Magic: the Gathering: Tactics

February 7, 2011

Magic: The Gathering has achieved what many games haven’t: it made gamers hooked, and it made them happy that they were. The game is wonderful at instilling a “just-one-more-pack” mentality that keeps the money rolling in for the company for over fifteen years now. It’s not a surprise that makers of free-to-play MMOs would want some of that Magic magic, and with Magic: Tactics, Sony Online Entertainment went for an official endorsement.

The result is a game that feels like a cross between Magic, Dungeons & Dragons and Heroes of Might and Magic. For some, that sentence is probably enough for them to rush off and start playing, but you seem to have stuck around, so we’ll continue.

Players start a battle in a small square grid with only their “planeswalker” avatar and a hand of spells. Each turn, an increasingly larger amount of mana is generated (randomly based on the colors in the spellbook, since there are no lands), and you use this to cast spells and summon creatures around you. Everything follows line-of-sight rules, so the early game is about posturing and finding tactical positions behind walls and such, while the late game sees battles between imposing monsters on both sides. The match is over when the planeswalker is killed.

As a framework, it works well. The team promises multiplayer battles and various twists on the formula as time goes on, but the current format is fairly basic. As for the interface itself, it could use some refining. The creatures look nice and convey the correct atmosphere, but the camera is wonky and just doesn’t have an ideal angle for viewing the action. You’ll have to keep moving it around as the battle progresses to keep seeing what’s happening. It seems like they could have implemented a standardized wide angle view to see the full board, as that would have helped tremendously. 

The spells and creatures themselves, though not identical to their card counterparts, feel the way they should. The shift to a tactical format means that effects like first strike and trample work differently, and randomized elements add an element of uncertainty that was removed without the possibility of instants. The team told us they wanted “Serra Angel to feel like Serra Angel” and “Lightning Bolt to feel like Lightning Bolt.” On that front, they accomplished their mission.

In true Magic style, there are constructed tournaments and drafts, as well as free play, but the game also includes single-player campaigns. The first chapter is free, and contains five missions. Each subsequent chapter is $5. Playing these unlocks spells for you to use, as well as small amounts of gold you can save up for tournament entry fees. There’s also a daily mission, and completing it earns two gold.

The tournament structure right now is what’s most troubling about Magic: Tactics. While the gameplay works fine, the interface for tournaments glitches up, adds unnecessary delays between rounds without notification, sometimes crashes completely and even fails to deliver rewards for winning or cards bought for drafts. We’re hoping these issues get ironed out soon.

No matter the mode you play, you earn experience that can be used to level up your character. These are small increases, like giving your creatures a 4% chance of having an extra ability when summoned or randomly generating an extra mana occasionally, so it’s not broken, but it does give some personalization to a game that starts everyone out with one of the same three spellbooks.

With a free-to-play title, there are really two experiences to evaluate: the free one and one you get with a reasonable financial investment. For free, you get a five-mission story and a somewhat repetitive cycle of daily quests, entry into a tournament every ten days or so and a significant disadvantage. (You could use gold to buy cards too, but two a day doesn’t buy much.)

Let’s say you invest $40, though. With that, you’d have the full 25-mission campaign with increasing difficulty and five packs to get competitive spells and use in a draft. At that point, it’s very comparable to retail titles, with a robust online mode and a single-player experience that lasts about eight to ten hours.

We think that Magic: Tactics is a good game with a $40 investment, and the free option serves as a robust demo. Just be aware that, with future expansions and additions, things can be both significantly better and significantly more expensive.


Score: 4/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.