It has been a long, long time since I last went planeswalking in Shandalar.
The excitement of ante games, the thrill of defeating dungeons and wizard bosses, the fun of casting the utterly broken Contract from Below… all these things exist in the old Shandalar computer game, and I have missed them all.
And now, years after my last saved game was lost, it is finally time for me to begin another playthrough. Let’s go!
Shandalar was an old PC game from 1997 that was a basic RPG game, where every monster you walked into ‘fought’ you in a game of Magic: the Gathering. It could be challenging at times (on the higher difficulty levels, the deck you started with was really, really bad; the mulligans were under the old rules — ie. ‘all land’ or ‘no land’ would let you mulligan to a new hand, but one land meant you had to automatically keep; mana burn still existed; and the AI was… special). Still, I loved the game back in the day, and thought it’d be a blast to play it and keep a travelogue of what happened to me as I journeyed through Shandalar.
My last playthrough had ended in tragedy, as I had to reformat my computer partway through, and lost my save file. This time, I vowed, things would end better for the good guys!
Here is a much more detailed explanation of the Shandalar game:
From the Wikipedia entry:
Magic: The Gathering is a computer game published by MicroProse in April 1997 based on the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering. It is often referred to as Shandalar after the plane of Shandalar, where the game takes place. 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. 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.
This is how the game worked:
The single-player campaign is 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 initially selects a difficulty level (number of “magical colors” in the starting deck) and a preferred magical “color”, and subsequently is given a pre-determined deck, according to level and color chosen. The character is then transported to the world map, initiating the game.
Travel across the world map is in real-time. The player moves the character across the landscape using simple mouse clicks, evading or intercepting enemies who themselves are predominantly interested in intercepting the player-character. Upon a successful interception, the game transfers into “duel” mode, where the player competes against the encountered enemy using the Magic: The Gathering card game system. A card or set of cards is often wagered, and particularly powerful enemies might offer additional rewards beyond the waged cards. Some enemies have unique abilities that allowed them to gain a specific advantage for the duration of the battle, while some enemies can summon up a surprise substitution to play in their stead (e.g. a more powerful enemy).
The landscape is 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 dictates the boundaries across which enemies could travel, as they have to adhere to terrain matching their own color(s). More importantly, each type of terrain offers a chance for special encounters to appear, often unique to one terrain type or another. Such encounters yield anything from combat to instant rewards, and often included riddles that required some knowledge of the various game cards.
The world map contains a large number of cities which could be visited, and these form the backbone for the underlying roleplaying mechanics in this game. Each city offers 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 involve reaching another city, acquiring a specific card, or engaging an enemy in the nearby area. Cities 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 also offer special items that enhanced player performance, or allow the player to create special effects such as instant teleportation. These items are unlimited in number of uses, although some depended on the consumption of colored gems that can be collected in various encounters and upon completion of quests.
The landscape also contains a handful of dungeons, whose location can be discerned through various means, particularly the completion of quests and defeat of powerful enemies. Within a dungeon, special rules apply regarding combat, which could hinder or enhance a player’s abilities. The dungeon interface is made up of a randomly-generates series of perpendicular tunnels, with enemies placed in various locations and intersections. The player has freedom of movement within the tunnels (although enemies could not move here, unlike on the world map), but cannot 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 contain bonuses that can be picked up, which give 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 are important because of the special cards contained within, that could not be found anywhere else in the game world. These are often high-value cards that would give the player a strong advantage, if used.
The player’s primary goal is to destroy the five mages who are vying for domination of the realm. To do this, the player has to seek out and destroy the castle of each and every mage. Castles are played similarly to dungeons, except they contain no special cards, but instead contain the mage himself/herself which would have to be defeated. If the mage is defeated in card combat, the castle is destroyed. Also, mages occasionally send a minion to attack a city on the map, which requires the player to react promptly, travelling to this city within the alloted time and defeating the minion in card combat. The player can 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 often revolves 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 then has to confront a final enemy — Arzakon, who plays with cards of all different colors. This enemy has 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, constitutes the player’s final score for the campaign.
So that is the summary of the game from Wikipedia. Long story short, it’s a simple enough RPG-style game, where you roam across the world, fight monsters (and each fight is a quick game of Magic), and try to kill off a wizard of each color before fighting Arzakon.
It is a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to starting a new playthrough.
I boot up the old game, and it’s time to go!
Not gonna lie, even many years later, this old starting screen still fills me with a thrill of nostalgia. I’m looking forward to this playthrough!
From here, I choose my difficulty, which will once again be Wizard level (hard mode).
