Planeswalking in Shandalar: Day 1, Getting Started

Talrand, Sky Summoner

This weekend, while I was getting very impatient waiting for the rest of the Gatecrash spoiler and the prerelease, I tried to think about what I could do while I was waiting. I wanted to do something MtG-related while I waited, since I was pretty hyped about this set; you may be surprised about what I eventually decided to do. Something that I’ve been waiting for a free day to set up, ever since I picked up a new computer (that could actually run this game). Something very old-school, extremely fun, challenging at times, and potentially awesome.


…I was going to play some Shandalar.


What is Shandalar, you ask?


Let me tell you!


Long story short, 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.


Here, if you wanted to read it, 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:


Single-Player Campaign
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 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, the boss of the game. It is a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to starting a playthrough.


I download this old classic, get it all installed, and sit down to start the gaming. Here’s the classic loading screen, which still gives me a twinge of nostalgia:


Loading screen


I then get to choose my difficulty, or pick my poison, if you will.


Wizard difficulty


Being as hardcore as I am (or as stupid as I am), 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
start with 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
start with 1 amulet in picked color
Arzakon has 400 life
Minimum deck size 40
Evil wizards have 45 Life


That doesn’t matter though, I am a mighty planeswalker! Bring on your Wizard difficulty, Arzakon!


I am then asked to choose my color (which will end up being the main color of my starting deck).


Choose color


Now, there’s several ways to start this game. Base red, or base black decks are the best ways to start, I find, since they have the best removal spells available at common (Terror, Paralyze, Lightning Bolt, Immolation and Fireball); plus a lot of their creatures are very good when starting out.


(As an aside, I find the hardest way to do 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 do a mono-blue game).


For this playthrough, I am going to be going black. I love base-black decks in this game, as they give you access to the best card in the game: the mighty Contract from Below. That’s right, a draw-7, just for yourself, for one measly black mana. Pretty broken.


I am asked to create the avatar for my planeswalker at this point, so I recreate the same one I used waaaaaaaaaaaay back in the day to play this game:


Green avatar


This is the mighty ogre wizard Throk Gnarlfist, whose backstory is that he is both an ogre with enough fashion sense to wear a chain (his bling), swing a powerful club, wear a stylish purple shower cap, and hold what I can only assume is 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.


Once the world materializes, I have two quick pieces of luck. The first is that I get started right next to a town. I hightail it for this rustic berg (mostly so I can quickly edit my deck, and I’m also hoping to be able to buy some useful cards for my deck to upgrade it asap).


The first city


I immediately check out what’s being sold in the city, and here I have a second piece of luck: look at what’s being sold:


Got lucky with Paralyze


Paralyze is one of my favorite black spells in Shandalar. It acts as a powerful early game removal spell for every creature in the game except White Knight, it costs one black mana (thus letting you stop shenanigans like turn one Will-o’-the-Wisp enchanted with Unholy Strength, or Savannah Lions enchanted with Holy Strength, etc. — and yes, these can be devastating plays in the Shandalar game that you may not be able to recover from, since there are only a few early removal spells and they are hard to find early on in the game). Finally, Paralyze is highly undervalued by the people who made this game, often costing between 20-40 gold (which is nothing).


So to see a Paralyze this early on, for such a low price, is a steal!


I buy it, and a Swamp that I know I’ll be needing (since the cpu always gives you a mishmash of mixed lands to start your initial deck with), and head off to the deck editor. This is the initial pile of crap I’ve been given:


Starting deck


What an awful pile of awful this is. Several things stand out about this deck to me. First, there are a number of really useless cards in the deck, which is what normally happens when you start a new game on Wizard difficulty (ie. cards like Wooden Sphere and Glasses of Urza, which both literally do nothing; Venom with the double-green casting cost, and me having been given only one Forest to start with; Amrou Kithkin and her double-white casting cost; Circle of Protection: Red as a main-deck hoser; etc). After some quick edits, here is my initial deck that I get ready to battle with:


After the first edit


Now, don’t get me wrong – a lot of things have to go right for me to win with this deck, even after the first round of edits. My best creatures are the pair of Clay Statues that I’ve ended up with, and my only relevant removal spell is the one Paralyze. So many things have to go right for me to win that it really boggles the mind. However! The skilled adventurer and planeswalker does not complain about the terrible Sealed pool he opens; no, he goes and crushes each opponent with his garbage cards round after round!


With a lot of trepidation in my heart, I set out into the wild. I am immediately assailed by a wandering monster!




I only vaguely remember the monsters’ decks in this game, but I seem to remember the Witch being one of the few black decks using Nevinyrral’s Disk (with regenerating creatures like Drudge Skeletons, I think). My intuition about her is correct.


This is the board after the first couple of turns:


Goblin vs WotW


That’s right, I’ve drawn my one-of Goblin Balloon Brigade, and he’s doing his best to beat the Witch to death before she draws anything (and yes, I had to Paralyze her Will-o’-the-Wisp to try to do so). The Witch is a lower level monster (only starts with 10 life), so killing her here with the Goblin is doable if she draws nothing. Sadly, after a few turns of attacking, and her playing irrelevant garbage like Throne of Bone, she does draw a relevant spell to stop me:




Yes, a low level monster does indeed have access to a Wrath effect in Nevinyrral’s Disk. I regenerate my Clay Statue when she blows up the Disk, and keep attacking. The Statue puts her at 3, and my next draw is the best thing that I could draw in my deck:




With her at 3 life, I am able to activate Pestilence three times, and victory is mine! Whoooo! I win a Will-o’-the-Wisp for my troubles, which is awesome.


…And with our first win, we are done for the day, since this article is already over 2K words. That is a very quick introduction to 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 the nefarious Arzakon! Stay tuned for more!

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