Translating Magic the Gathering to a console audience must be a herculean task. The Wizards of the Coast competitive card game, an almost 20 year old endeavor with thousands of cards and a cornucopia of evolving rules already has its detractors and stalwart supporters. Although developed by Stainless Games, Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is firmly a Wizards of the Coast production and must simultaneously satisfy the millions of Magic players familiar with the card game’s complexity, while also drawing new players in, many of whom may be unfamiliar with the franchise. Both 2012 and its recent Ascend Into Darkness DLC improve on their predecessor’s first attempt at porting Magic to the console market, providing a satisfying taste of the card game’s rich delight and leaving a deep hunger for the real thing.
For more than five years, mostly during high school, I considered myself an avid Magic fan. I entered hobby-shop tournaments with my friends (even won them a couple times) and played in the school yard. I still have a proud collection of cards in my closet, ready to be played at a moment’s notice. Like a good tabletop game, Magic the Gathering does not age. Its core rules are as compelling today as they were ten years ago and Wizards has consistently delivered amazing artwork and intriguing new mechanics with each core set. 2012, without a doubt, draws from one the best non-digital games ever made.
For those completely new to Magic, the game is played as follows: Two or more players construct decks out of spells and resources, putting together an assortment of land, creatures, enchantments and the like, before ever playing the game. With a starting hand of seven cards, they then battle, drawing one new card each turn and whittling each player down from 20 hit points to none. With hundreds of cards just in the 2012 core set, a plethora of combinations create an endlessly dynamic experience.
2012 adds meager story scraps to the game but quickly sloughs these off to let the card game speak for itself. Like its predecessor, 2012 greatly simplifies Magic and does not actually let you make decks yourself; partly an attempt to make the game more accessible and partly a misguided effort to prevent competition between the game and the more robust Magic the Gathering Online. However, 2012 does allow you to swap out any card using its deck manager, a huge improvement over the first Duels of the Planesewalkers.
Like most deck building games, statistics play a role in one’s success. With few exceptions, including land, only four copies of any one card can occupy your deck. This means that for every card that you add to your deck, you are less likely to draw any other card into your hand during your turn. A lean and mean deck strives to come in at exactly sixty cards, the minimum amount required for play, giving you the best chance to draw powerful cards in your first hand of seven. While 2012 still prevents you from meddling with land, painfully frustrating for veteran players used to micromanagement and strategic risk, the ability to switch out certain cards brings back some of this interesting meta-game to Magic.
2012 offers ten decks to acquire and modify, and Ascend adds three new decks of its own. Many of these decks follow a “build and wait” strategy, letting players bide their time until they can muster a formidable army or buff up a few creatures into true monstrosities. Perhaps its my play style, but this can become boring after awhile. Ascend’s decks are more interesting than the original set’s, particularly Grave Whispers, a classic and incredibly entertaining all black deck built on ridding your opponent’s hand of cards and hurting them with The Rack, Liliana’s Caress, and Underworld Dreams. The expansion also adds four new puzzles to 2012‘s original twelve, all of which showcase the intricacies that make Magic such a complex and fascinating game.
Most notably, while 2012 includes an Archenemy campaign, a variant that pits three players against one uber-player, Ascend allows you to play as the archenemeny, giving you access to a specially designed “scheme” deck that modifies gameplay in your favor. While unleashing an empowered gambit against three dominated players can feel exciting, this quickly becomes too easy a contest. The scheme deck, which changes slightly depending on what deck you play, is clearly unbalanced, particularly against computer players, who seem unable to change their strategy according to their needs.
Archenemy is far more enjoyable when played in rotation with three friends, all eager to cooperate while taking on a knowingly difficult task. In fact, the game is always better when played with friends. The AI still commits stupid mistakes, like wasting damage spells against creatures to no effect or committing to an all out offensive when it means certain death. During one game, I watched as my computer opponent played land from his hand each turn, needlessly emptying his hand and allowing my Rack to chip away at him into oblivion.
Magic is best when you make a plan and carry it our perfectly or when you barely scrape by against a stronger opponent, last just one turn longer, and then see your out and find a way to turn the tables and win. 2012 suitably packages Magic for both new players and veterans like myself. While it is not quite the real thing, it is close enough to make me miss the feel of the cards on my hands, the plastic sleeves, the stuffy old store room in which I played, and the thrill of opening a new booster pack to see what is inside.