This is a guest review by Caillte
Magic the Gathering (MTG), for those who have been living in a cave for the past two decades, is a fantasy combat card game loved by geeks, teenagers, maths professors and - surprisingly - just about everyone else on the planet. The premise is shockingly simple, each player has a deck of MTG cards which consist of lands and spells. The lands provide energy to cast the spells which either have a direct magical effect or summon monsters. Monsters can be used to attack other players or defend from other players when they attack. Each player has twenty hit points. When they are gone that player loses.
So when you have a franchise as popular as this is and, with as wide a reach as this has, it would be foolish to play with the fundamentals, yes? So would someone explain to me exactly what were Wizards of the Coast thinking when they allowed Sony to produce Magic the Gathering Tactics (MTGT for the sake of my poor fingers)?
MTGT is available as a download from http://magicthegatheringtactics.com/ and is free to play. Be warned though the download is over a Gigabyte long so you may want to check your download quota before starting. The program, once loaded, is fairly standard MMORPG fair with an opening screen that allows the user to play solo games, one-off multi-player games or longer tournaments and visit the game's shop, which is something you will find yourself doing a lot. There is also a user auction to allow players to ebay their unwanted spells and creatures and a button that allows you to manage your spells and create different decks.
When you first decide to play the game you will be asked to create a character which is a simple affair of selecting a name, stock photo and what colour of magic you wish to use. The hardest part was thinking of a name but a couple of minutes later I had created BobBobson, a female black mage or plainswalker.
The game has 5 magic colours, which are:
* White (plains): Gives mostly healing and protection skills coupled with some quite cheap and effective monsters that have interesting bonus abilities like first attack.
* Blue (water): Gives interesting spells that block opponent's spells and stop them from summoning monsters, it also has a high proportion of flying creatures which can normally only be attacked by other flying types. Blue monsters tend to be very expensive.
* Green (forest): These monsters tend to be large and hard to cast but do huge amounts of damage. Most green spells are used to enhance that damage.
* Red (fire): This is the home of little, vicious creatures (the most famous being goblins) and quite large attack spells.
* Black (swamp): Is the home of the walking dead, and spells that debilitate other player's creatures. Powerful black monsters are expensive but smaller ones can easily be buffed.
What I got was a low-quality black and red deck that was clearly designed to be just powerful enough to beat the starting solo campaign and contained only monsters and spells with no lands. Puzzled by this I headed off to play the solo campaign. This campaign gave me the opportunity to play the tutorial, something I had skipped at the start of the game, which while boring was a fairly good introduction to the mechanics of the system and also where I learned that lands are not used in the game at all! The game just gives you a random amount of mana at the start of every turn based upon the ratio of colours in your deck. The percentages given for the allocation were, to say the least, odd. As I had in my deck twenty black cards, twenty red cards and, for some reason one green card, the ratios given were 40% chance for black mana, 50% for red and 10% for green which meant, in comparison to the cards I had, I was far more likely to get green mana that was no use to me! So I quickly dropped the green card and tried again.
The solo campaigns are split into a number of tasks, some of which can be repeated daily. The task itself consists of a blurb, the combat segment itself and then, if you win, an afterword praising you for being so cunning and rewarding you with a new card. The combat section surprised me as I was expecting to play a card game. Why not? In Puzzle Quest the combat is decided with puzzles, in Yu-Gi-Oh all disputes are resolved by playing a children's card game (on motorcycles in one case) and in Shandalar, the first MTG spinoff computer game, the player defeated the Giant Spider he had just run into by, you guessed it, playing cards with them. Quite frankly I doubt anyone has gotten this far into the game without being a MTG fan of some sort, so why not? But, no, the combat section is run more like a cut-down version of Heroes of Might and Magic where the player can cast his spells, move around the playing field (not the other way round, your turn ends when you move) and then move his or her summoned monsters to attack the opponent's creatures and finally, if you are lucky, the opposing spellcaster. Admittedly each task had a goal and some of them were not just kill everything, however with one exception, I found it easier just to kill everything and then complete the task. This just stretched the game out longer and made it slightly more boring.
My other main complaint about the solo missions was that the campaign was just so short. MTGT advertises itself as a free game but the free material within it was just enough to qualify as a demo. If you want to play more then you must head off to the game store and shell out for the next section of the campaign. So, giving up on that I decided to try my buffed deck (I had found one extra card I wanted to use) on the multi-player games.
Selecting the one-off multiplayer option gives you a fairly standard game selection screen which players of any MP game will be quite comfortable with. Click on the start game button and the server goes off and looks for someone else about your character's level who has pushed their own button. You are then matched up in the same sort of level as the solo campaign but without the cheesy narrative. The first thing I learned playing these levels was you aren't going to get far without hitting the game store. Opponents at my character's level all had much more finely honed decks including creatures that I could not find as a reward in the solo missions. The second thing I noticed was this one part of the game was actually quite enjoyable - though it would be more fun if I had stood a chance of winning from time to time - and while I didn't really consider it worth the time I took downloading the whole thing, I confess that this part of the review was a pleasant evening's play. It would have been far more fun if I could have actually won a little...
I am not impressed by this game for a number of reasons. The first is this is just plain not Magic the Gathering! Given that the franchise has been running almost unchanged since 1993 I think that playing with the mechanics and underlying concepts now will simply drive away people who are fans - it certainly has for me - and stop people who are not MTG fans from playing. I will say to you though that if you are a Heroes of Might and Magic fan this may be worth a glance, though you might want to pick somewhere with unlimited downloads to try it. The second reason for my dislike is this game is far too reliant upon the store. Game stores are now part-and -parcel of the modern online game, and in many cases they are a force for good. Feeling a little rich this week? Go to the store and buy the better scrolls of enchantment. MTGT however demands you use the store if you want to do anything at all in the game. This is a poor choice for a game that is on shaky ground to start with. Wizards of the Coast, do you remember Shandalar? How about you get someone to do that again but with 21st century graphics?