Who says a marketing tool can’t also be a great game? Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is designed to pique your interest in the physical version of the collectible card game it’s based on (and which is set for a mid-July release): As you progress through the Campaign mode, you’re literally reminded and redirected to places where you can purchase Intro packs (with starter and booster decks) and Deck Builder’s Toolkits (285 cards, “an instant collection”) or play in-person Mini Master tournaments. The built-in Deck Manager teases you with the ability to adjust each deck, but doesn’t allow you to swap cards between them, or to remove land cards; you’ve got to “upgrade” to real cards to do that. And the robust Challenge mode, returning from the 2012 edition, demonstrates the overpowered exploits that can only be generated from having the rarest of cards—most of which, like the Praetors, can’t be normally earned for your in-game decks.
That said, Magic: The Gathering 2013 is far more than a demo. Ten bucks, the cost of one 60-card starter deck, gets you 10 cleverly optimized decks (and can unlock up to 30 additional cards for them, at a rate of one per win). For newcomers, an active Tutorial mode turns out to be the best way to actually learn the basic mechanics, and it’s great to be able to use the zoom-in feature to remind yourself what each card’s abilities and icons mean. The automatic stuff is also great, as the game highlights cards in your hand (or in play) that you can afford to cast, and when you click to summon or activate them, your mana-generating lands automatically tap, and expert players can cycle through and specify the lands in question by pressing the left CTRL button. The same goes for blocking: valid creatures get a gold border; and to defend, you simply drag a line from your card to the enemy’s.
The few omissions—a special icon that allows you to either tap or pay two life; a symbol indicating that a card has been copied—show up only in Challenge mode, which is geared for seasoned veterans. These 10 levels are most akin to chess puzzles, and give you a preset layout in which you’re expected to find a way to win on the next turn. A more expansive version of these puzzles, designed for intermediate players, can be found in the new Encounter mode, which, like Mega Man, asks you to figure out which decks best counter certain combinations. Finally, the returning Revenge mode has the computer showing you how to best use those decks—usually as it wrecks you, particularly if you’re playing on the highest of the three AI difficulties. Assuming you don’t buy into the nonsense of paying more to skin your cards with digital “foil,” this is a steal, especially when you consider that online multiplayer ensures you’ll always have someone to go up against, even if there’s a limit to the decks you’ll see. (The 2v2 Two-Headed Giant, another returning classic, adds variety in that it rewards synergy between decks; might your red Goblin swarm deck work even better in conjunction with a blue deck aimed at thwarting spells?)
Wizards of the Coast has even thrown in Planechase, a new, online-only, infuriating four-player free-for-all (which replaces the far superior 3v1 Archenemy from 2012), which is at least worth a few laughs. This mode turns away from the skillful outmaneuvering and occasional bluffing of the regular game and throws in a deck of plane cards: locations and phenomena that can be triggered by rolling a “planar die.” This six-sided die is rolled by tapping an increasing amount of land (0 the first time, 1 the second, etc.), and these costs reset each round. Most sides are blank: One planeswalk icon draws a new plane and one activation icon triggers the ability on said card. There are some interesting effects in there, but the randomness breaks the core game, which, for the most part, emphasizes skill over luck. Moreover, because this franchise insists on so many unskippable animations, these Planechase matches can take a long time. Even if there were a “quick save” option, they’re still too much risk for too little reward.
To be fair, though, it’s wonderful to find that Magic: The Gathering 2013 is more than just a retread and that the creators are still experimenting. Not being able to import your Magic: The Gathering 2012 decks may be a bummer, but then again, the point of Magic: The Gathering 2013 is to sell the combinations offered by the new set. It’s also hard to complain given the variety of “Dream Puppets,” a blue, library-destroying deck (having “Elixir of Immortality” is the only counter I’ve found); “Exalted Darkness,” a black-white combo that combines the “Exalted” skill with unblockable creatures; and the hilarious green “Ancient Wilds,” which uses “Roaring Primadox” to remove and recast your own creatures, all of whom have “upon entering play” effects. Using this last deck, I was able to destroy all of my opponent’s land and to then use a Taunting Elf to distract all of his creatures and Overrun to have my other 30 creatures deal 185 damage.
If that last sentence didn’t make much sense to you, don’t worry: This game will teach you everything you need to know. That’s the point, and that’s its success: For newcomers and veterans alike, Magic: The Gathering 2013 is a wonderful re-introduction to the classic game, its latest set, and the surprisingly deep strategy that has kept this CCG going and growing for nearly 20 years.