I managed to get the upper hand in a win-an-xbox360 tournament and since then have been getting back in touch with my inner video game player. Not that the tournament was hard; only 9 people were there and I went 3-0-1, coming first thanks to my tiebreakers. After playing countless hours of first-person shooters (Halo, Modern Warfare 2, Gears of Wars mainly) and endless RPGs (Oblivion and Fable 2), I decided, this summer, to finally chip in and download Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012. At about 12 bucks it did not seem that much of an investment and I thought to myself that if I managed to get some hours of fun out of it I would be quite satisfied. After all, I love swinging spells and I was curious to see if they managed to create an AI that could play well enough.

Since an early age I have always been passionate about strategy games and I remember as a kid looking with admiration and acute curiosity at my uncle playing chess, who had a nice marble set, where pieces were samurais and other Japanese Shogun themed characters. We were trying, my cousin, my brother and I to beat this uncle and role-model of mine, without, not even once, coming close. I would have to wait until I became a teenager and come across a book on chess written by Tartakower, so I could approach the game with a new angle and understand the principles behind it. After a few months of intense studying, some would call it obsession, I called it passion, I managed to improve my play style so much that not only I managed to consistently beat my dearest uncle, but I also managed to become the king of the hill in my high school, looking everywhere for contenders and wanting to beat the best of the best.

I had just got the gamers’ bug, or more specifically, I realized I was a Spike, a player that plays to win and enjoys a highly competitive environment. Spike is one of the three psychographic profiles of different types of magic players, see here. I did okay on the chess tournament scene, even though at first I realized how hard it could be to try to beat people that are as dedicated as you are. Winning against amateurs not taking the game seriously did not provide me any pleasure any more, and only more hard work and patient training helped me get better and have a chance at these chess tournaments.

Nevertheless, training for chess has to be done in different ways, and as I did not have a private teacher, I had to design a training plan for myself. It involved reading a lot of strategy books, playing against the local ringers, studying intensely chess games considered to be masterpieces and played by the greatest grandmasters of all time, and, also, doing tons of chess problems, where you have a starting position and you have to figure out how to checkmate your opponent in a few moves. I also used chess programs so I could play as often as I wanted too.

This long prologue finally takes us back from where we started. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is a video game that can help you, as well as chess, to get better at a strategy game that you love. Its artificial intelligence (AI) is not, however, as competent as the one for a chess program and this is for a few reasons. Chess, despite its complexity, has only a number of finite possibilities that can be calculated a few moves ahead by a computer. All the information that you need is on the board. There is no bluff and you and your opponent have access to the same information. That makes it easier for programmers to design chess programs and nowadays the best chess softwares can usually beat the best grandmasters. The fact that these programs have, in their memory, all the games recorded of their opponent is one reason amongst others that help them to choose the openings more statistically-likely to beat their humanoid opponents. The fact that the chess game does not change every few months like Magic is another reason, probably, for the better AI in chess.

However, one of the main reasons why, for Magic, the AI is still clunky, is due to the extremely high number of decisions that you have to take every turn. At every step you can play instants, every time abilities trigger, you can respond, you can play your spells in a different order, you can play around with what your opponent could have, like a counter or a spot removal spell. You can bluff, which is not really the case with chess. You can also decide what your game plan is. Are you the beatdown, like Flores would say or do you have to play the control role in the current game? Misassignment of your role is, according to this theory, one of the main reasons why you can lose a match. For example, last year I was playing zoo with Bloodbraid elf in an extended PTQ against another zoo deck which had the top of its mana curve at 2. Even if I had an aggro strategy, I was in that match the slower deck, so I had to assume the control role, trying to exchange my creatures with my opponent instead of trying to race him, burning his dudes instead of playing mine, trying, obviously, to get to the late game where my higher-drops and bigger threats would dominate. This is one of many strategic principles that can influence how you play, and these principles are, it seems, hard to inculcate to an AI.

All these abstract considerations were justified by my intention to lower your expectations about the play level of the AI on Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012. The game is neat, the graphics cool, the decks are interesting, but you will witness, at time, mistakes that are so unbelievable for an advanced player that you are going to spit out whatever you are drinking and clutch your stomach, trying to survive your own, reckless, hilarity. An example of this in one of my recent games : Your opponent attacks you with Lorthos, the Tidemaker, and could pay 8 to lock you out of the game, tapping the flyers that would go lethal on him next turn. The AI instead decides to cast more ground dudes, dying, the very next turn, from what was already on the board.

