Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is the second iteration in Wizards of the Coast’s non-collectible digital version of Magic: the Gathering (this review will assume that the reader is familiar with MtG). Like the original, Duels of the Planeswalkers strongly identifies with Magic’s marquee Planeswalker characters, with each of the playable decks in the game being associated with one of ten Planeswalkers (the decks associated with Karn and Nicol Bolas are not playable). You start with access to several of the decks, and unlock access to the remainder of the decks while playing through the first section of campaign mode. Each deck has 16 unlockable cards that can be used to customize that deck (most unlocked through the single-player portion of the campaign, but some unlocked in the multiplayer portion). Cards can never be shared between different decks.
I had dabbled with the original Duels of the Planeswalkers, but had decided against shelling out for it. Then Sony got hacked, and as a present I got it for free. I played it some, which whet my appetite for when the Duels 2012 demo came out. Compared to the original DotP, the decks in DotP 2012 are more exciting, and between them include a broader variety of mechanics. This difference was apparent from the first demo game I played, where Elspeth Tiral’s slow, life-gain focused mono-White deck from the original had been replaced with Gideon Jura’s aggressive, Equipment-based deck. I gladly paid for Duels 2012, and I haven’t regretted it.
This isn’t to say that all of the decks are improved (Nissa’s Elf deck, in particular, got a lot less exciting with the removal of most of the Elf Lords). Decklists (including unlocks) for the ten decks can be found on the Duels 2012 website, so I won’t repeat them here. In general terms, however, the options available are:
– Ancient Depths (Kiora Atua) – The newly-minted Merfolk Planeswalker doesn’t pack a horde of her fish-tailed brethren, but rather a Green/Blue deck based on lots of mana acceleration followed by massive fatties. Most of the heavy hitters are on an oceanic or artifact theme, including a couple of the mighty Eldrazi (I think that, in the story of the game, Kiora Atua is the one who wakes them up, but it’s a bit hard to follow).
– Apex Predators (Garruk Wildspeaker) – The envy of all the boys at the gym, Garruk’s beefcake body pairs well with his beefy Mono-Green Creature deck. The deck has efficient ground-pounders all the way up the mana curve, plus a little bit of pump.
– Blood Hunger (Sorin Markov) – Goodbye Liliana (at least until we get the Innistrad-themed DLC “Ascend Into Darkness”), hello Vampires. As a liker of Vampires, I heartily approve. Sorin’s Mono-Black deck is aggressive with a good mana curve up to mid-range flyers, and makes heavy use of the new-ish Bloodthirst mechanic. There are a couple of flavor aberrations, however. Sorin’s deck still has Vicious Hunger in it, instead of the nearly identical Sorin’s Thirst. And Go for the Throat is not in Sorin’s deck, but is in Tezzeret’s.
– Dragon’s Roar (Sarkhan Vol) – Sarkhan remains as Dragon-obsessed as ever, and his Red/Black deck is basically some cheap Goblins for fodder (including the Goblin-generating Dragon Fodder) ramping up to, well, Dragons. The deck has a decent amount of removal and a bit of acceleration, but sometimes still gets stuck unable to get to its big boys.
– Guardians of the Wood (Nissa Revane) – Nissa again brings a Green/Black Elf deck, with the Green mostly providing the Elves and the Black mostly being some removal spells. Nissa’s deck is one that felt like a downgrade from the prior iteration, with mostly hordes of generic Elves followed up with by a set of Heedless Ones (*/* where * is the number of elves you control).
– Machinations (Tezzeret) – Tezzeret’s metalcraft-based deck is the lone tri-color deck in the bunch, sporting his usual Blue, Black, and White. The Machinations deck has decent removal, the most countermagic in any of the base decks, and the possibility of explosive Etherium Sculptor-fueled starts – and still doesn’t seem overpowered, probably because the top of its mana curve mostly isn’t that exciting.
– Realm of Illusion (Jace Beleren) – The mind mage is still Mono-Blue, but has moved away from countermagic (it has some, just not a lot) and milling and into Illusion Creatures and bounce. The deck also has some Air-themed cards and card draw. The efficient stats on the Illusions make the deck more aggressive that you might expect from Mono-Blue.
– Strength of Stone (Koth) – The rock-skinned earth mage is the first of two Mono-Red decks. It’s less aggressive than Chandra’s deck, and all of its direct damage spells have a rock flavor. Koth’s deck is less thematically unified than Chandra’s, and its play is more midrange.
– Unquenchable Fire (Chandra Nalaar) – The iconic fire mage brings a Mono-Red deck with aggressive Fire-theme creatures and burn spells. The deck tends to burn through its hand quickly, and then tries to burn through you with its last few spells.
– Wielding Steel (Gideon Jura) – The well-armored templar’s deck is Mono-White, packing mostly weenies and Equipment. Some of the little guys are downright nasty when equipped, and the Equipment gives the deck more staying power that a more traditional white weenie.