Just as I did with my last playthrough, I of course choose Wizard difficulty, knowing in doing so that I’m setting myself up for all sort of punishment (the deck they start you with is full of garbage, and it’s much harder to find the cards you want and need).
This is how the game changes, from easy difficulty to Wizard difficulty:
With Apprentice difficulty, you start the game with:
• A 1 Color deck
• 250 Gold
• 50 Food
• 2 amulets in major color, 1 in all others
• Arzakon has 100 life
• Minimum deck size 30
• Evil wizards have 30 Life
Whereas, with Wizard difficulty, you start the game with:
• A 5 color deck
• 100 gold
• 50 food
• Creatures have +6 life
• 1 amulet in picked color
• Arzakon has 400 life
• Minimum deck size 40
• Evil wizards have 45 Life
The extra difficulty doesn’t matter though, I am a mighty planeswalker! Bring on your Wizard difficulty, Arzakon!
From here, I am asked to choose my color (which will end up being the main color of my starting deck).
There’s several ways to start this game, depending on the color chosen. I have always found that base red, or base black decks are the best ways to start, since they have the best removal spells available at common (Terror and Paralyze in black, Lightning Bolt, Immolation and Fireball in red); plus a lot of their creatures are very good when starting out (creatures like Erg Raiders).
(I find the hardest way to start this game is to start as mono-blue. Most of the blue spells suck in this game when starting out, so it’s very hard to begin a mono-blue game on Wizard difficulty.)
For my last playthrough I went with a black-based deck, mainly because I knew that I’d want to harness the awesome power of the mighty Contract from Below. That’s right, a draw-7, just for yourself, for one measly black mana. It was easily the strongest card in the Shandalar game, even counting Power 9, and I won many games on its back during that last playthrough.
For this playthrough, I am going to be playing something completely different. That’s right, I am restricting myself to no black cards, and no Contract this time around. Instead, this time I’m going to be playing a base-blue deck, which should be interesting. As I’d said, starting with blue is the hardest thing you can do, so here we go!
The deck I’m ultimately going to be building towards is going to look something like this:
Base blue Shandalar list:
3 Psionic Blast
3 Control Magic
4 Serendib Efreet
Those are basically the best cards to look for in a base-blue game, followed by the three blue Power Nine cards (Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Timetwister). Sadly, two of these cards (Serendib Efreet and Psionic Blast) are two of the harder cards to find in the game, which is one of the main reasons it’s so hard to do a base-blue game.
I may also end up trying to defeat the game with a classic U/W control list, like so:
U/W Control Shandalar list:
4 Swords to Plowshares
2 Psionic Blast
2 Control Magic
3 Power Sink
4 Wrath of God
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Land Tax
4 Serra Angel
3 Mahamoti Djinn
1 Library of Alexandria
Whenever I play U/W control in Shandalar, I always end up with something that looks like this. You have Unsummon and Swords to Plowshares to stop early creatures, multiple counterspells, the board-stopping power of Wrath of God and Moat, and seven large flying creatures to kill with. Alternatively, I’ve also used Nevinyrral’s Disk, Mishra’s Factory, Jayemdae Tome, and Icy Manipulator to great effect in this style of deck.
I am asked to create the avatar for my planeswalker at this point, so once again, I recreate the same one I used waaaaaaaaaaaay back in the day to play this game:
As I have always done in this game, I have created the mighty ogre wizard Throk Gnarlfist, whose backstory is that he is an ogre wizard with enough fashion sense to wear a chain (his bling), swing a powerful club, wear a stylish purple shower cap, and hold a bunch of roses in his other hand, all while casting lethal lightning bolts and summoning monsters to kill other wizards.
(Yes, the avatars in this game were pretty ludicrous. And yes, mine has a backstory.)
With all the upkeep and starting nonsense out of the way, it’s time to jump into Shandalar!
I dive right in, and Shandalar materializes around me. As I always do when I start a new game, I immediately head straight to the nearest town to edit some of the garbage out of my starting deck.
Here’s what I’ve been given to work with:
Starting Shandalar Blue playthrough decklist:
That is… a collection of cards, I guess is the best you can say about it.
There are no removal spells. This is not a mistake; Shandalar actively wanted you to work for each and every removal spell you get.
My best options here are to trim the deck down to a lean, mean aggressive deck, and rely on the trifecta of Clay Statues, the Water Elemental, and the lonely Black Vise to win my first few games. The two Giant Tortoises and Sea Serpent should make for some excellent defense.
Eventually, I’ll be looking to acquire the blue removal spells of Shandalar to upgrade with (Control Magic, Psionic Blast, and Unsummon), and I’ll have to eventually choose a second color, but for now, I’ll be a bad beatdown deck.
