Magic the Gathering Tactics gets its F.2.P. in your C.C.G.

, | Game reviews

I tumbled down the rabbit-hole with Magic the Gathering Tactics, and like Alice I’ve run into some wonderful things, and also some unpleasant ones. It’s a game with a number of rough edges that costs too much, needs more cards, and likely has balance issues, yet I found myself playing it day after day and thinking about it when I wasn’t playing it. Richard Garfield should be flogged for inventing the collectible card game.

After the jump, Asher in Wonderland

While Tactics is based on the card game and shares a lot of similarities with that game, Tactics is played on a board in 3D space. This means M:tG staples such as trample and block work entirely differently. It’s a game of pushing fantasy creatures around on a board made up of squares. Things like facing matter. The distance between monsters and other summoned creatures matter. Your planeswalker is a piece in this game, a physical being with its own weak melee attack in addition to its deck of spells. There are many of the subtleties of the card game that have translated well to this version, and even though there are only 180 total cards available, there’s still all a lot of deckbuilding to be had — if you break open your wallet.

First, what Tactics isn’t. It’s not really free to play in any meaningful fashion. It’s a bit misleading for SOE to advertise it as such. Free to sample would be a more accurate description. You can burn through the free part in about two hours, and then you’re left with a weak starter deck to use in pickup games. There’s no intelligence behind the matching in pickup games, so if you get matched against a player with a money deck, you’ll get trounced. And that’s no fun for the trouncee or the trouncer. Besides that, you get a daily mission that pays two gold and a pittance of XP that you can do in five to ten minutes. Saying Tactics is free to play is like saying that the guide rails you snake through while in line for the rollercoaster are a ride in themselves.

What you’ll need to do to enjoy the game is spend money. I spent $50 in Station cash on the game. That got me an additional four campaigns and seven boosters. From selling off some cards in the boosters and buying some in the auction house, I now have a decent black/red deck. I’d say $50 is about what you need to spend to be competitive, though you might get by on a little less.

Tactics is set up with some solo content. There’s a single five-chapter campaign that is free. Completing a chapter nets you a card and some XP. As you gain XP, you level. The shadow of World of Warcraft looms over this game too. There are talent trees. For example, with my red/black deck I went down the red talent tree. I have talents like a 20% chance any red creature I summon will have Haste and a chance that anytime one of my creatures is attacked it may get First Strike. Talents are a bone of contention among many players — many don’t like them and wish they weren’t in the game — and are undoubtedly in need of some balancing, but it is something new to the game and something you can build a deck around. I’m ambivalent about them.

After you complete the first campaign, you unlock a daily mission. There are an additional four campaigns you can buy at $5 each (500 gold Station money). Each is comprised of five chapters, rewards cards, and opens a daily mission. Most of the campaign stuff is borderline tedious, with a couple of chapters ridiculously difficult (or easy if you get a good draw) and more than a few ridiculously easy. Some chapters clearly were not balanced against all the starter decks (there are three starter decks — red/black, black/green, and blue/white I believe). There’s also some voice acting and some kind of a story involving you and one of the Magic iconic figures, but it certainly didn’t grab me. To be fair, story in games almost never does.

Once done with the campaigns, the only solo play left is the daily missions. Like the campaigns, these are a bit tedious, though depending on the luck of the cards some can be challenging. If you buy all five of the campaigns and complete them, you’ll have five dailies you can do. Often, you can blow through all five in less than an hour.

The multiplayer stuff is all one-on-one play. There are pickup games which match players randomly. There are no rewards for these. There’s an open tournament that’s poorly designed. There’s constructed deck play. And there’s a swiss draft.

