Thursday, June 25, 2009

Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers Review

I spent a bunch of time with Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers on XBox Live over the weekend. Perhaps a little obscure for a review. But I thought it, while fun, made a horrible mistake, something other developers can learn from.

Uh, Magic, Wut?

For those who never tried it, Magic: The Gathering is a very ingenious card game that has made about 3 batrillion dollars. You are, like, totally a wizard, and you wield a deck of cards that summon monsters and fire lightning bolts and other awesome stuff. The cool thing about the game is that you buy packs of cards, but the cards you get are random. You then pick the cards you like and build your own custom deck from that. And then you fight other people, who have their own nifty personal decks.

This is really cool because you can make a deck that best represents how you like to play games. You can make a deck with lots of fast nasty creatures and rush the opponent in a banzai rush, or a you can make a slower, more cerebral deck with powerful defensive cards to wear the opponent down before you fire back with one overwhelming blow. This customization aspect is easily the best part of the game.

So How's the Video Game?

Well, it's ten bucks. You play it, and they hand you a premade deck and you play with that. You battle against either AI opponents or other humans online. You do well, and you get a different fixed deck to play with. Some of the premade decks are OK. Others of them will teach you the joy of pure, undiluted frustration.

The game's production values are amazing. The AI is pretty darn good. The rules of Magic have been adapted to make a lively, fast-paced online version. The title is definitely fun enough to be worth ten bucks.

But it doesn't have the deck-building. You can only play with premade decks (which you can modify, but only very slightly, and usually for the worse). Sadly, playing with these decks is a pretty dry experience. If everyone was only able to play with premade decks, Magic: The Gathering would never have been any sort of success in the first place.

And thus, the horrible, horrible error.

Go On.

Wizards of the Coast, the creators of Magic, didn't make this game to get your ten bucks. It was clearly very expensive to develop, and they're never going to earn it from cruddy XBox Live purchases. They made this game to make Magic players, to get you to go to the store (or Magic Online) and plop down folding money to buy the actual cards. My guess is that they left deck-building out because they were, like, "We don't want to give those cheapskates out there the ability to actually play the game for a mere ten dollars? Who do they think they are? Lowly cretins."

That's the only reason I can think of for this decision. Compared to all of the production values they were pumping into the thing, adding deck-building to the game would be no trouble at all.

But, and this is the part all developers can learn from, they forget the first rule of making the demo for a game:


You don't want the demo to be fun. You want the demo to make people freaking fall in love with the game. You want to use the demo to fill customers with hot passion for your product. Believe me, if Duels of the Planeswalkers really gets someone interested in Magic, that person won't be sated by the rinky-dink assortment of cards and options available in the video game. They's gonna' go spend money. But, to make Magic into a video game, for whatever reason, they ripped its heart out. What is left might attract some players, but nowhere near as many as it would.

And Magic is expensive. They want players to drop a hundred bucks or more. This is a huge hurdle to jump over. You want people to make this sort of commitment? Then your demo has to pull out all of the stops. Not half of them.

When you make your demo, don't be grasping. Approach the player with glad heart and open arms. Show them your best stuff. Addict them. Enthrall them. And then, before they have time to tire of you, cut them off and ask for the money. That's how you do it.

My Personal Experience.

By the way, I was sucked into the Magic thing by the 1997 PC version of the game. It had, as much as possible, the full Magic experience, including deck-building. It was really made with passion for sharing the game. I played it. I saw what the game was really about. Then I went out and, over the next few years, spent tons of money on Magic cards. Just my personal experience, for what it's worth. Using a video game to suck people in to the paper game can work.

Of course, then again, I shouldn't criticize them for doing less to get people addicted to Magic. That's like being angry at dealers for selling less addictive heroin.


  1. I had a similar experience with it. It's too bad, because with deck-building it could have been a really solid alternative to the card game to play with far-flung friends (which is what I was looking for in an XBLA MTG game anyway).

    Maybe at some point they'll expand it out with a patch or tie it into their MTG Online business. Either way would be pretty cool.

