Duel's Paradise

Posted in NEWS on June 11, 2012

elcome to Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 Preview Week. This week, we'll be discussing the latest incarnation of the Magic video game. I'm going to introduce the design team, talk about the challenges of putting out a variation on the same game every year, and show you a couple of preview cards that appear in both Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 and Magic 2013. Sound good? Well then, let's get started.

Digital Dreams

I want to begin by introducing you to the design team of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, but first I have to introduce you to a whole section of Magic R&D. I talk about the design and development teams all the time in Making Magic. I also mention the creative team a decent amount. Magic R&D, though, has two other teams.

First is the editing team made up of Del Laugel (Magic's Lead Editor), Matt Tabak (editor and Magic Rules Manager—my arch-nemesis), and Kelly Digges (who is a part-time developer and part-time editor). Magic is a game with a lot of moving parts and the editing team makes sure everything is where it's supposed to be, down to each and every comma.

The second team, though, is the team I want to focus on today. That team is known as the Magic digital team and it is in charge of overseeing the design and development of all digital expressions of Magic. This covers a wide array of things from Magic Online to apps and Facebook tools to Duels of the Planeswalkers. If it deals with Magic and it's digital, this is the team that oversees it.

Let's meet them.

Ken Troop

Ken (lead designer for Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012) was originally hired years ago to lead the Magic creative team (following my stint as head of the creative team for those who like piecing together history). Ken then got involved in the Gleemax project (Wizards spent some time trying to build a social network for gamers). After that, he left Wizards for a little while to go work at another game company, but he came back, this time leading up R&D's new Magic digital team.

The creation of the new Duels of the Planeswalkers has been evolving but Ken is the closest thing one would identify as the lead designer for this incarnation of the game. One of Ken's biggest accomplishments with Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is creating a tighter tie between it and Magic 2013. As you will see, the two sets not only share more cards but have a more similar overall look and feel.

Dave Guskin

You can tell Dave is a busy guy, as I just introduced him several weeks ago when I was telling you all about the design team for Planechase (2012 edition). Of all the people on the Magic digital team, Dave is the one I work closest with. (Well, him and Dan, but I'll get to Dan in a second.) Dave is one of the most focused people I know and he has quite an impressive array of skills. As the lead developer for Duels 2013, Dave was another member of the digital team to be very involved in the design and development of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 and he is one of the reasons I had every faith that this version was going to live up to the previous ones (which it does, but I'll get to that after I introduce everyone).

Max McCall

Max has been involved in the Magic scene for many years but he first got onto my radar when he accomplished a feat no one else on the planet has. Of all the people to take the multiple choice test for The Great Designer Search (and I'm talking about #1 and #2), Max is the only person, out of about two thousand, to get a perfect score. Max originally came on as a development intern but proved himself so invaluable to the digital team it hired him on full time. Max is very methodical and I'm sure if there was a multiple-choice test involved with Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, he'd ace that too. Max was another design/development team member. Note that this year the teams were less defined so they blur a bit.

Since I'm talking about the digital team, I wanted to introduce them all, but be aware that the rest were not actively involved in the design or development of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, although will most likely have some involvement in any future Duels-related project.

Ryan Spain

Before Ryan came to Wizards he was best known for doing a Magic podcast called Limited Resources with Marshall Sutcliffe (who you might know from his Pro Tour commentary). Ryan is a longtime Magic player who has worked as a game designer at various other companies, and most of them in the digital space. Ryan's main responsibility is Magic Online but he dips his toe into Duels from time to time.

Joe Huber

While I oversee (along with Mark Gottlieb) the Magic designers, there are plenty of other game designers in R&D. Joe was brought in because the digital group needed someone good at designing digital games. Joe pops up from time to time in Magic (for example, he is on the design team for Line, the set after Return to Ravnica) but where he shines is the digital space.

Dan Emmons

Last week, I talked about the steps it took to land your dream job. Dan is living proof that what I did wasn't a fluke, because he has single-handedly gone from an outsider who helped out on The Great Designer Search 2 to a part-time member of both the digital design team and the Magic design team, all based on opportunities that he made happen. In a short time, he's become a great contributor to both digital and paper Magic.

