When Duels of the Planeswalkers came out on the Xbox Live Arcade about a year ago, I downloaded the trial; my interest was piqued because I love card battling games, and I had many fond memories of Magic: the Gathering with my little brother and my cousin. We never really knew any of the rules, but we got the basic gist—tap some mana, summon some creatures, cast some spells, have some fun. Mostly, we just looked at the really cool pictures and borders.
There’s definitely something about holding a hand of M:tG cards that makes you feel like a veritable fucking wizard. If you had asked me when I was trying DotP out for the first time, re-learning the rules as I went, that this $10 arcade game was going to turn out to be the catalyst that launched me headfirst into the present-day world of Magic and what would ultimately become my obsession for the past year, I would have never guessed it.
I loved Duels of the Planeswalkers. I played two-headed giant with my little brother all the time, either aiding his large green creatures with support spells or counter-based defense as they trampled over our opponents, or by providing him with creatures that he could buff with his verdant enchantments. I even taught my best friend how to play the game, and the three of us together conquered the co-op campaign and every last combination of AI that we could come up with—even double Jaces.
After unlocking nearly everything that came stock in DotP, the first expansion pack was released and I was thrilled to challenge new AI opponents, solves trickier puzzles, and unlock more decks and supplementary cards. I enjoyed DotP so much that I actually ended up buying all three DLC expansions, a gamer picture pack, the in-game character pack, and the in-game tables pack. That’s the most DLC I’ve ever purchased for a single title. To this day, I still play DotP on occasion, although I’d rather take on real opponents at FNM or play casually amongst friends, despite the fact that they all secretly resent me for how into I’ve gotten. It’s that wizard feeling.
When I heard that Wizards of the Coast was working with developer Stainless to make a sequel to DotP, I was ecstatic. Like the overwhelming majority of the DotP playerbase who heard the news and posted on the forums, my initial thought was, “Holy shit, yes. I really hope they include full deck construction this time around.” While it seems the developers have definitely been listening to player feedback with some of the changes they’re making for this second release, it seems that complete construction still will not be a part of the game. Instead, we’ll be granted full customization of more pre-fab decks. What this means is when you unlock a card for defeating an opponent, you can now switch out a card in your deck to make room for that new prize, as opposed to simply adding that new card to your stack and calling it done. This might actually be better.
Why? How? For two reasons, really. Magic players who tend to take the game more seriously than most casuals know that playing a deck with more than 60 cards in it is generally a bad idea, unless you’re attempting to embrace a card or mechanic that requires your deck to consist of 60+. I wouldn’t have had a problem with the initial lack of deck construction in DotP if you could have taken stock cards out of your deck to make room for the more powerful or unique ones unlocked later in the game or in the expansions. There were quite a few new cards that I wanted to use, and because of that I ended up with decks consisting of 80 or even 90+ cards, once you count the game’s automatic land-factoring (a feature that will be making a return).
The other and perhaps more important reason is because of the way Magic: the Gathering has what’s called a “meta-game.” In this case, “meta-game” refers to an overall state of the game itself. What color decks are popular right now? What cards are defining current blocks? What combos are seeing lots of competitive play? These are all very serious questions that someone who plays casually would never conceive. Yet not all players who bought DotP are casual gamers; some are outright Magic fiends who are no doubt enraged by the second overlooking of a deck-building tool.
Yet overlooking really isn’t the right word. Stainless has considered the supplecations of M:tG fanboys anxious to construct and pilot their own decks online. In fact, I think it’s because of this that they’ve found an alternative solution. If deck-building was a part of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012, the arcade game would begin to develop a meta-game similar to the actual card game, and although much smaller in scale, it would still create a vast schism between casual and pro that would eventually wreck online play.
If a deck builder was included, M:tG fiends and pros alike would retreat into its bottomless black depths after rushing to unlock all the content as soon as DotP 2012 is released. They would eventually emerge bleary-eyed and scorched from countless hours of real-life playtesting and massive flame wars on forums, but their endless toil and suffering would not be in vain; they would be piloting decks that would outperform every potential opponent they would ever come across online, and they wouldn’t look back. The sad thing is that depending on the size of the card pool given, I would only expect to see three or four, or maybe even five different decks—that’s usually the number of decks that have co-existed in standard and dominated whole blocks at a time for the past year.
Like all video game pro tips, these deck lists would be posted on the internet and would spread like viruses, their virtual beatdowns the contagions. Eventually they’d infect and comprise the majority of online matchups. It’s never fun to encounter real-life opponents piloting decks universally considered to be cheap or overpowered, and that’s assuming that you’re playing as someone who cares enough about Magic: the Gathering to be amongst a playerbase who would be capable of acquiring (or affording) and assembling a deck like that. The only people who would do so are pros. Fiends.
Casual gamers do not want this experience; it is capable of scaring them away from online modes, and sometimes even from entire games if things become this nightmarish—and I’m not just talking about cards here. I consider myself to be a dedicated gamer and I’ve practically stopped playing Marvel vs Capcom 3 because of online matches during which I consistently lose >80% of my health from one ridiculous juggle combo that should have ended at least four times, yet still somehow persists despite me hitting the ground or the edge of the screen. Do I suck? Maybe. Probably. But does this experience suck? Definitely.
This is why I’m okay with the news that there won’t be a solid deck creation tool in the upcoming Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012. I want to enjoy the game playing alongside my friends who are casual players at most. They like Magic: the Gathering, but they’re not going to sit down and analyze their mana curves or run proxy skirmishes to see how two similar cards perform against each other. They’ll say, “Dude, this card looks fucking awesome. I want this in my deck,” and then I can chime in, “Oh, yeah, that’s a cool card! Why don’t you take this card out of your deck to make room for it?” They’ll question me at first and maybe they’ll never get it, but at least I’ll be able to rest easy knowing that I made the suggestion, and I’ll smile to myself whenever they topdeck that one card when it could have been 59 others.
I wouldn’t mind facing consistently strong decks online. I wouldn’t even mind if they were the same; when the meta-game develops, players can learn to read it and excel against the most popular lists. While it may never seem outwardly apparent, every deck has some sort of weakness, however minute or obscure. I would welcome the challenge just as I do with standard play at FNM, but I think I’d much rather see a community develop around Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 as a result of the game being fun for everyone, not just for people who play with thoughts of total domination clouding their vision. If it’s as much fun as it’s predecessor, I already know it’s going to occupy a special place in my heart, and I’d love to be sitting here this time next year, thinking about playing some Archenemy as soon as I get off work.