Magic: The Gathering Tactics (PC)

The history of Magic: The Gathering games has been a sordid one. Even though they suffer some poor production values, implementation, and design, they were still enjoyable to die hardMagic fans like myself. Shandalar had horrendous artificial intelligence and didn’t even serve as a mild challenge. Magic: The Gathering Online has poor interface design, even when they rebuilt the client. Duels of the Planeswalkers doesn’t allow for online co-operative play and boasts a few other hotly debated “features”. However, with a juggernaut like Sony Online Entertainment behindTactics, there was hope for the polish and design lacking from the other games.

I hope you didn’t hang your hat on this one, though, because it would be on the floor, dirty, and trampled by visitors or eaten by a dog. In some ways, M:tGT is everything you’d expect. It’s a turn-based tactics game where you move your avatar and other creatures around the square-based board. The goal is to destroy the other Planeswalker (in other words, a wizard) and their army before they destroy you. This is accomplished through building a spellbook made of various creatures that can be summoned or spells that can be cast. Spells vary from direct attack spells, such as Lightning Bolt, to things that may boost your creatures. The mechanics of the gameplay are quite simple: Each round your maximum mana goes up by one, and the colour of the mana is determined by the composition of your deck. So for example, if your deck has 80% red cards, then you have an 80% chance of getting one extra red mana each round. Your mana fills up to the maximum in each colour every round, so at least that is a clever way around the “mana screw” problem that frustrates all Magic players. Then, in a turn order determined by the initiative of the creatures, you get to use their abilities and move or move and attack. Moving, whether it ends in an attack or not, will always end the current piece’s turn. When it’s a Planeswalker’s turn, they can cast a spell that they have available (you start with five and you get one new one from your spellbook every round) and have mana for, and then move/attack. As with many tactics type games, flanking will deal bonus damage and there are random critical hits. If a creature hasn’t died from being attacked, it will perform a full counter attack.

I believe I ordered the large djinn.

That is it. Everything else is covered by the statistics of the creatures, such as movement or attack strength, or the abilities on the cards. There is a decent variety of abilities, but it still ends up feeling like there is not a lot of choice in the colours you’re playing. You’re given a very basic two colour deck to start with, and you can go through the tutorial section and the first campaign, which consists of five missions, for free. After that, each of the four extra five mission campaigns costs $5 USD, which is actually not terrible value in terms of length even if the gameplay never gets more interesting. The plot of the campaigns is very bland. The narrator does an okay job but the plot might as well not be there. What is interesting though is that you get experience for each mission and eventually when you get enough levels, you get some talent points to spend on talent trees. For example, a talent that made my creatures stronger when the enemy Planeswalker was below 50% health influenced how aggressive I would be with my creatures and who they would target. Completing a campaign will also unlock the Daily missions for that campaign, each of which reward you 2 gold and some paltry experience.

You can use gold to buy into tournaments, so it seems like you can play this game for free and forever. Technically, you don’t have to spend a single penny. You can just do the Daily mission from the free campaign every day, and then every fifteen days or so you can enter a single tournament. You’ll probably be bored to tears way before you can get into your first tournament at that rate though, so you’ll likely have to plop down at least the $20 USD for the campaigns and then a bucket load of time every day in order to earn enough gold to free ride your way through. If you place in the prize positions in the tournament then you may luck out and get a card worth selling on the Auction House for some more gold to fuel more tournaments. There are Open Tournaments that players can enter that are always happening. You play all the games you can during the period, and if you meet the requirements when the tournament period ends, then you get a small prize. When I looked at the prizes, everything awarded to people finishing belwow second place was dismal, so it seems like a whole lot of work for not a lot of reward if you can’t play enough to win. There are Constructed Tournaments where you bring the spellbook you put together to compete, and there’s also the very popular “Draft” format, where you have to purchase booster packs for $4 USD each and then each person takes turns picking cards from the packs until all the cards are gone.

And of course you can always play single matches against opponents for the heck of it, which would be cool if the gameplay was deep. However, there really isn’t all that much to do other than position for flanks and attack, and the interactions between creatures and spells are simplistic and direct for the most part. The fight for positioning is straightforward. The spellbook building side of things is also surprisingly restrictive. In addition to the usual Magic limit of 4 copies of each spell, you are limited to a maximum of 12 different creatures and 12 different spells. Why this is the case is beyond me, but if you wanted to play only one of every creature in your colour, too bad! I found that sometimes I had to make the inconvenient decision not to play a better creature just because I had 4 copies of a weaker creature, I needed 40 spells to fill out the spellbook, and I had to maintain the balance between spells and creatures.

You’ll find iconic cards such as Reya Dawnbringer in Tactics

Even if the game had deeper gameplay, though, it would still be mired in a variety of technical issues that seem to plague every Wizards of the Coast electronic product. In my time playing it I suffered glitches that ranged from infuriating to hilarious, such as a frame rate plummet (to 1 frame per second) after multitasking away from the game window or the game chat doubling in the multiplayer room. One of my friends said it crashed on him after every mission. One particularly frustrating glitch was that in the midst of a long mission, the computer AI actually could not decide what to do and ended up being stuck there, forcing a restart. In tournaments, if you crash or you disconnect due to some Internet problem, reconnecting will not put you back into the game – you simply forfeit. In a tournament I played, I ended up forfeiting two games this way, and in the third game my opponent was away from the keyboard, thus defaulting a win to me.

The tournament design is a bit of a tragedy in itself, as you have to stay until the end to wait for the prizes, even if you’re done your games and you know where you will place. It doesn’t even boot you out of the tournament after the end, and I only found out it ended because people received their prizes. The tournament chat lobby is also not segregated among tournaments or even tournament types as far as I could tell and it became a confusing mess of conversations.

Even the Auction House has an pitiful interface, which seems unacceptable after having so many examples of good ones around. For example, there is no search feature. You can only filter by Rarity, Colour, and Type, and you can’t sort the list by any of the columns. And the default sorting is a complete mystery. Interface issues aren’t restricted to the Auction House though, as various other baffling choices litter the game. For example, you can’t look at your talents without leaving the tournament you’re in. During the actual match, if you have more than 7 spells that you can cast that turn, the spell bar doesn’t expand and you need to click these tiny up and down arrows to look at all your spells.

The graphics in the game are kind of bland but acceptable. Some of the animations are fun to watch but an option to speed them up or skip them all together would be nice as I only need to see them so many times. But it’s a nice touch to see my Thieving Magpie get pounded to the floor when it takes a hit. The sounds and music are just kind of there and forgettable.

Much like Duels of the Planeswalkers, this game could have been so much more. It combined one of my favourite genres with one of my favourite brands, and yet it came up so short that it only aggravated my need for a good tactics game. Being a game that you can play for as long and as often as you would like to,Tactics could actually offer a lot of value if you enjoy it. Personally, I’ll just keep playing Duels and the actual card game with my friends.