Have You Played… Magic: The Gathering?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Not Duels of the Planeswalkers, not the cardboard version – I mean MicroProse’s MTG game from 1997. Far less literal than DotP, it took Wizards of the Coast’s collectible card game into an open world RPG-ish thing. Your wizard roamed around battling monsters and winning cards to build a better deck, grow stronger, and challenge an ultimate evil, which was an interesting adaptation. But, as far as I can recall, this is the only video game I have ever returned for a refund because I didn’t like it.

First, the good. Battles were simply Magic: The Gathering duels, of course, but they took place amongst a larger war. As your wizard roamed the world map, growing your deck by plundering dungeons, duffing up bandits, completing quests, earning gold, and whatnot, enemies moved against you. Wizards from the five schools of magic sent out forces to take over cities, winning the game if they captured enough, so you’d need to keep them in check while building up to tackling them head-on. Building a deck in RPG-y ways and roaming around was interesting but… something was sorely lacking.

When the game came out, it only had cards from Magic’s early editions and expansions (plus a dozen weird purpose-made extras), putting it a few years behind tabletop Magic. Those years had refined and expanded Magic in (mostly) interesting ways, allowing oodles of fascinating decks. In comparison, the video game had a smattering of amazing cards and a whole load of trash. Coming from the tabletop game, I couldn’t stand these rubbish old cards and their dreary art. I returned it to Electronics Boutique.

Adam tells me he dug MicroProse’s game, but he had only heard of Magic before loading it. I wonder how different people’s experiences were based on depending on when they started (or stopped) playing Magic. So, have you played it?

[Thanks for the screenshot, Tony Van on MobyGames.]

34 Comments

Top comments

  1. CoyoteTex says:

    Hey - I'm blown away that this game is still being played. I was the producer / lead designer on the game and Sid was the developer for the Shandalar portion of the game (other devs did the card game UI, Sid did the AI).

    The folks at WotC were great, but when we started development, no one had any clear idea how the game mechanics actually worked in a way that could be coded (could an interrupt interrupt an interrupt? and silly things like that...). So many of the rules in the early paper card game worked because players agreed on an interpretation of a rule and stuck with it - but coders had to "know" how the rules worked - so months were spent with the WotC rules team (which didn't exist before the MicroProse game project revealed the need for a rules team) figuring that out.

    Then there were all kinds of discussions about whether the broken cards (Time Vault... Moxes, etc) should be left in for completeness or removed for balance (I lobbied hard for every card ever created to be included because....yeah, fun?).

    We knew the AI sucked. We knew multiplayer was essential and that people were going to go nuts when we shipped without it. We knew Shandalar was a pale reflection of the time and effort that had gone into MoM and Civ, but we had a mandate from above to ship the game for X-mas that year and it had been in development for too long and we simply ran out of time.

    But - the original idea was solid and if we'd had the time and resources that Microprose put into Civ or MoM, the game could have been exceptional.

    You can't imagine how weird it is to see people playing this 20 years later. Glad some people still enjoy the game. :)
  1. Ben Barrett says:

    I grabbed this a few years ago to stream it for a laugh. It has the most wonderfully terrible AI that will, fairly regularly, deliberately kill itself to avoid losing creatures. It’s quite excellent.

    • Aninhumer says:

      My favourite AI gaff is when it tries to do a bait-and-switch with Giant Growth, but then casts it on your creature instead.

  2. Doubler says:

    Pure nostalgia for me as this was my first introduction to Magic. Probably still my favourite Magic video game. I had a lot of fun with it at time, and it made me try the game proper. (I sucked at it)
    I introduced a friend to it and he made a literally unbeatable deck in the editor by abusing the power nine. Good times.

    • carewolf says:

      It is my favorite PC card game too. I have always hated the pay-to-win model of card games, but in this game you got cards by playing the game, it was play-to-win.. and it was the only pleasent way of playing Magic that I can imagine.

      Anyone know any other similar games?

      • Martin Carpenter says:

        Sounds quite like Etherlords 1? 2 is the one I’ve played. That turned different with mainly static enemies to clear from maps.

