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If you remember from my rundown of the best 5 games from E3, I was very excited to play Magic: The Gathering Tactics. At Comic Con 2010, I was able to check out the latest build and I was impressed with the changes to the UI and the new units. It’s clear that the team is in polish mode to get MTG Tactics ready for its release on the PC in early to mid fall, with a PS3 release in the spring. Like many of its online games, Sony Online Entertainment plans to release MTG Tactics at no cost, supporting it through sales of boosters and cards.

In Tactics, you play as a planeswalker, one of the wielders of mana that you personify when you play the Magic card game. You will definitely recognize some of the iconic characters from Duels of the Planeswalkers, such as Liliana Vess and Garruk Wildspeaker. Two planeswalkers face off on a battlefield grid, complete with choke points, walls and sinkholes that affect the movement and range of your units. You use mana to summon creatures onto the field, which then have their own spot in the initiative order. You can order your creatures to move up and attack the opponent planeswalker, who is busy summoning his own creatures to defend him or herself. The tactical combat is all about getting your units into the right positions to deal the most amount of damage before your opponent does the same to you. Creatures deal a certain amount of damage with every attack, but each unit also will retaliate when attacked, so it’s important to judge when it makes sense to press forward or wait on defense. Unit can retaliate only once per turn in the initiative, so you can sozk up the damage with a big heavy unit like Coal Stove without endangering the little guys like a Goblin Piker.

Even though the gameplay is vastly different from Magic, you might be familiar with many of the spells and creatures in Tactics. The abilities of spells and creatures will be a bit tweaked, however, to account for the tactical game. The Serra Angel’s Vigilance ability, for example, allows her to always retaliate. In the match that I played, I summoned a Shivan Dragon and a Bird of Paradise, which has an activated ability that gives a random color of mana to your pool. Mana is generated over time in turns based on the number of spells in your deck of a certain color. For example, if your deck is half white and half green, you would generate 2 white mana and 2 green many every turn. If your cards are 75% white, you’ll get 3 white mana and 1 green mana. You can save up mana to cast bigger spells; there is no mana burn.

The depth of the tactical combat was apparent immediately. Is it better to quickly summon small creatures or to wait to get out that big monster of a Timmy creature? Flying creatures can go over obstacles like other units and walls, so they add an important element to your strategy. Buffing with Giant Growth can be devastating as the opponent will not be able to see what buffs are on a particular unit. If you’re playing a blue deck, you can indeed Counterspell, but you must make the decision to counter the opponent’s next spell without yet knowing what that spell is going to be. This forces you to gamble on whether your foe is casting something big and worth countering, but that does mean you can counter a small heal.

“We’re looking for that surprise element, setting up ambushes and things like that,” Blaine Loder, the head of QA on MTG Tactics. “It might be a Counterspell waiting in the wings. You might cast your enchantment and then find out, oh that was countered.” In this way, it’s important to recognize what kind of mana your opponent is wielding and whether he might have the resources to screw with you.

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What you choose to put in your deck is also very important. MTG Tactics gets rid of the random draw element and instead allows you to pick 5 spells to take with you into battle. Usually, would have 5 copies of each spell at your disposal and can cast any number of them per turn, assuming that you have the mana. As you level up your planeswalker, you gain more spell slots, so that at level fifty you might have 10 or 12 different spells at your fingertips. You want to play with different planeswalkers, you will have to level up each one.

Some spells, though, will be a bit more restricted. “That’s going to be determined by rarity of effect,” Loder said, taking a cue from the card game. “Black Lotus, for example, has always been on the restricted list [in Magic]. You can’t run with four of those, that’s just silly. There’s going to be a few things where we’re going to build that in right away and say, ‘That’s a one-off. You can put one of them in [your deck].’ You may have more, but you only get to put one in in this particular format. We just think that’s going to be a lot easier to deal with.” I appreciate the notion that having four of a super rare spell doing a spectacular effect will not be able to be used against me 5 times, and it’s cool that this design element has an analog to the card game.

The metagame features are what’s going to keep this game alive. When MTG Tactics is released early to mid fall 2010, there will be a campaign featuring a storyline that travels across a map with many locations. A daily mission will allow some variety in the kinds of PvE combat you can do. You will, of course, be able to duel other players online and the matchmaking system promises to pit you against appropriate opponents. There is a store available through the game which will allow you to buy boosters of cards to add to your arsenal, the price of which will be comparable to buying a pack of Magic cards at your FLGS. SOE plans to release new content periodically (don’t they always) but it hasn’t been decided if that will necessitate a subscription fee or if just buying boosters will make you eligible to download the new hotness.

I was keen to find out more about the auction house, where you will be able to buy and sell individual spells, as well as trade amongst your fellow players. “Initially, because there isn’t going to be enough of a [user] base, you are going to be able to buy specific [spells]. What we’re hoping is that the trading part gets as robust as other TCGs that we’ve done where anything you want is out there,” said Loder.

From what I’ve seen and played, MTG Tactics works on both a tactical and TCG level. If you’ve ever dreamed of Magic being played in a more tactical 3D environment, with creature’s mobility and ranged attacks coming into play, then Tactics is definitely in your wheelhouse. I’ve spent so much on Magic cards in the last few days here at Comic Con. Damn SOE and Wizards for providing me with yet another outlet to drop down dough to try to get that one mythic rare. Damn you!

Greg Tito’s luggage will be about 10 pounds heavier on the return trip due to Magic cards alone.

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