You take a look at your opening hand: only one land, the sort of hand even your grandmother would mulligan (if she hasn’t been at the whisky again). But you can’t ship it back.
You’re on the draw too, which is going to make things tough since your opponent, dressed head to foot in white robes, already has a Crusade in play. You want to call a judge on this blatant cheating, but you can’t.
Your opponent leads with turn 1 Savannah Lions, letting you know he’s playing White Weenie. Tough break, since you haven’t taken your first turn yet and you’re already at 11 life.
You’ve heard of losing the game before you even sat down to play, but you assumed that applied to having a defeatist attitude, not facing a 3/2 creature while you’re at 11 life without having taken a single turn yet.
Still, here goes nothing. You draw, and…yesssss, rip Black Lotus. Plains, Lotus, crack the Lotus for WWW and drop… Pearled Unicorn?
That’s right, it may look like you’re playing an unholy mix of Vintage and 4th Edition sealed against Mike Long in judgeless hell, but in fact you’re playing Shandalar and you’re enjoying a wild and entertaining version of Magic that’s as close to the original vision for the game as you’re going to get without selling your house to crack some packs of Beta.
This article will be split into two parts. The first will introduce Shandalar, the Microprose computer game of Magic released in 1997, describing the game’s world and mechanics for those unfamiliar with it and explaining why it’s such fun to play. The second will explore some interesting issues that playing the game raises: what it shows us about just how different the theory of design was in 1997, what a ‘metagame’ of dozens of opposing decks and a starting life total of 10 does to your deck design, and why a fun game with rubbish graphics from 1997 is still the best computer version of Magic around.
Part one: “What is the toughness of the Ironclaw Orcs?”
Those of you looking to Wikipedia for a quick summary of the game will have come back disappointed; at the time of writing the entry for Shandalar entertainingly expounds for its entire duration on the game’s bizarre and mostly irrelevant plot without touching on anything so mundane as how the thing actually works.
So: you star as a planeswalker come to save the Land of Shandalar, threatened as it is by five wizards who in turn somehow answer to a final monster who has a Very Large Deck, Unfair Starting Life Total and a Silly Name.
You begin by designing your character’s look in true RPG style, then select the starting colour which will form the basis of your deck. Then you choose your starting difficulty level, with the higher levels affording you lower starting life totals, harder opponents and an initial cardpool that’s a five-colour mess rather than just a bad preconstructed deck.
Congratulations, you’re ready to save the world! Or rather, skulk around it like a coward since the early game of Shandalar involves avoiding the game’s enemies while you visit towns, where you can edit your deck, buy and sell cards from the meagre selection on offer, and receive quests, advice and occasional temporary bonuses from the local member of Shandalar’s ubiquitous Wise Man Union.
The map screen shows your avatar wandering around Shandalar:
A- That's you!
B- Enemies, who will generally chase you whenever they're close. If they reach you, you'll have the choice of paying them off with precious gold or duelling. From top to bottom here we have: Mind Stealer, who will sometimes play you with your own deck (and occasionally rewards you with a duplicate card from your own collection!); Aga Galneer, one of the more advanced enemies with a multicoloured deck, and Tusk Guardian, a feeble enemy who will quickly become your whipping boy and a constant source of free copies of a certain powerful Elephant-related card.
C-Gold, used to buy cards and the food you need to survive. You start with a couple of hundred Gold; as a rough guide a basic Land will cost you 10, a powerful common 100 and a splashy rare several hunderd. Just like in real life the prices are higher in cities, and you won't find everything you need in the shops. You can also sell your surplus cards at any town or village.
D-Food. Without it, you die. Seldom a problem unless you squander all your gold on avoiding duels like a coward.
E-Your starting life total for duels, which can be increased by completing certain quests to obtain mana links.
F-Your current deck/total cardpool. Note that you're allowed a 40-card deck, with a 3-of limit per card to start with. The game lets you have three decks built at once, and you're able to switch between them on visiting a town.
