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Wot I Think: Magic Duels of the Planeswalkers

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My mission was a simple one. Take a look at the PC version of Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012, and write a little bit about Wot I Think of it. Easy, right? I’d already played it a bit on Xbox 360, so there’s a good start. I’m familiar with the previous edition of the game. Nice. And I’m very familiar with the tabletop game. No problem. Easiest bit of writing work ever.

Ugh.

Ugh.

I’m going to start by taking aside those of you who have no idea what Magic: The Gathering is. Come with me, into the corner, and I’ll explain. I won’t bore you with the game’s importance, or state how far its influence has spread, I’ll just tell you what it is. It’s a card game. Each player has a deck of cards, from which they draw a hand. Then, they start to build their power by laying one type of card on the table, and express their power by playing other types of cards. These other types, these summoned cards, affect the game in many ways (so many ways) but fundamentally increase each player’s opportunity and strength of attack upon his opponent. You have 20 hit points. When you die, your opponent wins. That’s it. It’s a wonderful, elegant design. Trust me. Back we go to the rest of the group.

Hello everyone, we’re back. Were you all kissing?

Ugh.

So, let me tell you about my experience with the PC version of this game. Let’s get my experience with Steam out of the way first. On Wednesday night, I sat down at my laptop, ready for some fun. If I was penning a letter of complaint, it would read like this:

Dear Sir/Madam

I recently acquired Magic: The Gathering from your Steam game delivery service, and downloaded it up into the hard drive of my laptop, which I bought from Tesco about three years ago. I was only in for some crisps and ice cream, but there we are. I played it happily for a couple of days. When I say happily, I mean that the game soundly thrashed me whenever I lost focus, and I felt I had to keep smiling or it might leap from the screen and manifest itself as some vengeful sprite on my IKEA desk. On Wednesday night I settled down for a long session in front of the PC monitor, and then tried to play some Magic: The Gathering. Imagine my horror when Steam told me, and I quote, “This game is currently unavailable. Try again later.” Is this the downloadable non-physical game future you imagine for us, Mr Steam?

Yes, it was annoying. Had to troubleshoot and read FAQs and do the kind of hardcore Googling I normally save for when I’m convinced I have a fatal illness. A whole night gone, re-downloading and altering files and all that stuff I’d left behind years ago.

Ugh.

Non-physical. That’s the problem, really. Not with the future of games. Hell, no. But with this game. That’s the problem with this game. You can’t touch it.

Let me state this right now, so that there is no confusion. This is a fantastic computer game version of a fantastic card game. I can’t actually think of how they could have done it any better. The Campaign mode allows you to battle AI opponents, unlocking new decks and new cards as you advance. The AI, at the easiest difficulty, is smart enough to teach you the game while giving you a good strong fighting chance. At the hardest difficulty setting it’s a monster. It misses nothing. In a game where the recognition of a strong card combination is key, a match against the Magic: The Gathering version of Data from Star Trek is heartbreaking and brutal.

I had to shift it down to Easy. I just ain’t that good. I persevered for hours on the hardest setting, but it was soul-destroying. I couldn’t even listen to music while playing, because I’d have to be CONCENTRATING SO HARD. But at Easy it’s almost a mellow, chill-out experience. It’s like a Wing Chun master training at his wooden dummy. Yeah, that’s what I like to tell myself.

You want to know which characters are in the game? Well, there’s Jace Thing and Chandra Whatsername, and they’re battling to do something to the something. I bet the guys at Stainless just shook their heads at having to cram all of the Wizards of the Coast background fluff into this tidy little game. Magic: The Gathering has never needed a storyline – do we need a storyline for a game of Poker? “Oh, here’s Jallandra Jack of the Diamond Clan, what’s he doing on the River?” It’s nonsense, but it’s nonsense that inspires beautiful artwork, so we go with it. And the artwork is beautiful. Every card you unlock is a new “Ahhhh!” moment.

The User Interface now. Those guys and girls did a bang-up job in this department. You hover over a card and it starts to spill information towards you. You right-click, zoom in, and the card rises to meet you. You can click for more info, and the card effects are explained. Everything tinkles and sparkles, cards glow to let you know you can still use them, and everything on the virtual table can be examined.

But here it comes. The problem. The big problem. In a game where you can often step in on an opponent’s turn, the computer has to break everything down into pauses so that these opportunities aren’t lost. You activate a card’s ability, and a status bar will fill as it takes effect. This allows your opponent to pause the timer and play one of his cards in response. Even if he doesn’t want to play a card, you’re both still having to wait. And then you do the next thing you want to do. And you wait. And then the next thing. And then you wait. And these aren’t long waits, but there are lots of them. A drip-drip effect that starts to make you think “Hang on… this isn’t actually working.”

I don’t want to be that guy. The guy who says “Ugh. The card game is SO much better.” But the card game is SO much better. When you play Magic: The Gathering at a table, you’re either firing your responses at your opponent right away, or you’re saying “Carry on!” right away, or if you DO need time to think about what you’re doing, you can shoot some shit while you consider your move. There is no artificial PLEASE WAIT… moment. There is a flow. And flow is what all the best game designs are about. Magic: The Gathering isn’t so massive because of its addictive collecting component, or because of its wonderful art, or even its elegance of design. It’s the flow. The flow. Wing Chun. The Wooden Dummy. Form and flow.

This:

Land. Tap. Summon. Laugh. Shoot some shit. Block. Laugh. Draw. Land. Tap-tap. Summon.

Not this:

Land. Tap. Summon. PLEASE WAIT… CONTINUE. SKIP ATTACK. CONTINUE.

It’s terrible to be sitting here typing this. As a computer game version of Magic: The Gathering, this game is perfect. It is a perfect representation of a flawed concept.

A couple more things on the content of the game. There’s Archenemy mode, which just doesn’t really work with AIs, and doesn’t really work with strangers. It’s a co-op battle against a Big Bad who has special over-sized cards he can use to alter the game in a big way. It’s a chaotic, fun game at a physical table with friends, but in this form is frustrating and silly. Archenemy is more laugh than game, and struggles to come over in this serious, sophisticated context.

And then there’s online. Flung in with randoms, when you can find a game, you are at the mercy of the Online gods Broadbandius and Dropoutiamadickus. When you’ve had two long matches of Two-Headed Giant in a row where your partner has fucked off to leave you instantly DEFEATED, you start to tire of the whole thing and feel a burning desire to get some cardboard in your hands.

(EDIT: Actually, having played some more of the multiplayer after writing this – tonight I had partners quit on me (one saying “yr play style is lame bye”) and the AI took over. Which still left me screwed, but in a different way. A much slower way. It must have been connection issues first time through. Connection issues are better. Your connection is more polite when it bails on you.)

And then there’s the deck construction element. There still isn’t one. Not really. And putting together your own deck for a match is one of the great delights of Magic: The Gathering. To omit it is dishonest, I think. We all know why they’ve done it. We all know why this game exists.

It’s an advert. That’s all. This game is an elaborate promotional tool for a fantastic game. It teaches you the mechanics, shows you how deep it all is, seduces you with gorgeous art and then steps away. It says “Come on, let’s play!” and then steps away.

“Want a card?” That’s what it says. And it doesn’t mean a virtual card. It means a cardboard card.

“Want a card?” That’s all.

And when you play this game, you probably will.