MTGOAcademy Unplugged: Magic: The Gathering – Tactics Review

(DISCLAIMER: The event I attended was hosted by Sony Online Entertainment, and Sony Online Entertainment paid for my flight, hotel, and meals in connection with the event. All information and images are based on Beta builds of Magic: The Gathering — Tactics and do not necessarily reflect the final product.)

At the beginning of the month, I had the pleasure of flying out to Sony Online Entertainment’s Denver development studio to view Magic: The Gathering — Tactics (official web site here) and offer feedback on the current Beta build. Things will definitely change to some degree from what I mention in this review; some feedback mentioned at the event has already been implemented! The demonstration was a delightful experience, and I got to meet a few guys (and a gal) from the greater Magic community: Chris Otwell and Tom Gustafson of, Chris of, Patrick Jarrett of, Tristan Shaun Gregson of, John Stephens of and Lauren Lee of We also met with the development team for MTG — Tactics. Oh… and here’s an interesting tidbit: Sony Online Entertainment President John Smedley was present and packing a blue-black Standard control deck sleeved up (but word was he was featuring yesterday’s technology of Frost Titan instead of new kid on the block Grave Titan).

Well, that’s enough of the boring stuff, on to the game- Magic: The Gathering — Tactics! You might remember that I went into the event with limited knowledge (if you missed it, you can read our pre-article here), but I think that I have a decent amount of quality information coming out of this experience. Let me share what I’ve learned!

An Introduction to MTGT

After a brief tour of the SOE Denver facility, we sat down for a proper introduction to the game. Lead Designer Rhea Shelley and Denver Studio Head Mark Tuttle (whose past experiences include HeroClix and Decipher, Inc.’s Star Wars and Star Trek CCGs) led us into their tactical interpretation of the rich Multiverse of Magic: The Gathering.

Right from the start, the initial screen made me wish that some of the SOE fellows and gals worked for WotC during Magic Online Version 3 development- it was beautiful. After the login screen, each player is greeted by a home screen with four large buttons: one for playing, one for trading, one for buying and one for spellbook creation. It also contains your pack manager, friend list and ranking within the Magic —Tactics system as well as a link to the in-game glossary (a valuable quick read before your first match). Here’s that home screen:

When you create a new account (your new, free account), you get to select your avatar and the color of mana that you will represent. Make sure you are happy with your avatar, because from the Beta version I played, you are married to what you choose (in appearance and other things, such as your talent tree decisions)- you also only get a single avatar per account, so make it count! After choosing your avatar, you get to align yourself to one of Magic‘s colors. Your starting spellbook is influenced by the color of mana that you choose; I choose white for the Beta demonstration and received a white-green pool to play with. (I wish I had gone with a more removal-based color like red or black. Also note that blue has Mind Control, and it is amazing… but I am unsure if the starting spellbook has it.)

New players are also greeted by a set of tutorials to introduce them to the gameplay of Tactics. Between these tutorials and the glossary, those just immersing themselves into the tactical world of Magic get all of the basic information that they need to navigate combat and make respectable decisions. Giving the glossary a once-through is highly recommended, since it lays out all of the special abilities that you see will on creatures- many familiar faces (like first strike and trample) have been updated to make sense in the tactical environment! You can see an example of a Magic mechanic (flanking) meaning something completely different in Tactics here:

Before we get too far, you might be asking yourself, “What is a tactics environment?” My definition is simple: a grid system game with 3D figurines and a turn-based combat system. If you’ve ever played a ‘Clix game or D&D Minis, then this will feel like a slightly different, computerized version of one of those tabletop games. Figures on the grid system have initiative values that determine their turn order- this attribute is a stark difference to one that you’d expect from playing MTG cards. If you’re wondering how initiative determines turn sequence, here’s the skinny from what I understand: if one figure has double the initiative of another, it will go twice for every one time the other character goes. Higher initiatives go sooner in the turn sequence. (During each figure’s turn, it gets a single action. Your primary figure casts spells, but all figures can attack, move or defend, for the most part, but we’ll talk more about the details of combat shortly.)

Back on track- once you’ve completed the tutorials and read the glossary, you’re ready to plunge into the world of Magic: The Gathering — Tactics. Note that much of my prior tactics experience comes from tabletop miniature warfare, and be warned: if you enjoy tactics games, MTGT gameplay appears addicting.

