Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalker
Release Date: June 17th, 2009
ESRB Rating: Teen for Mild Blood, Mild Suggestive Themes, Violent References
Available On: Xbox Live Arcade
Genre: Card Battle
Number of Players: 1-2 (local co-op), 1-4 (online competitive)

Does the name Magic: The Gathering ring a bell to you? I think it might. It\'s the name that coincided with a new breed of tabletop gaming over fifteen years ago. The collectible (or trading) card game concept has seen a lot of variation over the years, with just as many licenses used to sell them, and maybe you\'ve even watched or played some of them, but Wizards of the Coast\'s Magic is where it all began.

And fifteen years later, Magic still has a strong following. In a game where players take turns playing cards from their hands to build up a small but effective force of fantasy creatures, strategy, cunning, and some luck all come together to provide a surprisingly deep yet fast paced experience more often than not.

By now, you\'re probably thinking that this little history and overview stub is nice and all but you opened up this review to read about an Xbox game, so why haven\'t I mentioned the game yet? Simple.

The card game is the Xbox game.

The developers may like you to think that there is some kind of important story being told within the game, and as much as I would like to say that it follows in the footsteps of a Tolkien-esque epic, there really is little story to go by. Your existence as a Planeswalker is briefly explained, and some vague notion of who you are competing with is mentioned prior to each match in the campaign mode, but these things seem present merely because they\'re expected in a commercial video game release.

Fortunately for all of us, collectible card games are hardly meant to be about storyline. Instead, buying new cards to incorporate into a play deck, developing strategies to bring about victory, and learning to improvise in the heat of a match are the things that drive people to keep playing the game. Even more fortunate is that all of these things make it into the game.

For the most part, anyway.

For those of you who are like I was three days ago, completely clueless as to how a game of Magic is played, allow me to get you up to speed. The game takes place by alternating players in each round, giving them the objective of bringing the opponent\'s life down from 20 to zero. Within a round are a few basic phases. In the first phase, you draw a card from your deck and play however many cards the rules allow for in the current situation. In the second phase, the offensive player chooses which creatures in the playing field to attack the opponent with; once the offensive player has made these decisions, the defensive player can choose to block attacks with creatures of his or her own. After the end of the second phase, the player can deploy any remaining cards that the rules permit if strategy deems it a good idea.

The basic flow should sound fairly simple because it really is. However, the actual execution is far deeper than that. For instance, in the deployment phase, creatures in the player\'s hand can only be summoned into the playing field if the player has enough unused mana (the game\'s source of energy/magic) available. So, how do you go about gaining mana? During the deployment phase, you must also play so-called land cards. Each of these cards provides you with one mana point per round. Adding to the complexity is that each land has a color alignment and each creature can only be deployed if there is enough available mana of its required color or colors.

And so the complexities for the deployment phase begin. The battle phases provide their share of intricacies, too. Attacking an enemy should be easy, right? Well yes, but not all creatures are equal. A flying enemy can get right past summoned creatures and damage the opponent directly unless if a blocking creature has extended reach or is also flying. What about first strikes and double strikes? What about defenders? What about...

If I try to explain all of the complexities of the game right now, you\'ll be reading this review all day. However, there is one other thing that does deserve note right here. At nearly any point in a round, it is possible to make use of spell or enchantment cards to turn the situation in your favor even when things look incredibly bleak. Some of these cards allow you to stop all damage from taking effect for the duration of the round; other cards can heavily raise your creatures\' attack and defense levels. Some cards last for a round; other cards last the entire match. If you want to understand all of the complexities of the game\'s rules, I recommend reading up on them at the official website or just downloading the game demo and playing through its really helpful tutorial.

As complex as the game sounds, it doesn\'t take long to learn and understand the fundamentals once playing the game. Instead of being needless complications that frustrate, these intricacies provide added depth and strategy in addition to an unexpected amount of competitive intensity to a tabletop game.

But perhaps some of the words I used have caught your attention, words like "summoning," "spells," and "enchantments." My guess is that if you\'ve heard of Magic before, but have never actually seen it for yourself, it\'s because of the negative hype the game has received by concerned Christians since the game first began and understandably so.

With a name like "Magic: The Gathering," and with terms like these that naturally conjure up ideas of witchcraft (which the Bible forbids), it\'s no surprise that that Christians would call it an evil game and advise (to put it kindly) people to stay away from it. On the surface, these concerns are plenty valid even if the game is seen more as a stepping stone into practiced witchcraft than as an evil in itself. It doesn\'t help the game\'s image with people such as these that among the color magic alignments is black which makes use of undead creatures, some of which are not very pretty.

