Ten Paces, Turn, and Draw

Posted in Serious Fun on June 23, 2009

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

Hey all! By now you may have heard about Duels of the Planeswalkers, the new Magic game for the Xbox 360. You might have read on this very site about how its engine handles Magic game play, and how its AI makes decisions. I found the latter particularly interesting—basically, the AI uses parallel copies of the game engine to play a big game of, "So if I ... then you might ... which would mean ...."

Anyway, the screen shots are pretty and the technical articles are a fun and informative read, but the biggest question on my mind was an intangible one: is it fun? The answer turned out to be a resounding "yes!" After the game came out last week, I fired up the Xbox at the office and took Duels for a proverbial spin.

What Is It?

Duels is a slick interface for playing Magic against a surprisingly sophisticated AI, as well as against friends and strangers on Xbox LIVE. It features a single-player campaign, a Two-Headed Giant co-op campaign, custom duels against the AI, and two-, three-, and four-player multiplayer games on Xbox LIVE. It also features a series of "Challenges"—puzzles very much like the old Magic: The Puzzling—that drop you into a game scenario in which you have one turn to win against a tapped-out AI opponent.

The basic structure of the campaign is similar to a fighting game—you face Chandra, say, then Liliana, then Elspeth. Several times, you face the same opponent again with a more advanced deck. You start with either Garruk's deck (a straightforward mono-green attack deck) or Chandra's deck (red burn plus goblins, hill giants, etc.); as you progress through the campaign, you unlock the decks of the opponents you face, as well as additional (often powerful) cards to add to the deck you're using.

The eight preconstructed decks are roughly balanced against each other (much like any of the Duel Decks). As you unlock cards for each deck, you choose which ones to add. They don't replace cards in the deck; the game adds lands as you add cards to keep a good ratio of lands to spells.

In other words, Duels is a game about playing Magic decks, not building them. If you want to tap into the infinite variability of Magic, tune your unique creation into the ultimate weapon, and take on all comers, Magic Online has you covered. For 800 Microsoft points—ten of your Earth dollars, at least here in the States—Duels isn't meant to deliver the entire universe of Magic. But for the same price as a Halo map pack, Duels gives you a lot of Magic, and the interface is simple enough that even your non-Magic-playing friends will be slinging spells in no time.

Interface Smashery

The interface is simple, but it does take a little getting used to. The tutorial is a big help, so I recommend going through it. Parts of it will be old news to you, familiar with Magic as you are. After the tutorial, there are pop-up hints; you can press B as each of these appear to turn off that particular hint.

You navigate from card to card with either of the two control sticks. The right control stick lets you toggle through your hand, the cards in play, or any player's graveyard. (Once you do get into a graveyard, you need to press B to get out again.) The left stick only takes you to cards you can interact with: cards in your hand, permanents with activated abilities you can play, and creatures you can currently select to attack or block with. Cards in your hand and creatures with activated abilities are highlighted. The left or right trigger zooms in on a card so you can read it. The direction pad ... uh, I think is there for old people who don't trust analog sticks, kind of the way I use the analog stick instead of the motion sensor when I play Mario Kart on the Wii.

The screen will tell you what the lettered buttons do at any given point. Generally, A selects a card to play or otherwise use; B goes back, withdrawing an attacker or blocker you've selected (if you're still declaring), zooming out, or whatever; Y continues to the next part of the turn; and X pauses the action so you can take your time responding to something.

Giant Growth
At the tone, you will have three seconds to cast me …

In Duels, when a spell or ability is on the stack or combat damage is about to be dealt, you have a limited amount of time to take an action, indicated by a shrinking blue bar; you can press X to pause this timer, or you can just select the card you want to play within the time limit. This keeps the game moving at a good pace, but it also means you can't let your attention wander, lest you miss your chance to play that critical Giant Growth—as I did in a Two-Headed Giant game when I was chatting with my partner, and nearly lost because of it.

Flying, First Strike, and Haste.

Creature status and abilities are indicated by various symbols and icons. Creatures with summoning sickness have a little swirly spiral over them. First strike is a sword, defender a broken sword, and double strike a two-headed axe. Flying is represented by two little wings, but it's also shown by having the creature hover over the playing surface. Trample is a bull's head, legendary is a crown, etc.

Spell effects and creature combat have illustrations and sounds, which are short enough and fun enough not to bog down, and are mostly skippable by pressing the Y button. There are also some neat subtle touches; the lighting changes to spotlight the player whose turn it is, and the lights dim and turn red during combat.

