I’ll be honest, Magic: The Gathering is one realm of geekdom that I’ve never really gotten into. I know a bit about it, but I don’t own any cards, and I think I’ve played a grand total of half a game. So when I heard the announcement that Cryptic Studios was working on an MMO based on the Magic IP, I wondered aloud to a friend how anyone could make an MMO out of a TCG. My friend, a long-time Magic player, quickly educated me on the surprising amount of lore that has been built up around this franchise. I may not be a Magic fan, but Cryptic was kind enough to give me a guided tour of their upcoming game, Magic: Legends, on the show floor of PAX East.
My guide for this demo experience was Magic: Legends Executive Producer Stephen Ricossa. He describes the game as an “action RPG MMO, in a modern MMO space.” By “modern MMO” he means that a lot of the expected MMO trimmings are there, including persistent character progression, auction halls, and a focus on group combat synergy, but in a more tactical, ARPG format. While missions are limited to just your party, there are social zones where players can interact with each other and meet up for groups.
All missions scale to one, two, or three players, at three different difficulty modes. I asked if there was any possibility of groups larger than three, such as raids. Ricossa said that the team chose groups of three strategically because different classes and colors have very specific strengths and weaknesses. If your group was larger than three, all of these weaknesses could be covered, and a lot of the more interesting mechanics they have worked on would fall apart. He did admit, though, that if they hear from players that they really want larger scale encounters like those of Crpytic’s other MMOs, that could be a possibility in the future.
Ricossa explained to me that the players will create a character, their own Planeswalker, and that single character can swap between any class in the game whenever they are not in a combat zone. He compared them to not traditional MMO classes but FPS loadouts. As for progression, in addition to more familiar leveling progression that makes your class better at what it does, players can acquire spell cards from missions and drops, and duplicate cards can be used to upgrade that spell.
As someone who loves character customization and cosmetics in MMOs, I had to ask about how fashion works Magic: Legends. While all of the characters I played were premade and I was not given an opportunity to play with the character creator, Ricossa assured me that character customization will definitely be there, and that players have the option to create outfits that are either the same all the time or specific to each class. If you really like one particular look for your character, you can keep it all the time, or you can assign an outfit that represents the particular role you are in at the moment. It sounds like costume pieces aren’t locked to the class they’re designed to represent, either.
Every class has three class abilities. One is weak, quick, and spammable, sort of like an auto-attack, and the other two are on short cooldowns. The rest of your character’s attacks are in the form of spells. Think of spells like your skill bar in most MMOs. At any time, you have four spells on your bar (your “hand”), and as you use them, they are discarded to the graveyard, and a new spell is drawn from your deck. Decks are composed of twelve cards. I’m told there are over a hundred cards in the game, so players will have plenty of choice in how to play their characters. Spell cards cost mana to cast, which regenerates slowly over time, and there is a cap on the number of summoned creatures who can be on the field at a time. Finally, the player can also periodically activate manasurge, which grants five times mana regeneration for a limited time.
Personally, I love the way this spell system works, not only because it pays homage to the original card game, but also because it forces to players to break out of the mindset of a set rotation, and rather to work with whatever spells they have up at the moment. It’s a wonderfully unique mechanic that’s perfect for this IP.
Another interesting departure from most MMOs, critical damage is not a percentage chance, but is state-based. For instance, one spell may cause critical damage if the target is asleep, and another may cause critical damage to a target that is burning.
The demo I played included three classes. The first, my favorite, was the blue Mind Mage. The Mind Mage is all about crowd control and tanky creature summons. Its crowd control arsenal includes a lot of domination spells to force enemies to fight for you for a short time. Like blue decks in Magic: The Gathering, I can imagine this class will be terribly frustrating to fight in PvP. Speaking of which, I was told that there will be PvP in the game, but it was not ready to be shown off at this time.
Second was the red Geomancer. Geomancers are much more of a scrappy, brawling class. Whereas the Mind Mage is all about casting from the back of its swarm of minions, the Geomancer specializes in getting up close and personal with its opponents. Many of its creatures and spells focus on setting targets on fire, which is its critical condition. I thought that this was the showiest class, with lots of fire and stone.
Finally, I was shown a third class, not available for demo on the show floor, the green Beastcaller. This class was built around summoning a smaller number of more powerful creatures and supporting them with buffs and heals, which works well with this class’s increased pet damage output. Ricossa also pointed out to me several spells in this deck called creature assists that summon a creature who does an attack and is used up, rather than sticking around like a pet. He explained that the team wanted to capture the way that many strategies in paper Magic involve summoning creatures, not to fight, but to sacrifice.
One feature that Ricossa was quick to highlight for me was the AI director. This system will detect when players are doing well and ramp up the intensity. “The goal isn’t to adjust difficulty, but to adjust intensity,” he said. “Sometimes you have those big fights and you’re like ‘Oh man, I can’t believe I made it out of that, but I survived.’ That’s the balance that we’re trying to get with the AI director.” He also pointed out one point where the AI director noticed that I was doing particularly well, and dropped in an Abyssal Fiend, a more difficult enemy that drops more valuable loot. He also noted that that difficulty will cap out — either on the high or low end — depending on the difficulty mode the players selected. He says that the AI director is highly extensible, so expect a lot of interesting things out of this system in the future.
I was curious about how Ricossa felt about developing Magic: Legends for both PC and console simultaneously, versus Cryptic’s previous MMOs to have been created for PC first and then ported to console. He said that thinking about both platforms from launch was very helpful in design, because neither platform felt like an afterthought, and made the scope more “tight,” with a clear vision and clean progression.
I wasn’t a Magic fan when I went in, but fortunately for me Cryptic is aware that many of its potential players will not be fans, and sees that as part of its mission. “People know Magic the card game — it’s a very popular game — but not many people know the lore. So one of the things we’re here to do is to introduce people to the world of Magic.” At the same time, he assured me that there were multiple people on the development team that worked on paper Magic, and that the world should feel familiar for veteran fans of the franchise.
I was initially disappointed that this game isn’t more of a traditional MMO, but, after playing it, I can understand the reasoning that led Cryptic away from traditional MMO design. It rides the fine line between multiplayer and massively multiplayer RPGs, and it’s a really interesting twist on the Diablo-like MMO archetype. I’m glad that Cryptic’s team was given the freedom to do something a little different from their other MMOs, because I think this will turn out to be something special. I’m looking forward to exploring everything this game has to offer when it when it launches on PC later this year.