The collectible card game Magic: The Gathering has a steep learning curve, with vast gulfs of knowledge separating new players from experienced masters who’ve been playing since the early ’90s. As someone who played Magic obsessively when it debuted in 1993, then quit about two years later, I wouldn’t even dream of diving back in with “Magic: The Gathering Online,” a PC game that has you investing money in virtual cards, all of which date to long after I stopped playing. You’d have to think “MTGO” would be even more daunting to folks who’d never even heard of a Shivan Dragon or Serra Angel.
The newly released “Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers“ (rated T, $10 download via Xbox Live), however, seems to have been designed with noobs in mind. Rather than forcing new players to sink or swim by immersing them in a library of thousands of cards, the streamlined “Planeswalkers” starts everyone off with the same deck, with the ability to unlock several more by beating AI-controlled opponents. What’s more, each of the game’s decks has 17 unlockable cards. Win a match with a deck, either online or offline, and you earn another card you can integrate into your arsenal.
If you’ve never played Magic, the game’s simple to describe, but tough to master. You begin with 20 life points and seven cards in your hand. Throughout the course of a game, you’ll summon creatures and cast spells, with the ultimate goal of either reducing your opponent’s life to zero, or causing him to cycle through all the cards in his deck. None of these cards can be used without mana, magical energy that’s created by lands, another type of card. Each nonland card has a symbol or symbols in the upper-right-hand corner showing which of the five types of land you need to cast it. (Each land type is associated with a different color of magic. Likewise, each color is generally associated with a different tactic or style of play.)
In all, “Planeswalkers” is a fairly faithful re-creation of “Magic,” without cheesy graphics or animated battles to clutter the interface and slow down the game. Most of the matches I played lasted between two and 10 minutes. The tutorial mode should tell you everything you need to know, and if you forget a few things, there’s an option to slow down gameplay and look at cards as they’re being played.
But as friendly as “Planeswalkers” is for new players, it may occasionally frustrate veterans of strategy card games. While the fact that everyone uses the same eight preconstructed decks levels the playing field, it eliminates a huge part of what makes strategy card games so compelling — building and fine-tuning a deck that suits your play style. Once you venture online and realize that many players favor the same two decks, it’s hard not to feel a bit of deja vu and longing for a deeper card game like Namco’s excellent “Culdcept Saga,” which lets players customize their decks from a pool of nearly 500 cards.
One way to keep online play fresh, however is by playing three- and four-player matches, in addition to the standard head-to-head games. There’s also a mode called “two-headed giant,” in which players face off in teams of two. For some reason, though, you can only team up with another player who’s logged into your Xbox 360. So if you’re looking to join up with your best friend in Idaho, you’ll have to buy him a plane ticket.
All in all, “Planeswalkers” is a great (and affordable) first taste of Magic on the Xbox 360, but serious strategy gamers may move onto other things if Stainless Games and Microsoft don’t keep things fresh with downloadable add-ons, new game types or the ability to eventually customize.