- and yet I sit stock still, sunglasses and baseball cap firmly planted, a flesh-slack face birthed from losing too much poker. We're drafting Urza Block -- a recent but complete expansion for Magic: The Gathering which relies heavily on artifacts. It's the most depraved expedition into my Magic addiction, leaving a pregnant wife at home to spend two days surrounded by fetid black T-Shirts. But it's exciting.

I lose miserably in the first round. But weeks later, the avatar of our local card shop, one Darwim Castle, will go on to draft a better deck based on the same ideas and win the Washington Pro Tour. As geek memories go, it's up there.

"OK Daddy, I'm playing this card."

Reverie snapped, the 1999 Sheraton Cambridge dissolves in a David Lynch soft-cut to my 2009 kitchen table. The card in question is "Giant Growth." It's a trick. My daughter has blocked my attacker with a pathetic Llanowar Elf, who is now hopped up on Hulk Juice, and will kill my sad little goblin without a thought. I mentally hit the fast forward button. I look up. Her hands, still unable to effectively manage a good fan, mangle the cards of the 9th Edition Starter Deck. A few inches above the pasteboard, her face is split by the grin reserved for triumphant children.

"Good game kiddo," I say, reaching across the table with an obligatory losers handshake. She tosses her cards to the table and leaps up, entering a sing-song choreographed victory "I won, Oh Yeah, Beat my dad, Oh yeah" dance straight from the tragic pages of an iCarly episode.

This is what Magic is supposed to be.

Three thousand miles and three hours away, Worth Wollpert agrees. Wollpert, Senior Business Manager for Magic Online, is directly responsible for my daughter's happy dance around the kitchen table.

"The whole point of the project was to expose Magic to people who have never heard of Magic," he explains. And the avenue of choice was Xbox LIVE Arcade. "I mean, it's hard to own a 360 and never have actually heard of Magic," he says. "But judging by the forums, a lot of the players have only heard of it, or played 10 years ago and the cards are now under their bed. Those are the people we really wanted to reach."

Worth's project is Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers, a simplistic XBLA re-imagining of the ridiculously successful collectible card game by Wizards of the Coast. A game so successful that as of March, Wizards of the Coast, the games publisher, had given away over $33 million in prizes at tournaments. That's cash, not funny-money or Microsoft Points.

It's worth pointing out (sorry) that Worth's got street cred. He's not a suit -- he dropped out of his MBA program (and the Magic Pro Tour) 9 years ago to work at Wizards R&D full time, designing the ever-expanding game that is magic. He's a known quantity from my Darwin Kastle hero-worship days. At Wizards he's mostly focused on Magic: the Gathering Online, a fully rendered version of paper Magic, complete with drafts, singles sales, outrageously expensive addiction, and 14-year-olds with too much money. But where Magic Online is designed to represent that $33 million dollar price-winning chaotisphere in its entirety, Duels is designed to be exactly the opposite: simple, even simplistic.

It delivers on the promise. By limiting the number of cards available to a few hundred -- drawn from an existing universe of many, many thousand cards -- Duels is the ultimate magic trainer, as evidenced by my daughter learning the game from 15 minutes of pre-programmed tutorial. The genius, really, was in the selection of the cards. Each of Magic's five main factions -- the mana colors -- which are represented using iconic cards recognizable, at least in spirit, to any experienced magic player. And every card is extremely straightforward. It's a tremendous act of editorial prowess, as much as one of game design.

"We knew that it was going to be a challenge," says Wollpert. A challenge made doubly difficult by the need to devise a competent AI. "We knew we had to severely limit the card set. We have a pretty good spectrum from exciting to some of the less-exciting stuff. We tried to have something for everybody." With a hand-picked card set designed by WOTC R&D, the company made the wise move of handing development off to a third party, in this case, developer Stainless Games. Stainless isn't exactly a household name -- they're one of myriad studios focused on delivering "small" games to the 360 and hand-held platforms. They're behind the competent and fairly bulletproof ports of most of the classic Atari titles to XBLA, from Centipede to Tempest, and a few other licensed games like the PSP and DS versions of Scrabble. Not exactly Irrational Games, but also quite likely on time and on budget. Given the number of orthogonal interactions possible between cards at any given point in a magic game, basic execution is more important than you might think -- it's something Magic Online has struggled with for years, and it doesn't even attempt to provide a robust AI. In under 2 years, Stainless delivered.

