Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 review

As substantial as last year's improvements were in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012, one thing was still lacking: manual mana tapping. It's one of several key improvements made in Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, this year's iteration of what has become an annualized franchise for Wizards of the Coast and developer Stainless Games.

But that's not the only change this year: there is a new subset of challenges and encounters to conquer across the campaign, and a whole new game mode called Planechaser, a new free-for-all mode that replaces 2012's Archenemy mode.
%Gallery-157177% The core experience of Duels of the Planeswalkers hasn't changed in its third installment. You play through a campaign of increasingly more difficult AI opponents, unlocking decks and cards along the way, culminating in a battle with Nicol Bolas, the final boss and keeper of The Deck of Cheapness. There is a normal campaign, a Revenge campaign where all of your opponents are more aggressive and tougher to take down, and a Planechase campaign.

Planechase, for me, was a fairly unpleasant experience. Here's how it works: four players face off in a free-for-all match, with a deck of oversized cards and a six-sided die residing in the middle of the play space. Each turn, a player can roll the die and, depending on what it lands on, move to a new plane or activate a special action written on the current plane card. Each plane card is different, and they're joined by phenomena cards: one-time activation cards that affect everyone, often to ridiculous results. Think: clear every card off the game board or dump all creatures in all graveyards onto the battlefield. Things like that.

But when playing with three other AI opponents, rationale wasn't the rule of thumb and each match often devolved into frustration. Even the first challenge in the Planechase campaign is ridiculous, where you must face off against Ajani, Talrand and Garruk. Ajani, whose white deck is a nigh-limitless source of life increase bonuses, would be left alone by my computer opponents pretty consistently. They seemed to be more concerned with me and my four life than Ajani's 68 life. So, yeah: pretty frustrating.

Planechase with humans is a good time, but with four players pausing to look at cards and the like, it takes much longer than playing with CPU players. It's a fair trade off in the end – each game may take longer, but it's much less frustrating than playing with mindless CPU players who have no head for strategy.

"For players concerned with getting a tight 60-card deck together, it's upsetting that Duels 2013 forces you to have 24 lands in there, which frankly is too many."

Two-Headed Giant and Free-For-All games handle just as they did in Duels 2012. There are slight hiccups here and there when the game needs to sync up, but it's been far less frequent than my experiences in past games. For example, I never missed an opportunity to play something because the game took so long to sync that it ate up my window of time. This is a big improvement over the previous installments, where such a thing would happen on the reg.

Everything else across the board is an improvement over Duels 2011. The addition of manual mana-tapping is huge, allowing players to specifically designate which lands will be tapped for any given spell or creature – a must-have for any multi-colored deck. In Duels 2012, the game would often auto-select which lands you used, to disastrous (and sometimes comical) effect.

There are also several subtle UI tweaks that make for a more pleasant experience in Duels 2013. When a creature is equipped with enchantments or artifacts, you don't have to move the cursor through stacks and stacks of cards anymore. Now the cards are initially brought out to a mid-zoom level, allowing you to quickly glance at everything and quickly select what you need. Also, the next phase in the turn order is displayed right next to your character's health when moving from one phase to the next; a ring in the center of the table gives you a quick heads-up that the combat phase has begun.

The deck manager also has more shortcuts now, allowing you to jump in after you unlock a card or before a match with a certain opponent. In last year's game, you had to duck out to the main menu to load an individual deck and customize it. Now, before any match, you can scroll through all available decks and jump right into them directly from the pre-fight screen, a great time saver.

Deck customization, unfortunately, is the same as it was in Duels 2012. Advanced Magic: The Gathering players have asked for the ability to customize land count, but it's not available in Duels 2013. It may not seem like a big deal to have the game automatically configure your land count, but for players concerned with getting a tight 60-card deck together, it's upsetting that Duels 2013 forces you to have 24 lands in there, which frankly is too many. It's a very specific gripe, but for those who have been playing the last two years – and looking to play for another year – it's a valid concern.

Still, the care and attention that went into this year's installment is obvious, and it's overall a fantastic product boasting several improvements over its previous incarnations. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is the benchmark in the franchise and easily recommended to new and veteran Magic: The Gathering players alike.

This review is based on a download of the Xbox Live Arcade version of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012, provided by Microsoft.

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