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The game takes place in the plane of Shandalar, where the player must travel the land and fight random enemies to gain cards, and defeat five wizards representing the five colors. The player must prevent one color from gaining too much power, and defeat the planeswalker Arzakon, who has a deck of all five colors. Adventure game and role-playing game elements are present, including inventory, gold, towns, dungeons, random battles, and character progression in the form of new abilities and a higher life point total. An oversized version of Aswan Jaguar was included in the game box.
Two related products were released, the expansion pack Spells of the Ancients and Duels of the Planeswalkers. Duels of the Planeswalkers was an improved version of the main game that didn't require the original to be installed.
The game is playable in several modes: a single-player campaign, a duel or tournament against computer-controlled opponents, and later a multiplayer experience added by the Manalink add-on. All three share the same dueling interface, which is based on the mechanics of the real-life Magic: The Gathering card game. In Duel and Multiplayer modes, the game allowed a player to construct his or her own deck (using a specialized Deck Editor), or to play with a randomly generated deck (simulating a "fresh pack of cards" as was the custom in various tournaments at the time). The single-player campaign however required the player to participate in a large-scale quest, during which he or she would endeavor to gather cards and thus be able to construct more powerful playing decks, hopefully powerful enough to defeat the campaign's chief antagonists.
This mode of the game attempts to simulate the experience of playing with actual Magic: The Gathering cards. The player is shown a tableaux which is divided into two halves - the lower half for the player's cards, and the upper half for the opponent's cards. Both players draw randomly from their own available cards (their personal "deck"), then proceed to play a standard game of Magic: The Gathering, based as closely as possible on Magic: The Gathering official rules.
The match progresses in phases and turns, corresponding with the M:TG rule-set, with the program automatically skipping over certain phases when no action is possible and/or required. The player can set break-points to allow him or her to execute "fast-acting" spells or card abilities in case the program is not smart enough to automatically spot such possibilities. Each player's life-counter is displayed on their side of the playing field, and will either rise or drop according to the progression of the game. The player can also rearrange his or her played cards to allow better visibility when the playing field becomes crowded, often during prolonged matches.
When the card duel is initiated as part of the Single-Player Campaign, special rules may apply. Often this includes higher (or lower) life counter for one or both players, a card that appears at the start of the match for one or both players, or a global effect that influences both players (either beneficial or detrimental, often depending on the composition of either player's deck).
The single-player campaign was played mainly on an isometric representation of the game world, consisting of a randomly generated landscape dotted with terrain features and places of interest. The player would initially select a difficulty level and a preferred magical "color", and subsequently be given a randomly-generated deck consisting (mainly) of cards from that chosen color. The character was then transported to the world map, initiating the game.
Travel across the world map was done in real-time. The player would move the character across the landscape using simple mouse clicks, evading or intercepting enemies who themselves were predominantly interested in intercepting the player-character. Upon a successful interception, the game would transfer into "duel" mode, where the player would compete against the encountered enemy using the Magic: The Gathering card game system. A card or set of cards would often be wagered, and particularly powerful enemies might offer additional rewards beyond the waged cards. Some enemies had unique abilities that allowed them to gain a specific advantage for the duration of the battle, while some enemies could summon up a surprise substitution to play in their stead (e.g.. a more powerful enemy).
The landscape was composed of patches of different types of terrain, corresponding with the five colors of the game world. Different terrain might offer benefits or hindrances to movement, although roads could also be used for travel in which case the player-character moved faster than enemies. Terrain also dictated the boundaries across which enemies could travel, as they had to adhere to terrain matching their own color(s). More importantly, each type of terrain offered a chance for special encounters to appear, often unique to one terrain type or another. Such encounters would yield anything from combat to instant rewards, and often included riddles that required some knowledge of the various game cards.
The world map contained a large number of cities which could be visited, and these formed the backbone for the underlying roleplaying mechanics in this game. Each city offered some cards for sale (of a color matching the terrain around the city), the purchase of food (required to prevent slow-downs on the world map due to hunger), and often quests that usually involved reaching another city, acquiring a specific card, or engaging an enemy in the nearby area. Cities would also buy cards from the player, allowing him or her to tidy the playing deck and make money for the purchase of food and better cards. Some cities would also offer special items that enhanced player performance, or allowed the player to create special effects such as instant teleportation. These items were unlimited in number of uses, although some depended on the consumption of colored gems that could be collected in various encounters and upon completion of quests.
The landscape also contained a handful of dungeons, whose location would be discerned through various means, particularly the completion of quests and defeat of powerful enemies. Within a dungeon, special rules applied regarding combat, which could hinder or enhance a player's abilities. The dungeon interface was made up of a randomly-generates series of perpendicular tunnels, with enemies placed in various locations and intersections. The player would have freedom of movement within the tunnels (although enemies could not move here, unlike on the world map), but could not pass through a spot taken by an enemy without initiating combat with that enemy (again, combat using the Magic the Gathering card game system). The tunnels also contained bonuses that could be picked up, which gave a random effect on the player, often bestowing a free creature at the beginning of the next match played, or extra life to use in the next match. Dungeons were important because of the special cards contained within, that could not be found anywhere else in the game world. These were often high-value cards that would give the player a strong advantage, if used.
The player's primary goal was to destroy the five mages who were vying for domination of the realm. To do this, the player would have to seek out and destroy the castle of each and every mage. Castles were played similarly to dungeons, except they contained no special cards, but instead contained the mage himself/herself which would have to be defeated. If the mage was defeated in card combat, the castle would be destroyed. Also, mages would occasionally send a minion to attack a city on the map, which required the player to react promptly, travelling to this city within the alloted time and defeating the minion in card combat. The player could also attempt to conquer cities, by completing the city's related quest. Upon "conquering" or "Liberating" a city, the player might be bestowed with an extra life point which was added to the player's total life-points for each and every match afterwards. Therefore, the game would often revolve around the player attempting to gain control of more cities, while preventing the enemy mages from gaining control themselves.
