Magic the Gathering Tactics Review

It may be artificial to use a grid or hex system to represent a virtual battlefield, but seeing those squares receding into the distance really gets my dice rolling. Strategy games that force you to think fast like StarCraft II are great and all, but I love to think about my moves before I make a terrible mistake. It’s the Bobby Fischer in me, I suppose. I’m the guy who spends way too much time considering words in Scrabble – the guy you end up pelting with letter tiles to just get on with it already.

I’ve been known to tap some lands for mana every once in a while, so I freely admit that I really, really wanted to like Magic the Gathering Tactics. Thankfully, the actual battles that are the bread-and-butter gameplay are great fun. There is so much exception-based chrome – that’s game designer speak for the fiddily bits that make one unit better or worse than another in a given situation – to make every move or attack meaningful, and that’s a sign of an excellent tactical game. Unfortunately, the rest of the game, such as the tools to build your own custom spellbook and the way the economy is handled, could still use a lot of work.

MTGT is both similar to the Magic card game and completely freaking different. Yes, you play the role of a Planeswalker, able to use different colors of mana (Red, Black, White, Blue, Green) to cast spells and summon creatures to defeat your enemies, but in MTGT your avatar actually appears on the game board with his or her own statistics, attacks and counterattacks. Being a tactical game, the focus is on combat, but MTGT preserves the ability to manipulate the situation with clever use of enchantments and sorceries. When you download the free game and boot it up, you’re given a few options for customizing how your planeswalker appears and which color of mana appeals the most to you. The customization is nothing akin to an MMO, so don’t get your hopes up, but it’s a fairly effective way to introduce you to the game.

The biggest concept to grasp, and a possible hurdle for many Magic players, is that, instead of specific lands yielding different colors, each turn you generate mana based on the color percentage of cards in your spellbook. So with a spellbook that’s half white spells and half red, you have a 50 percent chance of generating either one red or white mana on your first turn. On your second turn, you’ll generate two mana with the same chances, and so on. It’s a simple way to get around the lack of lands, while ingeniously creating the same increasing resource pool of the card game. This way, you can’t be mana-starved like you can in Magic, but you can still sometimes get screwed in the early game if the right color mana doesn’t pop up.

The goal of each match is to drop the opposing Planeswalker’s health to 0 from 200. You can summon creatures who run up and attack your foe, or use spells to buff up your creatures or do damage directly – Yes, I love me some Lava Axe. Each creature causes damage equal to its attack power, and can only take so much damage before it’s killed forever. If an attack doesn’t kill a creature outright, the target is allowed one counterattack for its full attack power so the game forces you to make sure to attack only when you mean it. I can’t list all of the special properties of each creature or clue you in on all of the combinations – the discovery is part of the enjoyment – but I will say that I get an extra squee when I move my Goblin Piker to flank the opposing Planeswalker and deal an auto-crit, even though the counterattack will kill him, just so I can Zombify the corpse the next turn. I’m so dastardly, sometimes it hurts.

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The starter spellbooks given to new players don’t contain anything fancy, but I liked that each has its own consistent flavor. Red spellbooks have lots of Goblin figures that are cheap to cast, and often have the Haste property allowing them to attack right after being summoned. Blue, on the other hand, has a lot more Flying creatures like Drakes and Thieving Magpies, and spells which manipulate the order of battle. These flavors generally follow how Magic plays, but there is almost a game itself in crafting the perfect spellbook from your collection of spells.

That’s where the fun breaks down. The interface just feels like clunky and old technology. You can’t drag and drop spells into a book, and the sorting display feels tacked on, with no way to search for a specific card. Sure, being able to see what a creature will look like on the battlefield is nice, but I would gladly trade that for a better set of tools. Forget about the in-game auction house; I think Zork had more features than the current implementation in MTGT. Is it really so hard to let me search for an individual spell and then sort by price? I guess it is.

Then there is the problem of pricing. MTGT is free to download, and that starts you off with enough spells to play adequately, but if you want to be competitive you must start purchasing booster packs of 10 spells each for 399 Sony Station Cash ($3.99). That’s roughly equivalent to a pack of Magic cards (if you consider that you don’t need lands) but I was still put off by the cost. When I went to play against other people with a starter deck, I was quickly outmatched by people who spent way more than I did on their four Serra Angels and Lords of the Goddamned Pit.

Ok, fine, I said to myself, I’ll just play through the single player campaign so that I’m matching wits against the AI. The first five missions are a really challenging series of battles with varying objectives that progress through a largely forgettable story – although it was cool to fight/team up with some familiar Planeswalkers. Again, the problem is pricing, as each campaign chapter after the first costs 5 dollars, which is too much even once you factor in the spell rewards added to your collection upon completion. If you want to play all 25 missions now available, you have to drop 20 bucks and suddenly this free-to-play game doesn’t feel quite so free.

The real kicker is that, again, you must pay for the campaigns if you want to stay competitive against human opponents. Why? Because MTGT has a talent system ripped off of Blizzard that quickly outmatches you against anyone who hasn’t fully invested in the game. You only earn talents through XP, which you only get from playing the single player campaign. The talents are split into each mana color, giving power ups to typical spells of that color, and are actually fun to min-max as you level.

But once I entered one of the tournaments that are always running, and realized that each opponent had the exact same talents, I saw that my special little snowflake of a Planeswalker had picked the wrong combination. Like WoW, the talents have become cookie-cutter as the community gravitates towards what’s perceived as the “best” build. SOE recently nerfed one particularly popular talent (Evil Ritual) but even after giving MTGT more than a month to mature and strike a balance, I feel that the game too greatly benefits the player with the limitless wallet instead of the superior intellect.

Just like Magic, I suppose.

Bottom Line: Magic the Gathering Tactics is a very well-designed tactical game surrounded by a mediocre economy and bad supporting interface. The skeleton is sound, and if SOE improved the musculature and skin, MTGT could be the six million dollar game.

Recommendation: Fans of turn-based tactical games or Magic will likely love the battles, and can overlook the balance and piecemeal economic features. Those with a passing interest could download MTGT for free to confirm that it’s about six months from being worth investment.

[rating=3]

This review is based on the PC version of the game.

What our review scores mean.

Game: Magic the Gathering Tactics
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Developer: SOE Denver
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Release Date: January 18, 2011
Platform: PC
Available from: Magicthegatheringtactics.com

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