I've been playing a lot of Magic: The Gathering recently. For the uninitiated, Magic is a collectible card game released by Wizards of the Coast in 1993. You play land cards, which provide the mana that you need to summon monsters and cast spells. Magic is mostly played one on one versus another player, which is why the Xbox Live game released last year was titled Duels of the Planeswalkers (see Susan Arendt's review here). The XBLA game recently got a second expansion pack, which introduced cards and keywords from the latest block of cards in the meatspace game. But even more exciting for us PC gamers, WOTC has also developed a PC version of Duels which will be available June 15th on Steam.
As a PC gamer, I may be biased, but the PC Duels of the Planeswalkers is much easier to control than the Xbox Live game. You can zoom into every card on the table by hovering the cursor and spinning the mouse wheel. And if you just want to get the basics, simply holding the cursor over the card pops up a balloon with the cards most pertinent details (first strike, flying, etc.). Most commands are available through buttons that you can press with the mouse, but nearly all commands are also hotkeyed, which you can change to suit your needs. By default, you can quickly tap Spacebar to pause the game to play a vicious Counterspell or a timely Giant Growth, or hit Tab to cycle through the damage animations. By allowing such fine-tuned control, the PC Duels let's you forget about the UI and focus on the fun of smashing your opponent with hordes of rampaging ... Cloud Sprites.
Another plus on the PC is that Duels offers much more customization. Other than the obvious like graphics detail sliders, you can also choose to remove the attack animations from the game. I don't know if it bothered you, but once I saw 2 or 3 three of the damage resolution animations, I got bored and wanted to get back to being a Planeswalker. The core of the game is about making choices, not watching somewhat abstracted damage animations. In the XBLA version you are forced to press Y to cycle through each attack, which can end up wasting a lot of time when you have multiple units attacking. But on the PC, you can just turn off said animations and concentrate on the game.
All of the nuts and bolts aside, Duels of the Planewalkers showcases just what an elegant and logical game that Magic can be. Like playing Monopoly over and over again, condensing Magic into its essence by playing it electronically focuses on the statistical analysis. Should I sacrifice this 1/1 flyer to block that 6/4 Craw Wurm? Should I not summon this creature to save mana to counter his creatures on the next turn? Playing Magic this way enhances the strategic decision-making.