However, in my estimation, these terms are present for convention and gameplay mechanics more than to lead people to practicing witchcraft. "Summoning" is simply the term for moving a card from your hand to the playing field; "Spells" are little more than cards that can be played at any point in the game to produce immediate effects that change the tide of battle. "Enchantments" are merely lasting alterations on creature cards to make them more effective.

By no stretch of the imagination am I saying that the game is just fine for anyone to play. Whether this game (or any other) is suitable for you or your children is a decision for you and you alone to make. What I am saying is that there is legitimate room for concern, and that should be taken seriously, but the game may not be quite the great evil that some would lead you to believe on hearsay.

Then again, I think the whole discussion of the supernatural in video games would be better suited for another time and another place (though it is absolutely worth discussing in the proper contexts with the proper motives and attitudes). And since I\'ve already explained a little bit about the way that the card game mechanics work, how about we take a look at the overall game package now?

As I mentioned previously, there is little in the way of storyline going on. Then again, it\'s hardly needed. It seems to me that trying to add more plot to the game would be unnecessarily forced. Instead of a story, we\'re given a sizable campaign of over a dozen matches (each match lasting 10-30 minutes on average, but you may lose matches multiple times before finally winning) in the single-player campaign. There is also a free battle mode where you can pick one of the computer opponents to play against. And, for those of you who really want to maximize your card skills, there is a challenge mode which gives you a few cards in a very tight situation and only one turn to defeat your opponent.

But there\'s more. There are also several multiplayer modes. Local players can play a co-op variant on the campaign or join in for the co-op free battle mode. Unfortunately, there is no local competitive option (presumably because it would be impossible to keep from seeing each other\'s hands). There are, however, competitive modes for up to four players (in a free-for-all or team fashion) over Xbox Live. In my time with the online play, the experience translates pretty well. It\'s a lot of fun to play against other people, and those moments where an opponent plays an insane round have left me in awe. If you have friends to play the game with, it would get even better.

Fortunately, for a game like this with crazy amounts of clicking around, the controls are generally intuitive and the interface feels like playing a card game. Actually, it even looks like playing the card game albeit at a rather fancy table. For better or worse, that\'s where the buck stops for the visual department. The game is entirely focused on the gameplay. The cards look like cards, and the overall look is polished, but don\'t expect to be blown away by anything. This is by all means a no-frills package, and the audio/video side of the presentation reflects that. They get the job done, they even do it well, but they don\'t do much to wow you. Then again, we can\'t forget that this is a ten dollar game.

And for ten bucks, it\'s a great value. Considering that finding a starter deck of the game for $10 is the base rate, the fact that you\'re getting a vast array of cards and game modes to use them in for that price is rather appealing. However, there is one major letdown in the game\'s design.

Despite having countless cards available in the game, you cannot build your own decks from scratch. This is a significant appeal to any trading card game, and the fact that you\'re constrained to eight base decks that can only be modified by winning cards for those decks (around fifteen or so cards can be added to any given deck) is a little disappointing. It doesn\'t truly diminish from what the game is; it is just a small disappointment in light of what the game could have been.

Still, on the whole, the game is a great value. If you enjoy trading card games, then the game will give you more than your money\'s worth. It\'s a lot of fun to play, and it can be both engaging and addicting. A testament to the game\'s appeal can be seen in the fact that people have walked by as I would be playing the game only to stop and get caught up in the game\'s excitement. Who would have thought that these words could all be applied to a virtual take on a card game? I didn\'t.

Duels of the Planeswalkers is a surprising treat. If you don\'t like card games like Magic, you probably won\'t change your mind because of this game. Nevertheless, despite the no-frills approach, it is a very solid package. Because the supernatural elements are a legitimate point of concern (along with a handful of illustrations of female creatures that could be vaguely considered immodest), I can\'t give the game a strong recommendation. However, if these issues do not seem particularly bothersome to you, but you\'re still not sure if you would like the gameplay, I would advise you to try out the demo. Rarely is a demo so indicative of the full version\'s experience as it is here. If you like it, it\'s well worth your ten bucks and promises of future expansions for the game should only make it better in time.

-Kenny Yeager (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Game Score - 38/50
Morality Score - 38/50

Overall - 76/100

Gameplay - 16/20
Graphics - 7/10
Sound - 5/10
Stability - 5/5
Controls 5/5

Violence - 8/10
Language - 10/10
Sexual Content - 8/10
Occult/Supernatural - 2/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 10/10


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