If you don't know anything about this game you need context. As you are here, on this wonderful site, then by the selection effect it means this game has a very good chance of getting its claws into you. The demo is great, it has a decent enough tutorial and lets you play full games, so you don't really need me to tell you if you will like the game, you need me to tell you what you are getting into.
So sure, you can skip past all this flavour text, skim the last paragraph of the review and pick the game up. But don't come crying to me for not heeding what I have to say...
I have a dirty secret. Back in the early nineties I played Magic: The Gathering at school. A lot.
Because as a geeky child I had been collecting stickers (the first Batman film sticker set was a highlight) and it made fiscal sense to move onto collectable card games (aka CCGs). You got to collect them AND play with them. Talk about value for money!
The CCG was a bit of a Western phenomenon. Before Yu-Gi-Oh and even before the Pokémon CCG there was a bunch of these CCG games, based on everything that was geeky and awesome; Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Star Wars, hell even games about Werewolves and Vampires.
But the grand daddy is Magic: The Gathering (lets just call it MtG shall we?). Now people can pretend that other CCGs are better, but they're lying. Deep down they know it is the geeky subject matter that has dragged them there and not the raw mechanics of the game. MtG (see I told you we would call it that) is unmatched when it comes to the raw game mechanics. Comparing it to Yu-Gi-Oh is like comparing chess to draughts. Technically it is possible, but no one is going to believe that draughts is the better game, even if the pieces are all characters from Death Note and it comes with a little book to to write the names of the pieces you take (wait... hang on, this is a good idea...).
Now to try and show that, I'm going to spend the next few paragraphs explaining how the game kinda works. If these following paragraphs dull your eyes then it is probably best you wait till LewieP put's up a deal on a game about shooting people in the head. There's no shame in it. Oh and if you currently play MtG then this explanation will no doubt annoy you, and make you hate me.
You play the role of a bad ass wizard and you are aiming to kill your mate, who is another such wizard. You both start with 20 health and the first to lose it all dies.
Your deck consists of three main types of cards; Land, Creatures and Spells.
Land gives you mana you can spend of casting the other cards. It is your resource that you have to manage, and you use it to cast all your other cards.
Creatures are the monsters you use to fight with. The better the creature the more land you need to have available to summon it with. A little goblin might only need you to tap (aka rotate 90 degrees - something you get to do once to each land during every turn) one mountain, but a giant worm might need you to tap 6 forests to bring it out onto the play field. Oh thats another thing, every creature, spell and land comes in five colours White (plains), Red (mountains), Green (forests), Blue (islands) and Black (swamps).
Spells do everything else. From fireballs that hurt the other player directly, enchantments that improve your creatures and instant effects that can prevent the other players attempt to cast his own spells. Once again the more powerful the spell the more land you need to use to cast it.
Each turn you draw a card, play one of the lands you might have in your hand, summon creatures and cast spells. Then you choose which creatures to attack with, you opponent choose which of his to block with and any unblocked creatures damage the player.
More or less anyway. It's a lot better than that dry description sounds. I mean, try describing Backgammon, or Risk, it's incessantly tedious, but that doesn't stop the games being awesome.
But that isn't everything about the game you need to know. You need to know what it is wrapped in. I started with the 4th edition 'standard' cards, after I got given a 'starter pack' which is enough cards to make your first deck (typically about 40 to 60 cards). Then by buying 'booster' packs you would get another 15 cards to play with and modify your deck with.
The thing that makes MtG stand out from other game is the balance that Lands provide. Having more cards than your friends increased your options rather than your power. Or a least you think that at the start. It was a businessman's dream come true, driving kids to buy countless boosters to both collect all the cards and get an advantage over their friends (as an aside, a cynic might draw connections between this business model and what some publishers, especially Namco, think DLC should become).
So now we get to the bottom of why I've included all this rambling context. This is a game that to this day has a huge, rabid fan base of people who spend ridiculous amounts of money on this pastime. Whilst researching this review I read forum posts where people argued that the game was NOT expensive because you could make a 'competitive deck' for only £100 to £200.
For the same price of putting together this 'competitive deck' you could just buy the £6.80 XBLA game, which comes with 8 pre made decks, AND of course the £150 Xbox 360 to play it on.
It is the vast money sink that MtG represents that pushed so many players away, especially when you could start fooling pubs into serving you. It sounds trite, but that spare £2 you would drop on a pack of cards, could be a pint instead. So you became more hesitant. That or you had a moment of clarity and realised just quite how much you had spent on your collection and quit out of self preservation.
Of course, when the internet became The Big New Thing it gave Wizards of the Coast (who make MtG) an opportunity to reinvent the wheel and try out different ways of generating revenue that would draw in everyone who quit due to the cost. But of course they didn't. Instead they made MtG: Online. You buy virtual cards in starters and boosters in the exact same way at the RRP price of the physical cards. A booster pack still costs more than a pint but instead of getting printed bits of card you now buy jpegs and perl scripts (and, to be fair, servers and so on). But then why would they dare to mix things up when have a fan base who will happily pay? According to Wikipedia MtG:O generates about half of their revenue. It is A Big Deal. And fair play to them.
