Magic: The Gathering is a very good card game that I am very picky about playing. I’m a casual player, more likely to challenge a friend at a bar than attend a local tournament. I’m not about to pore over apps and blogs to assemble some impenetrable, holy deck; I’d rather play Magic: The Gathering like I’d play Rummy or Egyptian Rat Screw. And Duel Decks let me do that.
Duel Decks have been around for a while—since 2007—but I didn’t think of them as a low-effort way to challenge friends at M:TG until recently. They’re a set of two pre-made decks, each with 60 cards and a particular theme, like Mind vs. Might. For years, Publisher Wizards of the Coast sorted them into their “Expert” level category. Honestly, I think that’s ludicrous. From what I’ve experienced, they have the opposite effect: Duel Decks are excellent for casuals and offer a way out of Magic: The Gathering’s costly and competitive main play modes.
M:TG’s tournament scene and publishing schedule aren’t very casual-friendly. For a long time, they turned me off the game. To stay current and competitive in Magic’s “Constructed” format, which has players designing decks prior to an event, is to dig a throughline from your bank account to your local hobby shop. If you’re a “serious” Magic player, you’re investing at least $100 a few times a year for the latest set, or singular cards to complement decks crafted from them. Once a year, the list of cards that are “tournament legal” rotates, so you may have to do it all again!
In the game’s increasingly popular “Limited” format, players can spend around $20 to participate in a hobby shop’s draft event. But if you want to make your impromptu draft deck viable for “Constructed” games, you’ll still need to splurge on more packs or singles.
I don’t prioritize saving up for Magic: The Gathering over, say, vacations. That’s just where I’m at. No judgment if you’ve got a big M:TG piggy bank on your dresser. And although I’m an adequate player, the prospect of sitting down for a Magic: The Gathering tournament or draft party at my local hobby shop is terrifying. I’ve found that folks who attend Magic: The Gathering events tend to be quite serious or spend a lot of money on decks, which aren’t much fun to play against if you’re not dedicated. So, in my mind, Magic: The Gathering was a vestige of my youth, something that didn’t transfer well to my mid-20s.
Duel Decks changed all that. Over a dozen exist, each sold for around $20. You can just toss a Duel Deck in your backpack and whip it out at a bar, which is exactly what I did last night. A friend, who also plays casually, ordered some beer. We sat outside and played a few games. Nobody had to worry about the decks being balanced, because that was out of our hands. And nobody had to worry about which cards are legal, because honestly, after a few drinks, I do not care. Preparation is just reading through the decks’ descriptions, which summarize their playstyles.
One time, I committed a cardinal M:TG sin and didn’t even read my deck’s card descriptions prior to play. It prompted a more “thinking on my feet” attitude, which is against the hyper-strategic, 10-moves-ahead playstyle that’s popular among serious players.
I’ve been playing with March 2017's Duel Deck, Mind vs. Might, and 2013’s Sorin vs. Tibalt. Each deck relies on one major mechanic or playstyle, and each specific strategy is balanced against its enemy deck’s. Mind vs. Might’s copy reads, “Mind vs. Might represents the age-old clash between mages and warriors, brains and brawn. Clever plots or raw power-which will you choose?” The decks’ identities, which tend to clash, add a fun air of competition while solving the problem of deck equality—in theory. In my experience, both sets contained one deck that consistently won more.
Playing Magic: The Gathering does not need to be a big, expensive production, although a few things about its design can make it seem that way. I hope that more players who enjoyed M:TG: as teenagers will try out Duel Decks because, frankly, I want more people to challenge at bars.