Spellbook Construction

Most Magic players would start by looking at the cards available to them and fashioning a deck to meet their preference. But the problem is, unlike traditional Magic, Tactics doesn’t involve a deck… well, it sort of doesn’t- instead you build a 40 “card” minimum spellbook. A spellbook consists of 40 creatures and spells, but it has zero lands! Mana generation is instead based on the percentage of colored spells in your spellbook and the number of turns your planeswalker has taken. Each turn results in an additional mana generated (it goes away at the beginning of your planeswalker’s next turn), and the color of each mana is semi-random. Well, its percentage chance of occurring is based on the total percentage of each color of spell in your spellbook. For example, if you have 14 white spells and 26 blue spells, each mana generated will have a 35 percent chance (14 white of 40 total) of being white. This makes building decks that are more than two colors a risky proposition but eliminates lack of land worries overall!

Your spellbook enters battles with you and is utilized much like you’d expect it to- you randomly gain a spell from it at the beginning of each turn. Since lands have been removed, you only start with five spell “hand” (but the maximum hand size appeared to remain at seven). From what I could tell, traditional deck building mana curve knowledge helps with Tactics‘ spellbook construction, but the same principle might not be the way to go in all cases- it really just depends on the style of game that you want to play. You don’t want to have a ton of uncastable spells and unsummonable creatures in the early turns, but if you can survive until Turn 6 or 7 with your planeswalker, you will probably want some high-cost, flashy options (Lord of the Pit felt like a viable creature). Also, you gain skills for your planeswalker as you gain experience, so you might want to build a deck to support the talent tree that you are traversing. (More on talent trees later.)

In the Beta version that was demonstrated, the spellbook editor had many sort functions and filters to assist its creation. There were some clunky aspects (the editor wouldn’t always sort or filter how you’d expect it to), but the SOE developers took notes and will be implementing some of the same functionality that is present on Magic Online. Spellbooks also had the expected 4-of-a-spell restriction that you see throughout much of Magic. It also had a few different graphic display choices so you can see the 3D renders of your favorite creatures in all of their glory or just view the states of the spells and creatures in your collection. Like Magic Online, I could see myself spending hours tweaking and tuning the collection of spells that I deem worth of toting into combat; I really expect this to feel like MTGO‘s deck editor when all is said and done (with perhaps some additional features).

The In-Game Economy (and Sony’s Online Store)

In the version of Beta we were exposed to, the in-game economy featured Tickets (akin to MTGO) that were worth about .10 dollars apiece (thankfully not at all like the clunky 1 dollar MTGO Event Tickets). Tickets were used to purchase from the auction house (user hosted items that could be bought for their listed price- more on this in a bit) or to play in events (similar to the entry of Magic Online tournaments in scale- i.e. twenty of the 10 cent Tickets, 2 dollars’ worth, to enter a Draft). The lack of continuity between the MTGO and Tactics Ticket value was discussed heavily during our pre-demo meeting with SOE, and it has been changed to Gold to ward off any possible confusion. I am unsure if the value of Gold (or the name “Gold”) will stick, but the smaller-than-one increment of in-game currency sounded like it is here for good!

Booster packs and boxes (of 24 packs, slightly discounted to reward bulk buyers- take note Wizards!) were available from the Sony store for Station Cash (Sony’s universal online currency- read about it here). Booster Packs feature 10 digital objects of varying rarity; I believe that the current rarity distribution is a single rare or mythic rare, three uncommons and a six commons (but don’t quote me on that). All boosters are randomly inserted with spells and creatures to the rarity distribution guideline. This is what displays after cracking a pack (and after playing that soothing, pack-opening .wav):

The online store will also offer PvE (single-player) campaigns and promotional cards for purchase. Scenarios will be periodically released, and they offer experience and promos as they are completed. When you unlock a promotional card (through the PvE campaign or by playing PvP tournaments), the second through fourth copies become available for purchase in the online store.

The auction house is an automated buy and sell function that allows users to list their cards for a set price and any other Tactics user to buy them at that price. This is something MTGO players have been yearning for, but I think that it might have a “negative” implication as well as the more obvious positive one. On the upside, an auction house system is incredibly convenient for players to sell and possibly buy singles. The downside- auction houses take away incentives for anyone to become a dealer. With such a fluid market in place, it’s harder to turn a profit on transactions- there’s less value to being a silo of digital objects. I am worried that such a system might make most creatures and spells worthless as the market floods (especially without the redemption feature that most Magic Online digital objects have) and only the best of the best will retain any noticeable value (but it will be very noticeable). Here’s to hoping I am wrong! (Also note that a direct trading system was not included in the Beta that I saw.)

