Magic: The Gathering- Tactics isn’t SOE Denver’s first rodeo. The 41-developer strong studio is credited some of SOE’s great successes, including the Star Wars Galaxies Trading Card Game and Legends of Norrath, a digital TCG based on SOE’s storied EverQuest franchise..
LoN is one of SOE’s bestsellers, racking up sales impressive even in physical TCG terms. “We don’t give out numbers, but we know theirs,” noted SOE President John Smedley. Accordingly, LoN would be “the fourth largest in the world,” in physical TCG terms, in company with such titanic names as Pokemon, Magic: The Gathering, and the World of Warcraft TCG. (It’s nice to see that other MMO publishers can compete with Blizzard on some level.)
Note the second name on that vaunted list. Longtime players of Magic: The Gathering know that the tabletop game already has a digital version – the currently live but deep-in-revision Magic: The Gathering Online. Instead of reinventing what’s proved to be a largely successful online reimagining of the hit tabletop card game, SOE is taking a cue from major motion pictures and taking the action into the third dimension with Magic: The Gathering – Tactics, an isometric, miniatures-inspired game imbued with plenty of Magic flavor.
Studio Lead Mark Tuttle discusses the five talent trees in Magic: The Gathering - Tactics, starting with Red.
Magic: The Storytelling
Or campaign(s), that is. In MTGT, a campaign is a set of 5 chapters that trace the life and times of your Planeswalker, the avatar or persistent representation of your character in-game, in and around Aerona, a continent familiar to MTG players. You’ll chose from several fully animated avatar models at the start of your experience, and perhaps MTGT’s biggest departure from the tabletop game is the fact that your Planeswalker can not only level up, but levels award points that can be used in your Planeswalker’s talent trees.
MTGT offers a different talent tree for each of the colors associated with the “five pillars of magic” - white, blue, black, red, and green. Talents can profoundly affect your strategy. For example, to complement my black deck, I was able to choose a talent that gave my skeletons many more hitpoints and one that allowed me to reanimate corpses (which turned out to be a game changer).
Each of these chapters was linked together with a heaping helping of storytelling, drawing on Sony’s ready inventory of voiceover talent to construct convincing, well-turned interludes voiced by multiple actors. But perhaps more convincing than these bits of lore was the difficulty of the chapters, which layered on the excitement by establishing an initial tension that quickly evaporated into something managable.
For instance, in the chapter where I was tasked with stopping the wizard from lighting 4 orbs, the wizard had lit two of the four orbs before I’d dealt a point of damage. I was able to cutoff the wizard by positioning a large, 4-tile Goliath in his path before the fourth orb was lit, but the match was more like a puzzle than a slugfest.
In victory, players are rewarded with experience points (for their planeswalker), in-game currency, and (in campaigns) a single card (note that cards in MTGT terms are "spells & figures"). While I wasn’t able to replay chapters I’d won (in the closed beta build I played), winning a campaign resulted in a daily mission, one of three missions I could play once every twenty-four hours to ostensibly flesh out my spellbook.
Color Me Bad – How MTGT Plays
As in the card game, controlling Blue cards like Jace are a sure way to make your opponent sweat.
As in the card game, Magic’s colors form much of the game’s strategic depth. Neighboring colors are said to be allied - white pairs well with green due to the combined healing, regenerative, and protective effects of these cards, black pairs well with red for players who value destructive spells and creatures, blue offers lots of highly frustrating control effects and tough-to-target “flyers” that pair well with white or black, and so on.
Top MTG players typically construct a deck consisting of two colors (and only two), and MTGT offers another reason to limit your color consist: the amount and type of mana you draw each turn depends directly on the percentage of each color cspell in your deck (or “spellbook” – as the deck is referred to in MGTG). Mana is all important since all spells require a certain amount of colored mana,and often colorless mana too (meaning any color of mana can fulfill the requirement). Multi-color spells won’t be in the game at launch.
Players draw a hand of five spells at random from their deck to begin the game and use these "cards" to cast spells or summon creatures prior to moving. Creatures have three primary values – attack, health, and initiative (which affects how often a creature gets a turn) – as well as special abilities (either temporary, like those granted through an enchantment, or permanent – like those granted through a spell or by an artifact).
White is the color of order, justice, healing, community, peace, and authoritarianism. It doesn't sound like much fun to us, either.
Many matches are simply duels to the death between two Planeswalkers, no small task given the Planeswalkers high number of hitpoints (but low attack value), but MTGT (like its namesake) draws a lot of strength from the variety of win conditions. In the first campaign, for instance, I had to destroy an obelisk, defeat a wizard before he lit the last of four orbs, and activate four orbs to imprison a powerful, protected demon. Studio Lead Mark Tuttle also hinted at other types of win conditions, including escorting a character across a map.
The Color of Money – Spending Your Way to Success
That isn’t the only way to accrue spells and figures, of course. SOE describes Magic: The Gathering – Tactics as a free-to-play product, and new players will be able to download the game, play the first campaign, and match up against other players in duels and tournaments with whatever "cards" you can accrue (via the free campaign and daily missions) free of charge.
But as with the tabletop game, players will need to purchase booster packs to get into the competitive action. The price point for these 10-card packs is currently set at $3.99, and a rare is guaranteed with each pack (cards range from common to uncommon to rare to mythic rare). You’ll also need to purchase campaigns (beyond the first one) and spend your way into tournaments.
