Back this week with a very Wizards of the Coast-centric Next of Ken, where I'm talking about Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 and the Kaijudo TCG. Join us, won't you?
Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 is the newest PSN (also XBox360, iOS, and Steam) release from Wizards of the Coast for their flagship Magic: The Gathering collectible card game. Every year these Duels games turn out to be nice $10 treats for Magic fans. For ten measly bucks you get hours upon hours of gameplay, multiple play modes, the ability to play online, and a robust single-player campaign.
Much like years past, you start with a basic deck and have to run a gauntlet of foes. As you progress, you'll unlock new decks and more cards for your existing decks. That's pretty much par for the course with the other releases, but this year you get the much anticipated return of the "Sliver" creature type as well as several other new goodies from Magic's brand-spankin' new M14 Core Set. Oh, and also this year? Sealed play. That's right, you get to open a set amount of product, and then it's up to you to build your own deck with it. This is the first year that you've had this much control over your deck construction. That's really been my only issue with the other Duels games is that you had such limited control over how much you could tweak your deck. This year we finally get a mode to build our own. I understand they wanted to keep it simple in the past for console players who were exploring Magic for the first time, but it's awesome that we're finally getting this mode and this sort of control.
There is a caveat, though. As far as I can tell, with your 'price of admission' comes only one sealed pool. If you want another one, you have to buy $2 DLC to unlock another sealed pod. That is really kind of a bummer, as it loses that "all this for ten bucks!" feel to it. You don't *have* to buy more pods, of course, and if you never experiment with the sealed mode you're still getting just as much functionality and gameplay as last year. I'm hoping I'm either misunderstanding the way this works, or that next year maybe they give you more than just the one sealed deck pod to work with. The interface is pretty much the same as before, with plenty of tutorials to get you started if you're a Magic novice. This year most of the cutscenes and story focuses on the character of Chandra, who just had a new version of herself released in M14 (can you say, "syngery?") I'm not the biggest fan of Chandra's "spunky gal Planeswalker" character, but I really enjoy how these scenes and screens are in stunning HD and show off some of the gorgeous artwork that Magic is known for.
So here's the skinny--if you've never bought a previous version of this, I'd say now's the time. Take the plunge. Seriously, it's based on a fantastic game and it's only ten bucks. You've wasted more than that on a crappy meal at a would-be budget steakhouse. If you're a big fan of the series already, you're going to want the new M14 cards (SLIVERS!), the new campaign to play through, and the very cool sealed deck mode. If you've bought a previous version and were sort of lukewarm to it, I'm not sure that there's enough new stuff for a casual fan to pony up the cash on a yearly basis. If it's been a few
years, sure, go ahead and get caught up. It's like my Madden rule...I like Madden but am not religious about it, so I try to make sure I have a verison of Madden within the past three years. Maybe a similar rule of thumb would apply here for those who dabble with Duels but haven't fully drank the Duel-Aid.
I've been playing Kaijudo with my son quite a bit recently. I've talked a bit about the game here and there in the forums and in a couple of previous columns, but never really given my full-on thoughts about the game. I'll say this--it's probably the best kids' CCG I've ever played, and yes, that includes the mighty Pokemon.
Kaijudo was originally released as Duel Masters several years ago. I can remember one of the local store owners putting up signing for the game's upcoming release, and I would rib him about even carrying a new kids' CCG against the two-headed juggernaut of Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh...especially with such a bland name as "Duel Masters." So many of them had come and gone, all based on popular children's properties, and all quickly discarded or forgotten. True to form, Duel Masters saw some initial success but it was short-lived and the product disappeared from store shelves soon thereafter. I dismissed it as another anime-wannabe cash-in and never bothered even playing it or even really giving it another thought.
More's the pity, I suppose, but I doubt that one man and his sons could have single-handedly saved an entire CCG. Fortunately, Kaijudo is essentially Duel Masters reincarnate, with a much more exotic-sounding name but most of the gameplay intact, including some nice improvements. I won't beat around the bush, the meat of the gameplay here is essentially Magic Jr., with just the smallest dash of Pokemon. You play cards for mana/energy, summon creatures, cast spells, and attack your opponent. It does differ in several ways. The mana system is honestly an improvement on Magic's, as every card in your deck can alternately be played for energy of its color. I love Magic to death, but even the best of the pros have been known to grumble about "mana screw", where you draw no lands and quickly die. I know it's part of Magic, but it's no fun when it happens and is in my mind the one true black mark against the game. You will have to make the occasionally tough decision to use a card for mana or save to cast for later; this is compounded by the fact that in order to play a card of a given color you must have a card of that color in your mana zone. You still have to be careful how you construct your deck, but there's a real joy in having your entire deck packed with "real" cards and not 2/5 boring ol' energy cards whose only purpose is to let you play the game.
