Title: Magic The Gathering: Battlegrounds
Developer: Secret Level
Publisher: Atari
Date Published: November 18, 2003
Platforms: XBox and PC

Magic: The Gathering was introduced to the public in the early 1990’s as a collectible card game. It became quite popular in a short period of time, and is still widely played all over the world. The franchise endorsed a few video games before, but most were subpar. (See the Magic: The Gathering node for a more detailed history of the CCG and a tribute to the Microprose PC game, which has a sort of “cult classic” infamy.)

This game is unlike any other one with the franchise’s endorsement. Whereas all of MTG:BG’s predecessors were a literal translation of the CCG to a computer screen, Secret Level went a different route. The product is a loose interpretation of the game, thrown into what is basically a dodgeball court in real time.

Starting a game goes something like this: You make a spellbook of 10 spells that contains 1-2 colors by weeding out the unneeded from a pool of 70 spells (all spells are based on real cards in the CCG). You are then thrown onto the aforementioned dodgeball court, which is a rectangle with a line down the middle, your opponent on one side and yourself on the other. Once the duel starts, you run around picking up mana crystals that appear in the arena (mana is required to cast all spells – the more powerful the spell, the more mana is required). After that, you just select the spells from your book that you think have the best chance of lowering the opponent from 20 life down to 0, skillfully using your duelist’s shield and one-damage attack to aid your cause. Also, while crossing the center line gives you the opportunity to chonk your opponent in the face with your attack, you cannot cast spells, shield, or regenerate mana, and you take approximately two damage every five seconds you are over there (but you can steal the mana that pops up for them).

Some key points of difference between the CCG and this game:

  • You don’t draw or discard
  • Spell stacking (“the stack”) does not apply
  • You may cast a spell as many times as you want (no four-card limit)
  • Most of the spells have undergone mana cost changes for game balance (for example, Giant Growth is now two mana instead of one)
  • Each player is allowed a maximum of 2 enchantments and 5 creatures in play at a time
  • Instants and sorceries are all done at instant speed and are under the blanket term “sorceries”

This game is online capable, which is a huge point of promotion. It supports online PC play through GameSpy and XBox Live. (Also two-player Arcade mode on the same system, if you prefer that route.) There are two basic communities, all of the people who play the game online, and then Atari’s official message board, which is obviously smaller and tends to be more tight-knit. The official message board is generally friendly, with many of the top-level players actively posting and discussing strategy and events.

XBL matches support the headset, which creates the second community consisting of the players as a whole. This community, depending on whom you end up playing, can be extremely helpful or downright arrogant. Yes, cockier than the average teenage online gamer; M:TG seems to bring this trait out twofold, due to the lack of basic social skills most frequent players possess. The point is, if you plug in your headset, expect the bad with the good.

The Purist Debate
I cannot stress the point enough: This game is not Magic: The Gathering in the traditional sense. Do not buy this game expecting a strict translation. If you do, not only will you be a lot poorer, you will know what the game’s message boards look like because you were so pissed off you sought them out to get a rant off your chest. This, of course, will lead to inevitable belittling of you by the online community for expecting such a game, which could lead to lower self-esteem, which you don’t have to spend $40-$50 (U.S.) on in the first place.

Battlegrounds uses the Unreal Engine (primarily used for first-person shooters) and the end result is very polished. The animations of some spells are amazing; my jaw dropped the first time I cast Wrath of God. The graphics are average by Xbox standards, but I always think “professional” reviewers put way too much emphasis on graphics and not enough on the actual gameplay. They aren’t hindering to the point of frustration by any stretch of the imagination.

Other Topics
If you are familiar with the CCG, 70 spells spread among 5 colors may sound a bit on the meager side. Guess what? It is. A month after being released, every idea had been tried, most colors had been accurately graded by strength or lack thereof, and a few spells had become notoriously overplayed. There is good news, and it comes in the form of downloadable content. Secret Level has promised more spells, and as of this writing 10 are nearing public release, with more (purposely vague) on the way.

Finally, do not purchase this game for the one-player mode. The AI is subpar at best and extended repetition vs. the computer is an excellent method to thwart insomnia. Multiplayer is where the replayability lies, and Secret Level’s support of the online gamers will ultimately determine whether Battlegrounds is tossed into the “old Magic video game” pile or not.

Update May 2nd, 2004: Almost six months removed from the release date, Secret Level has released a total of zero new downloadable spells, and online presence is scarce. Ten spells (two from each color), all with ridiculously high-end casting costs, are expected sometime this month.

Update August 10, 2004: The DLC became available sometime in July, containing the aforementioned ten spells. Notice I'm updating probably a month afterwards because I don't touch the game anymore. Chalk one up for Atari/Secret Level blowing it.