That abstract doesn’t simply refer to the decadent headline, for which there will be no apologies, but the absurd popularity of Magic: The Gathering. The format-defining Trading Card Game, still the kingpin since creating the genre in 1993. Even as the game approaches its 22nd anniversary, the core experience of play-land-cast-spells-win endures and thrives and its continual relevance in both tabletop and the wider gaming industries is testament to its addictive qualities. But this glorious anthem isn’t without its dark depths, and while the physical game goes from strength to strength, its digital cousins have consistently failed to earn the same accolades.
While Battlegrounds and Tactics are noteworthy nonstarters, Magic Online (MTGO) and Duels of the Planewalkers (DotP) are perhaps the most widely-known varieties of digital Magic, and both have earned their detractors. DotP, structured as a gateway drug for the wider world, has been criticised for locking cards and decks into pre-constructed entities, denying the understated enjoyment of crafting your own decks of flavour and power, as well as regularly dropping features found in each previous instalment including alternative modes of play and multiplayer functionality. Whereas MTGO’s crimes are too numerous to note, but chief among them seems to be: Hearthstone exists, and does everything better.
MTG computer games suck. But it wasn’t always like this. This calamity is a fresh taste. There was a time before the Eldrazi. Welcome to Shandalar.
Magic: The Gathering, developed in 1997 by MicroProse and famously the last game Sid Meier worked on with the turbulent developer before forming Firaxis, also colloquially known as Shandalar after the game’s unique setting. Featuring cards from Alpha to The Dark sets and wrapping the card battling in an RPG shell, players are tasked with subduing the five wizards, each representing a segment of the ‘Color Pie’ and defeating the evil planeswalker Arzakon. So far, so trope.
To this end, players traverse the randomly generated plane, visiting towns and villages, purchasing new cards from shops as well as acquiring them by defeating wandering minions in a reminder that MTG first had an ante system. While the graphics are rudimentary, there is clarity far beyond the flashy hollowness of DotP, and the game’s aural elements follow similar, appreciated cues.
Shandalar isn’t pristine; the AI is deeply flawed, the encounter rate is intrusively high and, perhaps most galling of all, there was no multiplayer until the release of expansion Manalink. Heralded under a wounded MicroProse, the development was besieged with issues even after 12 months, and with no clear direction, Meier was brought in to stem the bleeding. While developer Arnold Hendrick was keen to emphasis the multiplayer elements, it was Meier’s lack of faith in multiplayer that resulted in the RPG structure, and it is precisely this that grants Shandalar its copious, undeniable charm.
Slowly optimising your deck and expanding your life total (from an alien starting block of 10) stoke your level-up flames without feeling as arbitrary as a traditional +1 stat boost across the board and, unlike the modern DotP titles, Shandalar adheres to the phase structure of the game with fanatic faithfulness – at least, as it was in ‘97. With this in mind, Shandalar is not necessarily recommended to newcomers looking to get a glimpse into how the game is played in 2015; lacking a solidly trustworthy representation of the stack, Moxes and duels were ten-a-penny and being a time when elder statespersons Shivan Dragon and Serra Angel still ruled the roost. The creatures may now be overshadowed by your Emrakuls and Griselbrands, but nothing beats Shandalar on providing that perverse joy of playing with Power.
Shandalar has aged well. From Reddit subforums to Retro Gamer, many have opined on the game’s lasting appeal with a fervour you would be hard-pressed to see applied to Wizards of the Coasts’ current digital line-up. Nor is this lack of enthusiasm exclusive to their computer games, with the IDW comics line cancelled, focus on lacklustre novellas being downsized and the upcoming Magic: The Gathering Board Game so far failing to distance itself from tactical board game contemporaries Mage Wars and Summoner Wars among others. The horizon does not look clear. But while we may lament the hands being drawn now, we can take comfort in the fact that MicroProse got it right the first time.
Magic: The Gathering takes place across a variety of planes, and if you’re a fresh faced vorthos, you might be wondering when Shandalar will be featured alongside your Zendikars and Innistrads. What you might be surprised to learn is that Shandalar is the setting for the annual Core Sets, being a handy catch-all without overwhelming a set intended for new and returning players in a whelming wheel of lore. With the Core Sets now being discontinued, 2015’s Magic Origins being the last, is it finally time for Shandalar to take centre stage with its own two-set block?