        Sorted the AI problem in an interesting way – the enemies are very gimmicky, bending the rules a bit at times. Ends up with basically a puzzle game from CCG combat. A lot of fun to be had breaking it :)

        That sort of play is single player only of course and its hard to imagine anyone really putting the effort in nowadays. Oh well.

  3. Anthile says:

    Is that the one with the tacky live action videos? If so, I remember renting this one from the library and loving it.

  4. suncrush says:

    Was it great? No. But, it was the best computer adaptation of Magic. The old DotP lacked replayability. MtG:O has all the expense of actual cards without the… actual cards, and Magic: Duels is free-to-play hell. So, yeah, best computer adaptation by a mile.

    • Enfuego says:

      I agree with Suncrush: Best adaption of MTG to date. The cards weren’t all there, but at least what was there was available from the start. The campaign was decent, but the deck editor was good, with different rulesets for different styles of play. I wasted days playing with friends when the glitchy multiplayer mod came out, and went back trying to make it work on newer OS’s when sequels weren’t forthcoming. Wizards were/are so afraid of losing the print side of the business that I don’t hold out hope for a better version.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      What makes Duels “hell” in your opinion? Just the fact that it’s Free to Play? I’ve played about 100 hours of it, gained 4 of almost every card and have paid for coins only once, about 20 quid, after about 30 hours. I’m really enjoying every aspect of the game. The only thing bothering me at the moment is that they’re taking their time with the expansion, but I have a huge stockpile of cards won from playing ranked matches to burn when they do! It’s probably the least pay-to-win of any f2p game I’ve ever played.

    • benkc says:

      Strongly agree. This is the only computer adaptation of magic that I’ve really enjoyed, and I do go back to it every, mmm, 5 years or so. It hasn’t aged well (and was buggy to begin with) but the fan patches linked elsewhere in these comments help a lot with that.

      I’ve played some magic-alikes with a campaign mode (Etherlords?) but none were quite as enjoyable to me as Shandalar.

      Also, I kind of fondly remember the awful error dialog that popped up if you tried to run campaign mode in Win2K. It said something like, “ERROR: Dave’s nifty timer widget only works in Win9x!”

  5. orionite says:

    This was the only Magic game (or oCCG) I truly enjoyed playing. I was never a competitive gamer, so magic online or duels vs other folks intimidated me. My memory of DotP is the primary reason for backing HEX, since that supposedly will eventually have a single player story mode.

  6. RanDomino says:

    Timely! There are a couple of Code-Magi working on adding more cards! link to slightlymagic.net
    It’s playable! And it only crashes every few hours! If you can get it to work, make sure you add rodil’s AI decks link to slightlymagic.net
    Only slightly less amazing, but far more stable, is the “Manalink 3.0” project, which lets you build decks and beat up on the AI, except about nine or ten thousand cards have been added, as well as Challenge Mode that adds deckbuilding restrictions and/or gives the opponent free cards and/or changes the rules.
    It’s built right on the old Microprose game engine, which is moderately terrible and the AI is idiotic, but if you want a game built from the ground up with modern rules enforcement, all the cards, and better AI, there’s also Forge: link to slightlymagic.net
    For some reason I don’t like Forge’s aesthetic as much and it doesn’t have Shandalar, but it does have Quest Mode which is a valiant effort at an approximation.

    • RedViv says:

      It’s a good approximation though, what Forge has. I’ve put Forge on my Android tablet now. It is too much power for one mere woman.

    • orionite says:

      I have been struggling to get slightlymagic to work a while ago. Always seemed to be missing one file or another. Maybe at some point someone packages this thing up so it can be simply unzipped.

  7. Shaun Green says:

    I also played a bit of this back in the day, and also didn’t care for it!

    I think I had played a couple of games of Magic with a starter deck and a similarly uninitiated friend prior to trying Microprose’s effort. My friends and I didn’t play much more beyond that foray because of the prohibitive cost of the cards.

    It was almost two decades ago so forgive my fuzzy memory, but I think I gave up on playing it because I kept getting bum-rushed by wandering creatures, losing the subsequent battle, and having my only good cards nicked. With some games I’d have persevered, learned the ropes and started afresh, but for whatever reason I did not with Magic.

