Return to Shandalar, or Magic Shows its Age

I went back to playing Shandalar, the old Magic: The Gathering game and was startled to realise how annoying it is to play.

Aeons in the past I played a red deck (full of direct damage spells) and mixed it up with whatever sounded cool. I can’t imagine how it must have played, because I had at least two colours in there and a lot of weird artifacts – it must have been quite weak.

Anyway, this time I decided to pick Black. The ancient classic Master of Magic (the best fantasy strategy game ever, yes it beats much more recent games) based its magic partly on Magic: The Gathering (red is Chaos, green is Nature, blue is Sorcery, black is Death and white is Life; Master of Magic also “borrowed” spells from Warhammer) and I while loved Chaos magic a decade ago, I now would prefer the indirect and “weird” Death (which was number two back then).

As I began the game, I lost repeatedly; the monsters that challenged me had more health and better cards, while I never seemed to draw enough “lands” (resources) and had to pass my turn. (Note that the AI is very good, applying all sorts of clever tactics during battle.) While I was struggling in poverty to best these creatures, my food steadily decreased, and the five evil wizards started capturing cities, which would soon lead to me losing the game.

Frustrated by hands full of spells but no lands to cast them with, I tore apart the starter deck they had provided me with and threw out a lot of the non-land cards. Immediately I started winning the majority of my battles, and managed steady income  selling the spoils of my victories. Encouraged, I shaped my deck, acquiring the cards I needed for a strategy I wanted to try: steadily playing Swamps (the black lands) each turn while destroying my opponent’s lands (with Sinkhole and Blight), fortifying with regenerating units (Drudge Skeletons and Walls of Bones) while wearing the opponent down (Cursed Lands and Warp Artifact) and building up to cast the big battle-deciding creatures (Cosmic Horror, Nightmare, Demonic Horde). Excluding the wearing down of the opponent, this was based on the “battlecruiser” approach I had read about.

Anyway, even with a more tuned deck, I find the streakiness of drawing all lands or all non-lands frustratingly common. This is the biggest  issue with the Magic: The Gathering structure that pretty much all modern CCGs have fixed. In the game you’re only allowed to mulligan (redraw your starting hand) if you have zero lands (I think this has changed for real-life play nowadays), and the single draw a turn won’t allow you to reverse a bad initial deal. While your mind is occupied during the play of the play of cards, you aren’t actually making that many decisions; most of the significant choices lie in the deckbuilding.

I find the real-time aspect of the game awkward and gimmicky, the UI is too mouse-reliant, and there are problems displaying all the message boxes on my modern computer. The idea of different monsters using different decks is a good idea, but it’s too annoying to build specifically targeted decks with an uncooperative interface and only 3 deck slots. I like the larger resource management of amulets, mana links (life), cards, and the five evil wizards trying to take over the world; however there’s a lot of luck in the game, and much exasperated reloading.

I doubt I’ll play Magic: The Gathering in real lifeas anything more than a lark, but Shandalar is a nice diversion on occasion.

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