Game On

After going through the tutorial—again, a big help—my friend Laura and I started playing a few matches. She started off in the single-player campaign, facing off against Elspeth's white deck. Elspeth is heavy on Pacifisms and flyers, and she also packs Holy Day—watch out for that one, especially when playing Overrun out of Garruk's deck! Elspeth landed Suntail Hawk on turn one and suited it up with Holy Strength. Don't laugh—with a little help, the Hawk smashed Laura all the way down to 6 before she drew a Giant Spider to hold it off. Elspeth didn't have the Pacifism, and Laura was able to stabilize, throw down some big creatures, and pull it out. She played a few more games, unlocking additional cards—most notably Howl of the Night Pack, which she cast against Jace with eight Forests in play (after waiting until he tapped out to make sure he couldn't stop her with Cancel or Negate).

Laura and I then teamed up for some Two-Headed Giant. I was surprised and pleased to find that playing with a friend sitting on the same couch captures the same sort of fun as paper Two-Headed Giant—strategizing together, arguing over plays, and high-fiving when things go well.

At one point, we played against the unlikely team-up of Jace and Garruk. I had Garruk's deck, and Laura was using a black-green Elf deck courtesy of Nissa Revane, a proud, fierce elf who doesn't have a planeswalker card (yet). This was the game where we talked right through our chance to play Giant Growth for the win, leaving our opponents alive at 3 life and giving them a chance to take us out—always a danger against Garruk. If he drew Overrun ... but he didn't—and I did. I had just enough mana to get Blanchwood Armor on my Duskdale Wurm and play Giant Growth, while Laura contributed two Giant Growths to the cause. The result was an attack that dealt 55 damage, unlocking the "Devastator" achievement (deal 20 or more damage to an opponent in one turn).

One interface tip for 2HG: after your opponents play spells, one of you will need to press Y for the spell to actually hit the stack. If the opponent across from you plays the spell, you need to press it; if it's the opponent across from your partner, then your partner needs to press it. Nothing bad happens if you take too long, but it's easy to sit there waiting for something to happen when you're the one who's supposed to be pressing Y.

Laura wasn't crazy about Nissa's deck, but I quite liked the look of it—Imperious Perfect, Lys Alana Huntmaster, Eyeblight's Ending, Immaculate Magistrate, etc. I took it on as my main deck, while Laura settled on Ajani's three-color Naya deck as her deck of choice.

It was with Nissa's deck that I ventured out onto Xbox LIVE and played some matches. I had the best luck creating a match rather than joining an existing one. You can play two-player, three-player, four-player, or Two-Headed Giant, and you can even alter starting life totals and hand sizes if you want. When you've selected your deck and are ready for the game to start, you hit X to toggle your status to ready; when all players have done so, the game gets underway.

One of the interesting things about playing online is that while you can figure out which of the decks someone is playing basically right away, you don't have any idea which cards they've unlocked. Is Chandra going to bust out Flameblast Dragon, or do her threats top out at Earth Elemental? Hard to say ... so keep those Terrors handy.

It's also interesting to see Elvish Champion, Goblin King, and Coat of Arms (in Nissa's deck) at work in an environment with only eight decks. In one game, I had big plans to drop Coat of Arms and Elvish Champion when both I and another player playing Nissa had choked the board with Elves. I would then forestwalk over to kill that player before he or she could forestwalk me to death, then mop up everybody else. Someone using Liliana's deck messed that up for me by forcing me to discard, and I tossed the Coat of Arms. Happily, the other Nissa player slammed down Coat of Arms for me, and I happily returned the favor by dropping Elvish Champion as planned and smashing the Coat of Arms's owner to bits.

Elvish Champion
Coat of Arms

Laura and I wanted to try playing against each other, and the office computer lab has two Xboxes, so I set up a two-player match, set one slot to "private," and sent her a game invite using the Xbox Guide button. Not too hard—and if you invite a buddy whose Xbox is at a reasonable distance from yours, such as in a different house, you won't have to be as careful as we were about looking at each other's screens.

After a few good, close games, we split up again and started poking around in the Challenges. They're great—unlike conventional Magic puzzles, they have the huge advantage of taking place in the Duels engine with an AI opponent. You can plot and plan and run the math and only start pressing buttons when you've figured it out, but you can also just try the first solution that occurs to you and see what goes wrong. There's no penalty for trying a challenge over again.

In the normal game, the defaults—which you can change—are set so that you aren't given the option to Blaze your own creatures, target yourself with Blightning, etc. In the Challenges, those settings are turned off, and several of them require you to get quite clever as far as what you target with normally detrimental effects ....

Tap Duels

I don't have an Xbox of my own, but after spending an afternoon with Duels, I'm tempted to get one. Duels is no substitute for paper Magic, or for Magic Online—it's a quick, slick way to get your Magic fix from the comfort of your own couch. If you have an Xbox, or know someone who does—even (perhaps especially) someone who doesn't play Magic—you should definitely check it out.

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