It turns out the Magic game I’ve always wanted to play, simply (and unhelpfully) titled Magic: The Gathering, not only already exists but has existed for about a quarter of a century, received a local release, and really I could’ve bought it at any time between then and now if only I’d realised the game was out there waiting for me in the first place.
Microprose’s take on Magic: The Gathering released in 1997 (the expansion also shown in the photo above, Spells of the Ancients, released a few months later), exclusively for Windows PCs. All of the card-based duelling within is based on the 5th Edition rules (the most modern ruleset at the time), and the game is clearly very proud of this fact, the text found on the packaging and in the manual making every effort to boast about how this is “proper” Magic in digital form, with all the right phases firing off in the right order and every rule correctly observed and strictly enforced (the odd unintentional bug excepted).
And you know what? For once, this really is more than marketing bluster. The cards found here are all genuine physical Magic cards in production at the time—I remember owning some of them myself—and the few that have been created especially for the game (the Astral set) were handed to Microprose by Wizards of the Coast themselves. This isn’t like Magic. It is Magic.
So, how does it work? Well, booting up the main menu bring up three main options: Deck building, duelling, and Shandalar. Deck building… I was going to say “works as expected” but in 2022 and after several “modern” takes on TCGs it’s worth pointing out that here you’re simply given immediate access to every card in the game, and can make absolutely any deck you like with them. There’s nothing to buy, exchange intangible wotsits that aren’t money but still cost money to have, or grind out—everything within the game is there to be used straight away. If Spells of the Ancients has been installed the additional cards seamlessly show up as part of the interface, ready for you to concoct game winning decks with (you, probably), or messy collections of disconnected whatevers with (definitely me). Cards can be easily filtered to suit your needs, including or excluding particular colours, series, or card types (ex: lands, artifacts, or interrupts) with the click of an icon. These decks can then be named and saved, ready to use against either online opponents (twenty years ago, and only after applying the official “Manalink” online patch) or a variety of CPU controlled adversaries.
In the base game CPU duelling is pretty straightforward: You choose either a custom or one of many prebuilt decks, pick an opponent to play against, and then play your match(es) until you win, lose, or get bored. This simplicity is in my eyes something of a strength, perfect for those times when all I want is to have a quick game just to pass the time and not fuss over too many details. The Spells of the Ancients expansion retains this straightforward option and then augments it with Gauntlet (you vs. against a series of opponents) and sealed deck tournament modes. If using a sealed deck you have to pick your starter packs and boosters from several series available at the time and then rip the packs open, assembling your deck from whatever you found within, good or bad. This process is represented by digitised photos of sealed and opened boxes and booster packs, which in 2022 was an unexpected punch right in the nostalgias, and a really lovely way of conveying the physical appeal of Magic, especially as you can (optionally) click the cards out of the deck one by one.
As mechanically serious as the game can be, experienced veterans, newcomers, and everyone in between are all well cared for. The base game’s pleasantly weighty manual is more of an extended Magic rulebook/glossary than anything else, and packed with clearly laid out information designed to help players of all skill levels and none. If you need to know anything from exactly how a particular phase works or would like to read some planes-related lore you’ll find it all in here, explained in a concise manner and easy to find.
There’s just as much—if not more—help on the disc itself. A dedicated tutorial mode uses some well-intentioned FMV of people dressed up as wizards to explain the basics, the initial “Oh no, are they really doing this?!” fear I had fading a little once I saw these characters interacting with each other rather than monologuing basic information straight to camera. It’s not much, but seeing them leaning across a table or engaging in a little friendly rivalry gave them some personality, and it did make the experience more enjoyable and most importantly for a tutorial covering the fundamentals of the game—memorable.
In battle help is rarely more than a right-click away, as at any time you’re allowed to click on any visible card (including your opponent’s) and read the text on them or call up an extensive in-game glossary that can offer both specific advice on the card in question as well as links to explanations of more general terms (such as “Banding”). Pretty much every aspect of a card is clarified, with no “comedy” entries such as “If you don’t know what a land card is you shouldn’t be here“. Further icons displayed on each card make it easy to see at a glance if the creature in question is able to fly, trample, or has any other notable abilities, and if you forget what any of these little glyphs mean hovering the cursor over most elements will quickly bring up a tooltip explaining their purpose.