I buy a land and a very lucky Tetravus from the city’s shop, trim the deck down (a lot), editing out some of the colors and much of the dreck, and this is the best I can do with that starting mess:
Starting Shandalar Blue playthrough decklist, v. 1.0:
Everything is trimmed down and very creature-heavy, which is really all you have to do to win many of the early matches in this game. The first few monsters you run into all have top-heavy, awful decks full of giant creatures that cost too much, so getting in some early aggression with the surprisingly hard-to-remove Clay Statue and co should in theory win me some ante cards.
Time to find out!
I wander around the first few towns, looking for three major things. First, I’m looking for quests from the various cities that will give me ‘mana links’ (extra starting life), since my life total starts at a measly 10 life points. Next, I am looking to buy new cards from the town shops, prioritizing basic lands (the game only starts you with a bare handful), removal spells, and quality creatures.
After I complete an initial circuit, this is what my map looks like:
And after just a few towns, I get quite lucky, and hit this:
There we go, my first quest to get a mana link! I eagerly accept the quest, and head back out into the wilds looking for Coldsnap Steading.
After hitting a few random spots on the map to pick up some more Islands, a white amulet, and a Serpent Generator (that someone randomly left lying around in a graveyard), I have another huge lucky break:
I find a town where I can exchange the white amulet I just found for any blue cards! This is huge, since Unsummon only costs a single white amulet (and gives me my first piece of real removal!)
This is a big deal, and I begin to think that I have a real shot at pulling off the mono-blue hard mode.
When I go to leave the city, I get another big break:
World Magics in this game are either abilities that you can activate when you have amulets of that color, or passive abilities that give you powers that are always on.
In this case, Sword of Resistance is one of the best ones in the game to have, and I have found the town that has it super early on!
The evil wizards in this game will send out minions every so often to besiege random towns (normally taking away your mana links when they do so). You can fight those minions to stop them.
I have always found that the game tends to send these minions to the opposite side of the map, however, making it near-impossible to get to them in time. That’s where this World Magic comes in: Sword of Resistance teleports you to wherever the besieged town is, so that you can fight that monster and save the day (all for the low, low cost of only one white amulet)!
This is extremely useful, and I mark its location on my map for later on, when I have more money to buy it.
Looking for more loot, I keep walking.
After a few more towns, my wallet is getting plenty lean, but I have lots of basic lands now, and my updated deck is looking a bit better.
I’ve also found the White Wizard’s castle (which I carefully avoid), and this:
Another World Magic, and this one is the third-most useful to have in the game! This prevents the evil wizards from making you lose the game by besieging three towns (now they need five instead). Although in theory this isn’t something I should ever need if I can get the Sword of Resistance and enough white amulets, this is a very useful safety net to have, and I mark its location in my mind for later.
The same town that has this World Magic also gives me this bit of info, my first lead on one of the randomly generated dungeons with ‘powerful spells’:
In this game, the various cards that were considered ‘very powerful’ back in the day (Sol Ring, the Power Nine, Wheel of Fortune, a few others) are scattered throughout Shandalar in randomly-generated dungeons, guarded by powerful monsters. Though some of these cards are suspect, the dungeons are always worth breaking into to get them.
As I continue heading to Coldsnap Steading, I hit another huge lucky break:
One of the random things that pop up on the world map from time to time are bazaars, where you can trade any amulet for any basic card you want. This is big, as I’m able to trade in an amulet for my second piece of removal, a second Unsummon!
After all my walking around and hitting up shops and the random places that pop up on the map, my deck looks to be in much better shape:
Starting Shandalar Blue playthrough decklist, v. 1.2:
All in all, I feel pretty good about my deck thus far.
I draw near the town I’ve been trying to reach, Coldsnap Steading, and my luck at avoiding all encounters thus far finally comes to a close:
One of the random things that will pop up from time to time on the world map is a treasure hoard, where a high level monster will be guarding more-or-less powerful spells. In this case, the spells are not exactly the best, but they do happen to sell for a lot of gold, something that I definitely need when starting out in this game.
I head in to duel the mighty Dracur monster, and a hilarious thing happens…
…he gets mana screwed.
This is a big thing, meaning I pick up the win fairly easily with my motley crew of awful creatures! I am able to immediately cash in the cards I won at the next town, and now have a cool 800+ gold to work with! Now we’re talking!
And with our first win, we are done for the day, since this article is already over 3K words. That is a “quick” introduction to my new playthrough of Shandalar, and in the days to come, I’ll be going over any changes to my deck, how I do at defeating the denizens of Shandalar and my inevitable showdown with the nefarious Arzakon!
Can Mark win at Shandalar: Hard Mode (playing blue)? Stay tuned to find out!