The first digital deckbuilder was a Magic: The Gathering game from 1997 and it ruled

(Image credit: MicroProse)

My winning strategy in Magic: The Gathering relied on the Dingus Egg. Before I ever played the collectible card game with actual cards, I played a demo of MicroProse’s 1997 videogame version, which was just called Magic: The Gathering. That demo let you pick one of several single-color decks with tight themes and wacky names—the aquatic blue deck was called Ethyl Merman—and I favored a white deck called Eggscalibur. It relied on a simple combo: the Dingus Egg was an artifact that damaged each player for each of their land cards that got destroyed; the Armageddon spell destroyed every single land on the table. Since the combo affected both players, the trick was timing it so I had just enough life points to survive and my opponent didn’t. God bless the Dingus Egg.

That was my introduction to one of the joys of Magic: The Gathering, which is finding combinations of cards that do truly ridiculous things. (If the Eggscalibur deck had included Reverse Polarity, a white enchantment that turns damage caused by artifacts into healing, it could have been even more obnoxious.) The most infamous combos in Magic set up infinite loops or first-turn kills, but there are plenty of smaller, less game-breaking synergies that feel like one-two punches when you pull them off.

If MicroProse’s Magic: The Gathering had been nothing more than a fuller version of that duel mode for pitting decks against computer opponents it would have been fine. As it turned out, the final game was much more than that.

I’m gonna swing from the Shandalar

In 1987, MicroProse published Sid Meier’s Pirates! It was the first game with Meier’s name in the title, and was followed by Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon, Sid Meier’s Civilization, Sid Meier’s Colonization, and so on. Magic: The Gathering, the final game Meier worked on for MicroProse, didn’t have his name on it. Before its release, MicroProse played up his involvement, saying to Computer Games Strategy Plus that “Meier is programming a new, adventure game segment” and “He is also programming a stand-alone duel segment”. 

Then Meier left MicroProse to found Firaxis and suddenly the company wasn’t so eager to advertise his efforts. Meier’s name was not only absent from the front of the box, but was removed from the credits entirely—still a common practice in the videogame industry when someone leaves a project before it’s finished, but absolutely a dick move.

(Image credit: MicroProse)

That “new, adventure game segment” was called Shandalar, and it ruled. In this mode you made your own wizard, choosing between often silly-looking faces and accessories, then walked across the plane of Shandalar dueling wizards and monsters via throwdown games of Magic. You can tell it’s old school Magic because it still has the ‘ante’ rule, which meant both you and your opponent put a random card from your decks on the line every time you played, with the winner keeping them.

That, and cards with archaic rules like ‘banding’, a keyword that let some creatures combine together in attack or defence, give Shandalar a definite flavor of 1990s Magic. It even had mana burn, a punishment for tapping too much land that costs you one life point for every point of unspent mana.

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(Image credit: MicroProse)

There are towns where you can buy and sell cards and food as well as taking on quests in return for cards, gems that can be traded for cards, or manalinks, which increase your life total—rather than having the default 20 points of life, you start at 10 and work your way up. 

While there’s no permadeath, and losing a bout simply means losing your ante, Shandalar has a surprising amount in common with modern deckbuilders like Slay the Spire, which it predates by 20 years. (Even Dominion, the first tabletop deckbuilder, wouldn’t come out until 11 years after Shandalar.) Playing Shandalar relies on that same balance between improvisation, finding synergies between whatever cards you find, and planning ahead, to figure out some OP combo and then plot how you’ll get there. 

It’s not always great at teaching you how to play, though there is an amazing multimedia tutorial in which two actors wearing full wizard regalia explain the basics, with other actors appearing as the miniature knight, ogre, and elves they summon. The whole thing turns into a game show at one point. It’s cheesy, camp, and wonderful. (You may recognize a young Rhea Seehorn, aka Kim Wexler from Better Call Saul, as one of the teachers.)

That sense of playful humor carried over into the game. The character creator included goofy options like a Groucho mask or just being a cat, one of the new ‘astral’ cards invented for the videogame was Goblin Polka Band, and after you saved a settlement that was under attack, the townsfolk who came out to rejoice were a pack of total goobers. One was a weird slimy thing hanging off an elf’s back, another was a floating blue jellyfish with a pyramid hat, and four identical fairies were clearly copy-pasted in to make things look even sillier.

(Image credit: MicroProse)

The Mighty Nine

What was serious about Shandalar was the challenge. The best cards could only be found in dungeons, which had to be uncovered by foregoing the ante reward for defeating wizards and demanding dungeon clues instead. Each clue tells you a little more about what you’ll face, what color most of the enemies will be, and what rewards will be lying around. One dungeon might include a Black Lotus, a card that gives you three mana of any color. That’s good! The same dungeon might also have Power Struggle permanently in effect, meaning that every turn a random card swaps ownership. That’s bad!

Inside dungeons you can’t save, and your life points don’t refill between duels. It’s here, choosing between paths that might contain randomized rewards or riddles as well as enemies, that Shandalar feels most like Slay the Spire. Lose a single bout, or leave the dungeon for any reason, and the entire edifice vanishes. You have to go back to hunting for clues again. 

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(Image credit: MicroProse)

It’s worth it, because potential dungeon rewards include the Power Nine, cards from the early days of Magic that must have sounded like good ideas at the time but in play turned out to be game-bustingly overpowered. Cards like Time Walk, which lets you take another turn (something that might be fine in a regular board game, but is a killer in a one-on-one duel, and only cost two mana to boot). Or the Mox cards, each a zero-cost artifact that gives you a single mana of a certain color. Sure, it’s just one point of mana, but played early that extra point every turn puts you ahead of the curve for the entire game.

