I feel the need to begin this review with a confession; I have never played Magic: The Gathering before. I know many people who have been avid Magic players for years, but it has never personally appealed to me, and I know nothing about how the game works. The fact that I am totally new to the Magic universe actually makes me part of the target audience for Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, as it represents an effort by Wizards of the Coast to introduce new players to the game. Accordingly, this review is an experiment of sorts to see how someone completely green to the series is able to jump in and play. Being mainly a console gamer, I have been tasked with playing the Xbox 360 version, which is a downloadable title from the Xbox Live Arcade.

This review also comes with a few caveats. Given my lack of prior experience with the series, there are certain aspects that I will not be able to delve into. I cannot provide in-depth comparisons to the previous Duels of the Planeswalkers games, nor will I be able to speak intelligently about the intricacies of dueling. For a detailed review from an experienced Magic: The Gathering player,  RipTen’s previously published an excellent review of the PC version that I highly recommend checking out. For my part, this will be a different kind of review, aimed at newcomers to the series who might benefit from some of my experiences. After some “trial by fire” learning, I can confidently say that this game achieves exactly what it sets out to do.

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 offers both a challenging campaign mode and online multiplayer via Xbox Live. The story in the campaign is, frankly, superfluous. Most players will simply go from one duel to the next, with little mind paid to plot progression, however there is a story for those who take the time to delve into Planeswalker lore. I made it a point to read up on the history of Magic: The Gathering and had some knowledge going into this game, however, the title doesn’t focus so much on telling a story as it does testing your mettle in various dueling scenarios. This is more of a strength, since the game doesn’t feel bogged down with pointless plot threads. Those looking for a deep and intricate plot are unlikely to find it here.

The gameplay mechanics in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 are fashioned around turn-based card dueling, with you facing off against a variety of opponents. You each have a health meter that is set to 20, and the object of the game is to deplete your enemy’s health before they depletes yours. In the early campaign duels, this is accomplished with a moderate amount of difficulty, however it gets progressively more challenging as you get further into the game. At the start of each duel, you are given a selection of cards based on the deck you have chosen. While you have the option to have a new hand dealt, you will lose a card each time. In my case, I stayed with the default selection and that served me well in most duels.

Each turn in a duel gives you a chance to deal one mana card, which gives you the energy needed to cast spells and deal creature cards. Creatures are monsters that carry a variety of powers and abilities, and some require more mana than others, so wise use of your resources becomes crucial in more difficult battles. Once you have laid down your mana cards, you can use creatures to attack your enemy, or play it conservative and wait until you have enough creatures on the table to launch a bigger attack. Every opponent utilizes different cards and employs a different strategy, so the game remains fresh and challenging as it requires you to try different approaches. Early duels were won by simply attacking at every opportunity, however this approach quickly led to my demise later in the game.

Deck selection also makes a big difference throughout the game. For the benefit of those unfamiliar, each deck is color-coded based on its attributes. Black cards invoke evil and supernatural abilities, while red cards denote fire and green cards conjure environmental attacks. Playing around with different decks and varying your approach is half the pleasure of playing Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, and for a newcomer like me, it helped add an element of surprise with every duel.  Each deck has a series of 30 unlockable cards, which can be obtained either by playing through the game or by purchasing “keys” over Xbox Live to unlock the entire deck.

Each level is divided into a series of duels, culminating in a boss battle at the end of it. With each successive victory, you are rewarded with new cards that will aid you in the next level, and you will quickly find yourself with a series of powerful and diverse cards. As I mentioned before, using them wisely is what will carry you through the game. Some opponents are easy to fell, while others tend to play it safe and block repeatedly. The really good Magic players are the ones who are always thinking several moves ahead and can plan their strategies and adjust them on the fly, which is a skill you quickly hone. Doing so is often a necessity.

The part of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 that were of most interest to me where the tools that help newcomers adapt, and the game is quite generous with them. The most valuable asset for any new player is the live tutorial that walks you through a typical duel, and gives you step-by-step instructions for how to play your mana cards, how to lay out your creature cards and how to both attack your opponent and counter their attacks. The voice-over and detailed explanations make it very easy to follow, and you’ll walk away with a good understanding of the rudiments of the game. You are also given consistent help throughout the game, which comes in the form of text prompts and cards that illuminate when you are able to deal them.