I don’t like Magic the Gathering. It’s a relic of a bygone century. Draw hands, hope you get enough lands but not too many lands, then lay out cards to do that awkward attack/block dance with the other guy’s cards. Much of the game is played between games, mostly at the counter of whatever store sells you your booster packs.

I mostly don’t like Magic because it’s success arguably killed better collectible card games. What fan of Jyhad, Legend of the Five Rings, and Decipher’s superlative Star Wars CCG wouldn’t be bitter to be playing Magic on Xbox Live, or Steam, or his iPad? Furthermore, who still bothers with Magic when games have folded into the actual game all that stuff about buying cards and tuning decks? Why would you play Magic in a post-Dominions world that has Ascension in it?

So after the jump, why would you ever read a review by me about the latest Magic videogame?

Last year’s Duels of the Planeswalkers was actually pretty good. You know, for a Magic game. The collectible stuff was a self-contained part of the game, the decks were pre-tuned (that works wonders when it comes to making an AI for a game as sprawling and sloppy as modern Magic), and the equivalent of chess puzzles highlighted some cool card interactions as puzzles and teaching tools. It even had a nifty gimmick with the archenemy mode, where three players collaborated to fight a fourth player with a special gamebreaking uber-deck.

This year’s Duels of the Planeswalkers is dubbed 2013 despite its June 2012 release because Magic the Gathering is like new cars and sports videogames. It keeps all the basics with the self-contained collectibles (although now you can microbuy your way through the unlockable cards), tuned decks, and chess puzzles. The counterpart to the archenemy mode is something called two-headed giant, in which two players fumble mightily to cooperate to beat two other players also fumbling mightily to cooperate. It’s like doubles tennis, but more frustrating because you can’t angrily swing a racket when your partner isn’t pulling his weight.

But the real selling point for Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, especially for a grumbling Magic detractor like me, is a mode called planechase, which has no counterpart in last year’s game. Unlike archenemy and two-headed giant, you can play it with only two players for a snappier pace. It’s entirely balanced because it’s so utterly gamebreakingly random. It’s actually downright absurd. It single-handedly makes me hate Magic the Gathering just a little bit less.

Like the archenemy mode, planechase is from the real-world tabletop hardcopy actual version of Magic the Gathering. The idea is that as you play, you can pull cards from a wacky deck that applies modifiers to the rules. Well, modifiers is a polite way to put it. Some of this is seriously absurd stuff like “draw cards from your library until you find a creature, and then put it into play for free” or “only one dude can attack at a time” or “uh, just shuffle all your cards back into the pile, pull out a whole mess of them, and play those ones”. You use a die if you want to pull a new card, which you’ll often want to do. You get a one-in-six chance. But you also have a one-in-six chance of triggering a special effect on the card. Oops, you just fried all your creatures.

The overall effect is like taking a broom or a flamethrower to the rules, completely undermining the game as designed. Which is something I couldn’t be happier to see, because the game as designed is in dire need of undermining. If there’s anything that can breathe life into Magic the Gathering, it’s a shake-up like planechasing.

4 stars
Xbox 360