G-The news scroll lets me know that a monster is attacking a town: I'll lose any mana links I have there when it succeeds, and if one of the five enemy wizards conquers a set number of towns it's GAME OVER, MAN. I also have two extra life in the next duel, probably a gift from a Wise Man.
H-Amulets can be found, won from bigger enemies, bought or obtained by questing. They are your main way of trading for specific cards, and also power the various World Magics.
I-The sword picture in the White amulet box shows that I have the corresponding World Magic. You begin with one based on the colour of your starting deck. The White one is generally regarded as the best, since it lets you teleport instantly to a city under siege at the risk of one White Amulet.
J-This is a passive (ie always on) World Magic, allowing faster travel in swamps.
K-The menu lets me access information about cities I've visited, dungeons I'm learning about, and how much progress the evil Wizards have made.
L-A village. I can build my deck here, buy food, talk to the Wise Man, buy and sell cards, or start a quest. The cards available to buy will depend on the town's size and location: this looks like a Green-aligned village, so I can expect to find basic forests and various awful Green commons for sale.
As you gradually rid your deck of such treats as Death Ward, Benalish Hero, Evil Presence and Wall of Wood, through judicious trading and the completion of low-level quests you’ll be in a position to engage in some duelling. Whenever you encounter one of Shandalar’s roaming monsters you’ll be given the option of fighting them or paying them off with some of your precious gold. In the first of many indications that you’re playing old-school magic, you’ll also be told what your ante card is. For our younger readers, that’s an old rule whereby each player set aside a random card from their decks before the match and the winner got to keep them both. Forever.
The game has dozens of monsters, each of them with a predetermined deck themed around that monster’s identity, colour affiliation, and power level. The Fungus Master, for example, is a Green/Blue mid-level enemy with a quite powerful deck that looks to drop a Fungusaur that it grows with pings from Prodigal Sorcerer while also smashing you with fatties and Unsummoning all your creatures.
Should you defeat the creature, you’ll be offered some cards from its deck, or some information about the dungeons containing powerful restricted cards like Black Lotus, Sol Ring and Ancestral Recall. In the dungeons you’ll overcome special rules (eg ‘Crusade starts in play’), monsters and quiz cards that ask you a load of questions that were probably a lot tougher before Gatherer was invented, all in search of broken cards to add to your ever-improving deck.
Here's the duel screen, triggered when that foolish Tusk Guardian from the first shot attacked me on the Map Screen.
A- Hand: remember we're playing pre-[i]6th Edition rules, so you can mulligan only on an all-land or no land hand, or if your opponent mulligans. Luckily I seem to have an acceptable mix of mana sources and threats here.
B- Board: You can position your permanents however you like once they're cast.
C-Turn phase indicator, with stops set to both main phases at the moment.
D- Mana pool. Is this interface starting to remind you of another one?
E- Life total: I started at 15 this duel, thanks to those two bonus lives.
F- Library and Graveyard
G- Lions, pre-roasting.
When enhanced by the small but important Duels of The Planeswalkers expansion, Shandalar’s cardpool contains large portions of Unlimited, Arabian Nights, The Dark, and Fourth Edition plus a few custom cards unique to the game and based around granting random effects. There’s much more to the game than this brief summary can provide, but that’s the essence of it: you explore the game’s world, completing quests, accumulating gold and amulets which you exchange for more powerful cards, and defeating the game's enemies with your decks until you feel strong enough to launch an assault on the five mono-coloured castles in which the evil Wizards reside. Then one final challenge awaits…
Part Two: Aswan Jaguar and Wild West Magic
Shandalar’s a flawed but very entertaining game that I urge anyone who enjoys Magic to seek out. It’s also a fascinating snapshot of 1997-era Magic design and a fun laboratory for testing out variant forms of the game. I found myself thinking a lot about game design, computer versions of magic and the game then versus now while I was playing.
As someone who picked up the game back when Baron Sengir was the chase rare (or Uncommon 1, technically), played endlessly with two friends and a total shared pool of about 300 cards then dropped the whole hobby until Ravnica, I’ve experienced Magic Then and Magic Now without any of the development in between and it’s fascinating to see how the game has changed.
