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

I hear ya. I played in a tourney in 1996 or so, got waxed, and thus ended my tournament career. Still played pickup games for years. I remember Darwim as was still working at Your Move when I lived in Cambridge in 2000. I wondered about trying to play seriously again, but by that point i was so heavily ADD about games that i could never focus on one.

So I guess I am the target audience Worth is looking for. Since its inception I have played exactly one game of MTG. I have gamed for years, know what magic is, am a very good friend of Rabbits and because of that have avoided Magic like the plague since its inception. There are two reasons for this avoidance to what is clearly one of the greatest card games ever created.

First, if it says collectible anywhere in the title I tend to be immediately ignore said collectible game. Second, by the time I caught up with Rabbit he was already deep deep into MTG. So deep, that I could not get by the 'I have no clue and I will be your little piss boy for the next x months while you continually school me bored out of your wits, and I hope to learn the game'. So there you go.. Classic case of never played the game.

At Demiurge's behest last night I bought in, we played and I will say it was at least interesting. I like the fact that essentially it is a capped world where spending gobs of money to improve your deck is not an option. Its like the IROC racing series where everyone has the same car and the best driver should win. When it comes down to using my balanced deck against an opponent with essentially the same type of deck, I like my chances. I like it especially these days because disposable income is a great concept but not reality. I think in the end it will keep my attention long enough to satisfy my inner need to have a little MTG cred, while not requiring all the time and money to play the 'real' thing.

cmitts wrote:

I think in the end it will keep my attention long enough to satisfy my inner need to have a little MTG cred, while not requiring all the time and money to play the 'real' thing.

I played the demo last night and this is exactly what I came away with. I think I'll buy the full game and be pretty happy.

The gimping of customization is a huge disappointment. Unfortunately, I bought the game before reading Julian's article, so I found out about it the hard way. It's easy to understand why they did it from a business perspective, and, sure, the game only costs $10. But they should have been more upfront about the limitations, especially in the demo. Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Magic or CCGs would have a basic expectation of the Planeswalkers experience, one that the game doesn't fully deliver.

It's really a shame, especially since Planeswalkers has one of the most elegant videogame CCG interfaces I've ever seen.

I'll say straight up that I haven't played a ccg before, and did not try the demo. Magic sounds fun, but the appeal of having to buy the game piecemeal is lost on me. The analogy that comes to mind (and the contrast it highlights) was the collective inter-nerd-rage a couple of years ago when DICE suggested they would charge for multi-player game-changing dlc weapons in Battlefield. It's the ghost that comes up again and again in discussions of pay-as-you-go games; so long as they don't sell items that give peole willing to pay a competitive advantage... Yet this sounds to me like Magic the Gathering's (and other ccg's) modus operandi: paying for a competitive advantage in a multi-player game.

Actually, it sounds like this XBLA release might be the Magic game for you. All the cards are included with the game; you just have to unlock them. Of course, if Wizards produces DLC, then it's probably piecemeal time again. But at least the pieces would be rather big.

If you're interested in the genre, there are several other videogame options that have similar unlocking structures: Marvel TCG, Warhammer: Battle for Atluma, and the Yu-Gi-Oh series being the three that leap to mind.

If you want a TCG like game without microtransactions you should check out Spectromancer. Richard Garfield helped to design the game and it's pretty good. There's no customization, only a bunch of different cards, but it's very competitive and it plays different (You can see your whole hand at the start of the game, you play creatures in certain slots and they always attack the opposing slot). In summary it's a less luck and more skill based game than magic. The art of the cards is pretty good too (it's very magic like). You can pick it up for 10 bucks on steam (I guess). The community is pretty solid, although the developing studio sometimes is a little slow (servers can be down from time to time). I for my part can say that I got a lot of playtime out of the game.

When I was in college I had quite a few friends who were former Magic junkies and just hearing from them how addicting it was (and how broke it made them) I always kept my distance. As stated by the developers this is a version of magic that I really enjoy and for the money have no qualms. Having a blast just playing a game or two here and there. Although I can see where all the customization would be amazing, I'm not sad about not having it.

I used to have the Magic addiction. I even tried to get my wife into it (resulting in zero success and quite a bit of name calling). But my interest in Magic came to an end when my wife and I found ourselves in a random shop that happened to be holding a Magic tourney in the back. I took a peek and saw five twelve year olds and one guy in his late twenties/early thirties sitting around a table. He wasn't anyone's father. I just could never be that guy, hanging with the kiddies. It's one thing to geek out with your friends, quite another to hang with kids and be the guy that everyone wonders if he has a blacked out panel van in the parked in the back.

I believe I'm the target audience here: a strategy-loving gamer who's never played Magic in any incarnation. I played through the demo though, and just fell all over myself to purchase it.
I don't think I can justify the 'money-treadmill' that others mention here, but Planeswalkers is a lot of fun, and worthwhile as it's own game. It sounds like the more expansive experience is already available for people who want it, and I have to say I'm glad that there's an 'investment-capped' edition here for people like me.

I think that those of you who presume this version of MTG is "investment capped" are mistaken. The treadmill is coming. There will be DLC, which will perform the same function as booster packs in the physical game. And you'll have to buy the DLC to be competitive with other players of the game, as the DLC will contain cards that beat everything you have in the base version.

I'm not saying this to be bitter (though I am, a little). I got out of Magic circa 1995 when I figured out how it works.

It's the way WOTC rolls.

I bought the full game Thursday. My roommate and I have each been unlocking things and then playing co-op together, too. We've had a great time playing blue/white together. I control and counter, he weenies and defends. I get card draw, he gets life gain. Works well for us.

