Surprise, surprise guys, yours truly is writing about Magic again. This time I was fortunate enough to preview a demo build of Magic The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 and let me tell you, we are closing in on something awesome. Besides the giddy rush that I got from digging through the four decks that Wizards of The Coast included, and seeing coming from the next core set to the paper game (a few of which had not been spoiled), I had a chance to play with each during two- and four-player games of Planechase.

I’ll get to the core of the game in a second, but know this, if you have played the previous versions of the title, you’ll know what to expect as far as controls and layout. What is new is the polish on the beast. I battled my crazy mono-white life gain deck against a blue slow grow (?) deck, it seems to be a new archetype using a specific artifact to make terribad creatures real terrible for my face. After handily destroying Mr. Blue Mage I went on to fight Garruk. Yes, Garruk is always around and he is never anything besides an avatar. Except this time. Now, before fighting the famous walkers you are treated to a slick cutscene using the art from different cards then you get a break down of who he is as a character. The dude is over 8 feet tall and weighs almost 500 pounds, unfortunately, it did not tell me his blood type. Besides age and other vital statistics, this information sheet gives you his enemies and friends as well as other storyline related information.

Magic has become a world full of characters living out a soap opera of magical violence and the stories are really very well done, if a little convoluted. Check out the Innistrad to Avacyn Restored storyline somewhere online and you will learn of Sorin’s quest to create a religion to save the humans, which are his people’s food, from extinction and strengthening the religion by creating a powerful angel in his own image. The story is deeper and more complex than that little tidbit, but that is the only part I can understand enough to put onto virtual paper. It would appear that DotP 2013 is going to go a long way in clearing things up for those of us that want to know what is happening in the multiverse.

Additionally, moving from match to match is handled by actual animations of a planeswalk to a new world. Information is displayed along with a fully rendered area of this new world that helps you better understand where you are. The work is done so well that before the name for the location was displayed, I knew where I was. All of this is leading to a deeper and more understandable story for Magic in general, and with the huge growth it has seen recently, I can only guess it will help players bring in new friends as they learn the stories that are so well done. Unfortunately, the paper side of Magic has never made it easy to follow the story of the game without being a pretty hardcore fan, or really searching for the information, so the fact that so much is right here at your fingertips cannot be understated.

I didn’t have a chance to play with the “tap your own” land option enabled, but I know how it works and I look forward to the full release for that. Since these are all mono-colored decks in the preview build, it didn’t matter. Once in the game, things work as you expect, but just a little bit quicker. The cards are easy to see and the controls seem to be more intuitive than ever. Each deck seems to have a pretty solid balance that still puts luck a bit on the stronger side than I would like, but there are only five additional cards per deck for editing so I’m sure that had a lot to do with it. The new battlefield finally feels like I always thought it should. Simple, beautiful, easy on the eyes. What customization options may pop up is yet to be known. Upon victory you are now treated to a spoils screen which shows you what you won from the battle. For my preview build I won a few avatars, unlocked additional decks and new cards (big enough to read this time).

Finally, I played a little Planechase. I have to admit I know very little about it in paper but quickly learned without reading the tutorial how it worked (I’m a man, I need no instructions!). Each player chooses their deck and a planes deck is placed at the center of the table with a pretty blue die. Each turn a player can roll the die once for free, twice for one mana, three times for two additional mana, etc, etc. The reason you do this is because each plane has benefits for certain types of players. One plane may give creatures a +1/+1 counter when it does combat damage with the special ability (used when a symbol is rolled on the planes die) that allows all the roller’s creatures to do one damage to a player. If I’m playing blue control, as soon as my turn comes up, since I don’t play many creatures, and Garruk is over there with an army, I’ll spend all the mana I can to get off that plane. This is done by rolling a different symbol on the die which then discards the current plane and brings up a new one. The active player does what the plane says and continues their turn. Additional cards are in the deck which can cause havok then get discarded. One worked as a Wrath of God, destroying all creatures in play. The four player game played quick, fun and silly, and I can’t wait to get online with some friends and laugh the night away with some of the crazy things that can happen.

We also know that Two-Headed Giant, a team-based format, will be making an appearance this year. Each pairing of players will share a life total and move through the game’s phases simultaneously. For deck editing, mana curves (the distribution of different cost cards) is displayed along with percentages of land and non-land deck entries. Decks will also feature a star rating in four categories: creature size, deck speed, deck flexibility and card synergy. Ratings are handled on a scale of one to five, and should help new players get an understanding for the play styles that best suit them.

The single-player campaign will follow a mini-boss, encounter, planeswalker boss pattern. After an initial duel on the plane, players will be tasked with defeating a specific AI strategy. You’ll know up front what you’re getting into, so it’s the perfect chance to tune your deck to combat different opponent types. Puzzles are also back, providing some of the most challenging scenarios that the masterminds at Wizards of the Coast could devise.

Duels 2013 is the first step in the Magic 2013 campaign, leading up to the release of the new core set on July 13, 2012. The philosophy that Wizards of the Coast is taking is three-fold: introduce new players to Magic, bring new players into stores and welcome and integrate new players into the vast Magic community. Accessibility is the hallmark of the core sets, and the 2013 set exemplifies the companies commitment to longevity. Additionally, anyone that purchases Duels 2013 will be eligible to receive a six-card promotional booster that features a Mythic Rare (the most exclusive card type) with a slick alternate art style.

In the end, the additions to the latest version of the DotP series have more to do with polish and immersion than they do with fancy new useless features. While those tweaks are obviously present, and the game is graphically more attractive, the attention to the world of Magic is what really pulled me in. I can’t wait to start up the first version when it launches on June 20th for Xbox 360, PS3, PC and iPad.