In fact the entire UI is quietly excellent. All currently castable cards have their names highlighted in yellow, making it easy to see at a glance which cards you have enough free mana to use. Anything that has multiple phases to it, from turns in general to combat and spell/counter casting, is accompanied by a set of icons showing exactly which step you’re at, what’s coming next, and what’s triggering right now, so even if you do end up annihilated by an unstoppable cascade of cards you can at least see what happened and try to learn from it. And if you can stop it the game automatically pauses without any prompting, so there’s no danger of missing a chance to mitigate damage or sneakily counter a spell before it resolves.
Magic is so comprehensively player-focused it’s even possible to casually drag the cards around your play area, arranging every individual piece—and even several UI elements—so they’re exactly where you want them to be. Want your lands spread out all over the place? Like to keep your artifacts elsewhere? It’s your screen, and you’re free to put these things wherever you like.
Most importantly of all, the AI is bound by the same rules and restrictions as the humans they compete with. They’re pulling from a fixed pool of cards and using them in the same way, and there are no instances of an opponent “just so happening” to pull out the exact card that would win them the match at a crucial moment, or “suddenly” having a suspicious run of mana-giving land cards after a long drought for “balance’s” sake. Win or lose—and I’ve lost a lot—Magic in its PC home always feels fair.
Rounding out the package is Shandalar, a self-contained RPG-ish game that plonks you, a blank slate of a wizard (you can select a few different looks in the base game, and customise these characters in Spells of the Ancients—although they tend to look either awful or ridiculous), into the titular realm with the aim of stopping five other evil wizards from taking it over. At the beginning you select your starting mana type (which determines the basic deck you’re given), although after that there are no in-game restrictions on which cards you can earn/buy/find and then add to your deck.
The land of Shandalar reflects the fundamental building blocks of Magic’s rules: You’ll fight randomly appearing (although they have to chase after and touch you to trigger a fight) wizards and monsters with blue-type decks by the coast, encounter enemies wielding green mana decks in thick forests, and battle fearsome necromancers in forsaken swamps. The towns and villages dotted throughout this realm offer simple timed quests “Take this to my brother in [place] within four days“/”Defeat a [local enemy type]. You have three days.“, etc. and shops selling cards mostly related to the land type they’re located in. These shops may even offer suggestions: “If you buy this and use it with [card] already in your library, you can [do cool thing/more damage]“, saving you from constantly shuffling through your collection to check for potential synergies.
But this isn’t a static world waiting for you to save it. Those wizards have loyal minions working for them, and they’re all dynamically trying to take over the land while you’re in it. If they conquer a town you had a life-boosting mana link with you’ll get weaker—and you can’t be everywhere at once. So do you strengthen your position locally, explore in the hopes of finding powerful cards, or do you make a beeline for a distant location after being warned a remote city’s under attack by a sorceress?
The dungeons stuffed with loot and wizard castles filled with dangerous opponents can be found along the way, each one existing within their own randomised play area, with corridors (and static enemies) revealed based on your avatar’s line of sight. A little exploration is often useful, as beneficial effects can be found lying on dungeon floors, granting some extra life or a helpful starting card—although these are in finite supply and only apply to the next match, so you have to decide whether it’s better to have a slightly easier time now or later.
At first Magic: The Gathering’s shared name felt like something a disservice to the excellent game it’s tied to. The game deserved better than to stand under another’s shadow. But if I think about it a little more, it all makes sense. It’s called Magic: The Gathering because it is Magic: The Gathering. Everything’s resolved via decks, and those decks work the same way anyone aware of the card game would expect them to (era-appropriate rules, of course). There’s always the option to play a plain old game of Magic with any deck you care to imagine from the cards available (all 400+ of them in the base game), and the Shandalar mode offers an enjoyable, unpredictable, and authentically Magic quest to pass the time with that’s unlike anything else.
The only significant issues here aren’t even the game’s fault. Magic debuted at a time when Windows 95 was the latest Microsoft OS around and is one of those games that’s extremely fickle on anything past Windows 98 (from my own testing it mostly works on one XP machine, won’t start on another, and installing it on anything more modern that is a complete waste of time). To make matters worse there seems to be no sort of process limiter on the game, meaning its base speed is always as fast as your PC can manage—a game created for ordinary 25 year old PCs, making it a challenge to play on some machines (including virtual ones, in my limited experience) it does start on. A modern fan [re]made version of the game does exist, although every version of it seems to include later cards and altered artwork, meaning the original experience is sadly still left locked on older hardware. The one bit of good news is the game’s is definitely worth the effort required to play it.