Published on August 31st, 2012 | by Abra Kapocus0
“Welcome To Shandalar” – Microprose Magic: The Gathering CD ROM
Before aficionados of Magic: The Gathering were graced with the release of MTGO to get their fix of e-wizardry, there was Microprose’s first effort to bring the world famous collectible card gaming phenomenon to the PC in 1997. The game is most known for its adventure mode, which is largely what I will be covering. I’m going through this review with the assumption that readers know the rules to Magic: The Gathering, just so I can avoid explaining them, as well as the effect of the cards. There is so much to this game, and even without explaining the rules I simply can’t fit it all here.
Meet The Guardian, the master of five guilds each representing the colors of magic, and the immortal protector of the plane of Shandalar. Before our story even begins, we learn that the five guild leaders turned on him, killing his body, over false promises of power and glory from the evil planeswalker, Arzakon. Arzakon’s insatiable lust for power and domination have taken him all over the multiverse, and have ultimately led him here to Shandalar. With his masterful cunning he has fooled these five wizards into partaking in a spell that will shatter Shandalar’s protective barrier and allow him to waltz in and have his way with the place. Are you, the player, just going to sit back and watch that happen? Didn’t think so. Now dry those tears, change your pants, man-up and play some cards!
When you start your adventure, you choose from one of four difficulty levels; Apprentice, Magician, Sorcerer, and Wizard. The level chosen determines the life total of enemies during duels, as well as the quality of their AI. Next you choose the color of cards that you want to start with; red, white, black, green, or blue. This is also affected by the difficulty level you choose, as it determines how many extra colors you are given in addition to the one you picked. It also affects how many cards of each color are given to you, which can have a drastic impact on your ability to not only build upon the colors you wish to use, but to expand to other colors. Picking a higher difficulty may mean that it could take a while before you even have a fully functional and survivable deck, but a lower one will pretty much give you a decently playable deck from the beginning.
Finally, after you’ve picked an appearance and named yourself, you are thrust into the plane of Shandalar, with nothing but a few gold pieces, some food and provisions, and a randomly assorted deck. The overworld may remind you of isometric PC classics like some of those in the Ultima series or even certain SNES RPG’s. You’ll notice many colorful characters roaming about, but those aren’t townspeople. They’re scared and hiding in the confines of their villages. No, what you see are the creatures sent by the five wizards to halt you in your progress – not by assailing you with magic missiles or flailing blades, but by playing cards, of course. As you play you can acquire more cards in a variety of different ways, such as buying from shops in the various towns scattered across the world and winning them in duels with the creatures that roam the land.
You’re essentially given free reign to build any deck you please with the cards you obtain, just like in the actual card game in real life, and trust me, deck building skills pay off here, too. While editing you can sell any card that you don’t need for extra gold to buy more cards, buy food, or pay off creatures you don’t feel like dueling – which is a handy feature if your ante is something precious that you’d rather not risk losing. Did I mention there were antes in this game? Because there are. And they’re chosen completely at random. If you lose the duel, you lose your ante, but if you win you have your choice between 2-5 random cards from your opponent’s deck, or a clue to one of the various dungeons which hold some of the restricted cards like Black Lotus or Time Walk.
As you defeat creatures of various colors, the five mages which correspond to the colors of those creatures will “take a hit” in their life totals, which varies depending on your difficulty level. Eventually, you will have to face each of the five wizards in their castles for an epic showdown, after which you will be awarded any three cards of the color that you have beaten, and you no longer need be bothered by creatures of that color. Be warned, however, that some creatures belong to more than one of the wizards, so you have to take out more than one of them to stop seeing certain creatures. After all five mages are beaten into dust, you get one last chance to adjust your deck before you face Arzakon himself.
Compared to the world outside of this game, the sets of cards to choose from is fairly limited. The sets featured are Alpha, Beta, Fourth Edition, Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Chronicles, and The Dark, and even among those the selection is a tad sparse, to be sure. Veterans from the older sets will certainly recognize many cards that are missiong. Additionally, the game also hosts a set of special cards that were made only for this version, as they feature random effects that could not possibly be chosen during conventional person-to-person duels. The most annoying of these is a blue enchantment called Power Struggle, which randomly swaps two permanents of a single type between players during each passing upkeep. It makes keeping things on your side, and even the most basic act of casting spells, extremely problematic, and I hate it with a passion.
I’m just going to come right out and say it: I love this game. I played the holy hell out of it during my middle school years when I was truly obsessed with Magic. I remember getting it for Christmas one year, and then just spending my entire vacation in front of the computer pigging out on Reese’s mini cups. As expected, I recently had a huge nostalgia boner for it, so I had to get my hands on it again. The best part was that I came to it with a much more learned perspective for deck building. Instead of cramming every card of a given color into one deck like I used to, I streamline all three of my decks to one simple focused goal and keep them as close to 60 as I can get. I also have a true appreciation for just how useful some cards were, because I used to scoff at cards that required you to sacrifice creatures or take damage yourself. I remember being crazy frustrated with loss after loss to pithy little creatures because I could never draw the cards I wanted. This has a real life parallel, by the way. The larger your deck is, the lesser chance you have of drawing the cards you need.
