Thoughts on Magic: The Gathering on XBox Live

My Thoughts On: June 19th, 2009

My thoughts on the new XBox Live Arcade title "Magic: The Gathering Duel of the Planeswalkers".

I've been in hibernation lately, a few things going on holding up my life with large periods of little to do, so I've been focused on playing various XBox 360 games, the most recent of which was this week's release of Magic: The Gathering "Duel of the Planeswalkers". It is a fun game but a few these issues to me mean the difference between playing a little of it once in a while and switching over to it as a primary game. I decided to write this up originally to go post on the game forums but decided to make it into a review of sort.

-- Bugs --

I had some thoughts to sort out about this new game so I thought I'd lay it down to see what others think. There will be some criticism in this post but I hope it is defined as "constructive" in nature.

First off, I gotta say that I think the game is good. However, some input is needed and I can only hope this reaches people capable of changing something, albeit I doubt it would. The most important thing to address first, I think, are the bugs in the game.

Several bugs I have noticed: during multiple occassions I have gotten "stuck" while zoomed in on a card, this often means missing important moments. A friend of mine was playing with us in a 3 on 3 game, he had the same thing happen right in the middle of an attack phase, which prevented him from casting Holy Day in time to prevent combat damage that turn, dealing a considerable blow to him early in the game.

Another bug I ran into was during an online 4-player game. I froze the card with the X button as an attack cycle was about to conclude just to see what was up, and quickly hit the Y button to return the game to action. Upon hitting the Y button my screen unfroze (it went from blue to normal), but for some reason the game behaved as if it was still unplayable. Freezing like this leaves a bad impression for the other players, as each of us thinks the others are holding up the game. If somehow one of the other players were holding up the game, that fact should've been visible to us so we would at least know what was going on, but it wasn't - so either way this is a bug. The white timeout bar at the top likewise counted down, I was hoping this would forcefully unfreeze the game, but it did not. Everyone quit as a result.

At least one occassion I was playing a mentoring match and the game froze entirely, completely crashing and leaving me at a static immovable screen that wouldn't even pull up the Xbox menu. I do not have any issues currently with my Xbox that would lead me to think this is a Xbox issue.

-- Fixable issues I hope are addressed in some way --

While not a bug per se, I did happen to stumble into some kind of timeout or whatnot during a blocking phase that was particularly frustrating. The attacker had 9-10 creatures coming at me in a last ditch effort. I had the game won, I just needed to assign a few blockers, I didn't need to block them all. As I was looking at his cards taking my time, and there was a lot to look at, I was just about to assign blockers and somehow my blocking session ended and the attacking started. Unfortunately even though I had the game at an academic victory at that point, because I wasn't able to assign any blockers that turn I lost. Timeout should be variable based on the amount of attacking creatures during that phase to give defenders more time to mull over bigger attacks.

One thing I think which should really be fixed is a couple of simple issues revolving around land. For one, it is difficult to get up to the screen and count your land cards when they are bunched together, and they do not bunch together in definitive groups of 5 or 10. It would be nice if there was a simple counter on the board that simply tallied how many land cards you had in play so you knew offhand how many of each you had without having to get up to the screen to count each individual card (on the left side of the land area a little bit of text stating "Islands: 7/8" would be nice, with the left indicating how many are untapped and the right being total lands). I can't simply zoom in to flip through the land cards as there is no simple way to highlight them that I have discovered.

Another thing I'll note about land is that you should be given the option of tapping and drawing your own mana, if you want to. While the game is fairly intelligent about doing tapping for you, and usually this is not a problem, there is a rare occassion where it doesn't tap the land you want. For instance, let's say I have a spell for 2 colorless and 1 red mana, and 2 red mana and 1 colorless. I have 3 mountains and 3 forests. Naturally it is possible to tap the land and leave enough room for decent spells but often times I run into a situation where I'll play one of the two cards and it'll auto-tap all three mountains. Then of course I have no spare mountain to cast my second spell. It may intelligently try to predict situations like this but if it does it isn't absolute as I can recall at least once already where I had this happen to me.