Gameplay (And Peer versus Peer and Peer versus Environment Play)

Up until now, I’ve mentioned bits and pieces of gameplay, but it doesn’t really give you a full picture of how a game of Magic: The Gathering — Tactics plays out. You start on the aforementioned grid system in a lush 3D environment, your planeswalker facing down an opposing caster or some creatures (if it’s a PvE scenario- not all of them have enemy spellcasters/planeswalkers). There is an initiative bar on the left side of the screen that depicts the turn order that figures take. As mentioned early, each figure’s initiative determines the exact order (along with other spells and abilities, such as haste). Figures can take one action per turn: move, defend or attack (and melee units may move and then attack). Spellcasters and planeswalkers can also cast spells and summon creatures that they have in their hand (or move and cast). Some figures (or planeswalkers wielding artifacts) also have the ability to use their turn up as part of the activation of the ability- similar to abilities in Magic that has “tapping” as part of the activation cost.

All figures have five stats: initiative, move, range, attack and health. Initiative, as previously discussed, is what determines turn sequence. Move is quite simple- the amount of squares the figure can move on the grid system. Range is the maximum amount of squares away an enemy can be to be effectively attacked (melee units have range values of 1). Attack is the amount of damage a unit does per attack or counterattack, and health is the amount of damage a unit can take before it is turned into a corpse (aka destroyed). Unlike traditional Magic: The Gathering, figures in Tactics do not regain their health at the end of a turn. You win the game by reducing the opposing planeswalker to 0 health (or completing the PvE objective).

Based off my limited Magic: The Gathering — Tactics hands-on time, games felt familiar but did not attempt to recreate the card version of MTG. The random element of drawing a hand and then getting an additional card per turn combined with the one mana per turn increment added an interesting element to the tactics environment. Once you summon a few creatures to your cause, the tactics feel becomes prevalent, but the feeling of needing to topdeck a crucial spell rears its head as the battle mounts and you need something to deal with your opponent. It’s probably worth noting that typical spells seem a bit lackluster compared to casting creatures (primarily due to the fact that creatures get their own turns while only your planeswalker can cast spells once or twice per turn cycle). Some spells buff your figures or place restrictions on your opponent’s, but the better spells (surprise!) seem to be removal.

Just as you’d expect from a Magic: The Gathering-based game, MTG — Tactics focuses on Peer versus Peer play. It uses a modified ELO system (I had to look it up here too- don’t worry) to maintain ratings so that you get paired versus opponents of similar PvP experience and skill level in pickup matches. It also offers tournament play in the form of 8-player Constructed and Draft tournament events (as well as a timed league tournament) in its current incarnation for the hardcore competitors. Lastly, you can always challenge your friends directly to show them who the master mage really is.

As an additional feature, MTG — Tactics also features solo campaign (PvE play) opportunities! I have to admit- I also had to look up PvE on Wikipedia to figure out that it was MMORPG talk for “playing against the computer” prior to the demo. The initial download comes with a free campaign with five missions to test your meddle against the computer. As you complete PvE scenarios, you are awarded cards and gain experience points to level up your character. As stated earlier, there are various talent trees at which you can spend your hard-earned XP to gain special in-game attributes. I actually have not played a ton of RPGs with talent trees, but my basic understanding is you pick paths along the tree and miss out on the skills not chosen for the level (which are not able to be explored with only one account, since you have only a lonesome planeswalker avatar for each account). Also, I am not entirely sure if the talent tree affects PvP play, but I think that it does.


SOE has a lot of in-house talent when it comes to 3D and 2D graphic design, and those artists have been put to work to recreate the feeling on Magic: The Gathering in a 3D setting. The terrain is themed to the five basic land types of Magic, but there isn’t any direct usage of the various iconic scenes (such as Tolarian Academy or Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth). Personally, I hope to see the rich Magic landscapes in future content (the first campaign already mentions Tolaria West, so Sony Online Entertainment is more than aware of the backdrop opportunities)!

An interesting tidbit, WotC owns the artwork that Sony created for Tactics. Why is this so interesting? Sony has actually created quite a bit of 2D artwork for the game! All of the digital objects have fantastic 2D images that are displayed in a player’s hand (as well in the deck editor / collection and when you open your booster packs). For example, I saw a Prodigal Pyromancer portrait that I have never seen before in Magic artwork. Also, MTGCast’s Chris Otwell won a sweet Serra Angel print illustrated specifically for Tactics. Here’s to hoping that some of these stunning works make it into paper promos prints (or at least online promos… wink, wink)!