But the experience isn't without it's flaws. By simplifying the game so much, I find myself yearning for the "real" experience of Magic: customizing decks to min-max my way to cheap victory. Deck customization in Duels is anemic, consisting only of adding more cards to basic decks, with no ability to fine-tune the distribution or remove ineffective cards. Wollpert admits this is a deliberate and limiting choice. "I sympathize -- greatly -- with the players who are asking for more advanced deck customization, but if you want that, it's available, it's just not what we wanted on the Xbox." To be clear, he's suggesting I leave my house to play real Magic, which means buying cards and booster packs and investing far, far more money than $10 in the game, or at least that I get off the couch and fire up my PC. "If players want the richer experience, well then the Xbox isn't really going to give it to you in the near future. We want you to go to your friend's house and play, or to Magic Online, or to a Friday Night Magic game at a local store."

And that's really the problem. Magic -- the big game -- is phenomenally addictive, and for someone as OCD as myself, Duels is a desperate and terrifying free-hit in a shiny back alley lined with foil packages containing 23 cents of cardboard for the low-low price of $2.99. After 10 hours, I had unlocked the majority of the available cards in Duels, and the inability to dig deeper -- to put this card in that deck -- was cruel shoes on a long walk. But Wollpert is clear: This is not the game for me. If I want more, I must dive headfirst back into the pit.

And what about my daughter? Or perhaps more to the point, the legions of gamers who represent Wizards' true target audience for Duels?

"We know that the migration path is not as clean as we'd like," says Wollpert. "When you finish Duels, it's not like you're ready to jump into Magic Online and start tearing it up in 8-person drafts. There's still a chasm there, and I acknowledge that." And maybe that's the big issue. Even as an experienced player, the gap between the first-one's-free tease of Duels and the deep, deep end of the pool represented by Magic Online is simply too large. I know I can make the leap -- I've still got hundreds of cards sitting in my Magic Online account. But perhaps it's just one I don't have the time, money or inclination to make.

Wollpert seems unconcerned.

"At some point you have to kick the baby bird out of the nest," says Wollpert. And I guess, 15 years later, I'm back to being that baby bird. "Some are going to go splat, but most are going to fly, and hopefully most of the ones that fly, fly to us."

Comments

Even the demo made me smile, and think very fondly of my green-heavy regeneration deck. My freshman year of high school we battled in the science lab, and I regularly lost to a friend's ridiculous plague rat deck. Well worth the price of admission to steep yourself in memories like that.

I can't stand to play MTGO anymore. The interface is so cumbersome and counter-intuitive. I have 25k cards on the damn thing, full sets going back to OTJ, and I wont play it. It is like banging my fingers with a ball-peen hammer. I am sincerely considering redeeming all of the cards they will let me, which is everything from Fifth Dawn on, because MTGO sucks so bad.

If they could just take the interface from Duels and put it on MTGO....

I still miss the glory days of the Microprose version of the M:TG, but I appreciate the clean interface of this version. I fell out of love with CCGs about the time when Decipher put out the fourth expansion to Star Trek: The Next Generation Collectable Card Game (say that three times fast), and with it went my desire to ever play Magic: The Gathering again. But I've been digging the demo, even when I'm frustrated by how much luck factors into the matches because I can't customize my decks.

For a while, I loved Magic. I mean, I really loved it - if presented a choice between spending my money on textbooks or on an Alpha edition Black Lotus, I wouldn't have even thought twice. Grades were ephemeral, but an artifact that costs nothing to cast and grants 3 mana? That's forever.

I don't care how well executed a gateway drug Duels is, there's no dragging me back now. The joy of magic, for me, was always in crafting a unique and effective deck of cards from an endless sea of possibilities. With that element stripped out, the game holds little appeal. Likewise, I now have no desire to wade through thousands of junk cards (and thousands of dollars invested) to acquire the good cards required to play the "real" game.