So this first generation of quitters have grow into their mid twenties and have bought themselves an Xbox. They'd love a game with a bunch of cards they could build a deck out of, and then play people on line. Wrap up 300 cards in an 800 point download and you'd have a lot of very happy customers. Give us a bunch of cards to get started but then give us a pretend booster every time we win a match say. Sell expansions of more cards to unlock as DLC. But of course if they did Wizards of the Coast would fundamentally undermine their very successful business of nickel and diming people.
And so you have this very strange half way house of a game which at every stage is designed to be welcoming to new players whilst drawing back in the lapsed players. The last thing they want to do though is let the addicted 'downgrade' to this version. You start off with a choice of two prebuilt decks, and then you can win a further 6 decks by beating your opponents in the single player campaign.
If you've played MtG you'll know the vast entertainment that comes from building your own deck. Carefully constructing themes and ideas that will crush your friends. Cards that seem useless can suddenly become the corner stone of a lethal deck.
Well you can't do that in the XBLA game. Hell you can't even decide how many Lands you want in your deck. Sure for each of the 8 themed decks you can unlock an additional 17 cards to be optionally added to your deck but you can't thin out any of the starting 60 — leading to decks unthinkably large to any experienced MtG player.
This might seem like a minor complaint, but it removes the soul from the game. The XBLA game comes with 280 odd cards and if it allowed you to make your own decks out of them then every game you played over live would be different and endlessly interesting, as you stole and mutated ideas that wiped the floor with your first game. But instead all the originality, all the personality you could bring to the game is washed out into 8 decks. With the Future Of Gaming (TM) being User Generated Content it seems a very backwards step to cut it from the game.
Unless you are Wizards of the Coast of course. 280 cards and the ability to play people on line would be enough for so very many of the people who play (and thus pay for) MtG: Online that there would be an appreciable drop in their business. So the game is crippled with all the originality, all the personality you could bring from the game being washed out into 8 opponents. It intentionally limits the life of the game.
But lets stop being so negative, because I am being so very negative. The game is bloody brilliant. It has 8 decks for £6.80. You get a decent campaign (16 increasing difficult matches), an equally compelling local co-op campaign of Two Headed Giant (2v2, where you share health), 8 puzzles where you are given a bleak looking situation and have one turn to turn it into a win, online ranked and player matches for 2, 3 or 4 players (along with two headed giant) and for every win you unlock a new card for your currently chosen deck. The net code is brilliant, with top notch responsive play. The production values are sky high, with beautiful crafted graphics, not just on the cards themselves but on everything from the virtual table you play the cards on, the battle effects and hell even the loading screens. The controls at first seem clunky, with strange timing windows effecting your ability to respond to the other persons actions, but it all soon clicks into place and the benefits these tightened controls bring to online play is substantial. Otherwise griefers dragging a game they were losing into the mud would become a real issue. In fact the controls are a good example of the contradictory aims the developers have, whilst perfect for an experience player they can be really confusing for the new player, based on my girlfriends experience at least. Talking of new players, my girlfriend has become obsessed with this game, to an almost fanatical extent, so that's a good sign.
A few warnings though; firstly if you play your 360 on an SDTV you need to check that the text is readable on your screen. The brilliant zoom function (mapped to the triggers) negates this issue to a large extent, but buyer beware and all that. Secondly the game seems to get stuck every so often but a quick change of camera angle gets it going again. It's also crashed a few times as well, once when we were a turn away from winning too. Of course your mileage may vary. I mention these issues as my responsibility as a reviewer but they are pretty minor issues.
The one last thing I need to mention is DLC. Wizards recently announced that there will be more decks released as DLC and kept reiterating that MS would be setting the price. It will be interesting to see if this is an attempt to justify an unusually high XBLA DLC cost, or an unusually low cost for MtG cards. Or most likely both. This matters because of the tendency of Wizards to release expansion decks that massively weaken your current cards/decks. For instance, one expansion introduced 'shadow' cards that could only be blocked by other shadow cards. This meant that if you didn't start buying the expansion like your friends you were pretty much screwed. And with multiple expansions every year it was this kind of behaviour by Wizards of the Coasts that drove a lot of players away from the real game, myself included. Whilst I hope this isn't the case for the XBLA game, the increasing ability of DLC to retroactively hurt your original purchase means I feel a warning might be in order.
This is the most curmudgeonly and cynical review I've ever written especially for such an extremely good game. But it all comes down to this, Magic: The Gathering is Chess sold by drug dealers. It is one of the best card games you will ever play, but it is sold by dealers, and the cost is massively prohibitive.
If you are former junky like me, this game isn't quite hit you were looking for, but it is superb, and as long as you accept what this game offers you'll get a superb amount of content at an extremely good price. You would be a fool to miss out.
If you are a newcomer, then by all means get on board, but be careful, because Wizards of the Coast will give you your first hit for cheap, and then two years down the line you'll be trying to convince people that spending £200 on a competitive deck is actually really cheap.
Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers - 800 MS Points
2,100 MS Points - £15.85