We played for ante back then, just as Shandalar forces you too. We had a very small total cardpool and yet a much greater sense of surprise when a new card was played against us (if someone had bought that rare treat, A New Booster) since nobody knew what cards Wizards had printed outside stuff we physically owned. In much the same way Shandalar’s cardpool is small yet because many of them will be forgotten to you and there are some new game-only cards you’re much more likely to be surprised while playing it that you would be in the current Standard, or even Extended, thanks to Gatherer and the like.
Finally, thanks to the way you slowly build up your deck with painstakingly-acquired single cards and the very creative and diverse array of decks the game monsters run, there is no metagame but rather a universe of decks of varying consistency and power level whose contents are restricted by card availability and thematic concerns.
All this makes the experience of duelling in Shandalar much closer to Richard Garfield’s original vision for the game, in which nobody would ever know every card printed, decks would be made out of whatever players happened to own or trade for and the games would be frantic and full of coin-flipping, Chaos-Orbing madness. [Sadly, there was no way to put Chaos Orb itself in the game, but the Shandalar-only cards capture the same feel. --Ed.]
Magic today is a better game, which is to say it’s more complex, strategically richer, more balanced, fairer. When your opponent drops an Aswan Jaguar and randomly sets it to ‘Efreet’, thus hosing your B/G/W Junun Efreet/Elves of Deep Shadow/ Erhnam geddon deck (take it from me: don’t try this deck in Shandalar), you’re experiencing a “What the-?!!!?!” moment that’s more or less disappeared these days except at Prereleases, or when an Alan Comer or a Stuart Wright drops an innovative deck at a Pro Tour. Ante is unfair, associates the game with gambling and causes much misery and resentment, yet in the context of Shandalar it’s thrilling to play your fledgling black deck with its Erg Raiders and Drudge Skeletons in the early game knowing you could win a Hypnotic Specter but lose your only Bad Moon in a duel. Shandalar is packed with the kind of random effects and broken cards (have you ever cast Contract From Below? Try it, it feels… dirty) that Wizards quite rightly shy away from these days. Players complain they unbalance the game, they’re too random, they detract from the games’ fine strategic balance. All true, but when your last-gasp use of Shandalar’s random-mana-generating land to fire off the spell that grants you a random fast effect nails your opponent’s Ball Lightning, it’s possible to forget all that stuff for a moment and enjoy the sheer reckless fun of old-school Magic.
Bad creatures, Broken Spells
After playing Shandalar for a while, you start to notice something. Your suspicions will be confirmed as soon as you get to one of the occasions in which you complete a quest and the village’s Wise Man lets you pick any one creature of a given colour for your collection. Say you’re playing Green, colour of creatures. Let’s see, there’s er, Wyluli Wolf, or…
That’s right, folks: the creatures in Shandalar are generally terrible. The relative quality of any creature in a given environment depends on the removal available, so just to put this into perspective: in a world where a 2/2 with no drawbacks costs 3 and many 1/1s with useless abilities cost 2, the easily available removal spells include: Swords To Plowshares, Terror and Lightning Bolt (as an aside it’s amusing to consider that with StP and Wrath, White is by far the best removal colour in Shandalar). This explains why Ernham Djinn and Juzam Djinn were once considered powerhouses, and the overall poor quality of creatures relative to sorceries and instants will astonish anyone used to the modern environment.
When you play Shandalar to win it as quickly as possible, an interesting thing happens. Building, say, an aggro-control deck on modern design principles, you stock up on playsets of the environment’s most efficient creature (Hypnotic Specter), its fast mana (that would be Black Lotus, Moxen and Dark Ritual), its disruption (Lightning Bolt and StP), card draw (Contract From Below)and its best lands (can’t get better than the original duals).
Then you start winning. And winning. And winning… and you have sucked all fun from the game.