Overall Impression

Going into the demonstration, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect since traditionally the Magic intellectual property has not been done justice in the video game world; SOE definitely exceeded my expectations with the Beta (not even the full, finished product!) that they shared with us. I’m a little apprehensive about the in-game economy’s long term health, but I hope that my worries are unfounded as the gameplay showed much promise.

Will this replace Magic (or Magic Online)? No way! Even with its collectible nature, the experience that Tactics offers is one unique from the traditional card game. It is a mistake to assume that this is meant to compete with or replace the card game- it is a tactics-style game through-and-through (and a quite enjoyable one at that). Expect to see several gameplay videos from me on the Beta server coming shortly!

If you’d like to see some other accounts of Magic: the Gathering — Tactics from Magic players in attendance, here is a list of what I could track down:


You can also follow Magic: The Gathering – Tactics news and reviews at the official Facebook page

  1. I greatly appreciate the screens you posted with the article. I’m getting excited for this game after reading your post. After listening to Monday Night Magic and reading a few other reviews I wasn’t really sold. Your post actually answered many of the questions I had and the game sounds excellent.

    I’m excited to try this game. If SOE did a good enough job I might even reactivate some of my other old SOE accounts to use my Station Cash

  2. Hello Chris,

    nice report. I have a much better picture of the product now and wish I had found the time to fly to Denver myself (hehe). It seems to be a very nice game for someone who enjoys tactical games and loves to have a well know universe as background. I will recommend it to a few friends with Playstations and give it a try.

  3. @acp (and anyone interested): If you have anymore questions, I will try my best to field them. I tried to include as mush data as possible, but I am sure i forgot something!

    @Plejades: The PS3 version will come out after the computer version. :)

  4. @Chris: No big deal; I am sure that it will follow soon enough. How was the balancing during your test? Any color that seemed overpowered?

  5. @StewardUlk: There was no “normal” trade option in the Beta demonstrated. Personally, I hope to see such a option implemented sooner than later (but in conjunction with the auction house). This topic was definitely discussed during the feedback session with SOE developers.

  6. I’m not sure this will be worthy of sucking up hard-earned cash alongside MTGO, though if there was a way to turn tix into Gold I’d probably get into it. Thanks for the early look.

  7. Excellent review sir! It was amazing getting together so many of us to enjoy the game! I hope that one day we can put the group together online and beat up on another in another couple of tournaments.

  8. @juggernaut1002 shouldn’t be any way to cross MTGO tix over to MTGT currency considering they are run by seperate companies. SOE is licensing the MTG brand for this product but it is still a SOE product and not a Hasbro Product.

    No direct trading is fine. How often do people really trade in MTGO. The way cards/spells work it seems you unlock them for your account and pick up multiples via Auction or directly buying them from SOE. I do see how direct trading would be good if you have multiple accounts but that seems a hedge case. Easy solution – Private Auctions. Some way where only player X can buy the item, or only players in your clan/guild (if that is an eventual feature)

    I’m hoping they actually get this product out this winter as they keep saying they will. I’m doubting it though considering how the original launch date was supposed to be spring 2010.

  9. @ACP: from what I can tell, you may only purchase promo spells form the SOE store. Could be inaccurate, but I think that the majority of cards only come out of boosters.

    @John: Thanks. I look forward to getting some more game play in- period! If I got to beat up on you or one of the others.. that would just be be an extra bonus :)

  10. Very nice article.

    I think that Sony failed when copied MTGO payment system into MTGT.
    MTGO is the most expensive online game (just compare your average spendings on MTGO to monthly payments for WOW=15$, EVE Online=20$, StarCraft II =4$) and MTGT want to follow the same path.

    If MTGT audience is MTG players (paper + online) then i suppose it will not draw significant attention.

  11. I encountered numerous hack attempts and 6 of one card without cloning, unsummoning/resummoning or any other way when the limit is 4. I’ve encounterd crashes to desktop and complete computer crashes caused by a virus I identified, proved and sent in to the proper officials. Crashes occur about 5 every 30 minutes and will cost you duels, which most cost money to play. They did nothing but respond with sarcasm. DO NOT PLAY THIS GAME. DO NOT GIVE THEM ANY MONEY. TELL YOUR FRIENDS.

  12. Turned out to be one of the best games ever in the end. Wish someone would host a server emu so we could still play.