Open tournament, which I’ve played and enjoyed, is unwinnable if you don’t run a fast red deck at present. The overall winner is the player with the most wins — losses don’t count against a player. So a fast deck means more wins, so the only people winning are the fast deck players. If you play a control deck you might enjoy winning some games, but you have no chance at the overall prize, a free booster. And in fact if a player recognizes you are playing a deck that will drag the game out a bit, you might win because the player will surrender to get out the game and into a new game — as I said, there’s no penalty for losing. There’s no limit on the number of games a player can play in an open tournament beyond time, and the tourneys last two or three hours. It’s not unusual for the winner to have 20 or more wins.

Besides the winner getting a free booster, other players can win a card if they win two games in an Open tournament. That’s why the auction house is flooded with Rattlebones Skeletons right now. Everyone has four Rattlebones yet people keep winning them and they are worthless as a result. Yeah, it’s stupid. SOE is rotating the prize cards, but not quickly enough. The auction house gets flooded with these cards.

Constructed is more interesting. It’s 30 gold to enter, which if you bought 30 gold from SOE would be $3. It’s an eight player tourney. Lose and you’re out. If you win your initial match, however, you do win a booster. First place gets two boosters and, currently, a Silklash Spider card. Second place gets two boosters. Third and fourth get one booster.

Draft is the most interesting. You need three boosters and 20 gold to enter. Boosters are $4 and the gold is the equivalent of $2, so these are expensive to enter and have many players complaining about bugs causing games to drop, etc. Everyone opens their boosters and then players take turns picking cards from the boosters to build a 25 card deck (normal games are 40 card minimum decks). First place wins three boosters. Second, third, and fourth place each win a booster. And when it’s all said and done, you get to keep the cards from the boosters you used to enter the tournament. So it’s a nice way to play if you’re buying boosters to build your collection. Once you’re happy with your collection, then it’s a lot of money to play draft.

So this is the gameplay — daily missions and a variety of multiplayer. The launch was a disaster, as in SOE didn’t make their launch date. The next day the game launched but lag made multiplayer matches unplayable. That was quickly rectified with a patch and in general the game has behaved decently for me. I do get runtime errors that I can ignore by pushing the popup off to the side and continue to play, but that’s about it. SOE is making rapid improvements to the technical issues in the game. It’s solid now.

My chief complaints about the game are the sluggishness of the animations and the cost to play. Things move too slowly. Sometimes mouseclicks don’t take. I don’t think it’s my PC. The game simply feels a bit sluggish. It’s quite playable, though.

The cost, however, is clearly a dealbreaker for a lot of people. Boosters are $4 and contain 10 cards. It takes considerable gold to enter draft and constructed tournaments too — open tournaments are one gold per game played. It is expensive to play. I burned through the $50 in station cash I put into the game in a week. I’m out of gold and station cash now — well, I have 12 gold.

SOE is grabbing a piece of every auction house transaction, too. There’s a listing price to put a card up for sale that is forfeited if the card doesn’t sell, which isn’t such a bad idea in general, but which makes it expensive to sell cheap cards. I’m certainly discouraged from listing a common card for sale at four gold if there are a dozen selling at five gold and I know I lose one gold if the card doesn’t sell.

The real killer for the auction house is the tax imposed on every sale. SOE takes 15% of the selling price and rounds up (I think). So if I sell a card for 10 gold SOE grabs two and sends me eight gold. It’s enough to turn me into a Republican to demand lower taxes! Think of that card I want to sell for four gold. If it sells, SOE takes one gold and sends me three. So when I pay one gold to list it, I’m risking one gold to make three gold. It discourages me from listing.

Other problems with the auction house include a lack of sorting. You can sort by color and type, but not by card name or cost. So if you want to see what a Lava Ax is selling for, you have to page through pages of red sorcery cards instead of being able to sort by “lava ax.” I have no idea why that functionality wasn’t built in. It seems so basic. It is not there, however.

