Insert Column Name Here – Duels of the Planeswalkers Review

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Friday, July 3rd – I missed my article last Monday. But that article was almost ghost-written by my boss, Pete – and it would have read like this:

The Ferrett, webmaster and long-time writer for this site, died on Tuesday evening due to complications arising from a burst appendix…

I missed my article last Monday. But that article was almost ghost-written by my boss, Pete — and it would have read like this:

The Ferrett, webmaster and long-time writer for this site, died on Tuesday evening due to complications arising from a burst appendix…

That’s right — I’ve been in the hospital for the better part of a week. Suffice it to say that this just wasn’t your usual burst appendix — I walked around my house with a burst appendix for what was, apparently, four days. Which means that my insides were awash in, well, fecal matter, bringing me that much closer to septicemia. The surgeon had to open me up and pressure wash my insides out, and then I was on a constant stream of IV-drip antibiotics for four days.

Apparently, I had a near-death experience. Who knew? All I knew was that I had stomach cramps.

(Fun fact: If you have actual appendicitis, you’ll have aches at the bottom of your belly, but the real pain comes from the rebound — when someone presses down it’ll ache, but it’ll feel like someone punched you hard when they take their hand away. This fact courtesy of Evan Erwin, who knows more than Magic, apparently.)

Anyway, so I had intended to have a spiffy review of Duels of the Planeswalkers for you last Monday, but instead I’m posting this review on July 3rd — which is, by no small coincidence, my 40th birthday. It’s a little late, but it’s also that much more comprehensive. I’m up to 78% complete on this damn package, so I’ve spent a lot of time playing with the AI.

So. Appendix burst. Almost dead. Okay now. Starting review of the new Xbox Magic-style game in 3…2…1…

Duels of the Planeswalkers
Do you remember the days when you taught your younger brother — who was maybe eleven — how to play Magic? And he really, really liked Magic, even if he wasn’t much good at it? He’d keep bringing up that deck you made him out of old crappy commons, and plopping it on the table, and saying, “Play me, Uncle Ferrett! Play me!

You feel like a guilty God.

Thing is, you win pretty much every game, no matter how terrible your deck is — because you know things he doesn’t. You know how to mulligan. You know how to hold removal and wait for threats. You know to cast creatures in your second main phase. You know when to block profitably, and when to attack even if you lose board position.

What becomes clear is that even though your little brother knows the rules of Magic, he has no idea of the strategy of Magic.

A lot of players conflate the two, slurring “quality of play” with “rules knowledge.” But though your little brother completely gets the attack step, he doesn’t have any idea that trading every 2/2 with each other isn’t always a good idea. Though he knows how a Cancel works, he doesn’t realize that tapping out every turn when he has one in hand isn’t a good idea.

You come to realize just how complex this game really is, and how much of the strategy you have ingrained into your bones so that it seems like a rule to you. It seems inconceivably simple, now, but Magic is so complex that there’s a layer of the essential strategies (casting instants at end of turn, casting critters in second main phase, holding removal for when you really need it), and then a layer of secondary strategies (knowing what your deck needs to do, analyzing which threats are most effective to you, planning ahead a couple of turns), and then those mysterious layers that the pros get and you don’t… At least, not yet.

Yet your brother knows none of this. Attack him with a 2/2 and he’ll always block it with his 2/2, even if you’re at four life and he’s at sixteen and that 2/2 is the only threat he has. He will cast his Giant Growth the second he gets it, just to bring you from sixteen damage to twelve. He will Shock your 1/1 because, hey! It’s there!

You win all the time, and you feel like a putz. What kind of idiot beats up on a little kid this way? You start to offer advice, guiltily, explaining that you totally should have lost this game but he just wasted all his removal on useless 1/1s — but the kid doesn’t listen. He just attacks.

This is what playing the AI in Duels of the Planeswalkers is like, with one exception:

You don’t have to feel guilty!

That’s right — you can kick the AI around the room all day and feel smug about it. If you have even the basic strategies of Magic down, you will destroy the AI on a regular basis.

The guy who programmed the AI doesn’t appear to be very good at Magic, and it shows. Now, don’t get me wrong, programming any AI is complex, and getting one that can play Magic at all is like a whistling dog — it’s amazing that it’s done at all.

But in the end, this dog doesn’t whistle very well. I think some of these issues could have been headed off at the pass if someone had sat down with the lead and said, “Okay, in Magic, we traditionally cast our creatures in second main phase. There’s good strategic reason for this. Can we make it so that the computer at least tries to do it as well?”