Despite some gross mistakes, I would say that most of the time the AI plays okay, without obviously being extremely creative, and it can do well with aggro decks, curving out and running you over if their hands are good enough. The game can be also challenging when you are up against a much better deck, so you have to play extremely tight to even have a chance. Karn, the last planeswalker you have to defeat on the first campaign, has Mox Sapphires, a Tinker, a Show and Tell, and 3 Quicksilver Amulets in his deck, as well as some fatties like Wurmcoil Engines, Sundering Titan and Darksteel Colossus, and your Runeclaw Bears can have a tough time getting through. So the game can be a lot of fun sometimes and I believe is worth the investment.

People used to playing on Magic Online will soon realized that, for competitive players Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is not the best training tool; it is, however, quite appealing for players that are new or casual, and even more advanced players can like it for what it is, a simpler version of Magic, adapted for a wider audience, with less phases and rules easier to learn. You start with one of two decks, Garruk or Chandra, (Editor Correction: Garruk and Gideon are the two starting decks) and you have to beat all the planeswalkers to get to meet the ultimate boss, Karn. You learn about the different planeswalkers lives and interactions, if you are interested in the flavour (which is not, usually, the spike variety of players).

Every time you beat one of them, you get their deck, and every time you beat someone with a deck, you receive new cards for your deck. You cannot make your own decks, but you can modify existing ones with the cards you unlock for these specific decks. At the beginning of every duel you can choose a deck amongst all the ones you own, and so can adapt your strategy to beat the one of your opponent. The cards are the real cards and you get to play with some that you may not have seen in a long time, which can bring a tinge of nostalgia to your heart, leaving you daydreaming about the good old times. The planeswalkers are the other wizards you challenge, the planeswalker card type is not included in the game however, as it would increase the complexity of things a bit too much.

Another interesting feature is the Archenemy campaign, where, with two AI buddies (but it could be real buddies too), you get to fight one wizard with random Archenemy cards with powerful effects every turn. It can be fun but also frustrating, especially if your AI friends have a winning play to make and they decide otherwise. Nevertheless, it is quite enjoyable, especially if you choose your partners decks so they can work well with yours. For example, I was playing a Sorin Markov deck with bloodthirst creatures and proliferate spells, and chose the same deck for my partners, resulting in our team monsters getting massive. I was also playing Demon’s Horn, even though it can sound a bit shameful at first.

A feature that is great, however, is the Magic problems they put in the game, and in that sense they are a bit similar to what I used to do while training to be a chess player extraordinaire. The problems are quite easy at first, where you have to demonstrate that you understand keywords like Trample and Deathtouch, so they are nothing more than a glorified tutorial. Towards the end of the first campaign, however, they get really complex and even advanced players may struggle to resolve them. You start with a few cards in hand and a complex board state, and you have to figure out a way to win. You may have to play cards like Gift Ungiven and Annex to get there, and it may involve playing like ten cards in a specific order. Challenging and good training for the brain, and decidedly not for amateurs. I just wish they offered more than only a few, as I could easily see myself doing problems like that every day to keep my Magic insights sharp and in shape. You often have to think outside the box to resolve them and I see a real potential in a section of Magic training that is not developed enough. Our very own Alexander Hayne offered some problems of that sort in the past and I believe we should see more of them in the future.

The opening sequence is an elaborated movie where you see a handsome Gideon lying on the ground; it is too bad it is the only movie sequence of the whole game. The interface takes a bit of time to get used too, but it is rather intuitive and should not be a problem for mildly tech-savvy, literate players. The game is available on PS3, on PC and on the Xbox360, and you can play online against anybody; do not expect the same level of competition that you get on Magic online, which remains the best platform to playtest for serious players, dreaming of pro tour glories. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is however a good way to introduce Magic to new players, bring back people that used to play to the game and has been, as a way to increase the game’s popularity, a major success. And what is not to like, when you can manage to land a Kozilek, Butcher of Truth with an Elvish Piper on the fourth turn.

So, despite its flaws that are pointed out, the game can provide you with few hours of entertainment and trying out to resolve its Magic problems with a friend, sipping some form of alcohol, can be a great party starter.

On this, enjoy the summer, and till next time, good bye.

Vincent Thibeault