I'm sure there's an unexplored business model that would allow WotC to craft a product that would appeal to a person such as myself, but until I see such a thing, I'll happily stay off the sauce.

Michael Zenke wrote:

Even the demo made me smile, and think very fondly of my green-heavy regeneration deck. My freshman year of high school we battled in the science lab, and I regularly lost to a friend's ridiculous plague rat deck. Well worth the price of admission to steep yourself in memories like that.

I have a similar memory, but it was my green deck against my friend's red weenies deck outside the band trailer.

My first job was translating and mowing under the table for a lawn crew. I spent over half the money on MTG.
One of the Guatemalans on the crew who spoke decent english killed me with a green deck. My goblin deck was hit or miss.

Mmmmmm... Orthogonal...

This article reflects my thoughts and feelings on the game exactly. It is much like a drug dealer going back to someone who's been clean for a while.

Random Magic: The Gathering story: a few years ago, I moved the last of my stuff out of my parents' house. When I couldn't find anyone interested in taking my sizable collection of Magic cards, primarily from Revised and Fourth edition, I donated them to Goodwill. It wasn't until I became interested in the game again a few years later that I realized I'd given away a Beta Mox Jet and Mox Sapphire.

I'm in the camp that's a bit disappointed with DotP. I don't need full customization, just the ability to swap out a card for every unlocked card I swap in would have been sufficient.

I used to play pretty heavily way back in the day. Winter Orb/Stasis/Boomerang/Balance/Wrath/Disenchant/Counter/Force of Will/Swords to Plowshares/Zuran Orb lockdown/permission was my favorite deck archetype. Probably annoying as hell to play against, but oh so many cheap answers for anything & everything.

Yeah I bought Duels of the Planeswalkers for the exact reason of I have a balanced deck and everyone else does... The idea of spending 5k over years to have enough cards that are overpowered to beat everyone killed it for me... I have a collection but nothing worth using. So, this game has made me happy.

I miss Magic from my junior high days, but I hate the constant death march of new cards.

And you end up with:

rickyyo wrote:

I have a collection but nothing worth using.

And that keeps me out.

I got back into Magic a few months ago - just in the nick of time to witness the huge changes that are sweeping the Magic landscape.
For those not in the know (which, hopefully, are most the readers here), this July sees the launch of the new Core Set for Magic, called Magic: the Gathering Core Set 2010 (or M10, for short). With it come a batch of new rules changes, that are only partially represented in DotPW. For instance, there are some terminology changes that assure that the game is outdated almost as soon as it came out ("in play" is now known as "in the battlefield", for example). One aspect where it is ahead of the curve is not allowing players to respond to damage after its been assigned but before it's been dealt, which appears to have been a curious case of parallel development. The DotPW folks were trying to provide a streamlined play experience, and the paper Magic developers were trying to get rid of some of the complexity creep that makes it hard for new players to enter the game.
I am very grateful for DotPW. As a teaching tool for Magic it is second to none. The Tutorial is a part of that, as is the ability for new players to launch innumerable campaigns against an infinitely patient and tireless opponent to help work out the nuances of the game for themselves. The fact that those who purchase the game are rewarded with paper cards, which will almost certainly come packaged with an invitation to the release events of the new core set, helps bridge the gap between the two types of play.
Had this game had even the most rudimentary deckbuilding included, even just limiting it to the card pool in the game, I doubt I would be able to tear myself away from it. The fact that DLC is almost a certainty excites me, and I hope that there will be more complexity (and maybe deckbuilding? Please, Stainless? Are you listening?) in future expansion packs. And Planeswalkers. I mean, seriously, how can you call a game Duels of the Planeswalkers and not include Planeswalker cards?
On an additional note, for those who are interested in the technical side of things, these two articles may prove interesting.
Anyone who wants to play a game with someone in an odd timezone, hit me up at Bishop2024 on XBL.

In Grade 8 & 9 I requisitioned a classroom at my high school for the Magic players. Lot's of great games played there over lunch hour. Not so funny story, two kids were messing around with the classroom door one day, one was trying to keep the other from coming in to the room and WHAM, one loses the end off his middle finger. As de facto leader of the group I had to help him calm down and get to the office for med attention. I was totally dominating with my white weenies deck that day too, damn it.

