A Gift Trip to Shandalar

I’ve got a little something for you people. You could almost call it a gift, maybe. Shandalar, or Magic: the Gathering, the Microprose video game from 1997 is my gift for this end of year. Won’t cost me much as it is abandonware (Microprose is defunct). But it’s so good you wouldn’t do yourselves any favors not to play it, me thinks.

To get it, go there. The program is so old, you can most likely use it in a VirtualBox if you’re not on Windows, but if you are it worked pretty much “out of the box” for me on an up-to-date Windows system.

I’ll give you some tips to get you going, and some to save you from going too far. Because, careful, people, this stuff is hard drug. So make sure you’ve bought your niece’s gift before launching that thing !

The most critical tip is that you might have the impression in the middle of a match that the game is locked. You clicked and nothing happens. The solution is simple, click on something on the board, preferably not something that you can activate right then, just pay attention not to tap a land for nothing just to unlock the program, mana burn is a thing ! Click on an enchantment, an artifact that can’t be presently activated, a spell you can’t cast in your hand, a tapped basic land. It would seem like there could be cases where you’d have no other choices but to play something you don’t want to play in that situation, but that just never happened to me.

The second most critical tip is that the way you start the game it’s very easy to miss the screen to choose the difficulty, so if you find yourselves given the choice of your starting color right after selecting “New Game” just press the Esc key, it will give you the opportunity to play a more acceptable level of difficulty (the hardest, if you respect yourself).

Apart from that, the game works quite flawlessly, I was even surprised how modern it looked, the fact is, most contemporary magic software derive from this game design. The architecture of the duel area with the phases on the left, the two sides above one another is just the one we’ve come to be used to, in magic playing softwares, official or otherwise. Save those that are inspired by Hearthstone all the magic playing program I know owe a lot to this game.

The game is very relevant to Old School not just because it came out way back then in 1997, but also because the card pool is actually more like the Swedish 93/94 card pool. No Fallen Empires, no Ice Age Cards. The game presents different challenges. What I liked was that some pushed me into playing control, some seemed to favor a more aggressive style, some didn’t give me any choice, and to finish the game you have to invent something entirely new, and might find that the challenge is a bit like the kind of puzzle that solving a metagame represents, proportions aside.

From the humble beginning where you’re given a stack of cards and left to your own devices, to further stages when you’ll have always ever more powerful, ever more broken decks, I wouldn’t say there’s a smooth progression, that would be boring. For instance there was that time when my deck had two Mox Sapphire to power.. two prodigal Sorcerers ! The rest of the deck ? So so green creatures, many of whom I had started the game with. Land Leeches are doing good, so do the Grizzlis. Giant Growth are the real stars though. But seriously, you wouldn’t believe how many times those Land Leeches have carried me to the finish line ! You play for ante, which means ante cards are up for snatch.. You win cards by beating opponents, though you can also buy them in towns and villages. There are other opportunities too. For instance, the random “Arenas” that seem to pop-up on your way and can hold anything from a basic land to :

Power Struggle isn’t a paper card, but a special Microprose digital edition card.

There are also special dungeons to search for that hold the broken cards like Black Lotus, the Moxes and.. Forcefield ! Well, mostly broken cards then.

Those places present a special challenge since life is carrying over, that is, if you end up your first duel at 5 life, you’ll start the second at 5. Needless to say, considering you’ll usually want to duel 4 or more foes inside those dungeons, you’ll probably have to consider life gain.

In fact you’ll probably want to take your time winning, maybe give them life with your Swords to Plowshares so that you can take it back with the Spirit Links on your Serra Angels. And every extra turn with your Ivory Tower in play is a welcome bonus, though it’s possible I went a bit too far with the principle..

No cards left in the library. Ok then, let’s end this.

There are other special challenges that I’ll let you discover. The game is quite nice to explore : in the beginning you’re given almost no explanation or instruction. My first attempt ended with me not understanding why I had lost ! Which is great. I had to think, make plans, once even felt the need to draw a map :

map-2017_12_20-10_54_18.m2t_20171220_105747.692_crop
Old Parchment, unknown origin.

And that’s not for a lack of a map function in the game !

Heaven.

I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to go over all the tricks you can find and invent for yourself, it’s a substantial part of the fun to find them, what’s more, I’m pretty sure I haven’t find them all.

But what I’ll instead do is giving you a tip for not doing too well in the game. Cause as good as the game is it can get all too easy once you’ve figured out some of the tricks. The most important tip is that, once you start to know some very powerful tricks, to set for yourselves some limiting rules before starting a new game, otherwise it’ll be too tempting to break them. For instance, the most important probably is to just not go there :

Abstinence.

The rules are finely enforced, they aren’t exactly the ones that were used when the game came out in 97, they’re not the 5th Edition rules, the game must have started its development earlier it seems cause I clearly recognized the Revised rules. Well, at least, pre-5th Edition rules (which makes sense since those are a nightmare come true). Of course I had to put that to the test. They do indeed let you respond to the drawing of a card (that is, respond to announcing the drawing, at which point the card hasn’t been drawn), so the Sylvan Library + Island Sanctuary trick, which we already went over surely.. mm no, that was a bit much, that was the time when I managed to make the program crash on legitimate rule abuse. I responded to my card draw by Sylvan Library and let Island Sanctuary cancel one of those draws, so far so god, I chose the card to put back on the libary, and then..

Draw a Card in Orange on the batch, Sylvan activated, Sanctuary effect obtained !

I guess they didn’t think that it could be possible to have less than two cards to choose to either put back on top or pay life for. But the Sindbad trick ? Yes, they totally have Sylvan Library register every cards drawn so far during the turn !

Problem being, it’s too good of a trick, what’s one to do with all those cards ?

