It's hard to believe that Magic: The Gathering is almost 20 years old. The revolutionary collectible card game has had a massive influence on games, both tabletop and electronic alike, and it continues to drive at the forefront of an industry it established. For all of its popularity, however, it's not an easy experience to translate into video game form. While Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 doesn't offer all of the varied nuances and experiences that make the physical version of Magic so compelling, it does a serviceable job of translating the card game into a quick, easy-to-play format that casual players and veterans alike can enjoy--provided they can get past some of its caveats.
The rules of Magic: the Gathering involve players drawing magic power from varied sources, casting environment-altering spells, summoning creatures and fighters big and small, conjuring powerful magical artifacts, and using them to beat the crap out of each other. There's far more nuance than that, of course; there are several different "colors" of spells with varied strengths and weaknesses, as well as numerous types of monsters and items with distinct traits and abilities. Magic is a strategic and competitive game that requires a great deal of forethought and reaction.
Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 simplifies things somewhat from the original card game by making the complex structure of Magic more palatable to newcomers and casual players. Rather than carefully choosing and constructing your deck of tricks card by card, you play one of several different preconstructed decks with distinct play styles, advantages, and drawbacks. As you play through the various single-player modes, you unlock new decks to use, as well as earn additional cards to augment each deck. Play itself is also streamlined and simplified, as DotP 2012 consolidates certain beginning and end phases of turns in the regular game into two "main" phases with a combat phase in between. While hardcore Magic players might balk at the changes--the inability to create a custom deck from scratch, in particular, will certainly turn off a few veterans--they help make the game a lot easier to dive into for a general audience.
There are numerous play modes available in DotP 2012. In Campaign mode you battle computer opponents, earning new decks and additional cards as you progress. In between matches are also optional, clever puzzle challenges that set up an established game situation--usually disadvantageous to you--that ask you to make smart use of the game rules and card abilities to turn it around. Going through the standard Campaign mode will also unlock Archenemy mode, which is new to the 2012 edition of the game. In this mode, you and two computer-controlled players take on a single, highly powered opponent who can bend certain rules and play powerful, environment-altering "scheme" cards each turn. There's also Revenge mode, where the opponents you beat come back with bigger, more powerful decks. Unlike many other games in the card battle genre, there's no overarching story or any sort of dialogue with characters going on during the campaign; you just beat one guy and move on to the next. It's a bit of a disappointment because it would have been nice to interact, even superficially, with the world of Magic: the Gathering's interesting characters and settings.
If you don't feel like trudging through the campaign, there is a quick-play mode that will let you set up a game against up to four computer opponents in a standard winner-takes-all competition. The variant modes are more interesting, however; besides Archenemy, there's also Two-Headed Giant, a two-versus-two team competition where you and a computer-controlled buddy (or a local player) combine forces and share a life pool while taking on an opposing two-player team. Competitive play against other human opponents is the biggest draw, however, and it's done quite well. You can play either standard or ranked matches against friends or random players in any of the available game variants (though Archenemy, due to its nature, is unavailable for ranked play). Getting a group of friends together to play good-natured matches against each other or collaborate in one of the team play modes is tons of fun, but going up against random opponents is still something of a crapshoot. A common complaint in the last iteration was that players would disconnect if they started to lose a ranked match. "Cord pulling" out of a match in DotP 2012 is now counted as a loss toward a player who disconnects, but there are still other ways to grief an opponent, including stalling for as much time as possible. Online bugs also seemed to be present in rare cases, as we encountered a match where the game simply stalled forever as a player tried to activate a card ability, forcing us to concede.
While DotP 2012 can be a lot of fun, much of the enjoyment you potentially derive from the game comes from finding Magic: the Gathering interesting to play. The graphics are merely adequate (don't expect any cool animations of the monsters you summon, for example) and the sound effects are nondescript and inoffensive. The major advantage of the PC version over its console counterparts, however, is its easy-to-use, mouse-driven controls. With a simple move of the mouse and a click, you can play cards, pause the game to plan a counterattack, check the illustrations and text of cards, and get detailed information on game terminology. While these controls improve the interface substantially, they don't entirely make up for the rather plain presentation.
As it stands, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 provides a way to enjoy a simple game of Magic: the Gathering. Its limited customization options, serious control issues, and lack of extra flair keep it from being as interesting an experience as it could be, but you can still have a good time by getting a bunch of online or offline buddies together for games. And at $10, it's certainly more affordable than going to your local card shop and buying cases of cards.