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Preview: Duel of the Magi

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Box [Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final, non-production prototype demo of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it; the final product will feature some variation in game play, art, and components.]

Duel of the Magi is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter.

Forget Hogwarts.  This isn’t some schoolyard training ground.  You’ve listened to lectures, sat in labs, taken tests, and gotten the Oxford cap.  Now it’s time to cast spells, summon creatures, and do other things you can’t pronounce in an epic contest with your professionally-bearded peers.  Only this time, you’re playing for life and death.  Naturally.

How It Plays

You won’t be trading any gold, frankincense, and myrrh in Duel of the Magi.  Instead, you assume the role of a powerful Wizard, Warlock, Sorcerer, or Necromancer to cast spells and summon creatures in a supernatural brawl between 1-3 other combatants.

The game actually comprises two phases: a deck-building phase and then a dueling phase. The deck-building element combines “pod”-selection, similar to some living card games, and card-drafting.  It’s not a game mechanic as in Dominion or its many derivatives.  It is merely a means to create your customized deck before play.  The design comes with 240 total cards, consisting of 6 copies each of 40 unique spells in 5 different spell types.  The number of cards used for selection depends upon the number of duelists; but the process is the same for 2 to 4 players and the whole thing is ably aided by one side of the game board to keep everything nice and organized.

The Dueling Grounds game board clearly delineates ares of play for all combatants. The flip side has similarly clever organizational spaces for deck-building.
The Dueling Grounds game board clearly delineates areas of play for all combatants. The flip side has similarly clever organizational spaces for deck-building.

Essentially, players take turns including or excluding spell types – called “pods.”  It is slightly different in a 2-player battle, but when choosing or discarding a spell pod, you simply take all 6 copies of that spell and add it to the master deck or remove it from the game, respectively.  The only stipulation is that each of the 5 spell types (elementals, creatures, responses, etc.) must be equally represented in the master deck with respect to overall numbers.  When all of the spell pods are selected, shuffle everything together and then use the game board to place cards one at a time in appropriate staging areas.  It is from there that fighters will draft individual cards for their personal decks, replacing their selections in the staging area as needed from the main deck.  When finished, each player will end up with a 30-card deck of spells to which are add another 10 basic power source cards for a total of 40 cards.  Flip the board over and you’re ready to duel.

Dueling is divided into seven easy steps, most of which move quickly.  First, you ready your army by moving any creatures that saw action last round to your ‘Cast Creature Zone.’  Similarly, you’ll take your last turn’s spent Power Source cards and place them in your ‘Unused Resource Zone’ so that they’re available to tap this turn.  The second step in preparation is to increase your resources by playing a new permanent Power Source to that unused zone, or casting an Energy Surge spell – quick temporary boosts of power.  Then the real action begins.

The next three stages consist of the First Spell Casting Step, Attack Step, and the Second Spell Casting Step.  The wrinkle is, however, that you only actually cast spells during the First or Second steps, not both.  Cast spells cost energy and are played to the Action Zone.  These either deal damage or have some other unique game effect.  Summoned creatures first go to the Cast Creature Zone, but generally may not attack until a later turn.  So you may either cast one or more spells and then attack.  Or attack and then cast spells.  In either case, your opponents get a chance to respond to your actions, perhaps weakening your abilities or preventing them entirely.  Other players may respond to your actions, even if they are not the target of your assault.

Creatures are used to actually hit your opponents’ life points or to block suck assaults against yourself.  Beasts engaged in attacking or blocking are discarded if they sustain enough hits.  Any damage from a creature that is not blocked reduces an opposing magi’s life points.  When finished with all of your hitting and hocus pocus, you may discard any cards from your hand.  Leftover damage and surviving creatures are cleared and returned to their respective owners’ zones.  Finally, you must draw a number of cards until you have 5 in your hand, unless you already have 5 or more, though the hand limit is seven.  A player is eliminated after receiving his/her twentieth point of damage.  The last magi standing wins.

Got power?
Got power?

Pick Up the Gauntlet?

Collectible card games and trading card games are very popular.  At least some titles are.  And for good reason.  They’re fun, rewarding, and satisfying.  You have lots of variety, tons of strategy, keen interaction, plenty to experiment with, and a good deal of freedom when it comes to creating your personal deck.  However, they’re also expensive in the long run, often difficult to keep up with, and can become bloated and unwieldy.  Plus when new sets are released – which is constantly with popular titles – all those older cards become obsolete.  Duel of the Magi is another design which aims to capture the play and feel of cherished CCG’s, but without those negative side effects.

Once you get the mechanics down and have a basic familiarity with the various cards, Duel of the Magi moves pretty fast.  And therein lays its main appeal.  I’m by no means a CCG connoisseur, but I’ve played Pokémon and Vanguard, and am familiar with Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh.  Duel of the Magi is cleaner and moves quicker for a couple reasons.

A creature for the offensive. Not all of the artwork is finished for this prototype, but what is done, is excellent.
A creature for the offensive. Not all of the artwork is finished for this prototype, but what is done, is excellent.