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  2. I'm in the process of reviewing this game for Australian Gamer, and I have to say so far I'm quite enjoying the concept of the game. From what I can gather, anyone who has played the "real thing" hates the XBLA version...for all the reasons you stated.

    Now, I've never played Magic I don't know anything about deck building. SO to me, I didn't even know there WAS such a thing. I'm just sitting here learning all the cards, and learning what's good to hang on to and when to play what.

    I think you hit the nail on the head, and it is something I've already said to others. The XBLA version of Magic is a marketing tool. It's to get people like me to go, "hey this is interesting...I might go check out the cards in the store".

    If the game DID have deck building, I'd probably stuff it up completely and end up hating the game. From what I can gather, you are given a pretty descent deck to start with and get to feel the "buzz" of getting some new and powerful card to add to your deck. This is the trick right here... I start to get the idea of Magic, that being to "expand" your pack (i.e. buy more cards).

    I doubt I'm going to take up the game, purely because I don't have the time...but I think the game does a pretty good job of introducing a newbie to the concept!

  3. The Microprose version is still one of my favorititist games, I even have it installed on my PC right now! Ah Microprose, they used to do no wrong.

  4. Personally I think Peasant Magic Online is the best value by far. You get $10 worth of their RMT currency, and then you can play forever against other humble souls with just Commons. There's a surprising amount of variety, in what are supposed to be the "simplest" general purpose cards in the game.

    The fact they're often handed out for free, that there are a couple bots out there that give away a monthly allowance of them, and they trade at ~50-120 cards a dollar is a boon, too.


  5. Nothing beats old-fashioned, non-computerized MTG. The feel of the card in your hand, the cool illustrations and lore, the fact that you can shuffle and play with the cards for over a decade and never wreck them...

    I miss the old days :(

  6. @ajd1474: "If the game DID have deck building, I'd probably stuff it up completely and end up hating the game."

    Obviously, the deck building would have to be introduced later in the campaign, to give new people time to get a feel for the card.

    But ... If you really would hate deck building, than Magic, the "real" magic they want you to buy, is not for you, period. The demo would lose you, but it probably should lose you. Only a tiny portion of the people who try the game will go out and buy other stuff. But that is a VERY lucrative tiny portion.

    Of course, if you're reviewing it as a stand-alone product (and you are), all of the points I am bringing up are entirely separate from the job you have to do.

    - Jeff Vogel

  7. It's a common "trick". Check all those "FREE" to play MMORPG. They aren't free. They just put you in the game world and you're powerless, and to have even minimum fun you need to pay first $5, then $10, then $50 and so on.
    I want to pay a FIXED amount, and have fun. Not being cheated every minute I log-on!
    But that's apparently is going to be the future of gaming, based on what many people say. I really hope they're wrong, or I won't play any game anymore.

  8. @jack horton: "It's a common "trick". Check all those "FREE" to play MMORPG. They aren't free."

    Kids gotta eat. You want people to work really hard to make a quality product? At some point, they need to be paid by somebody. Nobody is "cheating" anybody.

    Also, the Magic game doesn't have any extra fees. It's ten bucks. Period. They might sell add on decks later, but then you're paying for more content.

    - Jeff Vogel

  9. @jack horton: "It's a common "trick". Check all those "FREE" to play MMORPG. They aren't free."

    There are a good number of free mmorpgs that are free. mind you, playing normally is MUCH easier to pay. However, paying is still not mandatory and for those that like that sort of challenge (or are cheap), it is still free.

    On another note, The pc Magic game you mentioned earlier is a great game, as is the card game... Of course, I haven't bought anything Magic related in years so I don't know if its changed.

  10. Just for the record, I'm a gamedev myself :)
    So I am not against developer being paid, quite the opposite. I'm on same boat as Jeff and others.
    What I meant, was that I don't like to get a game now "free" if that's so crippled that is unplayable (ok reading better, it isn't the case of the reviewed game).
    I think Jeff games are so successful because you pay even $28, but you get 100% of fun. There aren't recurring monthly charges or extra stuff to buy inside the game.