  8. ArcusC says:

    If my memory serves me right, I believe Sid Meier designed this game, and that’s how I picked it up in the first place, knowing absolutely nothing about CCGs. I am still hoping for a more modern version of this. In the meantime I keep buying all the (digital) M:TG games I can find. Always a disappointment since they don’t have the whole Shandalar portion of the game.

    • Unruly says:

      You’re correct. It was the last game that Sid worked on at MicroProse.

  9. shagen454 says:

    How about “Have You Played… The Magic Candle?” Yes, yes I have thank you :)

  10. binkbenc says:

    Yep, bought, played, and absolutely loved this game (why yes, that is the box up on the shelf behind me). They did actually release an expansion adding loads more cards, but admittedly those were from the older sets. As far as I remember, this was pretty up to date when it came out as far as the core set goes. I think the plan was to carry on updating it along with expansions alongside the card game, but obviously it never got that far. I still head back to Shandalar every now and then (using the links an earlier poster mentioned), and it’s still great. I remember how disappointed I was when the modern M:tG games came out because they couldn’t do half the things the old Microprose game could.

    If you want a really crazy ‘have you played’ for Magic, you should try Acclaim’s Battlemage game. That was mental even then (and yes, that is the box up on the shelf behind me).

    • Scurra says:

      Battlemage – oh boy yes, now that’s mental. I too own that and the Microprose games (the base set and the two expansions.)
      And yes, no-one has come close to matching the Shandalar experience – DotP is trying hard but it is still far, far too linear. The brilliant thing about the campaign game was that you could wander into the Boss castles pretty much from the start (and get destroyed in short order, no matter how shoddy the AI was.) It wasn’t perfect (nothing is) but it is still an amazing achievement.

  11. Turin Turambar says:

    The irony is that I remember people seeing the campaign mode as that funny, weird thing that the devs got out of their asses, they just wanted the real deal, to be able to play Magic with all the rules and all the cards.

    Years later, lots of people remember fondly the adventure mode and they aren’t happy with the different “normal” Magic offerings, that offer just normal matches.

  12. JFS says:

    As said above, best Magic adaptation ever.

  13. sonofsanta says:

    I was only ever a casual Magic player at best, a lunch-times-during-Sixth-Form sort of player, so I only had old core cards anyway and was never aware I was missing much.

    The RPG element of building your deck was marvelously/horrifically addictive–you could never really plan a deck, as such, only aim in a general direction (e.g. black/green), and your deck grew organically and was all the more endearing for it. Finding a good card in a dungeon was often worth of a fist punch in the air.

    I also remember many hilarious Benny Hill chases across the map, both after and from various gribblies.

    • jenkins says:

      You have described my experience with both games precisely.

  14. Josh Millard says:

    Oh man, I loved this stupid broken wonderful mess of a game. The way it didn’t quite manage the rules right was the perfect reflection of the messy ad hoc way that learning on the actual cardstock in school left everyone with a slightly different understanding of just what the hell was going on at first. The AI was terrible, the balance was wonky, luck was often too much of a factor, and…it was just great at doing the weird overly-ambitious thing it was trying and not quite succeeding at. A charming failure.

    My favorite thing though was when a friend and I started digging around in the data files and discovered we could, with a little care, change significant chunks of text for the game by overwriting the original content. Renaming “Fireball” to “Assblast”, that sort of silly obnoxiousness.

  15. Fromage says:

    I loved the concept of this game and let me tell you why; no other version of magic, including the physical card game, have made the process of actually gaining the cards interesting.

    The actually gameplay is pretty meh, but to have a game that combines a ccg with Heroes of Might and Magic is a holy grail that no one else has come closer to, that I know of.

  16. Lachlan1 says:

    “But, as far as I can recall, this is the only video game I have ever returned for a refund because I didn’t like it.”
    Myst yesterday, now this.
    Are these recommendations any more? I do like the awareness raising, however.

