In spite of all the big programming failures it has, this version of Magic is still the best one there is.
I won't explain to you how to play Magic. The game is so popular that probably you already know its rules by heart. In case you haven't got a clue, this version has a 25-minutes interactive video tutorial that does the job effectively. What I must tell you instead is that Microprose managed to transform Magic: The Gathering into a role-playing game. That's surely original and interesting, but don't expect it to be an originality gem, since the RPG setting is an excuse for framing into something the actual card-game duels. Check its plot, or lack of it: you're a lonesome hero that must prevent his world, which is called Shandalar, from being destroyed by the five evil sorcerers that rule the land. There's something about this cheesy kind of plots that I will never understand: if the bad guy wants to destroy the whole world, how would he survive its destruction? Where would he live and rule afterwards? Ok, I'll better quit philosophizing.
The only way to stop these menaces is to beat them in a Magic duel. But since they are the rulers of each kind of magic (yes, the same ones as your Magic cards: swamp, mountain, island, forest and plains) everyone of them already has the Definitive Deck of Armageddon, while you start the game with... 20 lands and a pair of Tundra Wolves. So, you must construct and upgrade your own deck in the first place, in a similar way as you do it in the real life: acquiring new cards and employing the useful ones while selling your spare ones in order to acquire another new cards. But on Shandalar there's no comic stores to go to buy a Magic booster (and a Clamp comic, and a built-in module for Call of Cthulhu, by the way). To get new cards, you must successfully complete quests. These quests vary from simply delivering an object from one town to another, beating some bad boy from the meadows that is threatening a town, and hacking dungeons. Win the duel, and you'll win new cards, and perhaps a useful hint or bonus for the next duel. Lose it, and you will lose some cards from your deck. That simple. Of course, every creature has its own deck and, therefore, some of them are more challenging than others. Some of them will prefer a counter blue-and-black deck, some of them will rely on the direct instantaneous damage of red cards, and so on. The dungeons are by far the most interesting quest of them all, since you must actually crawl in an isometric labyrinthine map while discovering treasure chests that contain money and cards and dueling every creature you find on your way. And the dungeons are conceived as a tournament: each of them applies its own set of rules, and your life points must suffice for the whole row of duels you'll find into them.
Towns are a vital feature of the game. There, you receive your quests and your rewards for completing them, buy food for the travels (you must inexorably feed), buy and sell cards, and get hints. But they're also vital because each of the bad guys accomplishes its evil plot by conquering two towns. Of course, they don't do it on their own: they send one of their minions to get the job done, lending him a challenging deck by the way. As you can imagine, you can prevent this from happening if you beat the minion on a Magic duel (as you can see, in Microprose's version of Magic everything is done by actually playing the card game). If you couldn't prevent it, or didn't dare to do so, you can come back later to liberate the town, but I don't recommend letting it for later. Remember that each Ruler of Magic needs only two towns to bring havoc and mayhem to the land.
There's nothing more to it that this. Go adventuring, upgrade your deck, save the world. So, I will comment some technical features.
As it was usual on Microprose products, their conversion of Magic has a very high rate of replayability. Every time you begin a game, you must choose an overall difficulty level and a color for your deck. The easiest difficulty level will give you a somewhat nice starter deck, and that will be monochrome (if you understand what I mean). A higher difficulty will give you worse starter decks, those will be two or three-colored, and your enemies will have better decks. Likewise, the program randomizes the world map with every new game. The cards appear on the screen with their full original artwork in high resolution, and the program permanently guides your moves and checks their legality. The soundtrack is a collection of celtic and Purcellian themes that is very nice to listen and contributes to creating an appropiate atmosphere.
With all of this said, you may think that this game is unbelievably good. It's not. It has several serious problems, which I will try to explain next.
One of the most annoying things about it is the fact that the designers have abused from kitsch. It seems that everything in Shandalar must be done the cheesy way. If you don't believe me, watch the tutorial video. If that wasn't enough, wait until the program tells you about the imminent invasion of a town with a... TV news flash. Pathetic. The designers made a great effort to give the game an appropiate atmosphere and then they throw in things like that? A strongly strategic game like Magic is not correlative with that kind of humor.
Another one is the confusing menu feature. The main menu is very clear and intuitive, but the in-game functions are not accessible by any icons at all. You must read the documentation and remember a set of hotkeys in order to save or load your game, check the world map, or viewing your adventurer's log. I think that these features need to be easily accessible by its own nature; you wouldn't have to memorize, or better guess, how to interact with the interface.
Another one is the expansion. The Spells of the Ancients expansion is really fundamental, since it completes the somewhat humble card database of the original game with every single Magic card from Alpha to Fifth. It's probably the only thing it does, but it's really a first-priority need. The problem is that, while you're installing the expansion, it checks if you own both the expansion and the original game by reading something on both CDs. For that matter, the setup introduces a key on your system registry that disables Autorun, in order that Autorun doesn't execute itself while you're changing CDs at the setup request. You have followed me until now, haven't you? Well, the annoying fact about it is that the Spells of the Ancients setup, despite it asks for resetting your computer after installation, forgets completely to erase this registry key. So, if you are not accustomed with the system registry and its editor you will be doomed to use Windows without the Autorun feature forever. I don't know if it does the same on every machine, but it does that on my PC and it's completely annoying. This is the kind of programming bugs that later Microprose games have, and they speak loudly about how it was to live on the company in those days of certain doom. Besides those dire straits of financial life, this kind of programming failures have contributed hugely to its dissolution.
And the last one. Lack of multiplayer. Personally, I'm disgusted with the multiplayer fever of the last ten years. People seem to think that if a game doesn't have multiplayer is not a game at all. I may ask: does every game in the market need multiplayer support? Certainly not, at least in theory; but in the case of Magic it's an unavoidable feature since it's a card game after all. If you want to play this version on multiplayer, you must buy its second expansion, Duels of the Planeswalkers, which only adds to your previous data a tiny piece of code of a few megabytes to let you play online. Since the Duels of the Planeswalkers expansion is otherwise useless and it only works with Spells of the Ancients, it would have been certainly better to include what it does on the previous releases and not forcing you to buy two expansion sets.
But in spite of all of these problems, this version of Magic is still the best one there is. The newest one, developed entirely by Wizards of the Coast, is only playable online. No single player feature. No AI players to defy in case you're alone. On the other hand, Microprose's older version is terrific for a single player, and it has a really good AI, but it has no multiplayer. Every one of them lacks what the other one has. Nonetheless, Microprose's conversion wins by far in the comparison.
In sum, the annoying problems and bugs it has doesn't prevent this conversion from being terrific. Give it a try. But be warned.