  11. The deck-building, even though it's not something I personally partake of very much, is definitely the coolest aspect of CCGs. The trouble with Magic, and most of the other ones, though, is that whole "random assortment of cards" part. Suddenly, you need to be either lucky or shell out enormous quantities of money to have the shiniest tactical options available to you. And while that "enormous amounts of money" bit is surely attractive to the company, as a consumer I consider it a major disadvantage. It's one reason I like the Microprose Magic game so much - the card base is fixed and your options are your options, expanded in fixed expansion packs (of which there were sadly only two.) I was kind of hoping that this was the model the XBLA game would follow, but alas...

    Incidentally, my local gaming company, Fantasy Flight Games has taken the randomness out of the CCGs they offer, referring to both Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu as "LCGs" or "Living Card Games" (I think that's what it stands for). With those, you buy a base set, and then every month or two they release another pack of a few copies each of 10 or 15 new cards, and you always know exactly what you're getting and what you'll need to shell out to build the decks you want to make.

  12. malkav11 made almost exactly the comment I wanted to. I absolutely loved M:TG when I was growing up. I started with Ice Age and Fourth Edition, and gave up not too long after Tempest. I guess that was only a couple years, but I must've spent a few hundred dollars on it.

    These days, I have two major problems with CCGs. The first is the expense. And the second is the difficulty in finding casual competition.

    Magic Online neatly solves that second problem, but still requires too much monetary investment. Half the fun of a CCG *is* collecting and deck building, but paying to collect virtual cards isn't nearly as attractive to me.

    Fantasy Flight's Game of Thrones card game sounds wonderful, but it's such a niche product, I imagine it's fairly difficult to find a group of players.

    Interestingly, I think Guild Wars comes the closest to capturing that deck-building card game spirit. It makes you work to collect all the best skills, and then you have to choose only a few active ones to use in any given PvP match or PvE mission.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I was going to mention the Game of Thrones card game myself. Interestingly, it started out as a traditional CCG and eventually switched to the "Living Card Game" model when it ran into financial. It had a bit of a rough transition between the models, but now it's more successful than it has been in years.

    One nice thing about it is that the core set comes with four decks that are basically designed for multiplayer and is very playable out of the box. So you can get a fun 4-player game for only $40, making it easy to get people to give it a try.

  15. The 1997 Magic game did a very good job of demonstrating how the card game worked. As far as computer games teaching how to use the table-top version, I think Pool of Radiance finally showed me the use for the Entangle spell. For 12 years, I can't remember one person ever casting it. It just seemed lame.

  16. I appreciate your review, but I think I'm going to have to offer a couple counterpoints on why deck building wasn't included in the XBLA game, and I say this as someone who still has his boxes of old Magic cards, programs and played the heck out of that old MicroProse game (WHAT?! There were expansions?!)

    Magic is a game about rules, and any card can contain text changing those rules. This is part of the difficulty of modelling the game for computer play. I'm presuming that none of the M:TG Online codebase was available, so this mostly a code from scratch job. Luckily some of the complications could be resolved by limiting the cards used, but by limiting it to the hard coded decks, they reduced complications and therefore coding by an order of magnitude. For an XBLA game released far after the peak of Magic fandom, that's very significant. To get an idea of how rough it can get coding in the cards, check out the list of bugfixes from the Microprose game:

    Also Jeff, you and I are both experienced with the game and willing to drop $10ish to pick it up, but for new players it might be a bit overwhelming to learn both the card game AND the deck building metagame. I can't recall where I heard the interview (Gamers with Jobs podcast?) but I do recall a definite statement that this was an intentional step to prevent throwing kids in the deep end.

    All in all, I think the game is an okay product. I have seen some occasional odd choices by the AI*, but I'm satisfied with my purchase personally. Furthermore, they can sell more decks in the long run. But I don't know if I'll bother. My friend and I have started playing that damned card game again instead

    * When defending against an overwhelming attack that would destroy it regardless of how it blocked, it decided to regenerate a single drudge skeleton 8 times.

  17. when I start to play this game was eight years ago, in that moment the planewalkers was only a myth, but now this kind of cards are so regular, in this game you're a planewalker with a complete arsenal of magic, in some occasion I like to use the card named viagra online, when this card is used my opponents shake.

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