After defeating all five mages, the player would then have to confront a final enemy who played with cards of all different colors. This enemy had many more life points than any other enemy in the game. The amount of damage the player managed to do to this final boss, before the fight ends, would then go on to constitute the player's final score for the campaign.
The project to make Magic: The Gathering came during turbulent and troubled times at MicroProse, as it had recently lost a large amount of money pursuing unprofitable ventures (such as an arcade game business). A corresponding flight of personnel was happening as well. Sensing trouble with the Magic project, the famous and marquee Sid Meier was assigned to it. This game would be the last that Meier would ever work on with MicroProse, as he went on to found his own studio, Firaxis Games, shortly afterward.
Spells of the Ancients
This expansion pack was released on September 1, 1997. It included an upgrade of the game engine and interface, improved AI, and a sealed-deck tournament feature. It also added cards from older editions of the base set, the expansion sets Arabian Nights and Antiquities.
Duels of the Planeswalkers
This was an upgraded version of the original game released on January 14, 1998. Owners of the original game were eligible for a mail-in rebate. It included the original game, all of the upgrades included in Spells of the Ancients, and 80 new cards from the expansion sets Legends and The Dark.
Twelve unique cards, constituting the Astral set, were exclusive to this computer game and not printed on paper (with the exception of the oversized Aswan Jaguar included in the box) They used completely randomized effects that would be difficult to play in an actual game. Each card had its own associated sound effect (The Goblin Polka Band played a spritely tune when used.):
|Card name||Casting cost||Card type||Description||Illustration|
|Aswan Jaguar||1GG||Creature - Jaguar|| When Aswan Jaguar comes into play, choose a random creature type from those in target opponent's library.
GG,T: Destroy target creature of the chosen type. It can't be regenerated. (2/2)
|Call from the Grave||2B||Sorcery||Return target creature card chosen at random in the graveyard to play under your control. Call from the Grave deals to you damage equal to that creature's casting cost.||Quinton Hoover|
|Faerie Dragon||2GG||Creature - Dragon|| Flying
1GG: Play a random effect. (1/3)
|Gem Bazaar||–||Land|| As Gem Bazaar comes into play, choose a color at random.
T: Add one mana to your mana pool of the color last chosen. Choose a color at random.
|Goblin Polka Band||RR||Creature - Goblin|| X2,T: Tap X target creatures chosen at random. Spend only red mana on X. Goblins tapped this way do not untap during their controllers' next untap phases.
|Necropolis of Azar||2BB||Enchantment|| Whenever a non-black creature is put into a graveyard from play, put a husk counter on Necropolis of Azar.
5, Remove a husk counter from Necropolis of Azar: Put a black Spawn creature token with swampwalk named Spawn of Azar into play. That token has power from 1 to 3 chosen at random and toughness from 1 to 3 chosen at random.
|Orcish Catapult||XRR||Instant||Randomly distribute X -0/-1 counters among a random number of random target creatures.||Melissa Benson|
|Pandora's Box||5||Artifact||3,T: Each player reveals his/her library. Choose a random creature card from each library revealed this way. For each player, flip a coin. If heads, put a token into play that is a copy of that player's revealed card. Then each player shuffles his/her library.||Amy Weber|
|Power Struggle||2UUU||Enchantment||At the beginning of each player's upkeep, that player exchanges control of random target artifact, creature or land he or she controls, for control of random target permanent of the same type that a random opponent controls.||Mark Tedin|
|Prismatic Dragon||2WW||Creature - Dragon|| Flying
At the beginning of your upkeep, Prismatic Dragon becomes a random color. 2: Prismatic Dragon becomes a random color. (2/3)
|Rainbow Knights||WW||Creature - Knight|| When Rainbow Knights comes into play, it gains protection from a random color permanently.
1: Rainbow Knights gains first strike until end of turn. WW: Rainbow Knights gets +0/+0, +1/+0, or +2/+0 until end of turn, chosen at random. (2/1)
|Whimsy||XUU||Sorcery||Play X random fast effects.||Anson Maddocks|
On December 2007 an unfinished user-created mod from 2005 was made available that includes some of the missing cards from The Dark and Legends (notably gold cards) as well as a majority of the cards from the 8th Edition card set. These additions are not available in the Shandalar portion of the game, but can be used for single matches, gauntlets, sealed deck play and multiplayer games. In addition, the game engine was partially updated to reflect 8th Edition rules. A few bugs with existing cards were fixed, but at the same time new card bugs and engine issues were introduced owing to the mod's unfinished state.
In March 2009, after the manalink.de forum had been down for some time, many contributors relocated to the Collectible Card Game Headquarters (CCGHQ) forum at SlightlyMagic.net, where development continues. More than 2,000 cards (the limit imposed by the original program) are now playable, by swapping different groups of cards in and out of the game. A "Challenge Mode" and various other play modes have also been made possible, along with new artwork. All these changes are optional and involve compromises to the original game, most notably by making multiplayer unstable. The last major challenge involves expanding the Shandalar portion of the game. It is now understood how to do this---it involves expanding arrays using assembly language---but no competent programmer has yet been willing to spend the time. 
Magic: The Gathering was released for Microsoft Windows 95. While most games released for Windows required at least Windows 95, a bug in the installer for this game required the user be running precisely Windows 95; users of later versions of Windows had to use a compatibility mode. In subsequent versions, the problem with the installer is fixed. The game runs on Windows 95 and will run on XP, Vista, and Windows 7.