Tip : while I love Sylvan Library, the card is a bit of a mess to play. You can do it, but it’s time consuming, prone to mistakes and imperfectly implemented. Remember that you have to activate it, and to draw you card for the turn before that. To be sure to have the time to do that right click on your draw phase box (that’s the one with the hand) and select “always stop”. You can use that functionality to get the opportunity to tap your opponent’s land with your Icy Manipulator during his upkeep too.
Yes, that’s 6 counterspells in the same deck in the picture above. There’s a way to go above normal building restriction, I’m afraid. Which can lead to some sweet sweet builds, like following masterpiece of deckbuilding :

30 Bolts Deck : Achievement Unlocked !

Ok then, let’s take things seriously, and make ourselves a real deck :

Achievement not unlocked.

Ok I didn’t push this one as far as I’d have to, but, and that was the only time I pushed the engine to its limit, the software doesn’t like you to do Timetwisters after Timetwisters.

And yet, I don’t see any problem there.

You can do some, but I had to find shortcuts with pathetic Ancestral Recalls and Demonic Tutors since the engine wouldn’t let you operate the 29 Twisters, 30 Lotus, 2 Braingeysers deck long enough before crashing (yes the most powerful magic deck doesn’t win with lame card Fireball, duh). 2 Braingeysers because you play ante, and 61 cards because you play ante and if your deck, after removing the ante from it, is under 60 cards, it will get some random basic lands inserted to fill the gap. Don’t worry friend, while the deck is imperfect, I still was winning turn 1 every time..

Among the other indulgences I offered myself, I lived the dream and decked my opponent with a LoL :

In response to drawing my card from my empty Library, I activate Disrupting Scepter on me..  Also : 3 Ivory Towers and 27 cards in hand. Business as usual.

Don’t waste time,  like I did, trying to abuse Tawnoss’ Coffin + Tetravus. That didn’t work back then the way it does today, so it doesn’t.

Nope.

Shandalar gives you this feeling of discovering, or re-discovering forgotten cards, the way you’d have had to do if they were in your first booster, your first few cards. And it’s not like you have a choice ! So you want to be a blue Sorcerer, huh ? Look what we’ve got for you :

Shanda Blue crop.png
Thanks, Lord ! 1 Plains, 1 Forest, 1 Mountain.

If that’s not challenging I don’t know what is. And I don’t know how you take the presence of 4 Swamps in that initial list of cards, but it seemed like a good joke at my expanse to me ! Fortunately you can build a deck as small as you want, though if the deck has less than 41 cards, some random lands will be added by the game..

The A.I. I imagine is what many would want to know about. Well, playing the game you’re getting used to opponents being not particularly good at playing the game -to be generous, but you also get used to see them sporting not particularly efficient decks. That may seem not challenging enough, but note that you start with 10 life. They have more, sometimes much, much more. This leads to interesting situations where you’d normally expect to die, but, knowing the A.I.’s quirks you can still hope and engineer miraculous come backs ! Then you get used to them not having much to show for and they have a poor Fungusaur, a poor Prodigal Sorcerer, and oh, wait, that’s a cool combo, and I don’t have much if any removal cause that’s how you start the game, so.. so the now Dinosaur grows and grows, until this time, you have to yield for good.

There are ways to get to start with more than 10 life, which I won’t tell, because I didn’t know them and it was actually for the better. I would give you the map, well I gave you one, or two, but not really : there’s no point, a new map is generated every time you start the game.

And that’s the whole range of Shandalar, from piss poor Sealed deck to brokenest deck ever, passing by Ante cards and specific cards made for the game.

Long before “RNG” effects..

Finally, it is time to give the answers to the Rule Abuse Questions nobody could wait to get the answer for.

  1. How can you get infinite mana with just one spell, with the Revised era rules ?Well easy peasy, you cast the most powerful card ever,sacrifice it for mana. That doesn’t put the card into your graveyard immediately, you have to go into the damage prevention phase first, well, let’s not call it a phase, just go to damage prevention, cause what if you had a Soul Net and a sacrificed creature ? You’d need a time to activate your Soul Net to gain one life before the creature would be in the graveyard, the damage prevention window is when you would do that back then. Well, Gaea’s Touch isn’t a creature, but still, the damage prevention works for everything so inside it, you sac your Gaea’s Touch then, cause that’s played as an interrupt and interrupts can be used inside that window, so you nest another DP inside the DP, sac it again for mana, and on and on..
  2. How could you legally abuse Winter Orb ?
Surreptitiously nerfed.

Do you see how broken that card was ?
Hint #1 : there was no errata.
No ?
Hint #2 : Second sentence.
You got it now, right ?
Ok, last hint : back then, you’d interpret a card according to the rules of the English language. That’s how you do it today too, but still.

Turn 1, land, Mana Vault, tap MV, play Winter Orb. Turn 2, untap Mana Vault. Well, yes. In fact rules where pretty much the same as those of today back then, when two effects contradict another, the most recent supersedes the oldest. You steal my creature with a Control Magic, and then I steal it back with my Control Magic. But why can I steal it back ? Both enchantments have the same text and they contradict one another by assigning a different controller. The youngest win. And so, Mana Vault saying that it doesn’t untap during your untap phase doesn’t matter since you played Winter Orb afterwards, which makes it so that creature and artifacts untap as normal. Cool card that, Winter Orb (not that Mana Vault is too shabby). And yes, for the short time that Time Vault was playable in official tournaments in 94, you could potentially have had infinite turn with the two cards combo. It would have required for a judge to interpret the new rule about the newest enchantment superseding the text of contradicting older enchantments to be expanded by a judge to artifacts though (that wasn’t done yet). But that’s certainly what a judge would have done since that makes so much sense.

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