I'm Mixol and he is SomeSquirrel on XBL

hidannik wrote:

I think that those of you who presume this version of MTG is "investment capped" are mistaken. The treadmill is coming.

You're right. But maybe "investment reduced"? : ) Here's hoping at least...

Nice write up "rabbit"!

Mixolyde wrote:

I bought the full game Thursday. My roommate and I have each been unlocking things and then playing co-op together, too. We've had a great time playing blue/white together. I control and counter, he weenies and defends. I get card draw, he gets life gain. Works well for us.

I'm Mixol and he is SomeSquirrel on XBL

So you're playing the two most annoying colors ;). I was always a red / green / black kind of person. All white and blue do is annoy the other player to death. "Oh, you played a creature? Pacifism. Oh, you want to cast a spell, counter-spell."

That and they both love their flying creatures.

PandaEskimo wrote:

So you're playing the two most annoying colors ;). I was always a red / green / black kind of person. All white and blue do is annoy the other player to death. "Oh, you played a creature? Pacifism. Oh, you want to cast a spell, counter-spell."

I find white spells like "Oblivion Ring" and "Pacifism" to be a lot less annoying than black's "Terror." At least enchantments can be destroyed or bounced; you can't even "Giant Growth" or regenerate your way out of a "Terror."

adam.greenbrier wrote:

I find white spells like "Oblivion Ring" and "Pacifism" to be a lot less annoying than black's "Terror." At least enchantments can be destroyed or bounced; you can't even "Giant Growth" or regenerate your way out of a "Terror."

Not all black decks have "Terror," but all blue decks have annoying counter-spells and all white decks are going to have annoying "Pacifism" / "Protection from (color)" cards or creatures in them somewhere. That was my experience anyways. They often of lengthen the game, while red / green / black often go for a quick game.

PandaEskimo wrote:
adam.greenbrier wrote:

I find white spells like "Oblivion Ring" and "Pacifism" to be a lot less annoying than black's "Terror." At least enchantments can be destroyed or bounced; you can't even "Giant Growth" or regenerate your way out of a "Terror."

Not all black decks have "Terror," but all blue decks have annoying counter-spells and all white decks are going to have annoying "Pacifism" / "Protection from (color)" cards or creatures in them somewhere. That was my experience anyways. They often of lengthen the game, while red / green / black often go for a quick game.

Not all black decks have "Terror" but almost all of them are going to have some sort of direct creature removal spells or abilities. "Royal Assassin" is one such.

Actually, more annoying than "Terror" are black's ubiquitous discard abilities. "Mind Rot" is a terrible, terrible thing. At least with blue's counter-spells, I get to do something. With a properly tuned discard deck, I'll have an empty hand an nary an opportunity to fill it.

Blue/black counter/discard decks are the stuff of nightmares. The combination of those two abilities (and the other color-focused abilities of blue and black: card drawing and creature removal, respectively) are the reasons those colors always dominate the high end game. I can't remember the last time that red, green, or white was considered to be the game's, or even a single set's, dominant color.

PandaEskimo wrote:

So you're playing the two most annoying colors ;). I was always a red / green / black kind of person. All white and blue do is annoy the other player to death. "Oh, you played a creature? Pacifism. Oh, you want to cast a spell, counter-spell."

Heh, yeah, that's why it works so well. We do end up with long games, but we win them eventually. Switching to blue/black isn't a bad idea either...

Adam, we will just agree that all of magic is annoying strategies.

This is good & free: http://www.elementsthegame.com/
Pretty grindy though so you might want to check the wiki and netdeck against the AI until you have enough cards to cobble together an interesting deck of your own.

Looks like the 1st expansion pack comes out this this Wed., Oct. 21st.

400 space bucks will nab you:

-Three new playable decks, including Tezzeret’s “Relics of Doom” Planeswalker deck
-Three new unlockable cards for each of the eight original decks
-New Two-Headed Giant co-op levels
-Three new puzzling challenge levels
-New single-player campaign

link

Good deal. I love Duels of the Planeswalkers XBLA and can't wait to get my hands on the new content.

Apparently there was a patch released a couple days ago that improves stability and most importantly replaces the "Quit" option in online multiplayer with "Concede", rendering rage-quitters virtually impotent as dropping out is now recorded on the rager's stat record.

Sweet.

They have unfortunately waited too long and my interest that once had me trying to teach my fiance M:TG has now waned because I'm fickle and have moved on to bigger and better things.

I need to get back into this game.. Unfortunately, I suffer from Live Arcade Alzhiemers and forget what games I own and still need to play on there.. *sighs*

Anyone have a month for sale??

So I'm finally getting around to playing some more Planeswalkers after my initial disenchantment with the inability to customize decks (see upthread), only to fall into the same rage when hitting the last part of the campaign with the green deck.

Several of the enemies with multicolor decks love to throw tons of fliers at you. That's OK, you have that Spider card with Reach. Or, rather, you have *two* of them. In the entire deck. With no way to add more. This only gets more awesome once your foe starts tossing around Terror, Cancel, or Incinerate.

So in order not to get pecked to death by unblockable fliers, you have to 1) get very lucky on your draw, 2) hope that the opponent gets very unlucky on his, or 3) switch decks.

I know this is supposed to be "Magic Lite," but when one deck is essentially crippled against others, then a large part of the strategic appeal that goes hand-in-hand with CCGs goes right out the window. Here's hoping that Planeswalkers and its DLC sell well enough to pave the way for a customizable Magic game on XBLA down the road.

I picked this up a couple days ago so feel free to hit me up for a game.

Just realised I posted this in the wrong thread. Sorry, relocating it to here:

http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/node/50532?page=36