As mentioned above, each deck can be customized as you go through the campaign mode and unlock more cards. Unlike the original DotP, the decks here are almost fully customizable (your basic lands are automatically doled out) – you can not only add in the new cards you unlock, but also remove weaker cards that start in your deck. Since the inability to remove bad cards was, to me, the most frustrating aspect of the original, I consider this a big improvement. The automatic basic land spread is mostly a boon – this is fake Magic, not competitive Magic, so I don’t feel the need to be fully-controlling, and the decisions are mostly OK. There was, however, a problem when you started messing with the color balance in the multi-color deck. In particular, with Sarkhan Vol’s R/B Dragon deck, I noticed that my relatively small number of remaining Black spells wasn’t well-supported by the number of Swamps, so I removed a couple – only to find that it automatically adjusted by removing even more Swamps. Basically, the land count is not going to work out well where you just have a splash of a second color – it needs to impose a minimum where you have no way to fetch lands, and it doesn’t.
Duels 2012 has a broadened array of play modes. As mentioned above, there is a campaign mode, which features three sections, each represented by a graphic display where you can see which foes you have unlocked. The first board is one-on-one vs. each of the other Planeswalkers with their base decks, capped off by a battle against Karn. The second board is in the Archenemy multiplayer format, which is new to Duels of the Planeswalkers (but was released a couple of years ago as a boutique product for the CCG). In Archenemy, you and two of your allies are pitted against a single opponent who starts with 40 life and who benefits from a second Archenemy deck – he gets one flip at the start of each of his turns, with effects like drawing cards, destroying permanents, getting token guys, tutoring lands into play, or causing damage (there are several different “decks” of Archenemy cards; each enemy always uses a particular deck). You win so long as your Archenemy dies, even if you personally were eliminated from the game. I found the Archenemy format to be quite fun, possibly the highlight of the game – it kind of made me want to go out and pick up the Archenemy CCG decks, although I haven’t played real Magic in years. However, while the AI in the rest of the game is OK, the AI in Archenemy can be downright moronic at times – the Archenemy will sometimes pointlessly attack with too many guys (including attacking 0/1 Plant tokens into defenders), and I had one game where my AI ally literally let himself die rather than cast the counterspell in his hand. The “final boss” of the Archenemy section is Nicol Bolas, who is the only one of the AI Archenemy opponents who has a deck designed specifically for the format, which is full of nasty surprises. Bolas was definitely the hardest match of the campaign mode.
The third campaign board is Revenge, which is basically going through the first board, except everyone’s deck is better. Slightly frustrating, at least to me, each of them has strong cards that simply aren’t available to you for the same Planeswalker’s decks. The third board again caps on with a duel with Karn, whose Mono-Blue Artifact-heavy deck features entertaining zaniness like 4x Mox Sapphire. Karn’s deck is basically unbeatable when it’s clicking, accelerating rapidly into giant metal guys – but it’s also capable of just striking out on its acceleration and letting you run it over. In addition to the normal games, the campaign boards also include more Magic puzzles, although the ones on the first board are more lessons in game mechanics than puzzles. They provide an amusing diversion from the standard gameplay.
In addition to campaign mode, you can play solo matches or online matches in all of the supported play formats. That includes, of course, one-on-one and Archenemy, but also Two-Headed Giant (2 v. 2 teams) and free-for-all (up to four players) multiplayer. The game supports voice communication in the matches, if coordination and/or trash-talking are your thing (multiplayer free-for-all, in particular, benefits from having some commentary to go along with your semi-random decisions about who to attack).
Duels 2012 is, of course, not perfect. The interface is slick-looking, although the auto-target limitations can interfere with smart gameplay if you leave them on (for example, it won’t let you kill your opponent’s Illusions by targeting them with beneficial spells). The load time is, unfortunately, a bit excessive for the depth of the game. The “combat animations” take way too long as well, but those can also be turned off. The timer almost always seemed to provide ample time and notice for you to take an action, except for the window to take actions between blocking and combat damage, which didn’t stop to check if you wanted to play something and had a tendency to whiz by if I wasn’t paying close attention (one of the upsides, for me, to a non-real-time game is that I can get distracted by, say, the baby and not have to worry about something bad happening because I had to drop the controller).
Overall, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 provides a nice Magic experience. As someone who used to play Magic at a reasonably competitive level, it was an entertaining (if not particularly taxing) enterprise – without feeling like I’m hamstrung by an unwillingness to sink the cash into a second CCG. It seems like it would be a relatively good starting point for someone who has never played Magic (WotC certainly hopes so), although it’s hard to say. I’d recommend it for any Magic oldtimer who wants to play a little without having to shell out tons of cash and/or hang out with teenagers some Friday night.