Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

My Weekend With MicroProse’s 1997 Magic The Gathering Game

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I was an avid Magic: The Gathering fan since the day it released.  While I jumped in at the tail end of Unlimited, the first run of the game, my friends and I really jumped in at the Revised edition that combined a majority of the core Unlimited set and integrated the then two expansions Arabian Nights and Antiquities.  If you are a Magic: The Gathering first release player, the most intriguing, powerful, and expensive cards exist in the pre-Revised era.  This is why when Microprose released Magic: The Gathering game in April of 1997, which was based purely on the Unlimited set, my friends and I were ecstatic.  Couple that with the reduced price update, Spells of the Ancients, that added Arabian Nights and Antiquities in September 1997, we all had nostalgia for a game that was only about 4 years old.  I think the biggest factor is the what Magic: The Gathering is – a card-based game that lives and dies by the introduction of new sets and consistently selling cards to players – and the fact that these early power cards were super expensive and we all wanted a way to play with them, that I instantly migrated over.  Furthermore, it was the first true Magic: The Gathering video game (all other attempts were other types of games with M:TG skins) that gave you everything you wanted: deck construction, online play, tournaments, and even a pseudo-RPG called Shandalar.  It’s now available to play on modern systems, and free (provided you are willing to skate legalities), and I had a chance to jump back into one of my favorite high school PC games.  For those not familiar with Magic: The Gathering, the next portion of this article is a brief history and explanation of the game (not how to play), but if you’re familiar, feel free to skip to the game section that follows.

M:TG and Me – A Brief History of Magic: The Gathering‘s Emergence

mtg_cardback_originalBack in 1994, when I was only twelve years old, I had a slew of hobbies that included video games, comics, and hanging with friends.  These interests all converged with a local shop called Hometown that was somewhat of a glorified comic shop that contained candy, a hangout for my friends, and occasionally the older (probably early 20s) guys that ran the store would play video games behind the counter.  I idolized them because they had money and what I perceived as the best job a person could have.  One day my buddy Chris and I headed up to the shop to look at all the expensive comics available for sale because I had some extra money (FuncoLand trade-ins for cash were huge back then) I hoped to use and buy something of extreme value to me (at the time Amazing Spider-Man #300 – the first full appearance and storyline of Venom – and The Incredible Hulk #181 – the first full appearance and storyline of Wolverine – were up for debate).  We walked in to find all of the guys who worked there, save for one unlucky sap who had to work the register, were in the back of the store all huddled around a card table they had set up.  They revealed a game called Magic: The Gathering and that it was, basically, Dungeons & Dragons in a card game.  Needless to say, we were intrigued, especially because any attempts to figure out and play D&D on our own (rule set 2.5) had resulted in utter boredom and failure.  After watching a handful of games being played, we purchased a starter pack for $9.99 that came with 60 cards (including 3 rares) and a thick rule book with like font size 2 (it had to fit in the starter box).  The next 3 weeks were sitting at home and self-teaching ourselves to play the game.

Magic:The Gathering has never been about contention with the cards you have, and even back in the beginning the game was expanding on a regular basis.  To put it in context, my friend and I got into the game in March of 1994, which is less than six months after Unlimited released and already Arabian Nights and Antiquities had come out.  It should be noted that because Magic had not taken off to the mainstream until the back half of 1994 and 1995, when Revised and eventually 5th Edition become commonplace, most shops didn’t carry the expansions until Legends (premiered in Summer 1994).  In fact, when I played Revised with my buddies, we noticed the new cards added and the removal of the power cards from Unlimited, but we had no idea these were from expansion packs.  This type of expansion meant that you had to act fast when sets came out because by the time you saw Legends, core cards from Arabian Nights and Antiquities would already be out of print and worth between $50-$100.  The same would be true for Legends when The Dark came out and so on until current day.