Free to play but pay to win? That’s almost a certainty when competing against other players that have a financial stake in their spellbooks, but Mr. Tuttle insists that the free campaign shall be free indeed. “Whether or not you make it through all the chapters on your first try with just the starter pack, that may not be the case. But is it possible? Sure it’s possible.”
Later on I proved that it was indeed possible, going 5-0 with a black-red starter deck. This was my first Magic experience ever, but thanks to a breezy tutorial, I learned the ropes quickly (certain MTG complexities like Graveyard Manipulation won’t be in MTGT at launch). In short, if I can do it, so can you.
The Sixth Pillar of Magic – MTGT Multiplayer
Contrary to the MTG ruleset, Magic: The Gathering has a sixth pillar that really makes the Magic happen, pun intended. That pillar is the player community, and much like an MMORPG, it’s the players that form the backbone of the game.
Players interact with each other via Vivox-fueled voicechat and chat in the lobby screens, and the lobby provides all the social tools you’d expect to find – add friends, ignore morons, etc. When you’re ready to compete, you’ll find that MTGT uses a modified ELO scoring system, visible at a glance by one of eight PvP rank insignia, from Apprentice to Archmage. Numbers underlie these ranks, of course, and the game will always seek to match you up with a good challenger or set of challenger.
Magic: The Gathering – Tactics will offer several different PvP formats at launch:
- Pick-Up Games - simply a matchmade duel against someone in your range.
- Open Tournaments – Unbracketed, matchmade tournaments with time-based win conditions, i.e. most wins in five hours. You need not be present for the full five hours to win, and these tournaments offer prizes above currency and xp. Prizes may be offered just for a certain amount of participation, say, playing three games.
- 8-Man Constructed – Bracketed tournaments with prize structures and a one-loss-and-done format. These will run 24/7 and require an entry fee.
- Draft – A skill-based format that Magic tournament players are familiar with. All players start with a certain number of unopened packs (purchasing these packs is often your entry fee) and must construct a 25-card deck on the fly, as opposed to the 40-card deck used used in constructed matches. Given MTGT’s mana generation rules, draft decks also have token creature and token spell cards that don’t require mana (or require colorless mana) to cast.
As with the tabletop game, the Draft format is a great way to build up your spellbook for constructed matches and learn the game, since the randomness factor keeps veteran pwnage to a minimum.
So what happens when you find yourself holding cards you don’t need? The bazaar will allow players to sell individual cards to one another. That’s sell, not trade, and don’t confuse MTGT for a trading card game. Perhaps due to concerns about the FTC rules governing collectible cards and the illicit secondary market that formed around Magic: The Gathering Online, SOE won’t allow players to trade with each other. Players will buy and sell using the in-game currency called (for the time being) tickets, and tickets are purchasable for 10 US cents a piece (at current values) using SOE’s existing Station Cash marketplace.
Goliaths (left) are great at cutting off large portions of the map, while Goblins are great for use in swarm tactics
Hopes and Fears
It’s hard to find what’s not to like about Magic: The Gathering – Tactics; it’s a game that absolutely delivers on its premise. The Magic flavor, lore, and (from what I played) the strategic intensity is preserved from the tabletop experience, despite drastic but necessary changes in gameplay. The lobby and user interface, already excellent, is in the process of being tweaked to perfection thanks in part to some excellent feedback offered by MTGO vets at the latest press event. Finally, the PvP and social features are a great foundation to build on, and SOE has hinted at new co-op formats like 2v2 – a first for Magic: The Gathering.
But while the art and animation are both richly nuanced, the graphics (especially the environments) have a blurry, half-baked quality might leave something to be desired, especially on PlayStation 3 users’ larger screens. The bright side for PC users is a min-spec that’s through the floor, and graphics aren’t as indispensible in a turn-based game as they would be otherwise.
Gameplay also currently has its quirks: kiting an AI opponent around an obstacle to break line of sight is far too easy to do in the current beta build, and the cast-move turn order seems a little less intuitive than move-cast or move-cast-move (with a limited number of total movement points to spend on both movement phases).
More worrying, however is the pace of new set introductions. In a market segment where players are used to getting four new MTG sets each year, SOE currently plans to release new sets every five months. Granted, MTGT cards require a larger amount of production work than the tangible cards (meaning 3D art, animation, and sound), but 5 months is a slow content update pace for MMORPGs, let alone a turn-based game.
Also worrisome: there’s no talk of planned obsolescence for MTGT sets. It’s an uncomfortable topic for the free-spirited world of online games, and I can’t believe I’m coming out on this side of the issue. However, MTG the card game owes much of its endurance to the fact that in the most common format of competitive play, only the last two years of cards are recognized. This allows the developer to not only make a buck but also tune the game. On the other side of the coin, players have to learn and adapt to the changing game, and reinvestment often triggers renewed interest. No one wants to own a digital card they can’t use, granted, so the simple answer is to do as MTG does - create Legacy tournaments where all cards are allowed.
Ed. Note: After this article was printed, we received the following note from SOE: "We are currently planning on rotating sets out of standard use. As we release new sets, older sets wont be used for competitive play, just the same model as Wizards of the Coast."
Also, our plan is to release midterm content in the form of new campaigns to keep the content fresh in between sets.
That said, Magic: The Gathering Tactics is a well-paced, story-rich introduction to the world of Magic and offers the sort of depth that veteran players of both MTG and light tactics games can sink their teeth into. MTGT is currently Look for it in early 2011.
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