I’ll wager that anyone who ever played Magic: the Gathering more than once has, at some point, wondered how great it would be if creatures weren’t just static lines of attack and defense, but actively engaged in tactical manoeuvre. You don’t need to wonder any more because that, effectively, is what you get in Mage Wars.
Furthermore, I suspect that anyone who ever played Magic: the Gathering more than once has, at some point, been so annoyed by rubbish card draws that they pondered on a variant where you could have a bigger hand, or more control over the draw. Mage Wars addresses that problem too, with swaggering overkill. Because in Mage Wars you don’t get a bigger hand, or control over the draw, you can pick whatever you like from your entire deck each and every turn.
Of the people who’ve entertained either question, I believe that the majority rapidly dismissed them as being unworkable. They’d add too much time and complexity for the interest they added to the game. That didn’t put off the designers of Mage Wars though, who seem to be intent on proving the naysayers wrong by making a working sandbox into which you could chuck the kitchen sink of theoretical Magic variants and see what happened. And it turns out the stock answer is half correct.
Playing Mage wars does add astonishing amounts of time and complexity to the proceedings. The rules entreat you to start with apprentice mode and that’s what I felt like looking the game over. The archetypical Sorcerer’s Apprentice, staring up with mixed wonder and terror at their master’s tower piercing the dark clouds above. Wondering how frail humanity could possibly spend years internalizing all the mystical secrets of the cosmos without exploding.
Sadly this lovely metaphor was ruined by the intrusion of the game components, which are an unfortunate mix of competently executed but generic card art and horribly gaudy graphic design. But it’s an accurate picture. With you brain already overloaded by thirty pages of text-dense rules and over a hundred kinds of effects, opening your spell book – really just a stylised binder for your chosen deck cards – and trying to choose two from the entire selection is likely to precipitate meltdown. Not to mention the point when you realise you’ve got to do the same every single turn.
And so, weary apprentice, your journey begins. Trudging slowly up the spiral stairs of the ancient tower, your back bowed under the weight of card options and your footsteps dogged by rules exceptions. Some may stumble on the ascent. Those who reach the top must survive a vicious assault from a new set of advanced rules, and single combat against eye-watering downtime and a chaotically variable play time. Few will persevere. But those who do are blessed with power beyond imagining.
The end of the ascent is a collectible card game nirvana, the realisation of the hopes and dreams of millions of card game fans all over the world. The other half of the old saw was wrong – all the extra complexity adds a whole lot of extra interest to the game. Indeed so much stuff has been shoehorned into Mage Wars that it’s a marvel the game is not more bloated than it already is. It might be difficult and the learning curve might be close to vertical but it’s still the minimum required to deliver its extraordinary promise.
Let’s check off that wants list, one at a time. For starters, there is enough variety in the box to stand alone. There are expansions, of course, and you may want them but you won’t need them in the way that, say, the Living Card Game model requires regular players to pitch in for updates. This is self contained. You can bake all your favourite play styles from the ingredients provided, from swarms of petty minions to specialising in ultra-powerful monstrosities from the nether dimensions. Or if you prefer the direct route, your choices range from neutralizing your opponent with counter-charms to buffing your own mage into a berserk killing machine. It’s all here.
Second, there’s a fully realised tactical combat model with just the right balance of strategy and randomness. Ranged and melee attacks, different kinds of armour to overcome, a slew of special effects like Rot and Cripple. It takes place on a board just big enough to be worth manoeuvring over, and on which you can manipulate the terrain and summon powerful features like spawnpoints, creating an ever-shifting map of strategic options and taking the focus away from your mage.
Speaking of which, a third realisation in Mage Wars is a distinct avatar. No longer are you limited to expressing yourself only through your card choices. Each of the four mages on offer here tends toward a certain spell selection – although no choices are ever entirely forbidden – but also has particular special powers that tie in with their forte. Beastmasters, for instance, can cast extra summons and bond one as a Pet for a special buff.
All of these things contribute to a final checkbox which is a brilliant evocation of a theme. All of the CCG’s I’ve played, with the notable exception of Netrunner, have generally failed to really communicate a sense of what they’re about through the play. Rich card art and clever quotes are not enough. As you sit, fuming over your awful hand in Magic, how often do you really feel like an omnipotent archmage? Well you will in Mage Wars. An archmage that you, yourself, have created and bought to the board to duel with your opponent.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed with such an obviously derivative game as I have with this one. Mage Wars wears its influences proudly, almost daring critics to lambast it for lacking a little imagination in the face of the mechanical brilliance it conjures forth. It’s living proof that recombining the best bits of older games is still a valid path to greatness. It’s not a game for everyone: learning is a struggle and frequent repeat plays and deck rebuilds are required to get the most out of it. But for those poor in cash but rich in time, it’ll repay the effort put in a hundredfold.