mtg_front_originalOn a personal note, what I think is most significant about Magic: The Gathering is that it takes the concept of Dungeons & Dragons and breaks it up into 5 basic color schemes that have personalities of sorts.  In addition, it differentiates itself from games like Pokemon or even Hearthstone due to the fact that often times cards – especially the early ones – aren’t scared to blatantly break the rules and that the entire game is based mostly on reacting to the state of the board.  You will not get very far in M:TG if you are not ready to interrupt points of your opponent’s turn with spells and effects, something that is completely absent from many other mainstream card games.  The reason that the power three early sets (UnlimitedArabian Nights, and Antiquities) are so notable is that they have cards that perform actions no longer allowed after Revised.  A few examples are: Time Walk allowed you to take two turns in a row, Chaos Orb had you drop it on the field and it destroyed anything it touched, Shahrazad had you play an entire sub-game within your current game, and Bronze Tablet let you steal any card from your opponent’s deck if you were playing for ante.  Of course the concept of ante, or gambling with a random card from your deck on the line of who won and lost, quickly became a nearly removed part of the game when cards less than 6 months old were jumping to more than a couple of hundred dollars like the “power 9” cards from Unlimited.  Still, these factors were notable and made for a card game vastly different than what exists today despite most of the rules remaining the same, which is why the draw of getting to play a digital game with these cards and rules intact was so fascinating and necessary for me upon release.

Microprose Does the Impossible: Makes a Legitimate M:TG PC Game

mtg_microprose_gameI remember walking into Babbages while roaming the mall with my girlfriend and seeing it.  Back then I rarely got excited when I saw these games because I had already seen and played Battlemage, which was an Acclaim published RTS and the sets had become so abundant and out of control that I had basically vacated the hobby.  I had more important things to spend money on: girls.  One of the guys who worked there walked up to me while I was glancing at the box – Babbage’s did a great job of featuring games with cool boxes like an art gallery – and mentioned that this was “the one.”  He and I talked for about 15 minutes about the “good old days” of Magic and how fascinating it was to get our hands on our first Mox (I got my Mox Emerald as a graduation present from junior high) or how awesome it was running a black deck with Juzam Djinn (considered one of the strongest cards in the game for the first few years).  Since then Magic had expanded significantly, by 1997 5th Edition was out as were 12 expansion sets and tournaments had begun what was called “Type 2” play that banned all cards not within the recent core set and “block” of 3 expansions.  It became a game you had to drop hundreds on every year to even have a pool of cards to play, I couldn’t keep up despite having a job at the time.  This game, he remarked, was different.  It was limited to only the Unlimited set, it was online, and it had a single player game (Shandalar).  He sold me on it by saying it was the game that Magic: The Gathering was originally designed by Richard Garfield to be (and in full disclosure, I’m more convinced these days that Garfield and Wizards of the Coast probably wanted to it to be what it became and not a core single set).  I bought it immediately for $49.99 and never looked back.  As I write this I still find it so amusing that in 3 short years we were already talking about the initial sets of Magic: The Gathering the same way I talk about NES and Atari VCS today, as some remnants of a forgotten time.  I guess that’s why I’m still so baffled that Magic: The Gathering remains so prominent, because it evolves at an exponential rate.

mtg_microprose_deck_builderThe first thing any “old school” or “classic” player does when they boot up the game is immediately jump into the deck builder and make the deck we could never afford.  Even back when the game first came out, a deck with some of the more rare cards would still run you several hundred dollars.  The next thing to do is run up against the computer, which would demonstrate a few things for me: could the AI hold up to concept of how to play this somewhat complicated card game to the degree I could and was it able to beat a nearly scientifically perfect deck.  You see, with the limited set of 302 cards in Unlimited, a handful of which are not in the Microprose game, it was easy to find the deck construction that could nearly beat all others.  Needless to say I was somewhat impressed with the fact that the computer could actually play the game, but of course my deck stomped it and I could see several instances where the AI was lacking.  So then I went online.  The online world was somewhat robust thanks to the Manalink service that came included with the game and especially in the first two years I was able to find a game with ease.  Of course like most games, the users will weed out the bad eggs and a few humored my deck or brought one similar with their own flair, but eventually people would catch on that I was playing the predictable “god deck” and quit the game.  That was when I had to go back to square one and I hate to admit it, but eventually I got bored of the conceivably endless online portion simply because I the inclusion of only the Unlimited set meant there were few decks to create and play.  This sent me to the RPG-like Shandalar game where I spent hundreds of hours in the future.

