Sunday, 14 June 2015

Microprose's Magic: the Gathering (a.k.a. Shandalar)

This review will be a bit different from what you've come to expect from me, as I'm covering a video game this time. Microprose's Magic: the Gathering or, as it is commonly called, Shandalar! Reviewing the storyline here is a bit odd though. There is some story background in the accompanying booklet, and there are some lore snippets here and there in the game, but there is no real narrative to cover. So large parts of this "review" will be more of a summary. I'll speak a little about the game itself, but in the end the gameplay boils down to just playing Magic the Gathering, and reviewing Magic on a Magic lore blog seems pointless. Surely you all already know it is the greatest game ever?

So yeah, weird review, but it's part of the canon so I can't really skip it! Let's get into things.


SINCE WE LAST LEFT OUR PLANE...
Last time we saw Shandalar it was being conquered by Lim-Dûl in Kenan Sharmal's body. That story is picked up on in an article in the booklet that came with the game. Which I don't actually own... luckily a nice person over at Phyrexia.com wrote the whole thing down for usIt isn't a long read, but for those in a hurry, I've summarized it below the cut.

Sharmal somehow survived his death in the comic, but only barely. He's robbed of his magic, and sets about training two replacements. When Dûl returns 12 years later (in the epilogue of the comic) one of those apprentices, Azar, decides to face him. Azar casts a spell that should imprison Lim-Dûl and use his soul to power a barrier around Shandalar, to keep planeswalkers out. Unfortunately Dûl tries the same trick he used before: jumping in his opponents body. The result? Azar's body goes catatonic while Dûl and Azar are fighting for control inside. But at least the barrier goes up. Sharmal hides the body and disappears, leaving his other, unnamed, apprentice as Guardian of Shandalar.

Generations later Dûl finally wins out over Azar and starts a conflict known as the Wizards' War. By that time the Guardian has founded five mages guilds, (Can you guess the colors of the guilds?) who easily defeat Dûl. His spirit is now put in an artifact and the Great Barrier holds.

More generations pass. Then the evil planeswalker Arzakon tries to break through the barrier. The Guardian enforces it, but Arzakon is able to mentally contact and corrupt the guild masters, who strike the Guardian down. They then start a war upon Shandalar, each trying to get enough mana to cast a spell that they think will give them immortality and control over the plane, but which in reality will break the barrier, allowing Arzakon entrance. Luckily the spirit of the guardian is able to warn a bunch of people of the danger, among them the player character: now it's up to you do defeat the guild lords and save Shandalar, by playing lots of games of Magic!

(No, those arts weren't in the original game, I'm playing a version made compatible with newer systems, which also has new arts included.) (And yes, I'm losing quite badly here.)

I've always found this story oddly structured. Dûl threatens Shandalar three times? He tries to survive by body-jumping twice? Sharmal has two apprentices, only for one to die in pretty much the same way that Sharmal himself appeared to die in the comic? I've long suspected that this may have been done to fix some miscommunication between the makers of the comic and those of the game. The comic does seem to end with a clear set up for the game, only to have the game resolve that in this backstory summary and go with a completely different bad guy. Maybe the Microprose people thought Dûl would be decisively defeated in the comic, only to then find they needed to include another Dûl uprising in their backstory to explain away the epilogue? Or maybe there was just going to be one dude who Dûl spirit leaped into, but the game called him Azar and the comic Sharmal, requiring another apprentice?

...or maybe they deliberately wanted to make the backstory seem a bit more cluttered, expansive and thus more natural. You see, I actually quite like this backstory despite the odd structure. It adds more characters and events to Shandalar, giving it a proper history. As a historian, I can only approve.

