It sure is great that I’ve got some downtime for the next couple of weeks, because I’m about to have no time for the next year. I just rediscovered an old Magic the Gathering video game that’s been modded and upgraded. The 1997 game affectionately known as Shandalar, stands as the best Magic game to date. Not only because of its spectacular graphics, but because it’s a genuinely amazing game. I’m not being sarcastic, not even close. I have no idea how many hours I’ve sunk into this game over the years, but it’s in the hundreds. Probably not quite a thousand. Maybe.
Wizards have made efforts to replicate its splendour over the years, and while I’m sure they’ve been exponentially more fiscally successful, they don’t hold up to the quality of gameplay. Magic Battlemage and Battlegrounds were bizarre arcade style mash ups that never quite got there. Magic Duels of the Planeswalkers and Magic Duels were newer shells with better graphics, but no real form of storyline or progression. Magic Online seems to be the flagship product where you pump money in for digital cards. I surprisingly have never played it, but I hear nothing but complaints online. I’m sure it’s fine, but it’s just the game without added aspects. It doesn’t shine as a standalone narrative like Shandalar does.
So why is Shandalar excellent? Because it feels like an adventure. A lot of the game is played in an isometric world map view. You’re a mage aiming to free the land from oppressive rulers from each colour of magic. They all have a series of minions, from grunts to lieutenants, all with successively more powerful decks. You roam the world, doing missions for small towns. Along the way you’re challenged by these minions, some of whom have surprisingly powerful decks. They all play for ante, meaning winning or losing a match could mean you forfeit or gain powerful cards. You start with a pile of junk cards that eventually you can build up to impressive decks. You also begin with a hideously low life total that grows over time. That’s one of the defining aspects of the game, progress and growth. Sometimes you’ll narrowly win a match and win a card that makes your deck hum. It’s rewarding and feels like you’ve worked towards something.
There are also untold treasures to find. The kinds of cards you’d never be able to own in real life (unless you felt like sinking thousands into your collection. Black Lotus, all the Moxen, Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, etc. They’re found in hidden dungeons across the map. There’s a hell of an allure to use and abuse these combinations, cobbling together what you can and working towards becoming a dominant force. Get the Power Nine, free the land, ????, profit.
With all the upgrades, the game has only gotten better. There are so many bloody cards and finding the ones you want got even more difficult. It’s challenging, especially because the AI seems to have been given a major bump. Your opponents’ decks are far more powerful than they ever were, with clever interactions and themes. When you start with ten life and your opponent has a 2/3, a 3/3 and a 4/4 by turn four, it’s not an easy run. The more you play though, the more likely you are to be able to do degenerate things right back. A little dungeon crawling and BAM! You’ve put together a brutal suicide black deck complete with powerful modern creatures. Or some insane pile like this. So fucking great.
I don’t know if I’ve sold it well enough, but if you’re into Magic and losing the next couple of weeks of your life, be my guest.