First Impressions: Duels of the Planeswalkers

Magic: The Gathering was always something that I wanted to play. Out of all the nerdy things I found in high school to love, MTG seemed like the most nerdy of them all. Naturally I was fascinated, but never took my fascination to the level of actually playing the game. I had a few friends who played, frequently at our underage drinking parties (oh, to be young again). I would watch with avid interest and once or twice they asked me to play, painstakingly trying to teach me how, and I would inevitably get flustered and lose and quit.

I’m in my mid-20s now with more confidence, so when I went to the Games Developers Conference as a volunteer and there was a group teaching Magic, I decided to stick around and learn. And it was excellent. I had already played Blizzard’s card game, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, and so had some of the fundamentals of a game with mana and beasts and spells under my belt. After leaving GDC, I was lucky enough to chance upon The Lady Planeswalkers Society, a group dedicated to creating a safe, friendly environment for women to play Magic in. Sign me up!

It’s been about three months since I started playing regularly and I’m still learning – which brings me finally to Duels of the Planeswalkers. I had dabbled in Magic Online but when I first tried it, the terms still flew over my head. Haste? Trample? Vigilance? I have a better understanding of these things now, though I still consider myself very new and liable to mess things up at any given time (I always preface my in-person matches with “I’m still new, please let me know if I mess up!” I also use this tactic in Smite when I play a new character and surprisingly, it somehow works better IRL. Who knew that people are less likely to be assholes when I’m actually staring them in the face? Such a mystery). Duels of the Planeswalker sees my trepidation as new Magic player, nods, and then goes wild with making sure that nothing goes over my head.

“You’re confused about haste, new player? Let me pop up a window and explain it to you every single time you get a card with haste.”

“Oh, this is your COMBAT stage. I will remind you of this every single time you COMBAT.”

“Oh myyy, that’s a mighty big creature he’s got there, panic!” 

Okay, that last one isn’t true. But good lord, do some of the beginning tutorials last forever and throw big creatures at you without the ability to return battle in a proper way. Deck building at first seems nonexistent and you have to earn cards through the campaign play, winning booster packs for the AIs you defeat. You choose your starter colors – I originally chose the blue-white combo, as that’s what I used in the physical Magic 15 pre-release and won handily with, but ended up switching to black-red, my old standby – and are handed pre-chosen cards in that color to play with. I’m disappointed that a lot of the cards appear to be called “premium cards,” meaning that you have to purchase them to play with them and they can’t be gotten through simple grinding.

I guess that’s the nature of the beast, but I still find it disappointing.

Duels of the Planeswalkers also suffers from some technical mishaps. I have the game on my Kindle Fire, my partner has it on his iPad, and I have it on Steam as well. All three versions suffer from non-responsiveness to touch and click and while I understand why the game tries to be meticulous, the excessive need to confirm and re-confirm your choices wears me out. It doesn’t feel good to play, especially compared to the smooth sailing of Hearthstone, which is extremely responsive both on iPad and online.

With all that negative stuff out there, I still am enjoying Duels of the Planeswalkers so far. I appreciate the care it takes to coach new players through – if I’d had this tool back in high school, maybe I’d have actually played with people I knew and made new friends. The art is superb, as it always is, and the core game is still the same timeless, nearly flawless game. I find it a fantastic tool to keep learning more about Magic, so that when I play in-person, which is still my favorite way to play, I’m a better, tougher competitor. Maybe it’s working – last night I won two more physical booster packs at an event with my white-black deck. It felt good.

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