Friday, 08 May 2020 09:25

Magic & MicroProse: Remembering the first 'Magic: The Gathering' computer game

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The original 'Magic: The Gathering' computer game came out for Windows '95. The original 'Magic: The Gathering' computer game came out for Windows '95. WOTC/MICROPROSE

Magic: The Gathering – Arena has taken PC gaming by storm and there is a lot of buzz about the upcoming Magic: Legends action RPG for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.  But, putting the tabletop collectible card game of Magic into digital form is anything but new.

In this video, we’ll be taking a brief look into the history of Magic: The Gathering in computer and video game form.

Video transcript:

In April of 1997, the very first-ever Magic: The Gathering video game ever published came out for Windows 95 PCs.

Developed and published by the now-defunct MicroProse, the Magic: The Gathering computer game (contemporarily referred to as “Shandalar”) would be the final game with the company that the famed game designer and programmer, Sid Meier, would ever help to create.

The game featured a surprisingly good deck builder along with two game modes: a duel mode and a single-player campaign mode.

Duel mode plays out very much like a traditional game of magic with a coin flip determining who goes first.  After that, it’s pretty much as “old school” MTG as you can get along with additional cards from the Astral set, which is a Magic expansion exclusive to the computer game.  The layout is surprisingly clean with all of the pertinent information, including life total, creature stats, and so on, clearly presented on-screen.  It’s done so well, in fact, that players often pointed to Shandalar as the ideal standard for how a digital traditional game of Magic should look on screen.  While games were often played single-player against an AI controlled opponent, player-versus-player was available over the modem through an add-on appropriately named "ManaLink."

The game’s single-player campaign introduced players to the rogue plane of Shandalar via an overhead map of the plane’s supercontinent across which the player must travel from village to village and castle to castle, discovering hidden surprises and fighting (or fleeing from) adversarial wizards and beasts along the way.  In dungeons and castles, adversaries remain still rather than roaming.

Either way, encountering an enemy will typically enter combat via a modified version of the Duel mode with the player’s life tied to the number of “mana links” they’ve established throughout the game.  More mana links equals more starting life.  Likewise, the player’s deck is only as good as cards they’ve found in the wild, purchased from in-game vendors, or won from opponents.

Yup, you heard that right.  In Shandalar, ante is the way of the game.  Defeating a foe will win you some cards from their deck, though losing means they’ll take one of yours.  It actually turns out to be a good system to keep players in check against bigger, badder foes and serves as a deterrent from biting off more than one can chew.

Story wise, the plane is ruled by five tyrannical mages who are each vying to be the first to cast the Spell of Dominion, which they think will allow them to rule all of Shandalar for themselves (not knowing that the spell actually breaks the plane’s protective barrier keeping extraplanar beings such as planeswalkers from entering).  Should one succeed, you lose the game.  But if you’re able to defeat all five mono-colored wizards, the evil planeswalker Arzakon attacks you for foiling his invasion plans.  The end boss has grossly more life than you and, due to that, is considered unkillable.  Rather, upon defeat he’s banished from Shandalar for an indefinite amount of time with the player’s performance in the battle becoming their final score for the campaign.

MicroProse’s Magic: The Gathering spurred two expansions: Spells of the Ancients in September of 1997 which included cards from Arabian Nights and Antiquities along with AI improvements, and Duels of the Planeswalkers in June of 1998, which was an upgraded version of the original game and included 80 new cards from the sets Legends and The Dark.

The game was considered a relative success, selling more than 400,000 units by early 1999 and received generally positive reviews by outlets such as GameSpot and PC Gamer UK.

Shandalar is considered among many long-time Magic players as the gold standard for digital magic – even in spite of Magic Online and Arena grabbing all of the headlines.  Maybe it’s the nostalgia.  Perhaps it’s the exploration.  And maybe it’s because Sid Meier simply knew what he was doing by creating a well-made, true-to-the-source-material faithful representation of Magic: The Gathering in digital form.

Good game, Sid.  Good game.

What do you think of the original Magic: The Gathering computer game?  Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.

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