Shandalar was basically an isometric view dungeon crawler with a basic (but quite large) overworld and a scattering of dungeons about.  You could select a custom wizard, choose a primary color (although most decks required multicolor), and basically roam the world picking up random cards, battling mages for ante (yes, it was in this game), and discovering the more powerful cards in dungeons.  The limitations of how Shandalar worked allowed me to think on my toes and make the most of the more basic cards in the series, eventually leading to seemingly weak commons being coveted assets.  It was also a long game (assuming you don’t look up speed run tips) that had you trying to beat high end mages and basically led to an uphill battle that I could only succeed by save spamming.  Shandalar was Magic with a random element and forced you to think on your toes.  It’s what I love about Magic and what I still think separates it from Hearthstone the most.

mtg_shandalarThis grew slightly when the Spells of the Ancients set released later in 1997 that included a majority of the Arabian Nights and Antiquities cards, which did bring back my urge to play the game online again, but eventually fell off just like before.  Shandalar updated to include these cards and almost re-created a new game given the uproot of new combinations for decks and starting more common cards.  It’s also interesting because Arabian Nights was all about balance cards that would be really powerful but also sting you back while Antiquities focused heavily on colorless artifacts, both of which breathed new life into the core set.  As expected, it enhanced the video game just as it had enhanced the card game.  In 1998 there would be a final release of Duels of the Planeswalkers that combined the first two releases and introduced a heavy AI upgrade and two more expansion sets: Legends and The Dark.  This is significant because I basically started walking away from Magic: The Gathering in public events after the release of The Dark.  Most of the groups I played with at other card shops, friends, etc. had agreed to stick with only a somewhat limited set in the interest of money spent and in truth, many of the card shops we went to were fine with that because they could limit the stock of packs/singles they stocked and reduce the shop’s liability.  In short, Duels of the Planeswalkers provided me with almost every card I had ever played with and did so with online battles, booster drafts (tournaments set up with random cards pulled from unopened packs, something integrated into the game with Spells of the Ancients), and a single player campaign.  I was set.  That is, until after Windows 98 when the program became all but incompatible with modern machines.

Resurgence: Magic has Returned to Modern Machines

It’s one of those things you do from time to time as a retro gamer: perform a quick search to see if a beloved game from your past can be played again.  You might be shocked to learn that in contrast to fan translations, most of the time someone somewhere figured out how to hack your old game to work on modern screens.  In the case of the Microprose Duels of the Planeswalkers it was updated a bunch of times and now comes back with Windows XP-10 support, online, a ton of cards that have released since, and of course all the features that used to exist.  Given the legalities of all of these files, I cannot provide a direct link here (and wouldn’t want to so that it makes the likeliness of such files getting pulled greatly reduced).  Either way it let me go back and see if the game holds up.


I’m happy to say that it totally does.  As someone who has continued to play Magic: The Gathering content, including up until recently the annualized Duels of the Planeswalkers games, it was an easy transition to jump back into things.  What I find most compelling about the game, even today, that Wizards of the Coast (publisher) doesn’t seem to get in its current annualized releases is that this game gives me cards I’m familiar with and like to use as well as not costing me more than the initial cost of the base game.  Today the games have the free-to-play model in full effect as well as forcing you to eventually buy something if you want to progress or play online, which if I wanted that I would go buy cards again.  Additionally previous years wouldn’t allow you to open packs, build a complete deck from scratch, or feature a large set of cards.  How ironic that one of the first versions of the game on PC and the only true version of the game that knew how to play the card game in video game form still remains the definitive release.  I was able to construct a myriad of decks, far more than I could have ever imagined in the past, and even utilize newer cards I’d never seen before (or heard of).  I could take those decks online and play, although it could be difficult at times to find another player, but I still had fun playing these decks against the AI.  I’m also pleased to say that Shandalar has not changed a bit (doesn’t even have the new added cards beyond Duels of the Planeswalkers) and I still love it for that.  Finally after “settling” for the cheesy barebones versions of Magic or playing substitute Hearthstone, which is similar but still quite different, I’m able to go back and play pick-up games of Magic on my laptop.  It’s not quite as robust as I would have liked, but thanks to a dedicated community I can get my old game back.  Fun fact: I also recently discovered this was the last game Sid Meyer worked on before creating Firaxis, although I’m told his involvement was minimal.  Either way, I have my game back and I highly recommend any former or current Magic players check it out.

Written by Fred Rojas

January 25, 2016 at 11:00 am

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