Instead of life points, at the beginning of the game you place five cards from the top of your deck face down in front of you. This is the part most reminiscent of Pokemon. When you're attacked and can not or do not block, one of these 'shields' are shattered, and the card itself is placed into your hand. If you're attacked, cannot block, and have no shields left, you lose. The whole shield system is an improvement on Pokemon's "prize" concept. In Pokemon, you get your face down cards for knocking out your opponent's Pokemon--so you are rewarded for already doing well by getting more cards. Rather than "rich get richer", you get much-needed cards when you're being beaten down. Some cards have the propery "Shield Blast", and these are spells that can be cast normally but when they are revealed as a shield that was just broken, you can opt to play that card for free. A lot of these involve destroying opposing creatures, drawing cards, and other useful stuff that can get you back in the game. It is a catch-up mechanism, but it's up to you how many of these Shield Blast cards you put in your deck.
Oddly enough, monsters use Strength values in 1000s, something I always considered odd in Yu-Gi-Oh. (No joke, in Yu-Gi-Oh, small children are expected to quickly calculate things like, "take half of 11000 damage, and subtract that from your starting life of 8000!") Luckily the only real math skill needed is simple addition and the ability to compare two numbers and know which is the larger. A larger monster defeats a smaller one, and if you're unblocked simply break a shield. Very clean.
One thing that will be extremely odd to Magic veterans in particular is the fact that not every creature is able to block. A creature needs a special trait called "Blocker" that enables them to tap and intercept an opponent's attack. It feels weird to have a table full of guys but be unable to do anything about your opponent waltzing right over to smash a shield. Of course, monsters do have the ability to not only attack your opponent directly but attack a tapped monster instead. So while you may take a shot, you can always get your revenge the next turn. Blockers are nifty, but usually pay a price in terms of power versus a regular creature. Some even have the limitation that they cannot attack at all, very much like the old "Wall" cards from Magic's days of yore.
Overall the game simplifies a few things from Magic. There is no "second main phase", so your attacks will be the last thing you do; no post-combat tricks here. Also, beyond Shield Blasts, Blockers, and a tiny handful of reactionary abilities, your ability to play things out-of-turn is much more limited. I think that's good for younger players, who often have problems grasping the second main phase in Magic anyway and usually slap out creatures first and then attack.
What I've found in playing this with my son is that it's an extremely crisp, fast-paced game with a great foundation and tons of interaction. I prefer it quite a bit to the 'your one Pokemon hits mine. My one Pokemon hits yours' back and forth stuff that goes on in Pokemon. It does lack the polished character design from the geniuses at Nintendo, so that's really the only area lacking when compared to Pokemon. And unlike Yu-Gi-Oh, you'll actually find uses for commons and uncommons and the rules are clean and easily understandable. The mana system is nice, the Shield Blasts give some of those "A-ha! Gotcha!" moments, and it is just a solid, fun game to play with kids.
I know that for battle-scarred CCG veterans there can be hesitation taking the plunge with yet another collectible game. I will say this about their starter deck products, all of them we've played thus far have been well-built and fun. Maybe not pureblood tournament caliber stuff, but they all interact well with each other. They come with a few foils, as kids love shinies!
If you're really in the market for you and your kids to play something a little more powerful, Wizards of the Coast have just released their first "Elite" Series deck. It's all foil, packed with more rares and more power in general, and costs less than twenty bucks online. It's called "Triple Strike" and the entire deck looks great foiled. They used to do these premium decks for Magic as well and they were always a treat.
I'd assumed that with more rares in the deck, it would steamroll the built decks my son and I have. But proof positive that they've done a decent job making useful cards at all rarities, my son's all-blue Cyber Lord deck was able to bounce away my bigger threats and win a very close battle. Even so, the Triple Strike deck is a great mix of creature removal and small blockers that delay the game until the big hitters can drop in and do their damage. There's even a couple of tricks in there to cheat out a big fattie earlier than normal, and a few combos that work well together if you can pull them off. If you have an older child who's in to this sort of thing, you might go ahead and pick up this first Elite deck, and wait and purchase subsequent releases in this series. If they maintain this quality, you can have many games of nicely tweaked decks doing battle without ever having to do any booster diving.
Time will tell just how successful Kaijudo will be, but so far it already seems to be doing better than Duel Masters did. There's a cartoon series for the kiddies and the game is carried at Wal-Mart, Target, and of course your typical online and offline game stores. You can pick up a couple of the standard starters for less than $25. For parents with potential card-flopping children, it's definitely a worthwhile investment.
So that's a wrap for this TCG-heavy edition of Next of Ken! Thanks as always for reading...and man, it's good to be back! Verily, I will see thee again in a fortnight.