(Since the co-op in Duels of the Planeswalkers is based on an old variant called Two Headed Giant, Kat and Marc decided to team up for this review.)
To many of the geeky persuasion, Magic: The Gathering is a favorite past time. Many afternoons were spent burning, trampling, and pacifying one another in the lunch room cafeteria. Many lunch monies were spent on booster packs, and many friends were made in the process. Years later, Magic: The Gathering has a digital format true to the original card game. Duels of The Planeswalkers is that game, bringing Magic to our Xbox LIVE arcade! Play against opponents around the world, or settle down for some local co-op that brings Planeswalkers together. Does Duels of the Planeswalkers work the Co-op angle well, or should you stick to comic book stores for your social-Magic fix?
Magic: The Gathering is a fantasy card game, with different color coded decks that each have their own strengths. For instance, green (forest) decks will have massive creatures at your command. Blue (water) decks will have a lot of magic spells and counter spells at your disposal. Red (mountain) decks will use a lot of direct aggressive attacks on your opponent. Black (swamp) decks will whittle away at your opponents life with gruesome sneaky spells. Finally, White (plains) decks utilize a lot of life regeneration and paralyzing pacifism against your opponent. Each of these decks requires it's own color "mana," or land cards of that color to buy spells or creatures. The rules are a lot more in-depth than that, but that's a general run down of what's going on here.
Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers has several gameplay modes. Campaign, where you're pitted against AI "bosses" with different color decks and strategies. In this mode, you'll unlock new colored decks by winning against opponents. Each win also earns you new cards to add to your existing decks. Challenge mode, which gives you a scenario that you have to win in one turn against the odds. This mode gives the puzzle arcade people something very unique to play to the beat of a Magic drum. Online versus modes, up to 4 players in a battle royale to see who comes out on top. Finally, Co-op, which puts two players against two AI bosses for an interesting twist on the Magic we're used to. Co-op can be in either campaign mode, or "custom match" where you decide what color decks your opponents use.
Co-op in Duels of the Planeswalkers has many great aspects, while missing the boat in a few places. There are those of us with a significant other, friend, or offspring that asks "what is Magic?" Now, we can effectively and inexpensively share our love of the game via co-op! Play a round of Magic without having to buy packs of cards to make decks, or worry about making one another angry with a win-lose scenario. Sharing the love while kicking butt and taking names. Sign me up! This brand of co-op is straight forward, and simple.
Unfortunately, Magic: The Gathering likes to throw a challenge at us, and Arttemis and I were quickly stumped in one very specific way. We both played green Forest decks, hoping we'd be able to swap mana. Unfortunately, when I had the big expensive creatures, he had all the mana with no opportunity to share that mana - which basically means, we were stuck between a tree and a Craw Wurm. If one player in co-op has a massive creature that could potentially do a lot of damage to the opponents, the other co-op player should be able to "loan" mana out.
Magic: The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers is incredibly well done as a seamless format switch. Original style cards, same rule sets, and wonderfully addictive nature brings back memories for an old Magic junkie. Beautifully balanced decks with potential DLC in the future should make any fan very happy with this type of adaptation. In order to incorporate the co-op players better, a few co-op specific aspects needed to be present. Co-op if you can, but single player is okay, too.
My initial thoughts for the game are extremely positive. I am a Magic player from way, WAY back, first beginning to play when the game was just a few months old. Several thousand dollars, a Pro Tour invitation, and five years later, I quit playing Magic competitively. Every once in a while, my buddies and I get together to shoot the bull and play Magic, and I taught my oldest son to play paper Magic and Magic Online, but that's pretty much it. The problem with Magic is the overwhelming financial expenditure the game requires to keep competitive. Hundreds if not thousands can be spent obtaining the rare, powerful cards needed to play at the highest level.
Duels of the Planeswalkers changes all that. Once a player beats the single player campaign, all of the decks are unlocked for use. Up to 15 cards can be unlocked for a particular deck by defeating (and redefeating) the campaign opponents. Other than that, there is no collectible aspect to the game. This level playing field is quite unique to this version of Magic, and is by far the game's single biggest strength. On the other hand, building your own deck from cards you own is very fulfilling, and is a large part of paper Magic that doesn't really exist in Duels of the Planeswalkers. To me, it is worth the trade off, but longtime Magic veterans may be put off by the lack of deck customization.
As Kat stated, Magic lends itself well to co-op. You'll be working together to maximize your spells and creatures in no time. There are some really strong combinations between the decks. For example, the deck based around elves is extremely fast and can kill quickly, for example, but a few well placed spells will bring the sylvan army to its knees. If your co-op partner plays the blue deck, full of counterspells, to stop your opponents' tricks, the elves can quickly mop up the table. This is just one example of decks that play to each others' strengths and weaknesses in co-op. Unfortunately, the AI features some of these tough matchups as well!
The most glaring omission in Duels of the Planeswalkers' co-op is the fact that it's limited to local co-op only. I am a huge fan of local co-op, to be sure, and it's handled well in the game. But the lack of online co-op is baffling, and as far as I can tell, the only online options are 1 on 1 duels, or 4 player free for alls. Considering the co-op campaign is just as long as the single player campaign, I just don't understand why co-op was ignored online. They really could have had something great here, but clearly the designer's desired long term replay factor for the game is competitive duels online.
While the local co-op is great fun, there is one nagging issue that really detracts from the experience. Decks are unlocked only by playing the single player campaign. This is all tied to the gamertag, so if your couch co-op buddy wants to play more than the two initial decks, they have to play single player on their own. It would have been far simpler to tie it to the console, or allow decks to be shared between players at least.
Duels of the Planeswalkers is a great game, of that there is no doubt. It will be particularly appealing to lapsed Magic junkies, or more casual fans who want to dip their foot in the Magic pool from time to time. The co-op campaign is quite fun, but the lack of online co-op is quite disappointing.