The AI, judged as a Magic player, is terrible — even on the top-tier Planeswalker difficulty. It will always, always do the same things time and time again; there seems to be no variance built into the program at all. For example, after several hours of surgery-recuperating play, I can tell you that:

  • The AI will lay a land every turn, no matter what. It never holds back lands. You can use this as a reliable indicator of what combat tricks it has; if it’s been laying lands every turn and suddenly it doesn’t cast a creature, it’s got a trick. (This also makes the Black deck’s strategy of “Megrim and discard” really useless, since the computer will never hold onto any cards if it’s possible to play ‘em.)
  • The AI will always, always attack when it’s possible. There have been a ton of games where the AI would have won if it had kept its guys back for one turn, blocking me for long enough to get its threats online, but no. It wants to race at every opportunity. If you attack in, it will always attack back — even if your counterattack the next turn will kill it.
  • The AI will always attempt to cast as many permanents in a turn as possible. This is usually good strategy, but it completely fails when Tezzeret the Seeker casts Razormane Masticore, then casts all the spells it has the next turn, losing the Masticore the turn afterwards because it has no cards left in hand. This happens a lot — in fact, unless Tezzeret has a Howling Mine out, you can bet the Masticore will be gone in a turn or two.
  • If the AI has available mana and a counter, it will counter whatever spell you cast next. Whatever spell. No matter how insignificant it may be. (In at least two cases, it used this rule to use both of its counters on the same spell twice, which was very nice of it.)
  • If the AI has a Giant Growth and it’s attacking, it will cast it. Whether you block or not. No matter what your life total is at.
  • The AI will always cast creatures before combat unless it has a combat trick. Again, it’s a pretty reliable indicator in the early game; if it’s not casting a guy before it attacks, either it has a trick or no guy at that mana cost.

(On the other hand, the AI is reasonably good at mulliganing. This is its saving grace, and it will almost always have a hand with a reasonable balance of threats and offense.)

(EDIT: I should also note that some folks claim that these issues go away when the difficulty is turned up to “Planeswalker” level; I’ve checked my build and yes, it’s set on Planeswalker, but others say the AI doesn’t do this. I’m perfectly willing to accept that my build might have a bug or some other issue, and that the AI is better than I think.)

The AI was not designed to look ahead a turn, so its strategic planning? Nil. I’ve seen it throw away wins when it sacrificed a Bottle Gnomes, main phase, to get an additional life when the correct play was clearly to block and then sacrifice. Its planning is nil. It just throws cards out there.

The question, of course, is whether you want a really good AI for a program that’s designed to get new players into Magic — and the answer is, “Probably not.” If you want top-shelf gaming quality, you’ve got Magic Online. Duels of the Planeswalkers is meant to give new kids a taste of a fun game, and as such an AI that was genuinely threatening probably is against what they’re trying to do.

(More proof as to this can be found when the programmers admitted that in the early stages of the game, the big threats are artificially shuffled to the bottom of the AI’s deck, to give newer players more of a sporting chance. It must be true. I read it on Wikipedia.)

That said, having an AI notably worse than 1997’s Shandalar version does make the game kind of fun. You have an opponent who is dumb, unrelenting, and you feel strangely intelligent for realizing that yeah, your rating is all of 1750, but really, this is what that 1750 means. Among other Magic players, you’re merely okay at best. But to most of the world? You are a God. And for the novice players, well, it’ll teach ‘em some bad habits, but at least they won’t get trounced all the time.

The game is a simplified version of Magic, but strangely it works quite well. The mana is tapped for you automatically, which made me worry at first, but in well over a hundred games I’ve only had it tap wrong for me once; the algorithm is quite good at noting what cards you have in your hand. (There are no nonbasic land cards, which sounds like a loss, but this is essentially 10th Edition Sealed anyway so I didn’t miss them.)

The game is also very speedy and economical — yes, there’s a simplified version of the main phases, each with a trigger that takes about three seconds to count down. If you don’t press a button or cast a spell in that time period, the trigger will go off — whether that’s the declare attackers phase, a Prodigal Pyromancer ping, or a creature spell on the stack. On paper it might sound oppressive, but realistically there’s enough time for competent players to decide what they want to do — and if not, you can hit the X button for extra time. The time management is actually one of the best functions of the game.

(The only problem is that if you hit the A button when you’re on an instant, you will cast it. There are no takebacks. This isn’t that big a deal for instants that require targets, but I cast at least six Holy Days at the wrong time thanks to this interface design.)

One of the worst features of the game, however — and this makes me think more and more that the programmers weren’t all that familiar with Magic — is that there is no “concede” button. You can either quit the game, or you can wait an agonizing three turns as The Rack kills you. It seems bizarre that it never occurred to them that some players would want to quit when it becomes obvious there’s no way for them to win. (Perhaps it’s some bizarre version of encouraging sportsmanship, but it strikes me as being doomed to failure.)