First, responses tend to be limited.  That’s because it takes precious energy, which is especially at a premium in the early to mid game.  Something cheap, like ‘Bastion’ at 1 cost, lets you get a creature out from your hand, maybe to use as an extra, expendable blocker.  But if you want to totally mess with an opponent by bluntly ended his/her turn whenever you want, well then ‘Finalize’ will cost you 4 resources.  You need to plan for that by not spending it on your turn, so that you have it saved to expend on another’s.  There is no tug-of-war “play, respond, respond again, and respond again” ad nauseum.  The resource mechanic is not conducive to that, nor are there a tremendous amount of response spells to begin with – so they won’t hijack the game.  Yet there are still enough to provide meaningful interaction, wrecking plans, and injecting some chaos.

Second, Duel of the Magi doesn’t involve a great deal of deck manipulation.  There are several spells that let you draw cards, but very few which let you fish through your deck – and then only to get power sources.  This cuts the amount of searching and shuffling, which can drag similar titles in the genre.  There’s no sitting and waiting while your opponent plays several combos that let them pull out a quarter of their deck to set up a killer attack.  While that leaves players a bit more subject to the whims of chance, at the same time it elicits more action.

Pulling both of those aspects together, everything in Duel of the Magi costs resources.  Except for attacking and blocking, but in order to do those, you generally have to summon a creature first, which does.  This limits card play during individual turns, which reduces turn-length and helps to offset downtime.

Response cards can be particularly fun to stop your foe - or frustrating when used against you! Make sure to save back some resources to be able to cast one, just in case.
Response cards can be particularly fun to stop your foe – or frustrating when used against you! Make sure to save back some resources to be able to cast one, just in case.

Possibly the most innovative system in Duel of the Magi is the deck-building structure.  It sort of combines the “living card game” model with a “collectible card game” structure.  Players select pods from a non-collectible pool.  Therefore, everyone has access to the same abilities.  You’re not going to run into that unstoppable super rare creature just because your opponent is able to sink an investment into the game equivalent to a new car – while you can’t buy a hundred boosters because baby needs a new pair of shoes.  At the same time, you can still create a very unique-feeling deck during the draft process.  So if your tail-end gets fire-balled, it’s not because you spent poorly, but chose poorly.  The contained deck-building is equitable to all – again, once everyone is familiar with the various cards and their abilities.

Beyond your deck build, the bulk of strategy involved with Duel of the Magi surrounds two areas.  The first is when to cast spells.  Since there is a strict order of either cast and then attack, or attack and then cast, you need to consider your move carefully.  Some of these are no-brainer combinations.  For example, the powerful (and very expensive) ‘Meteor’ kills all creatures in play.  Therefore, you’d want to cast it first, wiping out the competition.  Then with your opponents defenseless, you could summon a creature of your own and immediately attack.  Otherwise, you just neuter yourself, along with the rest of the field.

Elementals: the bad boys of spell casting.
Elementals: the bad boys of spell casting.

However, there is a bit more nuance than that, namely because your foes may play response cards.  There’s a chance to bluff one or more into reacting before they’d ideally prefer.  And that will be tied into your main strategy of deciding whether to test and soften up the defenses before moving in for a kill.  Or rather using your spells to “mop up” afterwards.  Laying some damage on a creature with a spell can be nice.  Until, that is, your opponent blocks your follow up attack with a well-timed response card – thus wasting that preemptive damage, since it’s all cleared at the end of your turn.

The second strategic consideration is which class you choose, each possessing a distinctive power.  Again, you can tailor your personal deck to your class’ ability once you’re familiar with the cards.  The Necromancer allows you to summon creatures from your discard pile and play them for one less resource cost.  The Warlock lets you search the discard pile for a Response card at the same discount.  The Sorcerer regularly casts spells and summons creatures for one less resource.  The Wizard can play an extra power source every turn.  Each character plays quite differently, providing some fun replayability and rewarding opportunity for those that really like to construct and tweak their decks.

The Warlock and Necromancer - not your typical Hogwarts graduates...
The Warlock and Necromancer – not your typical Hogwarts graduates…

Duel of the Magi is a fast-paced, streamlined, and quick combat card game.  It scales pretty well and plays distinctly depending on the number of players, providing some fun options depending on your needs.  With its card variety and tremendous deck-building possibilities, this one is not for new or casual players, nor for the faint of heart.  It doesn’t allow for the sophisticated deck manipulation common to most CCG’s, but it’s aggressive, in-your-face, and chock-full of strategizing.  That makes it compact and uncluttered.  If you like everything about collectible card games, except for the addictive, wallet-draining, never-ending collecting part, then Duel of the Magi just might be a great fix to get you down off that high, yet still satisfy your cravings.

Duel of the Magi is currently seeking funds on Kickstarter.  The project will run through Friday, October 3rd.  If you can’t magically cast a copy for yourself, you’ll need to head over to the campaign page and join the action with a $49 pledge, which includes U.S. domestic shipping (the MSRP will be $75).

 

This article is a paid promotion.

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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