The game does not come without its fair share of glitches and problems, unfortunately. Some cards that require an untap cost during your upkeep, such as Paralyze or Mana Vault, seem to be invariably skipped before you have a chance to act upon them. This seems to render Paralyze a rather broken card for your AI opponent, but you can be certain that any opponent that uses Mana Vault will leave it tapped forever, so you need only outlast their life total as it’s chipped away at by 1 every turn. The only way around this – and seriously this is very easy for most people to miss – is to right-click on the “Upkeep” icon in the area of the screen that displays the various phases of the duel, and check the “always pause” option so that you can actually address the cards with upkeep functions. Cards like Dark Ritual are rather tricky at first glance, because it doesn’t immediately use the black mana generated as colorless mana for the spell you need to cast. To mitigate that, you need only click in the area of the screen towards the left which displays how much mana of each color is currently in your mana pool. This is rather unintuitive, as there is little to no indication that you can even do this during a duel.
Players will also be quick to realize that the game’s programming seems to overwhelmingly favor the AI, meaning that most of the time your opponents will pretty much always have every card they need for any given situation, provided it’s in their deck, and will usually always have enough mana to cast it. Fight an Elvish Magi, and it’s always the same thing. First turn forest, summon Llanowar Elves. Second turn drop another forest, summon Elvish Archers. Third turn drop another forest and play War Mammoth or Giant Spider depending on what your side of the board looks like. Fourth or fifth turn they’re practically guaranteed to have Winter Blast or Hurricane. White and red creatures are perhaps the most infuriating to duel, especially those who carry four Swords to Plowshares or red direct damage spells. You will find yourself having to cast at least four creatures before keeping anything on the board, period, because they always, always have at least three or four of those removal spells in their hands. Every. Single. Duel. On the flipside, even on the higher difficulty levels the AI is prone to real boneheaded mistakes, such as accidentally giving your creatures beneficial enchantments, randomly tapping lands without casting anything and taking damage from mana burn, and so on.
The gameplay itself, especially during the duels, is incredibly atmospheric. Every card you play has its own thematic sound effect. Even the pre-game coin toss has a grandiose presentation, so as to suggest apocalyptic stakes. I tell you what, for a game that simply appears to be intended merely as a marketing tool for the actual real life cards, it’s clear that a great deal of creative effort went into the music for Shandalar. It’s simply intoxicating. The art design for the world and duel interface clearly had a lot of thought put into it as well, and the dueling screen changes color and theme depending on the predominant color in your deck, which is a very nice touch.
The actual overworld is a breeze to navigate, and it comes with a set of collectable items called World Magics, which can make traversing the terrain (and other things) much easier. Controls are simple, just click the mouse in whatever direction you wish to move, and click your avatar to stop. In dungeons and castles the movement is based on a “fog of war” effect where you traverse Diablo-esque randomly generated paths one step at a time, which gradually reveal themselves as you progress. Also, it goes without saying to save early and save often. It’s a good thing you can save in towns, but you can forget about saving in dungeons and castles, and especially not duels. What are you trying to do, cheat? Or did your mom just call you for dinner? Okay, yeah, that’s fine, I understand — NOPE! You gotta do that whole duel all over again! No special favors for real life problems, I don’t care how good you were doing!
You would be amazed at how easy it is to break the game, given enough time. Blue is by far the most broken color if you have the right cards. The last deck I played with barely suffered any losses, and what few those were had resulted from not drawing enough mana sources. With four Time Walks and four Timetwisters, you have what basically amounts to a perpetual extra turn engine, which is precisely why those cards were restricted in vintage format and outright banned in every other. Just getting your hands on one Time Walk or Timetwister is a feat in and of itself, but after that all you need to do is make sure you hang onto them and find an enemy to repeatedly duel, such as the Elementalist, who will sometimes give you a free duplicate card of your choice as a reward for winning. From that point onward it’s just nonstop temporal masturbation.
Bottom line, this is a fantastic game. The old school 2d charm hits you like a nostalgic ton of bricks. It’s a spectacular romp for old school Magic fans who want to return to the simpler times of moxes and lotuses, and a great introduction for new players interested in exploring its roots. If you want to experience it, sadly the only way to do so on modern operating systems is to download the 2010 fan made torrent, but I can assure you that it’s well worth it. Pretty sure it’s abandonware at this point, too, so no worries. Download away and waste your time like the good old days.