I was never a board game kid, and while I played my fair share of Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, and the occasional round of Life, most of my gaming that didn't involve a home console was centered on collectible card games. Referred to as CCGs for short or TCGs (trading card games) to some, they combined a couple of cool elements: really awesome fantasy artwork and collecting something that I felt had value. Magic: The Gathering was certainly a huge money sink for me at different points in my life. I picked it up around the fourth edition release and continued to play on and off well into my 20s. Along the way, I played a few other notable CCGs, like the Decipher-produced Star Wars and Star Trek games, and some of the comic-themed games, like Marvel's Overpower.
Of those series, Magic is still alive and kicking today. It undergoes constant evolution, with rule sets that change over time, introduction of new mechanics, and entire series of cards that are cycled out of the tournament scene. It's also incredibly accessible, and the overall structure of a match is easy to pick up, so constant newcomers pour more life into the game. If you want to keep up with the best players, it takes a time and money commitment that outweighs most hobbies, but at the same time, the fans love it. I can no longer devote the necessary time to organize my deck, refine it and attend tourneys. That's why I'm thankful for digital versions of the license, and the newest Xbox Live Arcade edition of Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is a lot of fun.
I played a fair amount of the 2009 XBLA release, Magic: The Gathering, along with a couple of the DLC packs. I enjoyed it, but like most people who played it, I thought that definite improvements could be made. Magic 2012 makes some of those much-needed improvements by refining the user interface to make things clearer, easy to read, and simple to navigate when you want to view card details or find out about a particular ability. Along with that, loading times have been greatly decreased from the 2009 version, a particular sticking point that I had with that game. Compared to the 2009 release, it also doesn't take as much time to start a match either on- or offline.
The other big plus in Magic 2012 is the ability to further customize the preset decks of cards. In the previous release, you had a number of themed decks at 60 cards each, with 16 unlockable cards per deck. However, while you could add the new cards, you couldn't remove older cards in an effort to streamline the deck. You could only control the unlocked cards when it came to adding or removing, and that isn't always ideal when constructing a deck of cards for this game. Sometimes working with a smaller deck can be beneficial, so taking away that ability from the player was disappointing. In the 2012 version, you can fully manipulate your deck, adding or removing any of the cards assigned to it as long as you keep it at a minimum of 60 cards. Land is still controlled by the game, and that seems to take up around 24 slots in the deck.
The campaign structure of the single-player game has also been overhauled a bit. While you'll still play against other AI-controlled opponents in one-on-one matches, two new modes labeled Archenemy and Revenge are also available. These two modes need to be unlocked through the introductory campaign mode, but you'll need to play through that anyway to unlock all of the available decks. Revenge isn't particularly noteworthy; it seems to be a harder version of the standard campaign. Archenemy, on the other hand, is completely different.
In Archenemy, you'll team up with two other players, who either can be controlled by the AI or actual players from Xbox Live. You'll all face off against a single AI opponent, who has increased life points (double the standard 20) and is aided by an additional deck of cards called Schemes. The Scheme deck flips over a card every turn, and that card generally has a huge bonus for the AI opponent. Sometimes, it'll get a flip that allows it to either play a creature card from its hand at no cost or search through its library (the MTG word for deck) to put any creature into its hand. The Scheme cards are pretty powerful and definitely balance the playing field for the single opponent facing off against you and your two partners.
On the flip side, the Archenemy mode can also be a little frustrating. The Scheme deck adds a pretty random element to the game that I don't always care for, but that's because I'm rather particular about my deck creation and outfitting it against another themed deck. When the Scheme deck reveals a card that allows the AI to wipe out all of my non-land permanents (artifacts, creatures, enchantments and equipment) at once, it's pretty annoying. I found the Archenemy mode to be far more manageable when playing with partners controlled by actual players, though, as the AI-controlled partner doesn't always make the best decisions to help the team. The AI can make downright dumb plays, often by not blocking an attacker when there was no risk, or not aiding teammates by offering up beneficial spells from their hand.
Aside from the matches against the AI, the player challenges return in Magic 2012 and are now integrated into the campaign mode. These challenges provide you with a unique scenario that often looks like an unwinnable situation, but there's always a key play hidden among the cards to help you get out of a tight spot and win. I'm a big fan of the challenge mode from the first game, and I'm happy to see its return. I think it was a great idea to put into the campaign mode instead of a separate menu option, and it's nice to jump into a challenge game if I'm frustrated with a particular AI battle without needing to back out to the main menu.
For online play, beyond the co-op choices for Archenemy, you can play against other XBLA players through a free-for-all option that supports up to four players, or a mode called Two-Headed Giant. THG is essentially a team fight, where you pair up with someone else to take on another two-man team. You share the same life points as your partner, but for the most part, you'll only face off against the opponent directly across from you on the screen in regards to creature combat. Free-For-All is pretty self-explanatory; it's just a mode where every man is for himself. Both modes seem to work without many problems; I had no trouble finding matches either through the Quick Match option or Custom Search. Through the latter, you get a list of available players who are hosting matches, and that's definitely better than the system dumping you into rooms that have just filled up. The only problem I've run across is non-attentive players; there are points in your turn that require you to hit a button to advance, and occasionally, you'll get someone who takes forever to do so. It's annoying, but that player eventually times out, and the turn will end.
Overall, Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is a definite improvement over Duels of the Planeswalkers from 2009. I'm excited to see what DLC is lined up for this release, as I'm already hooked. The improvements to the UI are great, the loading is essentially fixed from the previous release, and the campaign structure has been tweaked just enough to make it more entertaining than the original. Combine that with more deck flexibility, and you've got a great digital version of the popular game at your fingertips. It's not a replacement for the real thing, but it's a recommendation for casual MTG fans or those who haven't touched a Magic card in years. The only danger is getting re-hooked to the game, but thankfully, I don't have any local card shops in my area. This satiates my need for a fun CCG experience, and I think it'll do the trick for a lot of fans as well.
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