Early magic was full of loopholes, broken cards and exploitable combos because the environment wasn’t tested and it was never intended for players to know the whole universe of cards and get 4-sets of rare cards. Shandalar can be broken fairly easily, and with the advances made in the commonly-known pool of design theory since its release even a fairly novice player who works out the most efficient ways of gathering the best cards could quickly assemble a deck that will never lose to any of the game’s creatures.
I suspect most people who play Shandalar for the first time will end up assembling some variant of the deck described above, and that’s fine. It’s even possible to exceed the 4-of limit when you acquire a certain item, allowing degenerate decks with 20 Ancestral Recalls, Timetwisters, moxen, Hurkyl’’s Recall and Black Vises ( turn 1 kill). Next time you play through, though, try winning in the spirit of the game. Ban yourself from using the game’s most broken card (Contract From Below), steer clear of Hyppie and Swords, and see if you can win with a ‘fair’ creature or control deck. Use one-ofs, have a big dragon you can draw to get you out of a hole, and stick in some fun interactions you discover as you go. In doing so you’ll be experiencing Magic in its earliest, most essential form, and you might rediscover a different kind of fun to the undoubted strategic pleasures of playtesting the Block Fairie mirror or the Vintage TPS/Stax matchup.
Colour Me Hosed
Compare the following Blue cards, both of which are designed to hurt Green. Card 1: “ : Return target permanent to its owner's hand. If that permanent is red or green, put it on top of its owner's library instead.” Card 2: “ : Destroy all Forests.” Card 1 is of course Shadowmoor's Consign to Dream, a fine tempo trick that will slow down a Green deck and buy you some much needed time. It’s the equivalent of the gentlemanly Blue mage dismissing the boorish Green hog with a clever quip and an airy wave of the palm. Card 2 is Acid Rain, a card available in Shandalar and the equivalent of the Blue Mage entering his Green counterpart’s home, smashing all his furniture, setting fire to his bookcases, manhandling his wife and quite possibly defecating on his carpet. It is, in other words, both blunt and brutal. “Destroy All Forests” indeed.
With cards like Karma, Gloom, Tsunami and Acid Rain available Shandalar demonstrates just how simple and effective colour hosing cards were back in 1997. It also shows how unfun they were, and how great it is that modern design tries to provide answers to certain colours or strategies in rather more subtle and fair ways.
These cards are especially pernicious in Shandalar because so many of your opponent’s decks are mono-coloured and because it’s possible in many situations to know what they’re playing beforehand and build you deck accordingly. Packing your deck with 4 splashed copies of Gloom before launching an assault on the White Wizard’s castle, for example, is as sure a recipe for victory as it is for 5 or 6 very dull games as the White enemies fail to cast a single spell. Once again, enjoying Shandalar to the full requires you to set aside your most Spikeish instincts and avoid obvious game-breaking strategies like these.
AI'll be Damned
One final thought for this installment of adventures in Shandalar. The game was released in 1997, and there are some serious flaws in the computer AI regardless of which difficulty level you play on. That said, the game does play at least competently, and if you venture into the game's sealed deck tournament mode you'll find it builds reasonable decks and plays them well enough to present a fair challenge. 10 years later and there's been no better single-player computer version of magic released, despite an obvious market for it. There are many reasons why that might be, including the fact that if such a game were too successful it would blunt paper and MTGO sales. I see there's a new game on the horizon that promises a similar experience to Shandalar. What features do you want from a game that lets you play Magic against the computer? Are modern sets too complex for current AI to handle? Head to the forums and discuss.
And yes, you read that right: Shandalar lets you play sealed deck tournaments with used-defined pack combinations (4th Edition, 5th, Arabian Nights, Revised, Unlimited, The Dark and Chronicles) against computer opponents who insult and taunt you between rounds and even sideboard against you. Some cards, including all the gold ones, are missing but it's still great fun and there's also the option to play gauntlet games against any of the computer decks with a deck of your own design. Enjoy!
I hope you've enjoyed this installment of Adventures in Shandalar. There's lots more I'd like to write about the game if there's enough interest, including a strategy guide, a walkthrough, and more discussion points about Sealed Deck play, Online play and old-school design. So head to the forums and get reminiscing!