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Magic: Legends is the classic card game as an action RPG

Our hands-on with the game’s card game inspired gameplay

When playing the Magic: The Gathering card game, you’re asked to imagine that you’re a wizard who battles other wizards using a book of spells. You can summon creatures to fight on your behalf, use elemental magic to directly attack your foe, or even utilize magical blessings or curses to empower your own creatures or weaken your opponent’s. In reality, it’s a deck of cards you’ve carefully constructed, but the theming feels right while you’re playing. That said, I’ve often found it hard to imagine what all this spell-slinging would actually look like — and Magic: Legends finally answers that question.

Magic: Legends is a multiplayer isometric action roleplaying game in the same vein as the Diablo or Torchlight games. You create a character by picking a class that has a set of unique abilities, which you use to defeat hordes of monsters to acquire better loot and experience you use to level up to make you stronger so you can fight stronger monsters and get better loot, ad infinitum. Where Magic: Legends differentiates itself is not just in utilizing the almost 30 years of lore and locations from the card game, but in actually making the core of the combat system based on the card game.

Like the card game, you construct decks of cards, limited to 12 in total, which act as a pool of spells your character can perform. Like in MtG, these decks are based around a color of mana (red, blue, green, white, and black) whose spells tend to synergize and play in different ways. Blue decks tend to be about controlling the flow of battle, while red decks tend to favor overwhelming the opponent quickly.

In the pre-alpha demo I played at PAX East, these spells were assigned to the controller’s four face buttons to act like you have a hand of four cards. What spells are assigned to which button are random, and when you use one, it’s removed and replaced with another card drawn from your deck. For instance, the four spells mapped to your buttons are: a spell that heals you, one that summons a creature to fight with you, one that makes your creatures stronger, and one that does a damaging blast in front of you. You hit the button to summon the creature, and then that spell would be replaced by something like a spell that weakens an enemy.

Of course, you can’t just cast spells willy-nilly as there is a mana cost to each spell that drains your character’s mana bar with each cast — just like in the card game. If you don’t have the right amount of mana for a spell, you won’t be able to do it, potentially leaving you with a spell you can’t use or get rid of. The bar recharges while you’re attacking normally in combat, which, in the demos, was done by holding down the right trigger, or you can activate a mana surge ability, which greatly increases the regeneration rate, letting you cast more spells than you would normally be able to for a short amount of time.

This system provides a constant loop of interesting choices to make in combat, forcing you to be continually attacking enemies to regenerate mana, while also trying to position yourself to best utilize whatever spells you might have. This does a good job of preventing you from falling into a specific routine or rotation of abilities like you might in a massively multiplayer online game like World of Warcraft. But the game also uses an AI director system to dynamically change the sorts of enemies the game is throwing at you based on how well you are doing. In the demo, it felt like it hit a nice balance of big combat encounters that were almost overwhelming yet manageable.

Aside from your deck, the class you choose for your character also has a major effect on how you play, as each has a different playstyle. However, characters aren’t locked into a single class when playing; like Final Fantasy XIV, you can switch classes to whatever might work better for your group or what you happen to feel like playing. The classes also aren’t tied to a specific mana color, letting you compose whatever kind of single- or two-color deck you think would best work with it.

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During the demo, I got to try the three announced so far: Mind Mage, Geomancer, and Beastcaller. Getting to play the same quest with both the Mind Mage (using a blue deck) and Geomancer (using a red deck) really highlighted how completely different the game can feel depending on your class and deck choices.

The Geomancer has some very close-up punch attacks and a secondary move that lets them bound into the middle of the fight. Combined with the red deck they had full of big, close-range magical blasts, you feel like you are just bouncing around the battlefield into wherever groups of enemies happen to clump together.

While the Mind Mage is mainly shooting little magic projectiles from a middle distance, but also has a secondary psychic blast will turn enemies to fight for you if it doesn’t kill them. They were given a blue deck that was built around mind-controlling enemies to fight for you, but also summoning up your own minions to fight for you while you kept a safe distance from the actual danger.

The Beastcaller uses a big axe, ideal for wading into a group of enemies and hitting the lot of them. They are joined by a magical fox companion that can assist in taking down enemies and is healed when the Beastcaller hits enemies with their secondary attack to throw their axe. Teamed with a green deck, I found myself constantly going into battle with a group of already powerful summoned creatures, which only got stronger from the other spells in the deck. In a few ways, it feels like a combination of the Geomancer’s close-range attacking with the Mind Mage’s reliance on minions, except it feels completely distinct.

The producers I spoke with during the demo were always quick to note that, in this pre-alpha state, Legends is still very much a work in progress; there are still a few more classes to announce and a beta starting soon. However, even as it is now, Magic: Legends is a far more interesting game than I had expected, and it has me excited for a new isometric action RPG for the first time since Torchlight.

Magic: Legends is slated to launch on the PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One in 2021. There will be a beta later in 2020.

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