Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 : good game, but good Magic game?

, | Game diaries

The dragon that all our planewalker friends are facing in the above image is Nicol Bolas. Bolas is one of the “big bads” in the world of Magic, and has the distinction (as far as I can tell) of being the only non-humanoid planeswalker that Wizards of the Coast has created. Why is he the planeswalker subject for this article? I really don’t have a reason, other than I think the image is really nice, and its a group image. The grouping is important, because after comparing Duels of the Planeswalkers to a bunch of other CCG’s, it’s time to compare it to Magic itself.

After the jump, why do I still play Magic?

I think it’s pretty obvious that I like Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012. It took an already interesting previous version and addressed a lot of the complaints that I had. I might even go as far as to say it’s one of the best games on XBox Live Arcade. But being a good game hasn’t made it scratch the itch that I get every now and then to re-immerse myself into the world of Magic. Only one style of Magic does that: Limited.

For the uninitiated, Limited is defined (in tournaments) as either Sealed Deck or Booster Draft. In Sealed Deck, each player received a number of booster packs (usually 6) and an unlimited number of lands with which to construct a deck. In Booster Draft, each player has three packs, which they open one at a time. Each player removes a card of his or her choice, then passes the remaining cards to the next player. This process repeats until the pack is exhausted, then the second pack is opened and passed, and then the third. Players are given an unlimited number of lands and their drafted cards to produce a deck of at least 40 cards. I would make the probably non-traditional choice to include leagues in which each player builds a sealed deck, then adds to that deck with a limited number of packs and trades over the course of the the league under the Limited header as well.

I spent a lot of time this week explaining where games like Star Wars, Babylon 5, and the VS System excelled. For me, playing Limited formats are what take Magic from simply a well designed card game to one of the best games of the genre. No other game makes it so easy to pick up and play with a smaller investment, and no format embraces the quirks of the CCG genre so completely.

Building a deck in a collectible card game is all about optimizing under a set of three criteria. The first is card availability; the second, deck size; and third, the actual rules of the game. Limited formats alter all three of these constraints in what I would argue are positive ways.

Often in collectible card games, card availability can be restated as player budget. This is a very bad thing. If the best cards are only available to the players with the most disposable income, those players who are not in that group will more than likely eventually leave the game. Take Jace, The Mind Sculptor, which was one of the banned cards from Tuesday’s article. For only two blue mana, this card drastically improved almost any deck it was put into. Wizards’ own research says that in the most recent Grand Prix, 88% of the decks in the tournament contained at least one copy of Jace. Unfortunately, Jace is a Mythic Rare, the hardest to find of the Magic rarities. Even after the banning, a single copy of the card can be purchased online for over $50. Obviously, this price is out of the range of the casual player.

Limited formats break this trap, but they do it by restricting card availability even further. Instead of choosing cards from a pile, you are limited to what you randomly open in the packs you have available. Yes, there is a chance you could pull a Jace in your packs, but that danger is mitigated by the fact that 1. One mythic rare in a 40 card deck is a lot less dangerous than four in a 60 card deck, and 2. Limited decks tend to stack a lot more damage and removal spells, which can keep the powerful creatures and planeswalkers in check.

This change in the card availability pushes the emphasis in Limited to the third deckbuilding criteria, the actual rules of the game. Or, stated better, Limited forces you to play smarter, not more expensively. Playing Limited well requires you to understand the card game’s rules and requires you to be able to value cards correctly under those rules. This is where Magic shines as a collectible card game. Its systems are just complex enough to allow for planning and strategy, yet not overwhelming enough to make the evaluation of cards impossible in the middle of the game.

I should probably stop before this turns into a dissertation. And that’s the greatest irony. Duels of the Planeswalkers may not have been a great game of Magic, but it convinced me to write a 5 part article on why I love CCG’s so much; and worse, convinced me to download and reinstall Magic Online again. So I guess Wizards of the Coast knew exactly what it was doing all along. Would anyone like to start a Magic 2012 league when it release on Magic Online later this summer?

Click here for the previous Duels of the Planeswalkers entry.

Before his last move, Wader had starter decks for 15 different collectible card games hidden in a box in his closet. After that move, the number is down to 3. He currently lives with his wife and sons in Washington, DC; and is pursuing a doctoral degree in Economics.