It’s rather difficult to provide an in depth treatment of Magic: the Gathering on iPad. It’s a game that has been around for (almost) 15 years. Personally, I still have one or two cards of the original Legend series out of my 4th edition deck. I stopped playing magic probably in the late 90s, as it’s always felt too much like an arms race for me. There’s that sense that unless you invest in the game, you can’t really expect to compete. It’s a brilliant marketing strategy (which is why it’s effectively defined the genre), but not always the most accessible game.
Magic is less of a game and more of an institution. I think the thing that I appreciate most about what it has created is it’s epic-scale of world building. Wizards of the Coast has a gallery of intriguing artwork of scenes, creatures, and beings that give life to many shades of the world. Additionally, they have a number of stories and side notes. Though they probably won’t rate up there with the literary giants, it’s amazing to see a game world produce stories!
Really… do I have to tell you how magic works? If you’re visiting this website, there is a damn good chance that the next few paragraphs are superfluous. Knowledge about Magic: the Gathering tends to be so highly saturated throughout the gaming community that most people learn it by osmosis. Seriously, place a deck under your pillow and you’ll wake up with visions and haunting voices.
So, um, the basics then? You are a mage, affiliated with one of five colours (which are short hands for themes of types of magic). Green is nature and growth, red is fire and destruction, blue is water and illusions, black is
cake and death and more death, and white is protection and healing.
Want to know what type of wizard you are? I have this handy dandy link that will walk through through a typecasting experience quicker than the sorting hat.
Your objective is to blast away your enemies with a variety of spells, creatures, enchantments, and artefacts. You have a deck of cards (your library) from which you draw new cards, you have a graveyard for discarded cards and defeated monsters.
Effectively, each turn you have options around attacking your opponents with creatures that you’ve summoned in the hopes they get past their defences and deal damage. This is where most of the damage tends to occur, and there tends to be a bit of a balance between getting your creatures out there and making sure you have enough stuff to defend yourself. Creatures can have various effects like ‘flying’ (can only be blocked under certain conditions), ‘trample’ (leftover damage carries over), and more. Creatures may also have non-generic effects with their particular rules written on the card for you (convenient!).
Beyond that, you can have sorcery (single-use effects you can cast during your turn), instants (single-use effects that can be cast almost anytime, and I damn well remember interrupts), and enchantments (standing-effects that can be cast during your turn); more recently auras are a type of enchantment that can affect creatures etc.
Outside of that you have land cards, which are your sources of mana (magic points). Anyone who has played Magic long enough knows the wonderful art of getting the right balance between mana and spells/creatures. Too few mana cards and you get mana screw… lots of interesting effects but no mojo to bring them into play, mana flood being lots of magic and nothing to cast, and colour screw being the wrong kind of colour. For a more in depth strategic overview on this issue, look here.
The above mentioned complexity is one of the reasons I don’t really play Magic anymore. I’ve stated before that one of the keys to understanding a game is that cards and pieces are symbols of rules. They are excellent shorthands for a complex idea that we have to comprehend to play the game. When a rule is so unique that it needs to be stated in prose on a card, and is also subject to interpretation you pave the way to rules lawyering being an integral part of the game. It is my personal experience, and one shared by a variety of people, that the depth and complexity around the interpretation of this game is itself a barrier to its enjoyment. I have generally found that people either get into this groove and absorb those rules relatively well, or just get flustered by it (and help you if you’re the later and at a tournament). Naturally, rules-intense games tends to attract a niche in our geekish communities, but will likely be a barrier to the broader audience. You will note that the earlier link on mana was part of a broader website that is effectively an academy to become a good magic player. That’s a gauntlet thrown right there, you have to study to have fun. It works for some, but not for all.
All of that digression is really to unpack a concern that I’ve raised previously (in Nightfall and in my interview with UNSW) about the translation effectiveness of card games onto the iPad. The size of the writing on the cards means that you’re more than likely going to need to zoom in on cards, and this comes at the cost of being able to observe the entire field of game play. I think this will mean that fans of Magic will just slip into a new mode of play without much thought. The cards are already familiar to them, the unique (and not so unique) tricks are on a checklist.
On the other hand, the digital medium is probably going to open the game up to people who have been vaguely curious about the whole affair but not really inclined to throw money at physical cards. A decent collection of magic cards is a library in its own right. So the ultimate question of whether this will make the entire game accessible to more casual players of magic will be a compromise of the lowered cost and resource dependency against the implicit barriers of this game to new players. I think this division will catalyse players into a like it or hate it grouping, but generally bring in more people interested to the game.
Oh yeah, about that implementation. Look, Stainless Steel games had Wizards of the Coast behind them (which ultimately means Hasbro). It’s got the money behind it to make it an excellent implementation. Lavish graphics, engaging sounds, smooth user interface, animations, voice overs and the works. There is a back bone of multiplayer support, and amazing levels of support detail for each card. They are obviously going out of their way to break down as many of those rules barriers are humanly possible. The tutorial is slick, and takes you through step by step.
The game is free to start with, so you can discover all of these things yourself. The premium content pack is a bit steep for an iPad app. One of the things that I did discover playing through is that not all the user interface options are as intuitive as they should be. There are delays and false starts, and little hiccoughs along the way; I found the game crashed several times. Fortunately, if you’re like me and you don’t have the patience for each individual animation and close up you can modify the settings to turn that around.
9/10: Lots of polish, an industry favourite game, but too many barriers to make it 10/10.