It's hard to believe that Magic: The Gathering has been around since 1993. It's mind-blowing to think that there's a whole generation playing the game that probably wasn't born when it was originally released. Magic: The Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 was a bit like taking a trip down memory lane.
I didn't get into the collectible card game (CCG for short) version of Magic until the fourth edition in 1995. Like most kids, I had a sizeable baseball card collection, but the concept of doing something with these cards was pretty new. One of the better aspects of a game like Magic is the community aspect. Even today, a quick online search can yield a number of local events. Due to Magic's popularity, you won't have much trouble getting into the game.
That's kind of where this release comes into play. Magic 2013 is the third entry in the series, which has evolved into a pretty great experience for console and PC players alike. It's streamlined when compared to the actual CCG, taking away certain deck-building aspects in favor of pre-built decks with unlockable cards. But as a gateway drug of sorts, it does a good job of getting you interested in the product.
A bevy of tutorial tips pop up every time something new enters the field, so if you're not familiar with the dozens of card types, creatures, spells, etc., the game will give you an idea. If you're more familiar with the game, you can definitely dive in and turn off that feature.
The structure is pretty similar to what we saw in the 2012 release, minus the Archenemy campaign. You start off with a couple of unlocked, pre-built decks of 60 cards each and battle against the AI, which serves as your primary way of unlocking new decks. The campaign is divided into sections, which are further divided into encounters with the Planeswalker characters that represent new deck types. These new matches are unique in that the cards played by the opposing player will always be in the same order, so new players can learn how to play against these deck types.
Once you start to win some matches, you'll unlock new cards for the deck, and you can then visit the deck editor to swap cards, provided you never fall below the 60-card limit. Rolling with a deck full of the unlocked cards isn't a great idea; instead, you'll want to manipulate the deck with a plan or goal in mind, and it can take some time to figure out which cards to use and which cards to drop. This is the only aspect that might be a little daunting for new players, but a couple of quick online searches can provide some clues.
The standard campaign provides a decent challenge from the AI, so it might take some time for newer players to run through. Even as someone a bit more experienced with Magic: The Gathering, I had a little trouble with the last few matches, which had me constantly switching out decks to get things just right.
For those who breeze through the initial campaign, the Revenge campaign returns from last year, and it consists of tougher encounters that are found in the standard game. Revenge certainly amps up the difficulty, and it should provide a sizeable challenge for all skill levels.
The Challenge mode also returns, consisting of puzzle-like scenarios that usually involve some type of dire, nearly unwinnable situation. You'll need to figure out the solution to turn a sure defeat into a win. This is still the toughest aspect of the game to complete, and I'm banging my head against the wall for a handful of these challenges.
Finally, Magic 2013 introduces a new mode, Planechase, which basically supplants last year's Archenemy mode and pits you against multiple opponents. In the center of the playing field, you'll have a deck of Planes, representing different dimensions. There's also a Planar Die, which can be rolled once every turn for each player, or multiple times in a turn if the player is willing to tap lands for the mana to do so. Each Planes card has two abilities that either causing persistent effects for all players, targeting certain card types, or causing a variety of other things.
When you roll the die, you'll have a two out of six chance of triggering one of these effects, with one side of the die representing a switch of locations, and the other representing an icon that triggers an effect from the current Planes card. When you switch locations, it often initiates something when new Planes come into play, but each card also has a persistent ability that can be activated by the other icon on the die.
The randomization of Planechase adds a unique element to most matches and makes it harder to stick to a game plan. I really enjoyed this mode, and along with the Challenge games, it's one of the more difficult modes — almost entirely due to the randomization. There's definitely some fun to be had with this addition, and I preferred this to last year's oddball Archenemy mode.
Beyond the single-player portion of Magic 2013, there's a decent online mode that hasn't changed much since last year. You can play in ranked or player matches, with a variety of leaderboards to track your skill across a number of criteria, like weekly and overall stats. Both ranked and player matches contain regular one-on-one lineups, Two-Headed Giant (think teams), and the new Planechase mode. I had little to no trouble finding and getting into matches with random folks, and the game certainly has a strong online community at this point, making it a great time to jump in and try it out. Playing against actual opponents as opposed to the AI remains the best way to learn the game.
All in all, I'm pretty happy with what Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 has to offer. It's a slightly more refined experience than last year, allowing for some minor changes, such as the ability to choose the lands you tap, and the improved user interface will probably be overlooked by most casual fans, but the core gameplay is still remarkably solid and does exactly what it's intended to do: get you pumped up to play some Magic: The Gathering. It also provides a lot of content for the asking price of 800 Microsoft points ($10), and it will likely remain my go-to XBLA game for a number of months.
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