These last two people aren't on the digital design team but were important contributors to Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 design, development, and creative:

Shawn Main

Shawn Main was one of the finalists for The Great Designer Search 2. He didn't win the design internship but he impressed us enough in his interviews that Ken offered Shawn an internship with the digital team. During this time, Shawn worked extensively with Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, including helping to work on a cool new facet of the game called Encounters (which I'll talk about in a moment). Shawn has since gone on to be hired fulltime doing Magic design (although he's keeping his toe in Magic digital).

Brady Dommermuth

There are not a lot of R&D members who come close to rivaling my time at Wizards, but Brady's one of them. Brady started working as an editor for Magic but has since done numerous jobs, including a short stint as the rules manager. Today, Brady is the creative director who runs the Magic creative team. Brady's involvement in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 had to do with how you, the player, interact with the different creative elements. As you will see in a moment, this is another significant change in Duels 2013. You don't get to where Brady is without having developed some high-level chops. Brady is a master at what he does and he funneled this creative energy into Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013.

Ch.. Ch... Changes

Now that I have the who out of the way, it's time to move onto the what. Before I get to the new changes for Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, I want to first discuss the challenges behind putting out a new version of an existing game.

In some ways, Magic does this every year. The basics have to stay the same. The colors, the mana system, the core mechanics are all constants. Year in and year out we have to deliver them to make sure we are giving our audience the Magic experience it expects. At the same time, we have to have enough diversity that the game doesn't feel stale. Magic has a bit easier of a time because we allow ourselves to push our pendulum pretty hard in a new direction each fall. One year it's a techno-virus attacking a metal world and the next it's Gothic horror.

Duels of the Planeswalkers doesn't have the luxury of making as wide of swings. Why? Because Duels has become our most successful entry point. Its job is to introduce people to the world of Magic, but in a way that's less intimidating than the old approach—having a friend sit down and show you how to play. (Not that I'm knocking that; it's still a solid number two.) This means the franchise needs some consistency.

On the flip side, Duels isn't just about introducing people to Magic. A lot of the people who play Duels already play Magic, but they enjoy the solo play or the challenges or one of many things the Duels experience offers. This crowd wants things to be shaken up a bit. These players look to the announcement of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 and ask, "What's different?"

That's the juggling act of the Duels team: Keep the experience constant enough that it fulfills the same function while also changing things up enough to excite the customers who've already played at least one incarnation of Duels. How do they do that? Let's explore.

#1—Change Up the Decks and the Challenges

The first change is a pretty easy one. When you boil down the Duels experience, the core of the content is the different decks the players can play (and play against). A new set means new decks, and not just rehashes of the previous year's decks but some new decks that play differently. New decks with new threats and new answers, new ways to win and new ways to lose. All of the above is in Duels 2013.

In addition, Duels has become known for its Challenges, aka the puzzles, where you're stuck in the middle of a game and have to accomplish some task (much like my Magic puzzles that used to appear in The Duelist). A new release means new Challenges with new twists and turns. (As you can see, lots of "new.")

I mention this first because a changeover is expected and thus isn't seen as innovative.

#2—Add a New Way to Play

One of Magic's greatest strengths is that there are many ways to play it. Duels takes advantage of this by introducing other formats. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012, for instance, added Archenemy to the mix, where multiple players could play against one player with access to more potent cards. Duels 2013 swaps out Archenemy for another supplemental play product—this time, Planechase.

Interplanar Tunnel | Art by Chuck Lukacs

To celebrate the release of Planechase (2012 Edition), Duels 2013 has added Planechase to the mix. For those unfamiliar with this format, it shakes up the game play by constantly shifting your battleground from plane to plane, each with its own effect on the game.

And yes, the addition of Planechase means that Archenemy will be leaving. Part of shaking things up isn't just adding things but also taking a few things away—some of which will rear their heads on a future day.

#3—A New Type of Duel

One-on-one duels have always been the bread and butter of Duels (it's kind of in the name after all). Duels 2013 adds a new wrinkle with something called Encounters. Encounters are kind of a cross between traditional dueling and the Challenges. In each Encounter, you will face an opponent who is playing a deck in a preset way. With complete knowledge of what is going to happen, you have to plan ahead to figure out how to win.

