In the past, every month or so my partner and I would follow the instructions on the box and “gather” with our friends to play Magic: The Gathering. We’d have a casual sealed draft of whatever the latest set was, and at the end of the (at times very long) night, the winner walked home with a couple of premium packs and bragging rights. With Magic: Legends,, our gatherings could soon migrate from kitchen tables to our computers.
Magic: Legends is a free-to-play “hack’n’cast” game from Cryptic Studios. It’s coming to Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC later this year, with an open beta beginning March 23. Legends asks “What if we obsessively stitched together a hulking ogre made of Destiny 2’s MMO aspects with Diablo 3-style gameplay stuffed inside a Magic: The Gathering themed puzzle box?” The answer is a slick if at times unwieldy action game that I think my cohort of Magic playing buddies will enjoy. I recently took part in a directed demo of the game, with Stephen Ricossa, creative director at Cryptic Studios, acting as my Faerie Guidemother, showing me the game’s details and how to play.
In Magic: Legends you play a Planeswalker, the “main characters” of Magic who have incredible magical powers and the ability to warp (or planeswalk) between the multiple realities of the Magic multiverse. But instead of piloting one of Magic’s longtime heroes like Teferi, Chandra, or Cloud Strife-impersonator Jace Beleren, Magic: Legends lets you create and customize your own Planeswalker. The prospect of creating my very own Planeswalker like Kaya or Vivien is extremely exciting to me. My preview didn’t cover much of character creation, but from the few minutes I had to tinker with it, you have an adequate amount of options and styles.
After character creation you have five options to choose from for your Planeswalker’s class, with each class aligned to a slice of Magic’s color pie: Beastcaller, Geomancer, Sanctifier, Mind Mage, and Necromancer. I spent my time with the Necromancer.
The game is top-down, isometric, and click to move. (There’s WASD and controller supported movement too.) There are objective-based missions you initiate that take place in instanced areas. Enemies swarm around you, and you fight them in real time in combat that, if you were looking over someone’s shoulder, would remind you of Diablo. But instead of relying on a weapon or a wand to fight, your Planeswalker fights through acquiring, assembling, and casting a small deck of spells.
There are creature spells like Goblin Offensive that summon goblins to fight at your side. There are spells like Zealous Charge that enhance those creatures and make them hit harder, and spells like Lightning Strike that let you do damage directly to your foes. Just like in paper Magic, spells require a specific amount and color of mana, and once you cast a spell, it leaves your bar and is replaced with another random spell from your deck. You never know what you’re gonna get, so make the most of it. You do have a weapon you can use to bash enemies to death, but only do that if you want to be slow and get eaten alive by swarms of enemies.
You also have static abilities specific to your class (like you’d see in Overwatch) and a super-powerful ultimate ability you can only use after it’s had time to charge up. (See also: Overwatch.) Your class matters only as far as the static and ultimate abilities you can use. What I enjoyed most about the game was that beyond that, there were no restrictions on the spells I could use to build a deck. I could be a Necromancer—a black mana-aligned sorcerer traditionally associated with hulking flesh constructs, zombies, and skeletons—and play a deck without a single black spell. In fact, that’s what I did in my first mission: I played as a Necromancer with a red/white themed deck filled with angels and goblins.
What I appreciated most about Magic: Legends is that level of freedom and the great pains the game takes to still keep the essence of a Magic: The Gathering card game. When I’d use a spell like Zealous Charge to pump up my creatures, the little minions following me around actually got bigger in size. You can “kick” certain spells just like you can “kick” cards in paper Magic, by paying more mana to get a more powerful creature or spell. And, just like in paper Magic, it still feels good to Shock a creature for lethal damage when they’re least expecting it.
I’m not as interested in the game’s story as I thought I’d be. (I’m one of the rare people in my group who actually likes Magic’s lore.) You can complete Legends solo or with two other friends. There are different planes you can explore, fight your friends in 1v1 PvP, and mythic-level bosses roaming the overworld to take down.
From what I saw, the thing that will hook me in Magic: Legends is testing my deck-building mettle with and against my friends. It’s free-to-play, so I don’t think I’ll have a hard time convincing my Magic bros to try it out. And for what it’s worth, I think they’d like it—at least until we’re all vaccinated and can safely “gather” again.