It was easy to get into Magic: The Gathering when I was 11 years old. The air was cool and the leaves turned, while September 1994 reached October. The game took over my schoolyard thanks to Mrs. Dierdre Lukyn, the coolest teacher at school. Like any young soul who wants to be a part of the action, I bought a starter pack and some envelopes and mixed my favorite cards with some land. I didn’t know what I was doing. But it didn’t matter. No one had any idea how to build a Okay cover. Competitive gaming did not exist then as it does now. Nobody cared. We were children who fell in love with a unique card game that made us feel like magicians.
More than 25 years later, Magic is still a mainstay in my life. I still play against those same rivals in the schoolyard. I follow the news daily. I have played in tournaments and I watch my favorite players stream the game. More than Tolkien, more than Final Fantasy, more than anything else, Magic: The Gathering made me a fan of fantasy.
It’s always been easy to get into Magic, and the latest effort to reach new audiences is Magic: The Gathering – Arena, and it’s Wizards of the Coast’s most ambitious digital product since 2002’s Magic: The Gathering Online. Arena is the latest in a long line of Magic digital products that have attempted to bring the game from the original paper game to computers, game consoles and phones.
In June, less than a year after entering its open beta phase, Arena celebrated its billionth game played. Billion That’s a lot, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of games played in tournament rooms and around kitchen tables since the original release of Magic in 1993. But the relationship between Magic Digital and paper is not as competitive as it is symbiotic.
“The digital versions of Magic have had an overall positive impact,” Chris Cao told me when I spoke to him for this piece. “They help generate greater engagement from major brands, increase gaming activity, and increase awareness of the game. We also believe they provide very different experiences, each with its own strengths. ”
Cao is the executive producer of Wizards’ in-house digital gaming studio. His job is to focus the development, operations and expansion of Magic on multiple digital platforms.
Like any product that has survived several decades, Magic’s 25-year journey is filled with world-class successes and near-catastrophic missteps. But if there’s one thing that never changes, it’s Wizards’ willingness to experiment and move forward, and his ever-present mandate to make the game as accessible and engaging as possible to players across the globe.
The story is best told by the people who experienced it, so I’ve connected with professional gamers, Wizards of the Coast staff, journalists, and content creators who have dedicated their lives to this wonderful game. Join us as we delve into the history of Magic: The Gathering’s digital ambitions.
To find the beginning of this digital journey, we have to travel until 1997, just four years after the Alpha edition of the game was released.
Dig through time
“I’ve played a lot more Digital Magic over the years than Paper Magic,” Saffron Olive told me when I asked him about his history with the game. “As I started as a causal role player a long time ago, as I became more interested in Magic, I started playing more and more Magic Online,” he said, referring to Magic’s online client, The Gathering Online. (MTGO) When Saffron Olive started producing more video content, it moved further away from the Magic role “as digital is much easier for video production and streaming.”
With his lively beard and infectious laugh, Saffron Olive, whose real name is Seth, is a writer for MTGGoldfish, a well-known Magic site with articles, videos, and decklists, and one of the community’s best-known “brewers”: Players who enjoy creating and playing creative decks, rather than chasing the “meta” decks popular with competitive players. From his home in upstate New York, he can be found streaming daily some of the most unique decks the game has to offer.
Like Saffron Olive, I currently play more Digital Magic than Paper Magic. I returned to the game around the 2013 Dragon’s Maze digital and paper expansion set, just after a period of high growth for the game during 2009-2012, which Rob Bockman of Hipsters of the Coast attributes to a “rise in popularity driven by digital. “
But digital magic took a long time to capture as it did during that period.
Wizards of the Coast and MicroProse ushered in the Magic digital age with the release of 1997’s Magic: The Gathering, known colloquially as Shandalar. It was a bit like Frankenstein’s monster. Unlike most future Magic digital offerings, Shandalar wanted to do more than mimic the board game, rather than borrow many elements from RPG and adventure games. Random battles unfolded like typical Magic games, allowing the player to enhance their collection by winning “ante” cards (each player bets a random card from their library at the beginning of each game; the winner takes all). It does not completely leave the game table. Rooting, Shandalar also offered a “duel” mode that pitted players against each other in a more traditional magic game.
An expansion called Spells of the Ancients debuted in 1998 and included improvements to the game engine, artificial intelligence, and interface along with new cards. The same year a special edition was launched that combines base game and expansion, newer cards and features. In August 1999, MicroProse announced a new robust edition of the game with many new features called the Gold Edition, but it was not released before the company retired in 2001.
Shandalar earned a special place in the hearts of Magic players as the first attempt to emulate the role play in digital format. Twenty years later, it stands as a relic of its time, an interesting antecedent to later forms of digital magic. It’s a bit of a cobblestone mess, but like Dr. Frankenstein’s work, there’s something undeniably endearing about it.
Popular Magic streamer Gaby Spartz released a series of videos featuring Shandalar. If you want to play along, Shandalar is available as a free download in Abandonware DOS.
Sideboard: BattleMage, Armageddon and Sega
Launched alongside MTGO in 1997, Magic: The Gathering: BattleMage (PC and PlayStation) took the Shandalar concept even further, with combat as a real-time strategy game with cards representing playable units and abilities.
Also in 1997, Acclaim released a rare arcade game called Magic: The Gathering: Armageddon. There are only four known units. The game was so poorly received that a VentureBeat writer saw that the only known prototype unit was “used as a garbage rack” at his local Sunnyvale Golfland in the Bay Area. Before it could be destroyed, the unit was picked up by a collector and now makes a regular appearance at the California Extreme arcade exhibit.
Sega released a Japan-only Magic game called, repeatedly, Magic: The Gathering for the Dreamcast in 2001. It features cards from the 6th edition, Alliances and Tempest, as well as 10 exclusive cards with random Hearthstone-style effects.