When you download the free-to-play game and boot it up, you choose what kind of Planeswalker you are, and what color of mana you identify with most. That gives you a starter deck of 40 spells filled with figures and spells that you can cast. You as the Planeswalker appear on a grid and summon creatures to fight for you, and you are pit against another spellcaster who summons his own servants. Each creature you summon has specific abilities that feel similar to Magic but are slightly adapted to the 3D tactics environment. Flying creatures can only be attacked by other fliers or ranged attacks, while Vigilance prevents defending creatures from counterattacking. Because flanking confers an automatic critical hit doing double damage, commanding your creatures is a challenging tactical puzzle. Each creature, or figure, as they are called in the game, has a zone of control around which prevents movement around it, and this becomes important for maneuvering around the large figures which take up 4 squares on the grid.
The interface in the beta has been streamlined even since I played MTGT in Denver, but it still takes a bit of getting used to if you are familiar with the card game. On the left is an initiative board that displays when the next creature or spellcaster will act, which is really helpful. Even though the nameplates hovering over each creature can get a little busy, SOE has generally done a good job of only showing relevant information while hiding more details a click or two away. Clicking on any spell brings up a card that shows all of the figure's statistics or tells you what the spell does. By clicking on the opposing player, for example, you will learn what spells he has cast in the battle so far in order to predict what kind of spellbook he has or whether to expect another Giant Growth.
The rules for combat are a little different than Magic. In order to build up play over time, each turn you generate 1 additional mana. So on the first turn, you will generate 1 mana, while on turn five you will generate 5. You can save mana up so that you have more for the next turn to cast that big devastating spell. Spellbooks with more than one color of spells in them will determine what kind of mana is generated. If you have 60 percent blue spells and 30 percent black, you have a 2 in 3 chance of generating a blue mana. It sounds radically different, but it basically plays out like a Magic game except you can never be mana-starved. Which is a good thing.