I don't ever want to see the total sum of what I spent as a teenager on M:TG and WH40K... in hours or dollars. Makes my WoW sub seem like a pittance.

That last sentace is an automatic life-time membership to Geekdom if I ever saw one.

I played Magic with my Dad in early middle school (around the time of The Dark quitting between Iceage and Homelans), picking back up in High School (Onslaught) and going through my first couple years of college (Saviors of Kamigawa).

I got heavily into the tournament scene in college, playing in a FNM (Friday Night Magic) at a local Community College with 40+ people on a weekly basis. I was spending more or less every free penny I had on MTG.

A good friend of mine that went to many of the tournaments with me, has started getting back into MTG again. It is infinitely more dangerous now than it was then for one reason and one reason only: I have disposable income. My friend will go to the local games store and drop nearly $100 on a box to run a couple for fun drafts over a weekend. It would be so easy to get back in. I'd simply have to go on ebay, spend a couple hundred bucks and I'd have a ridiculously awesome deck... until it all cycles out in a few months and I have to do the same thing again.... and again.... and again.

I see the slippery slope. I'm standing on the edge, looking down, and every time my buddy buys a box to host a free Magic draft (he keeps the cards), I inch closer and lean over a little farther for a better view. We're going to the next Pre-Release at a store owned by his co-worker's husband, where I will spend money on Magic for the first time in nearly 4 years.

If I just put one foot on the slope I can keep my balance. Right guys? Right? Right?!?!

When it first came out, Magic was for everyone. 30 wouldn't have been old. Most of the really good players were 30 or older. Most of them moved on to Texas Holdem and the people who haven't played before are the younger kids, so they are the current audience. I still need to sell my expensive cards. One of these days.

I had to pick this up as soon as I heard about it on the GWJCC. So far I've been having a lot of fun. Some of the constraints chafe since I'm aware of the large possibilities. But I'd rather a game that is tightly designed and runs this well (and is this much fun) than mourn what's not there.

Now if only they would make a version of Jyhad/V:tES. I would be all over that.

Actually, in talking with them, there really wasn't parallel development -- they were specifically given the rules changes knowing they were coming in M10. The terminology changes I imagine are as much oversight as anything else, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the words patched in.

One side note from my interview yesterday: Worth said the game is doing well, well enough that we should be expecting some DLC/Expansion news very soon.

rabbit wrote:

One side note from my interview yesterday: Worth said the game is doing well, well enough that we should be expecting some DLC/Expansion news very soon.

I'm very happy to hear this. While I doubt that I'll be taking the plunge back into Magic Online or buying print cards, I'll happily buy some DLC for Duels. As others have mentioned, the money treadmill for the game makes it difficult to justify buying packs and decks, but I'll buy cards in large numbers if they're released as reasonably priced DLC.

adam.greenbrier wrote:

While I doubt that I'll be taking the plunge back into Magic Online or buying print cards, I'll happily buy some DLC for Duels.

Yeah, well, I fired up MTGO last night for the first time in a year. It's still there. So are all my cards. And it's still fun.

rabbit wrote:
adam.greenbrier wrote:

While I doubt that I'll be taking the plunge back into Magic Online or buying print cards, I'll happily buy some DLC for Duels.

Yeah, well, I fired up MTGO last night for the first time in a year. It's still there. So are all my cards. And it's still fun.

I've been tempted to log back in, but I always found it very difficult to find the sort of casual Magic game I'm looking for there. Magic Online is almost exclusively the domain of hardcore players. But if I do log in, I'll have to look you up.

However, I'll have to retract my comment about print cards. I've been thinking about picking up a few M10 theme decks to play with my wife and our friends. It would be fun to treat them like a board game and pull out some set, predefined pieces for a bit of fun now and again.

Yep, I am so staying away from this I don't want to get sucked in or led to any CCG's, again.