The one downside is that in the storyline community obscure Magic sources (and the manual of an old video game is pretty darn obscure) often get summarized and then retold by people who never read the original source. This brings in the "Chinese whispers" effect, which a convoluted plot is even more vulnerable too. For example, I've seen several people claim that the Guardian of Shandalar is the player character. An easy mistake to make. In a video game the deliberately unnamed character is usually the one you play, but it's just not true here. Let's not hold that against the lore here though, obscure sources will always suffer from getting twisted in the retelling. If you look at the Phyrexia.com thread I linked to above you'll find very well respected storyline guru's confuse Lim-Dûl's imprisonment with Leshrac's imprisonment in Phyrexia (more on that next week!) They also mention of the Planeswalkers' War happening on Shandalar, when it actually took place in Corondor. Presumably they were confusing it with the Wizards' War.

One last thing before I move on: as you can see, we get no explanation for how Sharmal survived, just that it "stretched him to the limit" and left him with no magic. Considering he just disappears after Azar sort-off defeated Lim-Dûl, I think all that was left of Sharmal must have been a ghost or something.

The last bit of lore we have before the game itself starts is the opening cinematic. (Well, cinematic... this was 1997. The opening barely moving clip show is a more apt description...)

video

Isn't that a beautiful movie? Note how the Guardian says he put up the Great Barrier, when it was actually Azar. More proof that the story was originally slightly different? Not that big of a problem though. Perhaps the Guardian is just being a bit full of himself. Or maybe he doesn't have time to explain everything, as you need to get out there and kick some wizard butt!

THE GAME ITSELF
A very quick review of the game then. When you click New Game you'll be plopped down on Shandalar, which is teeming with minions of the five guild lords. Those occasionally conquer a city and when one guild lord has enough of them he or she casts the Spell of Dominion and it's game over. So you'd better beat those minions at a card game before that time!

Magic is obviously the best game ever, but how does it hold up as a video game from 1997? Surprisingly well actually! You'll have to get used to the pre-Sixth Edition rules again, and a few early defeats by higher level monsters will make you realize just why the ante was removed from the game, but on the whole it's still the game we all love. The AI is pretty good for a game that's almost 20 years old. Yeah, there are times when it keeps casting Animate Wall on the same, 0-power wall, and one time the computer blocked my Hill Giant with a Llanowar Elves, then cast Giant Growth... on my Hill Giant... Most of the time though, the computer plays more intelligent than that. Which is especially impressive when you remember that this game has fully customizable decks, which Duels of the Planeswalkers took a few years to implement.

All in all, a very enjoyable game. Every Magic player should give it at least a try. Especially you young whippersnappers who came in around Zendikar and never experienced the silliness of the early days. Ah, the joy of going Dark Ritural - Erg Raiders - Unholy Strength on turn one, or pulling of a Lifelace/Circle of Protection: Green combo, or running a deck with playsets of all the Power 9 cards... (Okay, I'm not that old. A Black Lotus was already worth 1000 guilders when I bought my first pack of Portal...)

Anyway, it's good fun. Now, onto the lore!

Which is... limited. There's a map, with a lot of place names on it...

Map shamelessly stolen from MobyGames.com

...but don't get too excited, all locations are randomly generated. I think the landmass always looks the same, but I'm not even sure of that. The names of locations are certainly random (Sometimes there'll be a Pyrenean Steading, sometimes a Pyrenean Tavern, sometimes a Pyrenean Temple, sometimes several of the above) and so are their placements on the map. So... not really a reliable source of lore.

Note though, that one of the places on that map starts with Eloren. In a very neat easter egg, WotC would later use that name in Planechase for Eloren Wilds.


You can't actually encounter a palce called Eloren Wilds in the game, but we can assume the card represents the wilderness around the Eloren Hold/Tower/Temple/Whatever. And look at those abilities! Does the Mana Flare effect represent Shandalar's abundance of mana, attracting all those evil 'walkers like Szat, Leshrac and Arzakon? Does the Chaos ability represent their inability to access the special mana, that central (if vague) plot point from the comic? I hope so, 'cause it is far too amazing a reference not to be deliberate! Unfortunately there aren't any Onakke Catacombs, or references to Thune, Evos Isle, Xathrid, Valkas or Kalonia in the game. Those places wouldn't be invented until later.

Quick aside: that special mana is never brought up in the game. But you only fight locals until the very end when you fight Arzakon, and he isn't a very chatty bloke. So there is no reason for the mana to come up either.

