Magic: The Gathering Online Preview

One of the most popular card games in recent times is going online, and we've got some early details.

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Magic: The Gathering Online
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The Deck Editor allows you to build decks with a simple click and drag interface.
The Deck Editor allows you to build decks with a simple click and drag interface.

Playing cards have been a fundamental ingredient in gaming since the first ace of spades was inked on paper. Richard Garfield, inventor of Magic: The Gathering, introduced a new type of card game that would eventually captivate more than 6 million players in 52 countries. Wizards of the Coast, owner of the Magic: The Gathering brand, has decided to bring its proven formula to the budding online gaming market. The company, along with developer Leaping Lizard Software, is attempting to re-create the competitive experience that keeps players coming back for more.

Magic: The Gathering has grown over the years into a somewhat complicated strategy game, but essentially it remains a duel between you and an opponent, using spells to drop each other's life below 20 points. You use customized decks you have built to suit your play style. Contrasting styles call for different types of cards, and Magic relies on a system where five opposing elements represent their own variants of magical energy. White magic represents healing and light, black magic calls upon death and evil, red magic represents fire and chaos, green magic is of the natural sort, and blue magic conveys mastery over air and the mind. Each magic type summons its energies from a corresponding land type, namely mountains, forests, swamps, islands, and plains. You use cards representing these lands to draw up magical energy called mana, which powers your other spells. These other spells can deal damage directly to opponents or place a permanent enchantment on the table, which can change the pace of the game. Cards are predominantly played during your own turn, but you can surprise opponents as you follow your own strategies.

Spreadsheets and deck statistics can be used to predict the efficiency of your creations.
Spreadsheets and deck statistics can be used to predict the efficiency of your creations.

Summoning creatures is a reliable tactic, as they are capable of dealing damage every round as well as providing defense against your opponent's hordes. Creatures have a number of attributes that must be taken into consideration when they are selected--namely their power and toughness, which shows you how effective they are at dealing and receiving damage. Some creatures also have other useful abilities, such as flight. Magical artifacts, which are accessible to mages of all colors, round out a collection of spells and cards, which have grown to number many thousands. One of the greatest strengths of the Magic: The Gathering game is that the cards, and thus the options available, are constantly expanding, so the deck and play strategies that are required to defeat your opponents will constantly be changing.

There have been other PC games based on the Magic: The Gathering games, but those have mostly tried to create a storyline that would lend linearity to a game that was designed for player-to-player competition. Magic: The Gathering Online has abandoned these pretenses and places you in an environment that many will be familiar with--a room filled with fellow players and card tables. It's this bare-bones "get to the games" sort of tactic that has the current beta testers so excited about the future of Magic: The Gathering Online on both the casual and tournament levels of play.

Bringing Magic Online

You'll be prompted to select an avatar to represent you at the card tables, and the options available are typical of what can be expected from Magic-themed characters. There are goblins, undead, generals, wizards, angels, and a number of other creatures to select from. The avatars go through the motions as they sit at the card tables--they shuffle and cut their cards and hold them up as they play, much like people at a poker table would. To further individualize your experience, the background image you and your opponent see during matches can be swapped between 36 images and background schemes, with the possibility of more when the game is released.

Many options are available to customize your game experience.
Many options are available to customize your game experience.

The interface is still being optimized and reworked, but in this beta stage it is already easy to learn and thorough enough to enforce even the most complicated rules that may come into play. Some of the problems that casual players have run into during face-to-face Magic: The Gathering sessions are rule interpretations and the lack of judging. The online game solves these problems by forcing you to use the turn phases correctly, and it enforces timing rules and, in an almost foolproof manner, ensures that each game and every card is played as was intended. You can flag the different phases of each turn, which allows for quick play if you don't intend to interfere during an opponent's main phase. This allows for total control when you want every opportunity to activate spells or effects.

To keep the action from being too silent, there are many sound effects that chime in at opportune times, although so far the audio features appear to be at an early stage and may change before the game's final release. Small sound effects--which never last more than a second or two--will reward you with applause after a game's completion, let you know that you're opening a pack of cards, and bring home the point that you've just taken combat damage.

Your collection appears in a tome, very much like the binders that players store their cards in.
Your collection appears in a tome, very much like the binders that players store their cards in.

There are currently many games using constructed decks made up of digital cards, but of particular interest is the way drafting is handled in Magic: The Gathering Online. During a draft, all players at a table open packs of cards, which are then distributed secretly or by a round-robin card-picking session. Time limits can force fast picks, and the way the process is handled overall speaks well for how enjoyable this format will be when the game is officially released. Every match type represented in the face-to-face card game can be re-created in the online game, so multiplayer matches and a slew of tournament schemes are already being played in the beta. You can also look forward to tools that can make deck construction much easier than it has ever been before. There's an easy-to-use collection manager that will let you catalog your digital and physical cards, which can be viewed as image previews in a binder or as a spreadsheet that can be sorted by categories such as rarity, card type, and expansion. Whenever a Magic: The Gathering card expansion reaches stores, Wizards plans to bring the same expansion, including all the art, gameplay, and rule changes, to the online game, promising nearly infinite replayability and a long life if all goes well.

Wizards of the Coast plans to create corresponding online versions of all real-world tournament options and different leagues, including those that offer prizes. A pricing model has yet to be confirmed for the packs of digital cards, but when this is resolved, you can expect to see Magic: The Gathering Online available in stores or as a download.

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