Encounters were created because the design team realized there needed to be some new ways for the players to challenge themselves. Encounters allow you to play Magic but stretch a different set of puzzle-solving muscles. Encounters are my personal favorite new thing in Duels 2013.

#4—Play Up the Creative

Another change in Duels 2013 is the overall structure of how the story mode is played. The ladder now has four different Magic planes, including fan favorites Innistrad and Ravnica. Each plane comes with its own Planeswalkers and other characters for you to fight.

Much of Brady's involvement in this product was to bring out the creative in a way that makes it more a part of the game. The geography matters more. The Planeswalkers matter more. The whole game also does a better job of making you more aware of who and what everything is. One of Magic's strengths is its creative and Duels 2013 takes greater advantage of that.

#5—Give Advanced Players More Control

Duels 2013 doesn't just have new features for beginning players. It also gives experienced players a few things they've been asking for. Land tapping can now be switched over to manual tapping to allow players who wish to control what lands get tapped. For new or casual players, nothing will appear changed, but for advanced players, they can hold down a key to manually tap lands as they cast a spell. Also, Duels 2013 provides an end step for the first time.

Gruul Turf | Art by John Avon

#6—Increase Deck Optimization

Continuing the trend of focusing on the advanced players, each deck has a larger pool of cards to unlock and thus more customization available. Part of the fun of Magic is optimizing your deck and Duels 2013 gives you more opportunity to do that.

#7—Integrate Duels 2013 With Magic 2013

I saved this change for last because (a) it has the largest scope and (b) it will allow me to show off my preview cards today. As I mentioned above, Duels of the Planeswalkers has many roles. One of the most important is that it is a good way for new players to learn. It holds the players' hands, helping them learn by taking care of some aspects new players don't need to know right away.

It also allows new players to play in the privacy of their own homes, by themselves, where they are free to make mistakes without prying eyes. One of the hardest things about learning a new game (or a new anything really) is looking bad. Every novice has to go through this, but Duels allows players a little face-saving as they can do it in private.

Part of Duels doing its job, though, is making sure the players who want to expand beyond the video game have a proper introduction to paper Magic. One key to that transition is making the game we'd like them to start with (the core set) have as much crossover from the game they already know. To best do that we want to overlap a significant number of cards. That way, when Duels players come to Magic 2013, they have plenty they recognize.

The trick here is that paper Magic and digital Magic work on two completely different timetables. Getting the two to overlap was a lot of work for a number of different teams. The fact that they did such a wonderful job with it is impressive.

Let's get to my preview cards. Yes cards. I have two. One's a common and one's a rare. They just so happen to go together. These cards appear in both Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 and Magic 2013. Both cards are designed to go into a Goblin deck.

Let's start with the common, Krenko's Command.


Krenko's Command | Art by Karl Kopinski

This card probably brings up two questions:

  • Why does my Goblin deck want a card that makes two Goblin tokens?
  • Who exactly is Krenko?

The rare card will answer both those questions. Meet Krenko, Mob Boss.

Krenko is one of the characters you'll meet in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013. And yes, he's also a legendary creature in Magic 2013. (Hint, hint.) If you're as much of a goblin fan as I am, I think you'll see a lot of potential in Krenko to have a some gobliny good fun.

Duels Rush In

I hope today's column gave you a little insight into what went into making Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 its own game that lives up to the two previous Duels yet still offers something new. The product comes out next week (on Wednesday, June 20). I'm personally quite excited to download it on my iPad.

Krenko, Mob Boss | Art by Karl Kopinski

If, by the way, you're one of the players who never had a chance to try out Duels of the Planeswalkers, I want to urge you to give it a try. It allows you the chance to play Magic but in the context of a video game, where you get to battle other Planeswalkers and legendary characters (aka the computer) and win cards to add to your decks. There are even ways to play against humans sitting beside you or across the world.

Duels of the Planeswalkers has become a phenomenon on every platform its launched on. If you love Magic and have access to an Xbox, Playstation, iPad, or a home computer, it only costs around $10 for the whole game. Most of the platforms even have trial versions to let you test it out before buying. It's a lot of fun and a great value. I strongly recommend you give it a try.

That's all I have for today. Join me next week when I'll talk about how to use Duels and other products to help teach beginners to play.

Until then, may you have fun dueling Planeswalkers.