Other lore can be found when you enter a village. In the villages you can buy and sell cards and get quests (all of which boil down to "defeat this monster by playing a cardgame with it" or "go to this other village and deliver a parcel"), but each one also has a Wise Man, who sometimes gives you play tips, but at other times spout some flavor tidbits.


From the wise men we learn that magic is no longer as common as it was in the comic, where we even saw random peasants using it...

In long ago ages some cities began to hoard their magics.
The wise men of these cities searched for a champion throughout the dark days.
When your talent was discovered, they agreed to pool their remaining bits of power in an attempt to unseat Arzakon and his Evil Mages.

They also seem very knowledgeable for mortals

In talks with the Guardian and the lords, I learned of other places, called "planes".
These faraway lands are poor in mana, and only wizards there use magic.
Strong wizards move between the planes, and call themselves "planeswalkers".
They are a vicious bunch, always warring.
To them, Shandalar is like a ripe fruit.

-

Once, when I was younger and more powerful, I was an honored guest at his stronghold, and I sat at the Guardian's own table.
Oh, the stories the immortal told that night!
He was a boy in the time before the first war, when Kenan Sahrmal was Shandalar's protector.
They never worried about planeswalkers then, even though the Great Barrier did not exist.

The greatest wizards of his grandfather's time (the Guardian said) built creatures of pure mana.
These still roamed the land in his childhood, and the great dragons are their descendants.

-

I am far older than I seem, young mage. 
I myself saw the spirit of Lim-Dûl imprisoned.
The artifact in which it is trapped is hidden well, and I would be a fool to even describe it to you.
However, I can tell you one thing certain, that the artifact powers the Great Barrier.
Without it, Shandalar would be open to attack, and to the ruthless predation of planeswalkers.
This so-called Spell of Dominion that the guild lords seek the power to cast can only mean the destruction of the artifact and the freeing of the necromancer's spirit.

Note that the very old looking wise man calls himself even older than he seems. That implies that a looooot of time passed between the Wizards' War and the events of the game.

Some more on the dragons:

The first of the great wars against Lim- Dûl was a nightmare for everyone in Shandalar.
The ancient wizards claimed to actually hear the agony of our world's misused mana.
The great dragons' grief would rend any heart, and the Guardian was once a man, after all.
After the war he vowed to prevent further pain and the dragons stood behind him.
Thus were established the five magic guilds, each of which polices one color of mana.
The lord of each guild is expert with that color, though often weak in every other.

-

Shandalar's dragons were never our friends, but neither were they malicious.
Now, some serve the lords unwillingly.
The others disappeared long ago.
Perhaps the Guardian knows their fate.
Regardless, they will not help you.
There are still two you can summon, the Faerie and the Prismatic.
Both are wild and unpredictable, more so than dragons from other planes.
Still, in your present predicament you should value any ally.

Faerie Dragon and Prismatic Dragon are indeed cards you can find in the game, coming from the Astral Expansion. Since all those cards have VERY random effects, these dragons are certainly unpredictable! Other than that the game doesn't do anything with the dragon lore established here. Some of the monsters working for the wizards are indeed dragons, but they don't have any dialogue.

And for those wondering who the heck this Yawden character is that keeps popping up on lists of planeswalkers...

None but the guild lords has seen Arzakon, so nothing said of the monster can be trusted.
It is rumored, however, that it has one fear: an ancient rival, the wizard Yawden.
Unfortunately, it has been centuries since the two planeswalkers met and fought.
Perhaps we're fortunate this rival's not here.
It's likely he's as evil as Arzakon.

That is really all the relevant lore. The other stuff they spout are just in game tips.

Anything else in the game? Not really actually... Here's a picture that flashes up every once in a while of the five guild lords.

Pic stolen from AgentPalmer.com. My computer keeps only showing this screen for about a second. Very odd.

The flashing lights on the staff turn red the more cities they have conquered.

