Developer: Secret Level
Release Date: November 18, 2003
Pre-order 'MAGIC THE GATHERING: Battlegrounds': Xbox
The collectible card game’s universe and rules would lend themselves well to either an Xbox Live recreation of the game itself, complete with all the rules and the ability to customize your own decks; a bizarre sort of console RPG, set in the planes of Dominaria; or, on an outside chance, something like the Lost Kingdoms games on the Cube.
Battlegrounds is, instead, a fast-paced, real-time strategy game, based upon Magic without being overly faithful to it. It jettisons many of the rules and pares the game down to something resembling its basics; gone, for example, are instants, land cards, anything that even remotely resembles Counterspell, and artifacts.
Your character in Battlegrounds is a young apprentice duelist, initially specializing in the Red magics. As your master tells you at the start of the game, your homeland was devastated by the fallout from a duel between three mighty planeswalkers, one of whom bore a silver talisman that contained the power of all five colors of magic: red, white, black, green, and blue. When that duelist was struck down on the battlefield, the result was an explosion that shattered the lands around it.
To reassemble that talisman’s power, you must make a journey across the planes, facing down and defeating five powerful duelists, each of whom have a gem that once rested within the talisman. When the talisman itself is reassembled, you’ll be able to save the world, but not before a final showdown.
You begin the game with a single Red summon. To cast spells, you must seize Mana Crystals when they appear on the battlefield, which will increase your maximum mana supply. When you expend mana on a summon or sorcery spell, your mana supply will gradually regenerate; alternatively, you can mash the Y button to replenish your mana slightly faster, or collect Mana Shards from fallen creatures or certain creatures’s special abilities.
Battlegrounds’s one-player “Quest” mode is divided into six chapters. In the first five, you’ll be set up against the allies and monsters of a given planeswalker, and be forced to learn the ropes of a new color of magic. In Chapter 1, for example, you’ll earn various Red creature summons, sorceries, and enchantments, en route to a final duel against the Green planeswalker Malkuth. Having wrested the green gem from him, you’ll begin Chapter 2 as a literally Green planeswalker, only knowing a single summon. This trend continues until the final chapter, 6, where you’ll be able to assemble your own spellbook from all the abilities you’ve earned thus far, customizing your planeswalker for the final battle.
Each of the quest mode’s chapters, save the last, is divided up into a series of missions. In each, you must defeat another duelist according to various conditions, usually having to do with the last spell you learned. The missions aren’t always simple duels, either; one might be a mana race, where you must generate a full mana bar before your opponent, using your new Queen of Titania summon and a pack of Llanowar Elves, whereas another will involve dispatching an unarmed duelist within twenty seconds.
When the duels are “simple,” however, they get fairly intense. Each of your varieties of spell is linked to a different button on the controller: sorceries to X, creatures to A, and enchantments to B. Press one of those, and you can pick an individual spell within that group using the same variety of buttons, or, alternatively, scroll between “pages” with Black and White. It’s a decent and intuitive way for you to cast spells in real time, although it’s built to reward precision and patience under fire. I’ve lost more than one duel because I pressed the wrong button and cast the wrong spell at the wrong time.
A summoned creature spawns directly in front of your duelist and runs forward, until stopped by a spell or another creature. You can summon up to five creatures, limited by your mana supply and the color of magic you’re currently using; Red mages are given an army of goblins to play with, whereas Green planeswalkers are big fans of elves. You can pump up your creatures with various sorceries, like Giant Growth or Run Wild, or deal direct damage to the other duelist with Scorching Flames. The variety of attacks and creatures isn’t, obviously, as great as it is in the card game, but there’s still enough here to keep you busy for quite some time. Believe me, when you’re in the thick of a battle and trying frantically to counter an opponent’s nearly endless flood of Raging Goblins or Young Knights, the last thing on your mind will be how few cards you have in your hand.
Your duelist, unlike in the card game, isn’t without her own defenses. The R trigger will make her swing her staff in a simple attack that does 1 damage, while the L trigger lets her shield against incoming creatures to halve their damage. You can run around your half of the duelling field, to scoop up Mana Crystals and Shards, but unfortunately, evasion will only work for so long against a creature, and won’t work at all against incoming direct-damage sorceries. Timing is really everything, as about half a second will often make the difference between summoning a creature right in time to stop your opponent’s Volcanic Dragon, or the creature appearing right after the Dragon has already torn your face off.
When the one-player mode loses its charm, there’s also Arcade Mode, where you can select characters with which to fight a variety of other unlockable planeswalkers; and Vs. Mode, where you and a friend can duke it out. The final retail build will also be Live-enabled, although we’ve yet to see just how that’ll work.
That final build should be interesting. Right now, the game’s unpolished and difficult, but the good kind of difficult, where despite how impossible a given mission may seem, it’ll keep you coming back for more. Magic, as a rule, doesn’t tend to be fast-paced, but Battlegrounds adds humor, flash, and speed to the process.