So those are the basics of the game. The gameplay itself is quite good. It’s everything I like in tactical games. I love the fantasy motif, and it’s rich indeed since it’s using the Magic mythos. I like turn-based. I like the tactical gameplay — it’s quick and reasonably interesting. There’s a variety of maps with natural obstructions you can use to break line of sight and protect your planeswalker or creatures from being targetted. I can summon a big beast and use it to physically block access to a narrow area. I can summon small creatures and have them gang up on tougher ones — damage is cumulative from turn to turn unlike the card game where a monster that is not killed is fully healed after the turn ends. I have direct damage spells, area of effect spells, control spells, etc. It has a lot of the flavor of the card game but plays like a fast-paced tactical battle game.

One more aspect of the game I should mention — there’s more randomness added. Besides the luck of the draw, there are critical blows and crushing blows. These are basically a dice roll every time an attack is made, but it does shake things up a bit. That monster you summoned you knew couldn’t be killed by your opponent’s Raging Goblin who only does 10 damage, but that goblin may get lucky and land a crushing blow and do extra damage and your Beserker with 30 hit points will go down. (Life, or hit points, have been multiplied by 10 in Tactics. Your planeswalker has 200 life, for example.)

And I love the strategic overlay, the deckbuilding. Even with my limited number of cards I have a lot of deckbuilding options. Mana works a bit differently, too, so it’s a bit easier to play multi-color decks. Instead of land cards, you get one mana per turn added to your mana pool, as if you were playing a land card each turn. The mana is added by randomly picking a mana color from your deck. That makes it easy to run a three-color deck as long as you stack it with cards that only require one specific mana along with colorless mana.

There’s even a bit of a metagame going on with Tactics. There are players running black/red who have gone into the black talent tree to make their planeswalkers do more damage with melee attacks, and they are using them like monsters to attack the opposing planeswalker. So there are decks countering that.

There’s a lot of potential in Tactics. Right now, I’d say it’s swimming against the tide with its pricing. The players willing to buy a lot of cards won’t really carry the players who want to play for free because they can’t play each other and enjoy the game. SOE needs to get more players to invest in the game by buying cards, but at $4 a booster and $2 or $3 to enter a constructed or draft tournament, that’s asking a lot.

Then there’s my feeling that there aren’t enough cards for long-term interest. There are 180, and that’s fine for now, but at some point the players who have dropped $100 or more on the game will get restless. I’m sure SOE plans on introducing new cards, but each card also needs to be a fully-animated 3D unit on the battlefield. How many strategy games do you know that introduce 150 new fully-animated units each year? That’s a lot of art assets to create, and a lot of testing to be done. The game needs to be generating good revenue for SOE to continue to invest in it.

Finally, there’s the gameplay itself. The multiplayer, which is the heart of the game, is problematic right now. Open tournaments need a complete overhaul. Draft is too expensive. Constructed is the only decent option at the moment, but even that isn’t cheap. It’s $3 in gold to play one tournament. Imagine if you want to play one constructed tourney a day. You’d better be selling cards in the auction house to afford it.

What I would really love to see is a sealed deck league like Magic Online had at one time. But again, that idea stubs its toe on price with Tactics. In Magic Online, you’d buy three boosters and construct your deck out of those 45 cards. That was $9, and then you had an option to buy another booster after a week had passed, and finally a fifth booster after another week had passed. So the cost was $15 and you got about three weeks of play and 75 cards. With Tactics it would cost $12 just to get the initial three boosters, and you’d only have 30 cards. Even if you played with a 25 card deck, there wouldn’t be much deckbuilding — all you would be doing is eliminating five cards. And then when you buy the additional two boosters you’d be moving the cost up to $20.

I really like the game — it’s cool seeing your Serra Angel hovering place and then flapping her wings when she moves, or seeing your zombie make an attack and then grab his head to adjust it so it doesn’t fall off — but I don’t plan on spending much on it until either the price comes down or SOE has a double cash weekend. In the meantime I’m playing my five dailies and earning my 10 gold and buying a card now and then at the auction house. I’m enjoying it, but I’m sure my attention will wane if I don’t do more than play the dailies. Which is a shame, because it really is an interesting game that satisfies a lot of what I really enjoy in a strategy game.