This is what greets you when you save a city form the wizards:


Who the heck are these green people, the peg-legged dwarf and that slug thing? Why are they all in their underwear? What is that strange pyramid-shaped pokemon in the back? No idea. All the wise men and minions of the wizards look like normal humans, elves and merfolk... I guess Shandalar just has a very diverse population, and these are the most festive among them, being the first that cheer you on?

Here is what Arzakon looks like when you face him:

This picture and the last are stolen from this awesome Let's Play. I didn't have time to play the whole game through to get all the images. I know, I know, I'm a hack. 

Arzakon's appearance is a bit odd. You defeat all the wizards and prevent the Spell of Dominion from being case, and the game congratulates you and tells you you've already banished Arzakon for a couple of centuries. Yet then he turns up anyway, and you're told you can banish him for a whole lot longer if you defeat him. Pretty bizarre. I guess you're only facing whatever astral projection he used to corrupt the wizards or something? Whatever the case, if you defeat him he's banished for a long time, and Shandalar's people rejoice. "Life is good!" the game exclaims. Then it ends.

CONTINUITY AND TIMELINE
Despite its weird structure, the story from the booklet actually causes no continuity issues. The Guardian saying he created the Great Barrier in the opening movie is the only mistake I could find, but that is easily solved by casting him as a bit of an unreliable narrator. Pretty refreshing after the gigantic problems we had with Lim-Dûl in last two weeks!

Timelinewise we are in the wilderness here. From the backstory we know that several guild masters grew old and were replaced between the founding of the guilds and the Wizards' War, and that the same is true between the Wizards' War and the game. That puts these events generations apart, probably even centuries considering that the guild masters are powerful wizards who should be able to extend their lives significantly. Other than that though... there are still old school planeswalkers like the Guardian and Arzakon around, so it has to happen before the Mending, but that's really all we can say. The game could be contemporaneous to the Invasion for all we know! On the timeline I'm just going to explain this all after the comic entry. A bit of a shame that it messes with the nice chronological order of the thing, but what are else can you do? I could put the events a few centuries apart from each other on the timeline, but then they would end up between random events from Urza's block, implying a relative position to those events that we can't actually back up.

This is the last we'll see of Shandalar for a long time. Eventually WotC decided to put places featured in recent base sets, like Thune and Kalonia, on Shandalar, and too make it the origin of the Chain Veil. Clearly much has changed on the plane since we faced Arzakon. For one, there is now a Sliver infestation. For two, there is no mention of all that special mana. And for three, Lilliana, Garruk and Jace have no problem planeswalking too the place, so the Great Barrier must have fallen. Is the Mending to blame? Did Arazkon return after the game, crush the barrier and absorb the special mana? Or, in what would be a pretty epic twist, did the player character canonically lose the final battle? We will probably never know. Also of note is that they had Ob Nixilis visit Shandalar some time in the past, to have him interact with the Veil and become demonic thanks to its influence. This was "thousands of years ago" though, so his visit predates the events of the comic and game by millennia, with the creation of the Chain Veil and the destruction of the Onnake taking place even earlier. But that's a matter for a different review.

6 comments:

  1. Nice! I was wondering, since you're trying to fit all in canon, do you consider places like Amanaxis, Mardrake, Kraag, Andor, Shalecliff etc. existing locations? I know they're generated random, but the same is for Eloren...

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    1. I never really thought about that. I guess so, since those names are coded into the game. It's just the combination with "keep", "temple", "hold" etc. that is randomly generated.

      Not that it really matters of course, until Wizards decides to reference any, thereby solving our quandry. Shrödinger's Shandalar?

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  2. Ha ha, nice one! Yeah, it doesn't matter, but at least in theory they are canonical... Maybe you could add this possibility to the review.

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  3. Also: with "Thuun" do you mean Thune or Uthuun (I'm not even sure this one is a confirmed location)?

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    1. Yeah, I meant Thune. Must've gotten it mixed up with Uthuun. I'll fix it. Thanks for the heads up!

      For the record: no idea who/what/where Uthuun is :P

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  4. Hi Squirle. I send you an e-mail some days ago. Did you read it? As always thanks a lot.

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