While we’re on the interface, the game is designed in bafflingly small type. I have a 55″ screen, and most of the game is hard to read for me. Yes, you can blow up the card to full-screen by right-triggering it — but that doesn’t excuse the fact that all the hints, game texts, and deck information are written in tiny cursive against light gray that I have to squint to read on my home theater system. It’s as though this game was designed by plasma screen TV companies, because if you have a 20″ screen and less than 20/15 eyesight, you will miss about two-thirds of what the hell is going on.

The game has a nice sense of movement to it; you start out with a dumb green creature deck that seems totally awesome at first, and then you start climbing up the ranks. Each opponent you defeat gives you a new card to add to your deck. They’ve actually done a very good version of giving all the decks that novice players make at first — the poorly-themed red Burn deck, the Green stompy deck, the White critters ‘n’ Glorious Anthem deck, the Black discard and destroy deck, the Blue control the skies deck, the Elf deck with a Coat of Arms that often helps your opponent more than it does you, the G/R/W deck, the B/R/G deck, the artifact deck with Howling Mines that often helps your opponent more than it does you.

As you play through the game, you unlock various cards for your deck — but, disappointingly, you don’t get control over what cards you get to put in or take out. By the time you’ve unlocked all seventeen cards, you have a deck that is now 80 cards big (again, leaving novice players with the illusion that bigger == better) and packed with dead cards in every matchup. Yes, I do want to draw three Eyeblight’s Endings in my Elf mirror match, thank you! And I certainly want all the Terrors in my hand when I’m facing the black deck, or the artifact deck!

(EDIT: A friend has told me that you do, in fact, have choices over which unlocked cards you can take out of the deck, even if you can’t change the original set. The process to do so is slightly arcane, though; I was apparently trying to remove some cards and couldn’t and assumed that all cards couldn’t be removed.)

The interesting thing that I cannot know is how players will react to the various decks. They’re a balanced group of decks, but we all know that certain decks have advantages over others; I had a pretty unbroken streak with the Green stompy deck until I ran into the Black deck with its discard, its Royal Assassin, its gratuitous removal, its The Rack, and my lack of ways to deal with permanents at all. That’s just a bad matchup, man. And I wonder whether new players will even understand that some decks are just favored.

In particular, the G/R/W deck is my absolute most-loathed deck out of all of them, because in theory it accelerates into a quick Woolly Thoctar, but in practice it winds up drawing all piddly creatures, mana fixing, and Pacifisms while your opponents destroy/outclass your critters and kill you. It took me seven matches to kill the stupid burn deck, for God’s sake — a deck which I’d barely lost against in eight matches before that.

Still, there is the thrill of beefing out your deck by winning cards, and there are secret opponents still to be faced — I’ve beaten all sixteen Planeswalkers but the game tells me there’s a seventeen card to be unlocked, leading me to believe that Nicol Bolas is lurking about somewhere. He’s just too good not to get.

(OTHER EDIT: My friend James tells me that to get the seventeenth card, there is no Nicol Bolas – just beat a computerized opponent for the second time. Disappointing, but understandable.)

Unfortunately, there’s another design flaw here: if there’s a way to tell which opponents you have left to beat to unlock your next card, I can’t tell you where it is. I have unlocked nine cards out of seventeen for the dumb Red deck, but which opponents do I have to face to get those final eight? I don’t know, and the game isn’t telling me. This is just another stupid oversight.

As an extra-special bonus, the game also comes with eight Magic: the Puzzling scenarios where you must win this turn or die. The challenges are lower than what you might have been used to in the Duelist — I beat them all in under an hour, and that’s factoring in an extra fifteen additional minutes I spent on one puzzle after I mistimed a click and thought my (correct) solution was wrong — but I would cheerfully pay for more DLC with additional puzzles.

That said, the one thing we have to look at is the price point: this game is nine frickin’ dollars. If I’d paid fifty for it at Gamestop I’d probably be disappointed, but for the cost of less than a draft set you get a full environment. This is a really good deal, and frankly if you have an Xbox and like Magic at all, you should get it.

Is it great? No. But it felt like stepping into a simpler time, one when Demon’s Horn was OMG THE TECH and that Giant Spider was really so awesome that you couldn’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t play it. It brought back a swell of old memories that frankly, if you don’t have, you shouldn’t be playing Magic, you cynical, Spikey, crusty misanthropist you.

Plus, it’s a good way to beat up on an artificial brother.

Signing off,
The Ferrett
The Here Edits This Site Here Guy

P.S. — If you want, wish me a happy birthday! I’m alive, man. I’ll see the fireworks. And isn’t that cool?