One last bit of advice I might throw out there is the blue timer countdowns that give everyone that buffer space to interrupt, I like them being swift as it keeps the game moving, but sometimes they can go by a little too fast. Maybe they should be swift for certain periods where it is unlikely they will be interrupted (like during the main phase transitions) but be extended for moves which are more likely to be interrupted (creature summons, combat).

Otherwise gameplay is great. Works fine and is simple, takes some getting used to but that is what mentoring and playing with friends on XBL is for.

-- Thoughts for improvement, expansion --

I want to note that I understand that for an 800 point Xbox Live Arcade game that it may be a bit much to ask for the same kind of full featured experience you might expect from the trading card game itself. That said, I would happily pay another 800 points if the developers of this game were willing to add a "customize deck" feature which actually would let me do more than just swap in/out different default decks with their default unlockable sideboard cards, and then take that deck online and fight others with it. I would even, on top of that extra 800 points, pay extra points to unlock boosters and other card suppliments to further customize my deck. A game like this on a network like Xbox Live is really is the ideal way I always wanted to play Magic (let the computer enforce the rules and the players can simply enjoy the strategy and gameplay), after giving up the card game itself some 6-7 years ago, so I'd be willing to invest into it a bit.

As it stands, Magic is going to be filler for me until I get to the next XBLA title I want to play, Battlefield 1943. Whether I return to Magic will depend on exactly what kind of DLC and bug fixes get applied in the meantime, as the game stands now I don't see myself coming back to it on any regular basis but that could easily be fixed by offering a few improvements like better deck customization. Controlling how many land, character and creature cards I have in the deck itself is necessary for proper strategy. The first thing I'd do is go ahead and get some more enchantment destruction spells in my base decks... then you get into possibility for card trading over XBox Live which would really boost the popularity of card expansion DLC.

I'll suppliment this whole "plea for adding custom decks", which from what I read is really the biggest complaint about the game, with a good point I observed on some of the forums: if you don't get a chance to really get into the gritty of customizing decks - from scratch - you are substantially shortening the lifespan of this game. A shorter game lifespan will have less reception to whatever DLC they DO decide to release for the game. The less forward you go in the respect the more it will make DLC pointless. I really hope the developers realize that this is the difference between a "great" game that could last for years and a game that will last a few weeks to a lot of people. If these issues were fixed I could probably get all my friends to go online and download it.

-- Mentoring --

The mentoring system is a great idea... I went in and met a lot of level headed, cool people on there. I got about 8 games in and got ranked a 5 on all of them which was cool. That said, I realized about 3 games in the only reason people were using the mentoring feature was to play for free on the trial game. I couldn't tell if anybody was in there to actually get help playing the game. The trial users definitely seemed to ask a lot of questions and did need help for a lot of things, but that sorta was a little crappy after realizing I wasn't really mentoring anyone who really wanted help to learn the game.

-- Game setting tips --

I also wanted to share some recommended changes to the gameplay settings, available under the game's "help & options" menu under "settings". I noticed people I was playing with weren't changing these settings too much, so I thought I'd point them out for people who didn't notice they were there:

1. I turned off display hints but obviously you can leave that on if you prefer.

2. Hold priority I turned "on", that way every main phase requires an input from the player. I'd rather have a few minor delays in the game than let the game skip through because it doesn't think I have something to play during a phase.

3. Combat animation I turned off, didn't need it.

4. You can turn on browsing the entire library when you pick a card out of it, but obviously it gets reshuffled. In the interest of expediency I decided against turning on this feature, but it is an option.

5. Auto assign damage and simplified targetting are two features which should be "off" by default, but aren't. While most of the situations you get into this is fine, assigning damage during multiple-blocking situations in combat and being able to target yourself or your own creatures can be vital. I had at least one game I recall where a player was trying to steal a creature of mine and I didn't want to wait until the next phase to prevent the action, but I couldn't because I wasn't able to target him because of simplified targetting.

Alright, that's enough ranting I hope people found it useful/thoughtful. Later.