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Magic: The Gathering games – From trainwrecks to smooth sailing

Greetings, Programs! Magic: The Gathering is a few years shy of its 30th birthday and it’s still going strong. Not bad for a card game with orcs, goblins, and dragons from before orcs, goblins, and dragons became cool. Naturally, with the massive popularity of MTG came the inevitable Magic: The Gathering games.

We live in a golden age where Magic: The Gathering games are fantastic and faithfully replicate the real-world experience. But this was not the case when the developers took their first stumbling steps. And, oh boy, were there some stumbles.

Sid Meier was the first to try Magic: The Gathering games

Wait, what? Sid Meier? That Sid Meier? The living god that gave us the Civilization series? Yup. That’s the one.

And you know what? It was pretty good. MicroProse published Magic: The Gathering for the PC in 1997 and it made MTG players pretty happy. If they could play it. It had fairly high system requirements for the time, and computer games in the 90s didn’t always give you the option to scale resource-hogging graphics up and down according to your rig’s capabilities. This held back the game’s sales to a significant degree.

Also, the 90s were not…great for PC gaming sales overall. While we had all kinds of new toys to play with like dedicated graphics cards and force feedback controllers, there were serious compatibility issues. If you didn’t have the right card to play a particular game, you were out of luck.

On top of all of that, there was a fatal flaw in Sid Meier’s version of Magic: The Gathering -- there was no multiplayer. The AI was decent but without the thrill of playing against another flesh and blood human, it was just lacking.

But having multiplayer is no guarantee of success, Just ask Acclaim.

Hot mess, defined

Back in 1995-1996, I had what sounds like the best job ever: Video game tester. I was literally making money playing video games full time. Unfortunately, it was for Acclaim, and Acclaim in the 1990s was bad. Really, really bad.

Somewhere between the 80s, when Acclaim produced good games like Wizards and Warriors, Double Dragon II, and Smash T.V., and the 90s when I got there, something had gone horribly wrong with the company.

Wizards & Warriors
Laugh if you will, but this game was a BFD once upon a time!

Acclaim had always relied on buying the licensing rights to a popular movie or comic, and then paying someone else to make a game out of it. And that worked for a long time. But then they started to pick a series of, to put it generously, turds. Or maybe the quality of the studios making their games dropped precipitously.

All I know is that I had the misfortune to work on Dragonheart for the Playstation, a terrible side-scrolling game. I also worked on Crow: City of Angels, which remains one of the worst games ever made for any platform. We literally begged them not to release it, because it was clear it would damage the reputation of the company. They did it anyway and IGN gave it a 1 out of 10 rating. Probably because they didn’t give out zeroes.

Do you think I jest? Nay, my good friends, I do not.

Awful Playstation Games: The Crow City of Angels Review

And when it came to things going wrong, Acclaim’s version of Magic: The Gathering was near the top.

The card game had only been out for a few years at that point and while it was popular, the whole “collectible card game” thing hadn’t really percolated into our collective cultural consciousness yet. So when the beta builds of the MTG game for the consoles showed up, they were a trainwreck.

When is a card game not a card game?

Simple: When you try to make it a real-time strategy game. It was super ambitious and absolutely doomed to failure. Although, in retrospect, you can see why they tried.

This was the mid-to-late 90s. RTS games were huge, even if the industry was having a difficult time. Warcraft II was selling a zillion units. The Command & Conquer series was going strong. Why not get in on that action?

Warcraft II
For the Horde!!!

At the same time, the Playstation and Saturn were still new enough that developers hadn’t quite figured out that even though they were powerful enough to run an RTS, an RTS is incredibly hard to play with a controller.

Then there was the fact that the developer didn’t seem to quite understand how the card game worked. You’d think that the people working on Magic: The Gathering games would know the source material, but you’d be wrong.

The developers had not anticipated the myriad combinations the different cards would produce. Sure, you could summon different creatures but you couldn’t cast, say, Giant Grow on all of them. The game hadn’t been programmed to make every creature on the screen grow larger, so it crashed or glitched.

It was the same for Firebreathing. The programmers hadn’t thought to make creatures other than red be compatible with it. So if you cast it on, for example, a Serra Angel (a white creature), it wouldn’t work.

magic: the gathering video games
Looks confusing? Try playing it with a controller in real-time.

To make things worse, none of the testers aside from me knew MTG. That meant they didn’t understand how to play the game, much less find the bugs. Betas rarely come with instructions, and there was no tutorial in the game. I spent an awful lot of time explaining how the game worked, and got in trouble several times for doing so.

To the shock of not I, Magic: The Gathering: Battlemage bombed on release.

Magic: The Gathering games get better (whew!)

After that, for the most part, developers stuck with making Magic: The Gathering games that reproduced the card game instead of trying to cram MTG into other genres. And, thank goodness, they’re way better at that.

Today’s games are awesome if you want to play, but don’t feel like investing a small fortune in real-world cards (I spent so much money in the 90s. So much!) You can, of course, pay money to buy booster packs in the newer games but you don’t have to if you don’t want to, and you’d still have fun.

The AI is much better than the days of yore, so it’s a real game when you play against the computer. But nothing beats playing against a real person, and the newer games like Magic: The Gathering -- Duel of the Planeswalkers and Magic: The Gathering Arena are great for that.

magic: the gathering video games
So…pretty! And easy to play!

It’s not perfect, of course. People aren’t always thrilled about the different ways the games try to squeeze money out of you. And building a virtual collection doesn’t have quite the same visceral joy to it. But still, being able to play with people all over the world from the comfort of your living room -- and not having to worry about someone, like a younger sibling, “accidentally” destroying your most powerful card -- has a lot going for it.

Looking back at those first (mostly failed) baby steps, it’s amazing that anyone kept trying to make Magic: The Gathering games. But thank Urza for their persistence. Now anyone can pick up a controller and play and that’s a magic all its own.

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