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Magic: The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 Review

Allow me to preface this review by getting a few things out in the open: I am not, nor ever have been, a Magic: The Gathering player. I’ve only recently dabbled in the two digital flavors of the card game available on the PS3. So what you’ll find here is entirely a neophyte’s perspective, and I’ll address my review to noobs like me (as, presumably, the Magic aficionadi already know all about the game anyway). Secondly, I quite enjoy the game that I’m reviewing, but it’s difficult to recommend the game to others, especially those who are unfamiliar with the game. If you are the sort of person who likes strategic trick-based card games, like Tarot (the oldest European card game) and its successors, Whist and Bridge, then Magic may well be right up your alley. Or, in a perhaps more familiar digital gaming idiom, if you enjoy turn-based strategy games, like 3DO’s inimitable Heroes of Might and Magic series, then sign up. If none of the above conditions pertain to you, or if you are allergic to Dungeons and Dragons–style fantasy worlds, then stop reading now and pass on this title.

To begin, a quick Magic primer: Magic is a turn-based card battle game. On each turn, you draw a card, and then you may play one mana card (of which there are five different colors) from your hand. Your cumulative mana total allows you to cast creature and spell cards from your hand, which drain your mana stores, though these stores are replenished at the start of your next turn. Each turn, you may also use the creatures that you have on the board to attack your opponent’s life meter, while your opponent may rally her creatures to block your attacks. Spells, which also use mana, may do direct damage to enemy creatures or players, buff your own creatures, block enemy spells, and so on. When your opponent’s life has been reduced to zero, you win. It’s a simple enough concept, which is taught effectively through the in-game tutorials, but the game is nevertheless quite rich and deep, and it adapts itself quite well to vastly differing playing philosophies.

The game includes ten default decks of cards, each of which is themed, and each of which is associated with particular colors of mana. Generally, red magic invokes fire and direct damage, so red creatures include imps and dragons, and red spells are things like fireballs. White is associated with life-increasing spells, angelic forces, and, hence, a defensive posture. Mixed-color decks combine different schools of magic, such as the green/black deck that is littered with sylvan creatures like elves (green) who are supported by crippling, necrotic spells (black). You, the player, can edit your deck, removing cards that seem weak or that do not fit your playing style. As you win games with a given deck, you’ll unlock progressively more cards, and these locked cards are typically more powerful than the stock cards in the decks. Appropriate deck customization is integral to success in each match, and I quite enjoy tinkering with my decks in the editor.

The game also has a few single-player campaigns (which are simply a series of matches against the various decks) as well as interesting challenge puzzles, which are like the bridge or chess puzzles in your newspaper: You are presented with a scenario (a game in progress) and asked to win the game in one turn. Most of the single-player games that are available via the campaigns are one-on-one matches, but the title does support matches of up to four total players, and such matches may be played versus AI opponents and/or local or online opponents. Finally, another fun, but somewhat gimmicky game mode, “Archenemy”, is available (and it serves as a basis for one of the three campaigns), in which you are allied with two other players (AI or human) against one powerful AI opponent, who has extra life, special cards in her deck, and other such advantages. There seems to be a fairly robust online community for the game in my limited dabbling with the wired world of Magic. (In contrast, the few times that I have searched for matches in Duels 2009, I have never been able to find any opponents.)

Regarding game graphics, the virtual card table and its related effects are much cleaner and more stylish in Duels 2012 than in 2009. Card art is pretty, lifted straight from the art of the physical cards. So the graphics are perfectly serviceable, but obviously one shouldn’t expect anything aesthetically or technically ground-breaking like God of War 3 or Uncharted. The music and sound effects are similarly workmanlike but perfectly appropriate. I, for one, have just turned the music off, and then I play my own tunes. (I suppose it would be nice if the developers would have allowed for custom playlists for the soundtrack.)

In short, I find this to be a fun game that encourages experimentation. There are hundreds of creatures and spells available. Each mana type, and indeed each deck, is oriented to completely different playing philosophies, from the brute force of green decks with large trampling creatures to the contemplative air of blue decks, which rely more on interfering with opponents’ actions through control spells. Moreover, while Duels 2009 has strangely imbalanced decks (one deck in particular is clearly the best deck, others were fine, and some were terrible), this title appears to be much better balanced. Even the one deck that everyone more or less agrees is the weakest can still put up a decent fight. On the other end of the spectrum, the light reading I’ve been doing on the Magic forums indicates that people are divided between four or five decks regarding which is the best. So that’s a good thing: The decks are all decent and rather interesting. Investing some time unlocking cards in any given deck will pay dividends down the road as your deck gets increasingly more powerful.

In the end, I give this game a 70%. That’s not meant as a bad rating at all. It’s a game that’s a fun, frothy diversion that one can make more of if one wishes. And it’s a perfect game for filling a bit of time – say ten or fifteen minutes when playing against the computer, but you can count on doubling that time if playing online. But, as I mentioned in my introductory caveat, the game certainly isn’t for everyone. There’s a demo available on the PSN store, and if you’re on the fence about this title and you’re unfamiliar with the Magic universe, allow me to suggest that you play the demo first.

Update Aug. 1, 2011: As there is some unexpected interest in my review of this title from long-time Magic players, I address a few advanced questions that have come up:

1. Deck editing: Ten decks ship with the game, and each deck starts with thirty-five cards (discounting land cards). You cannot adjust the number or type of lands in your deck; the program automatically calculates land ratio based on the number of cards in your hand that use a certain mana type (so if you were playing a three-color deck, you could well entirely excise all cards that use a certain color, and the computer would get rid of those lands entirely; I’ve deleted all the White spells in the Blue/Black/White deck, for instance). The computer always maintains something like 40% land in your deck. Each deck also has sixteen locked cards, and as you win games, you unlock these. Sometimes the cards are unlocked in batches of as many as three cards of the same type, but most times the cards are unlocked one at a time. When you enter the deck editor, you may subtract creatures, artifacts, and spells from your deck, and the computer automatically calculates land, as described above. You may not have fewer than sixty total cards in your deck, but the upper limit is decided only by the total number of cards available (you could have nearly ninety cards in your deck if you like). You may not mix and match the stock decks in order to build your own deck.

2. Expansions: Duels 2009 has three expansions which add new decks (generally three with each expansion) and a few new cards for each existing deck. Duels 2012 will presumably follow the same model. Indeed, I have read that someone has hacked the assets of the PC version of Duels 2012 and discovered not only the identities of the three decks slated for the first expansion, but all of the cards that will be added as well.

Update Sep. 21, 2011: The first DLC expansion for this game was released to PSN on Sep. 13, 2011. Read our review of the expansion!

[review pros=”Fun strategy card game
Generally well-balanced decks
Full editing of stock decks” cons=”Targeted audience
Cannot build original decks” score=70]

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of Magic: The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 provided by Stainless Games.

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