Magic: the Gathering - Tactics will turn the decades-old card game into a 3D, tactical turn-based computer game when it hits this holiday and it will be free, with a twist.
The game is free to play, but if gamers want to participate in any of the many tournaments online that include prizes they will have to buy their way in with tickets that will run $2 to $5 a pop. Players will also have to purchase a new pack of digital cards to play in the tournaments.
It's a bit better than the typical "freemium" model which often ties payment to speeding up a game or getting better items to use in a match.
And there's a lot to like about Magic: The Gathering - Tactics beyond the way it charges players. During a visit to the Sony Online Entertainment studio making the game in Denver, studio head Mark Tuttle walked me through how the game works.
The original Magic: The Gathering is a card game that has you taking on the role of a Planeswalker, a magician casting spells with cards. The cards represent creatures that attack your opponent and defend you. They also help buff up your creatures and sometimes can directly attack your opponent. All spells are cast by using mana drawn from color-coded mana cards.
In Tactics, the rules are essentially the same, but now players get a Planeswalker avatar that appears on the maps of each match. The game still has you casting with mana, but instead of using cards, you're randomly given colored mana at the start of each round, based on the deck of cards you crafted for the encounter.
The idea of dropping the player into the field of battle as an avatar is a neat twist on the popular card game, it also creates some new strategies and tactics that players have to mull over in a match.
There is the concern of terrain that can block your and your creature's movements. You also have to worry about placement in a real environment, that is making sure someone doesn't sneak up behind your Planeswalker or flank him or her. And of course you need to move your summoned creatures across the map to get to the enemy creatures and Planeswalker.
Another important element of the game is that your Planeswalker can gain experience, level up and unlock talents. These buffs can completely change the way you play the game, Tuttle points out.
I was most intrigued, though, by the process the studio went through to convert the sometimes iconic creatures found in the flat world of the card game into moving 3D animations.
Tuttle said there was a lot of back and forth with Wizards of the Coast, the company behind Magic: The Gathering, about the animation.
"We had a couple of rules," he said. "If we use something from Magic the Gathering it had to feel right. (The spell) Hymn to Tourach had to so something roughly the same in the game that it does in the card game."
But to make the Tactics game work there also had to be some changes.
For instance, in the card game a creature that is "unblockable" can attack straight through a defensive army and injure the Planeswalker. In Tactics, where placement and the map plays a much more important role, unblockable means that the creature can move straight through any terrain or obstruction.
The team also had to deal with the issue of defining how a flat illustration would look in motion and in 3D. Typically that wasn't an issue, but the studio ran into a few issues.
The game's iconic Lord of the Pit, for instance, started out looking much like the original card illustration. On the card, a giant red, winged demon bursts forth from a blossom of red-tinged light, a flame jutting from the top of his head, eyes and mouth. After close examination, the team decided that the illustration depicted the creature with nothing below the ribs, in fact you can see what appears to be jutting ribs and a bit of exposed spinal cord.
So the team created this monstrosity, a giant demon that floats above a dangling bit of entrails and spinal cord. But when Wizards of the Coast saw it, there first question was, "Where's the skirt of crow feathers?"
Tuttle went back to the illustrations, the source material, the cards, no skirt, no crow feathers. Turns out, that while there wasn't a single illustration showing it, the lore behind the Lord of the Pit always described him wearing a skirt of crows feathers. So they added it.
"Sixty percent of what's in the game comes from the Magic cards, the other forty percent is stuff we created," Tuttle said.
The game will ship with 80 creatures and 100 spells, with the team releasing purchasable digital card packs over time. While players will have to play in tournaments if they want to rank or win items, they'll have access to a single-player campaign and the ability to play unranked matches online, all of which will allow them to permanently level up their Planeswalker.
Another neat aspect of the game is the incredibly robust deck building and testing program. In it players can put together the deck of cards they'll use in a match. You can then look at a wealth of statistics about the deck you created and even run through sample draws, something very familiar to anyone who's ever built a deck in the trading card game.
Look for the game in the coming months.