Since the early 90's, Magic the Gathering has found itself at the forefront of the Collectible Card Game movement. As technology improved, so did Magic, with a decent number of PC and console games released, including Magic: Online, a PC MMO of sorts that's essentially the world's biggest tournament. Now, in 2009, downloadable games are all the rage, and the tabletop and card games of the past are being geared up for deployment in the present, mostly landing on the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. Attempting to stay with the times, Wizards of the Coast has released Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers, giving the current generation of gamers an easier way to play.
Traditionally, Magic: The Gathering has two main components: deck building and playing. Generally speaking, hardcore Magic players start off enjoying it for the playing, and eventually find themselves hooked by the deck building. In that respect, the game might leave some feeling unfulfilled. Deck building is absent in the game, instead giving players eight pre-mades to choose from, each with a few additional cards picked up during the campaign. It doesn't seem like it would have been far too difficult to allow players to at least assemble their own decks, even if coding in every single card ever made was too much of a hassle. It's not meant to be the true-to-life representation that Magic: Online is, but deck building is such an important part of Magic that it's a shame it was left out altogether in this version.
When it comes to playing, however, Magic comes ready to please. One of the issues with the card game is in the rules, which can sometimes be a bit confusing. Most of the time it's easy to understand, but rules about which abilities can be used when, how others are triggered, and which cards can be played first can often slow down the game. Duels of the Planeswalkers takes care of all of that nonsense, leading to an easier to understand (and even easier to learn) title. It's nothing special - there aren't any crazy animations for battles or thrilling effects for spells - but it gets the job done well.
Playing through the game's Campaign Mode works like the tournament mode of most fighting games, with players taking on one opponent after another to unlock additional decks. At times, the computer AI can be punishingly difficult, which is a bit confusing considering exactly how much of the game really is luck. There's a huge amount of skill involved, but there's no reason the computer should be consistently pulling the best cards for their deck. It just doesn't make sense. Their "luck" can be a bit off-putting, but that isn't as much of an issue in online games, where there's no one to blame but the players themselves.
Besides duels (with up to four players) there is also Two Headed Giant mode (which is essentially 2v2) and Challenge Mode. Challenge Mode sets a player into a specific situation and has them trying their best to beat an opponent within certain stipulations. It helps players learn the rules of the game, and should hone the skills of even the biggest MTG fans. There's also an online mentoring mode, in which an experienced player can help a new player learn the rules and mechanics of the game. Beyond that, duels and Two Headed Giant mode are both available online, giving legs to Duels of the Planeswalkers.
In the end, the issues with Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers come with the lack of customization, failing to truly reach the potential that the current generation offers. While online multiplayer is fun and the presentation is spot on, much of the enjoyment and skill in MtG is in deck-building , an omission that truly hurts the overall experience. Even so, the allure of the online experience over Xbox Live should be tempting to fans of the game, especially with hopes that some of the issues might be fixed with future downloadable content to add further customization.