Necesitabas estas cartas en Shandalar por lo que vino después. Tenías que luchar contra los cinco señores del gremio de Shandalar, uno por sabor de magia, y un jefe final al que solo se podía enfrentar después de que los Señores del gremio fueran derrotados: Arzakon, un planeswalker con cientos de puntos de vida. En la dificultad más alta, tiene 400. Este es un juego en el que comienzas con 10.

Contra enemigos normales, una carta como Lightning Bolt, que provoca tres daños, es bastante útil. Contra Arzakon, tener Lightning Bolts en tu mazo es una desventaja. Para derrotarlo tienes que construir el tipo de mazo degenerado atroz que nunca jugarías contra un ser humano real por miedo a ser exiliado de la sociedad educada. Para vencer a Arzakon tienes que abrazar el lado oscuro, el tipo de jugadas de mierda que hacen que el combo Dingus Egg/Armageddon parezca un juego de niños.

(Crédito de la imagen: MicroProse)

Puedes construir un mazo completo alrededor de tonterías como Black Vise, que daña a tu oponente cada turno, un punto por cada carta superior a cuatro en su mano. Juegas tantas como puedas (gracias a Tome of Enlightenment, un objeto mágico que puedes comprar en la ciudad que aumenta la cantidad de duplicados permitidos), combinados con todas las Howling Mines que puedes llevar, cada una de las cuales aumenta el robo de cartas en uno. y cualquier otra carta de robo forzado que puedas encontrar. Ancestral Recall, Braingeyser, Timetwister, todos entran. Luego lanzas Ivory Tower en la parte superior, el reverso de Black Vise, que te cura por cada carta por encima de cuatro en tu propia mano inevitablemente abultada.

Para garantizar la eficiencia de la baraja, eliminas todas las cartas de tierra excepto las de dos manás, lanzas cartas de Mox y dejas fuera todas menos una o dos criaturas. En cambio, confías en abominaciones baratas para despejar el tablero como Wrath of God, que destruye todas las criaturas, incluida la tuya, y Swords to Ploughshares, que devuelve las criaturas convocadas a la mano de tu oponente. Claro, también los cura una cantidad igual al poder de la criatura, pero eso es trivial cuando tienes una cantidad ilegal de Black Vises en cada turno.

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(Crédito de la imagen: MicroProse)

Ese es solo un camino hacia la victoria, incluso si es el tipo de victoria que no sería posible en un torneo, ya que se basa en cartas que ya no existen. Otras tácticas incluyen hacer un bucle que genera maná infinito. ¿Recuerdas cómo los artefactos Mox te dan maná pero no cuestan nada para jugar? Hurkyll’s Recall devuelve los artefactos a tu mano para que puedas volver a jugarlos, recolectar el maná gratis y repetir. Introduce algunos Timetwisters, que te permiten mezclar las cartas descartadas en el mazo y robar una nueva mano para que tengas la garantía de volver a robar al menos un Hurkyll’s Recall, y listo.

Este combo literalmente rompió el juego, ya que haría que el juego se bloqueara. Las posiciones de todas esas cartas de artefactos se almacenaban en la memoria cada vez que las jugabas y eventualmente se convertían en demasiado para que el cliente las manejara. La única forma de evitarlo era hacer clic derecho y seleccionar Reorganizar tarjetas cada vez para borrar las ranuras de la memoria y evitar el bloqueo.

Aunque Shandalar comienza con dos actores disfrazados que te enseñan el elegante arte de la magia, termina entrenándote para que te conviertas en un abogado de las reglas que explota las lagunas de la peor clase, aunque en un entorno en el que nadie sale lastimado. Está bien jugar como un imbécil total cuando te enfrentas a alguien con 400 puntos de vida y el destino de todo un avión está en juego.

Este momento mágico

MicroProse lanzó una expansión llamada Spells of the Ancients más adelante en 1997 con más cartas y un generador de mazos sellados, y luego en 1998 combinó tanto el juego como la expansión en un paquete llamado Duels of the Planeswalkers, con aún más cartas y multijugador en línea para el modo duelo. Se anunció una Gold Edition final en el E3 de 1999, pero nunca se lanzó. MicroProse no duró mucho más, algunos de sus estudios fueron cerrados por los propietarios de Hasbro Interactive, y el resto por Infogrames, que se hizo cargo en 2001.

(Crédito de la imagen: MicroProse)

Ya no puedes comprar a Shandalar. Sin embargo, está disponible en Internet Archive, tanto la demostración como una reimplementación para fanáticos del juego completo de 2010, con soporte para versiones de Windows de 64 bits que, de lo contrario, tendrían dificultades para ejecutarlo. Existen otras versiones para fanáticos, aunque agregan cartas más recientes a las barajas y alteran las imágenes, perdiendo algo de esa estética de ondas de vapor que obtienes de fondos con estatuas clásicas y bolas de cristal azul pastel.

Aunque los constructores de mazos modernos tienen una picazón similar, todavía no hay nada como Shandalar. Me encantaría ver una nueva versión o un modo similar para un jugador en Magic: The Gathering Arena, porque a veces no quiero jugar mazos justos contra personas reales. A veces quiero ser un duende de la polca en cuclillas arruinando el día de un oponente de la computadora con la peor baraja de cartas que jamás haya existido.

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