I've been a big fan of collectible card games since late high school. It was right about the same time I got into tabletop Dungeons & Dragons - but some friends introduced me to a few different collectible card games: Marvel Overpower, Legend of the Five Rings and Magic: The Gathering. Now, I mostly watched others play at first, I did not start buying actual packs and decks until right around the release of Ice Age. I was immediately hooked. For starters, I've always been a bit of a completionist, whether it was getting characters to level 99 in Final Fantasy (3 I believe - I spent a lot of time walking around this forest island fighting dinosaurs as I recall...), collecting sports cards and comics (I had some early Shaq, Magic Johnson and Barkley cards that I rather miss now) or my need to read entire book series in order, and in a short period of time - the idea begin collecting cards you could use in a game really struck a positive note in me. And I spent a lot of money on those cards in college (who needs beer and pizza money?).
There was a lot to like about Magic: The Gathering, if you were not put off by the need to purchase cards or by the somewhat 'nerdy' source material. Theme decks a specific way (angel or vampire decks anyone?), or try to come up with that perfect combo of cards that would make someone just pause and say 'wow', or just really like certain types of cards (my one buddy Brian worked almost all of his decks around the fast damage of Red spells) - there were nearly unlimited possibilities. Some decks worked better than others, but overall it was a lot of fun for people like me who really dove into strategy type games.
Games like this don't work by yourself though. You can count your cards, set up specific mana-to-critter-to-spell ratio all day and night, but without people to play against, it's all for naught. Without a variety of people to play against, it can get repetitive as well. I played several of the older Magic: The Gathering video games in the past, and had fun with it, so when I saw Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planewalkers come out on the Xbox Live, I picked it up and played it pretty heavily for about a week. I then did not touch it again until recently when a couple of other card-based games like this came my way. I wanted to give it a second chance and see how I felt about it again.
Graphics - 4:
The artwork of the cards is well-represented. They added some basic effects to events during combat. But that's pretty much it. What's there looks perfectly nice, and some of the backdrops look pretty - but they're static cards. There's no animation within the cards, and while I did not really expect anything amazing, it doesn't hurt to be surprised. If you are playing the game in person, obviously the cards don't hop up and attack one another either, but it is a video game nonetheless - it might have been nice to see a bit more animation taking place in the video part of the game.
Sound and Music - 4:
The sound effects are nothing special. They get the job done, but they are as basic as the animations found in the game itself. The music was actually nice - but there was not a ton of variety in it. It fits the overall theme and sets a nice mood, but with so little other activity on the screen, I found myself realizing I had heard the same tune over and over again, so the repetition got to me just a bit more than it does in other games.
Gameplay - 8:
The menus are pretty easy to navigate, the controls are intuitive for what it is. We are not talking about tight turns in a racing game here or trying to nail the perfect headshot, but I have played games before where you repeatedly make the wrong move because of a poorly laid out option or menu item - and that never happened to me here. There is a lot of strategy to be had here. For those uninitiated to the concept - you start with 20 life points, and you have cards in a deck. You draw cards, and there are land cards that come in 5 basic types. Spells and creatures in your hand correspond to these basic types and you can cast them when you have the right kinds and enough lands at your disposal. It's a wonderful system that finds a spectacular balance between luck, deck building and the ability to respond to in-game elements and adjust accordingly. There is also a fun little 'challenges' section where you are working within specific sets of conditions to take your opponent out in a specific way. I really liked these, and will admit to having set some sample ones up myself in similar fashion back when I used to play, just to see what was possible in odd situations.
Intangibles - 4:
The good is this - it is Magic: The Gathering. If you're a fan of the game and mechanics, then you get that exact gameplay here. They also added online play, which is huge because I grew a bit bored of walloping on the computer controlled characters pretty quickly. I ran the entire list through in a day. Luckily given the random nature of the card draws, there is definitely some variety to be had here.
Now for the bad - and in my mind there was quite a bit of it. The online play really aggravated me. Not because it was not fun, but because I got tired of pulling the plug. I would guess I was winning more than half my matches - yet I don't have a single win to my credit technically. That is because there was no penalty (I admit - I did not try this part again recently, but I tried it several months ago at least 2 or 3 dozen times. I guess it's possible they patched it, but I could not bring myself to try again) for dropping out of a match. As a result every-single-match I was about to win, they dropped. I even did some larger group matches - and both times they dropped out as well. One of the guys who dropped out took the time to send me a message apologizing that his 360 kicked him offline - but I'll be honest when I say I didn't believe him. I haven't had the urge to hop online and play again.
The next fatal flaw - you choose a basic deck type to play. Then, you can win several more cards to supplement that deck, and some of those cards are pretty cool. You don't have to use them, but you can. The thing is - they're pre-made decks. The deck building was arguably my favorite part of Magic: The Gathering, and it was not available to me. I tried to justify it by saying there were plenty of good cards and I did not need deck building... but I was fooling myself. I'd see a new card and immediately think how nicely it would work with some other card from another color type and... then realize there was no chance I would ever see this idea realized on the game.
Last but not least? The game itself is short. I beat the entire campaign mode on a day off of work. I knocked off the challenges the next morning. That was it. I was left then to play against the computer controlled opponents or hop online and play, which leads me back to a couple paragraphs ago. Since then, they have released some expansions which add some new cards and opponents. When I picked it up again recently, I thought about picking one or two of the expansions up, but I decided against it. They would add some length to what I was doing, but they really were not going to change those core things I had problems with before, and as such I decided against it.
Overall - 5:
I understand why they did the limited decks. Giving you a full deck editing option would have been a ton of work. It would require more cards be added so it felt like you had a robust set of options, and there would have to be all sorts of validation and checking to make sure you had a legal deck (no more than 4 of a kind, meeting minimum requirements, etc). It could potentially lead to imbalance online I suppose too, if one person had earned/won/lucked into substantially better cards - but you know what? I've seen that in real life plenty of times. Sometimes I was the one with the superior cards, sometimes I wasn't. It was still fun - especially if I was the underdog and I won. In the end, it feels like this is a good introduction to Magic: The Gathering for people who have not played it before, but I don't know that it's enough for a veteran fan of the series to stay invested in it. I love the idea behind it - my friends have moved away, I don't have to spend money on actual packs, and having a computer controlled opponent are all great aspects of the game, but it left me wishing for just a bit more than it delivered.