I agree with everything JMJ said. Maybe the "migration path" would be cleaner if Mr. Worth, the Senior Business Manager of Magic Online, didn't decide to cripple his product for casual players by getting rid of leagues with their 'upgrade' (I use the term very loosely) to MTGO version 3. And here we are 14 months later and this 'upgrade' still doesn't have the same features as the old version, and they aren't planning to add leagues back until at least 2010 (2012 in MTGO speak)! I have not logged in since they dropped leagues, and I spent hundreds or dollars playing them on version 2.

I really wish Duel of the Planeswalkers had a PC version, I would buy it.

Bought it yesterday and am totally addicted to single-player. If they provide some compelling DLC, I'm totally up for it.

If they're deliberately gimping it to persuade people to try MTGO/print cards, though, they're barking up the wrong tree. The only non-singleplayer Magic I've ever enjoyed was doing group sessions at the local game shop. When they turned it into a pure 1v1 experience, I lost all interest in playing with other people.

I was an M:TG addict from 1996-2001 or so. I sold off all my cards years ago, but still have a 3rd edition Shivan Dragon (signed by the artist) around here somewhere.....

A few months ago I got in on that deal where WOTC would send you 2 free 30-card decks. I did this because my 15-year old son has recently started playing M:TG with a couple friends at school and wanted to play dear old Dad. I love shuffling together both the all-red and all-green freebie decks I got from WOTC and playing a few games against him and his newest deck, something he spent a few hours putting together. And I still win at least %50 of the time.

I used to play M:TG back in the early 90's. I quit when I realized that success depended more on money than on skill.

I'd buy this game, but I suspect that it will eventually put the player on the same upgrade treadmill. There will be DLC, and you'll have to buy it, and keep buying it, to stay competitive.

It occurs to me that this is the model that microtransaction-based free-to-play MMOs would like to emulate. If you can make your customers keep spending money to stay current in a Red Queen's race, then you're on the gravy train with a lifetime ticket.

Hans

JohnnyMoJo wrote:

I can't stand to play MTGO anymore. The interface is so cumbersome and counter-intuitive. I have 25k cards on the damn thing, full sets going back to OTJ, and I wont play it. It is like banging my fingers with a ball-peen hammer. I am sincerely considering redeeming all of the cards they will let me, which is everything from Fifth Dawn on, because MTGO sucks so bad.

If they could just take the interface from Duels and put it on MTGO....

I couldn't agree more with JohnnyMoJo's assessment of MTGO. The fact that they are able to make so much money that they can give away $33M in prize money but are comfortable trotting out that high-school project of an interface is shameful. I bought my $10 worth of cards for MTGO and after playing for two hours will never return again. Next time I'll buy a laser pointer for $2.99 at Fry's and shoot it into my eyeball. I'd feel the same way as I did playing MTGO but be $7 richer.

I enjoyed the article. The game is definitely a trip down memory lane for me as well. I met my best friends during my High School years through playing Magic. One of my proudest geek achievements was winning a $1,000 tournament in Boston with a G/W Armageddon deck. We may very well have been at some of the same tournaments around that time.

Going away to college in 1996 was pretty much the end of my Magic career. By 1999 I was selling off my collection including all the Beta Power cards that I patiently assembled over my Magic career to pay off my college credit card debts. I hung on to a Beta Balance as a memento of my years playing.

In about 2002 I got the urge to play again through MTGO but after blowing a couple of hundred bucks over a very short period of time I asked myself what I was doing. I'd spend basically a year's worth of an MMO subscription in a couple of months. I just can't go back to MTGO again but this game makes me really want to. The deck-building and tuning was always my favorite part of the game. I am longing for a mid-range offering that allows me to customize the decks without committing the amount of time and money required to go "all-in". Based on the interview, it doesn't sound like that is an option in the near term.

Or maybe I could just start with some sealed deck drafting....No! That's how it started the last time.

JohnnyMoJo wrote:

If they could just take the interface from Duels and put it on MTGO....

Couldn't agree more - the Duels interface is SO nice, although I loved MTGO when it first launched for the ability to finally see the stack operating correctly with all those weird effects that can and do crop up in magic games, it feels very outdated now.

How many "base" decks are in this version for you to customize? And has anyone tried the co-op? Is there local multiplayer at all?