    • Alice O'Connor says:

      Do you not see the bits about how it’s an interesting adaptation, and how Adam liked it, and what my specific complaint was, and how other commenters are responding? “Have you played…?” is a question, starting a conversation, and I clearly knew what the bulk of the answers would be.

  17. drewski says:

    I can tell this was the best, most faithful adaptation of Magic ever, because I was rubbish at it.

    In a time before interwebs theorycrafting, I had to actually figure out how to make decks work myself and I was (and still am) pretty rubbish at it. So I ragequit after about 5-10 hours of losing all the time to the second and third tier duels.

    But it was a good adaptation and I think that style of game would really work well now that there’s more widely spread resources for teaching newbies how to build good decks in CCGs.

  18. Unruly says:

    I got this game secondhand from a friend who had taught me the rudiments of how to play the actual card game. This was right around ’99, so the game was a couple years old then, and I loved the hell out of it. It was everything I wanted in a MtG PC game at the time, even if rules were wonky at times and the AI was a crapshoot of wondering if it would blatantly cheat or kill itself for you.

    I still play it to this day, using the Shandalar 2012 patch. It doesn’t work perfectly, but it’s functional for the occasional romp around the world. Such a shame that the craptastic 640×480 fullscreen is hardcoded into the game so they couldn’t make a windowed mode.

    But what I really wish would make a comeback is the MtG Interactive Encyclopedia. It is what it sounds like – a list of all the rules and cards released for MtG, which at the time was up to the Mercadian Masques set. As new sets came out they released update packs to add them to the encyclopedia. Then it had a deckbuilder portion and online play that was entirely player-dependent for enforcing the rules. Sadly, it only lasted about 2 years, with the last official update being for the Judgement set and the online portion being shut down in favor of pushing Magic Online. Third parties released card sets for at least another year after that though, but by that point it was only good for theorycrafting.

    • BlueTemplar says:

      If I’m not mistaken, the original game supported all 3 of 640×480, 800×600 and 1024×768 for its adventure mode (and any resolution you wanted during the actual duels);

      and the latest (since 2010?) (unofficial) versions of the game support running the adventure in a window, and the duel fullscreen using your resolution (but now this time with the ability to scale the minicards as well) :
      link to slightlymagic.net

  19. PhilBowles says:

    I liked the game at the time, when I also played the real game, and the campaign model had potential missing from more recent games – but being essentially restricted to the 4th Edition card set, with a small number of set decks – one for each enemy type – and, yes, appalling AI with no MP option, it was low on replayability to put it mildly.

  20. CoyoteTex says:

    Hey – I’m blown away that this game is still being played. I was the producer / lead designer on the game and Sid was the developer for the Shandalar portion of the game (other devs did the card game UI, Sid did the AI).

    The folks at WotC were great, but when we started development, no one had any clear idea how the game mechanics actually worked in a way that could be coded (could an interrupt interrupt an interrupt? and silly things like that…). So many of the rules in the early paper card game worked because players agreed on an interpretation of a rule and stuck with it – but coders had to “know” how the rules worked – so months were spent with the WotC rules team (which didn’t exist before the MicroProse game project revealed the need for a rules team) figuring that out.

    Then there were all kinds of discussions about whether the broken cards (Time Vault… Moxes, etc) should be left in for completeness or removed for balance (I lobbied hard for every card ever created to be included because….yeah, fun?).

    We knew the AI sucked. We knew multiplayer was essential and that people were going to go nuts when we shipped without it. We knew Shandalar was a pale reflection of the time and effort that had gone into MoM and Civ, but we had a mandate from above to ship the game for X-mas that year and it had been in development for too long and we simply ran out of time.

    But – the original idea was solid and if we’d had the time and resources that Microprose put into Civ or MoM, the game could have been exceptional.

    You can’t imagine how weird it is to see people playing this 20 years later. Glad some people still enjoy the game. :)

  21. jgrahl says:

    I wish the newer games were designed like this one. The current MTG games are just the card game in digital form. This version was actually what I consider to be a video game. I like it and have both versions with the expansions. It’s still installed on a working win98 PC with hardware from that era.