Robert Chesley

Review – Magic: The Gathering: Tactics

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Did you try out that new free-to-play Magic: The Gathering: Tactics game yet? I did and here is what I thought.

Magic: The Gathering has been around for 18 years give or take a few months. Video game renditions of the popular game have surfaced almost from the beginning. In 1995, Microprose’s Duel of the Planeswalkers taught a whole generation how to play the game (Fun Fact: It was legendary game designer Sid Meier’s last project at Microprose). Later, there was Battlemage for the PSone that brought the game into a strategy realm. That game was notoriously bad. A few years ago, Wizards revived the Duels of the Planeswalkers game it is now a thriving tent pole in their digital game archive, so how does Magic: The Gathering: Tactics fare in bringing the property into the strategy game realm.

I played the game on the PC. It is easy to set up and download. As with most PC games, your mileage will vary on how your system performs. You can also download the game to your PS3. After installing the game, and getting the settings about right. I still noticed that my machine is really not capable of running this game. I chalk that up to my integrated video card. Regardless, I can run most MMO-style games just fine. The game was really choppy and I hope they get that fixed because it seems like the game would do really well on computers that are not as top of the line as most.

Magic: The Gathering proper is, in a nutshell, a game of resources and chess pieces. You would think this kind of mechanic would translate well to a digital realm. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always seem like that is the case. The hardest game mechanic that makes Magic such a great and timeless game is how resources are managed. Video games need to give the player more power quicker than a tabletop game. It is hard to balance good cheap cards with big, bombish, splashy cards. Tactics takes out the guess work in regards of resource management. The mana you have available to play your spells are all dependent on what kinds of cards you put into your deck. You are represented physically on the battlefield, something that isn’t done in the game proper. And creatures and spells will literally fly at your on screen avatar. This has been tried before on the Xbox’s “Battlegrounds” I never felt like this was an accurate articulation of the game.

You draw cards from a deck of cards (the game lovingly calls “the spellbook”) and you are free to add as many different kinds of cards you want, provided you own them. The game relies on micro transactions to fund itself. You can buy boosters and singles from a robust marketplace. This is how the model hopes to make its money. While I am positive you can play the entire single player experience without spending any money on this game, if you want the best cards and the coolest effects for your spellbook, you’ll need to pony up some real dough. The online tournament scene is likely to have the same kinds of sharks that are present in your typical Magic scene. You want to win? Expect to pay and trade a lot to build the right spellbook that works for your playstyle. I’m not entirely sold on this model for a strategy game. While it makes sense for something like paper or online Magic, forcing your players to get cards that are obviously better than those offered in the game already, really makes your opportunity to grow a thriving community really hard.

Speaking of online, you’ll find a lot of really unique options that you don’t see too much in customizable strategy games. You have tournaments or free play. You can play for prizes for more digital objects to better your spellbook. You can also participate in drafts, which is one of my favorite aspects of the game. The idea that you get to pick your spell book on the fly and play against others doing so in the same fashion is something I wish these games would bring to the table a lot more. I have a lot of fun playing online in tournaments in the regular game and seeing this being ported over is great. The problem is I have a hard time spending real money on the product. I mean, yeah, I like the strategy involved and I like the world they have constructed, the problem I see is it will probably have a hard time keeping pace with much better strategy games and much better online games.

So on with the bullet list:

Decent transition to a strategy game. It works. The game takes the best parts of the trading card game and innovates in the customizable strategy game genre.
Robust Online community. This game is meant to be played with people and you can guarantee that you’ll rarely have the same game twice.
Infinite worlds, Infinite possibilities. You can build many spellbooks. Even with those only included in the free version.
Easily expandable. Seems like when multiple expansions come out, you’ll be able to really find some cool and interesting games.

Doesn’t run well on slower computers. Seems like this game is made to be played by as many people as possible. My computer isn’t that old and runs other similar looking games just fine. This was really choppy. But it isn’t really a negative point

Pricey. Yes, the base game is free. Yes, you don’t have to buy any other packs of cards. But what makes the game most appealing will probably be cards that are only available from buying boosters.
Not the best interface. Seems like there is a lot of wasted space on my screen.
Not exactly the card game, but not really a strategy game either. Leaving strategy games to “luck of the draw” doesn’t seem to be very genre friendly.

Overall, it’s a free game and it is very hard not to recommend a free game. It also has a very interesting pay model that I would like to see in other games. I don’t know if I can recommend drafting in the game when you’d have to pony up about 16 bucks for only about a day’s worth of game play out of it. But, for a little cool distraction you could do worse.

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