Preview: Magic: The Gathering - Tactics

if you happen to be nostalgic for those middle school games of Magic: The Gathering over the lunch table, MtGT, the latest of Sony Online Entertainment's line of online games, could be the game for you. It's not an exact copy of Wizards of the Coast's successful collectible card game, but it tries to bring that classic MtG feel to your PC or PS3. And it's going to be completely* free-to-play, so what's to lose by giving it a try?

Though the build I saw at E3 is still a bit rough around the edges (SOE hopes to release the game in September on the PC and early 2011 on the PS3), the hands-on time I had with it was still good MtG-style fun.

* The first hit is always free. You're given an initial starter deck to play with, but to get more cards you'll have to trade with other players on the auction house or buy them in SOE's cash shop.

The object of MtGT is to destroy your opponent's armies. Each of you start with just a Planeswalker (the spellcaster who's standing in the back and casting the spells on the cards being played), a number of available resources, and access to your entire deck of cards. There's no waiting to draw cards and no dependence on a lucky hand: you start right in the game, summoning creatures and casting spells. Expect to see lots of familiar creatures and abilities translated into amazing three-dimensional animation on your computer screen. I've long since lapsed as a MtG player, but even I could recognize the Serra Angel that I summoned into play during the demo. SOE plans to continue to update the game with a mix of classic and new creatures and abilities.

Combat in the game is turn-based -- each Planeswalker has a turn and each creature you summon has a turn. During your Planeswalker's turn, you may cast spells and summon creatures in your deck, so long as you have the cards and mana to do so. During your creatures' turns, they may perform a single action: moving across the battlefield, attacking an enemy in range, or using a special ability. Though I probably didn't pick up on the intricate tactical options during the demo, core gameplay was straightforward and quick to pick up on.

SOE's certainly made some tweaks to the card game in order to smooth out gameplay. For one, you'll notice your land resources are no longer cards in your deck -- you simply have a certain number of resources of each type that are set by the construction of your deck. (So if you built a deck around red and blue cards, you might find your initial resources were three red, two blue.) Though SOE says it is still working on getting the balance right, at present they replenish automatically from turn to turn.

Beyond the loss of land cards, deck construction is a different game. Your deck is still limited to a certain number of cards (and the cards you can play are in turn limited by how many of each card you virtually possess) but you're more restricted on what you can include. Instead of throwing any old thing into a deck you may only include five types of creatures and five types of spells. (Each of these are limited to the number of cards

Quite unlike MtG, in MtGT, your Planeswalker can level up. As you advance, you can customize how your Planeswalker looks, open up additional card slots for your deck, and specialize in talent trees. While it doesn't sound like the trees have been finalized yet, I was told that talents might give your player benefits like extra mana for the school of their choice, or extra attack and defense for creatures.

It's online, yes, but unlike most of SOE's offerings, it's not really an MMO. The interface reminded me a bit of Blizzard's there are lobbies in which you can chat with other players, challenge others to matches (1v1, though SOE hopes to add 2v2), play a single player campaign (in which your Planeswalker can level up), and participate in tournaments. There's also an auction house, where you can buy and sell cards from other players. And beyond trading with others, you'll be able to straight up buy additional packs of cards from SOE. Will buying these new virtual cards be as compelling as collecting the real thing? For the sake of my bank balance, I hope not.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.