Magic: Legends' Visceral Combat Appeals to More Than MTG Veterans

Magic: Legends aims to bring the godlike powers of Magic: The Gathering to an action MMORPG audience.
Magic: Legends aims to bring the godlike powers of Magic: The Gathering to an action MMORPG audience. / Courtesy of Cryptic Studios

Let's get this out of the way: Magic: Legends is not a card game. Although it's set in the universe of the single most influential collectible card game of all time, Legends uses Magic: The Gathering as a jumping off point to build something new, deep and visceral that aims to satisfy both the hardcore MTG veteran and the Magic-curious.

At PAX East, I played two demos of the game and spoke with principal lead designer Adam Hetenyi to get a sense of the game.

The Geomancer class's base deck focuses on aggressive fire and earth spells.
The Geomancer class's base deck focuses on aggressive fire and earth spells. / Courtesy of Cryptic Studios

In Magic: Legends, players take on the role of a planeswalker, one of the most powerful magic users in the universe. The first demo begins by asking players to choose between two distinct classes: the Geomancer and the Mind Mage. The two classes wield different spells, each list of spells with its own priorities. The Geomancer focuses on aggressive fire and earth-based spells, while the Mind Mage prefers telekinetics and water attacks.

After class selection, the game places the player at an isometric, top-down view similar to that in classic action RPGs like Diablo. Players move through the world, encountering hordes of enemies and casting wildly varied spells to defeat them. The player's basic attacks are bound to the bumpers and to the right trigger, and they vary based on the class in use.

In addition to these three core abilities, the player has access to 12 more involved spells. These spells can do everything from summoning an ice giant (Avatar of Frost) to sending enemies to sleep. Some of them can be cast with a single button press, but others require aiming.

Only four of the player’s 12 spells are available to cast at any given moment. These are displayed in the bottom right of the screen. A fifth spell shows up just below those four; when the player casts one of their available spells, that fifth spell takes its place and another, chosen at random from their pool of 12, takes the now vacant up-next position. The random selection helps make gameplay more emergent and dynamic as players scramble to make the best of what they're given.

Playing through the demo, I battle waves of skeletons by summoning my own small army of minions: illusory soldiers, underling wizards and Avatars of Frost do my bidding, taking the heat off of me while I dominate enemy minds, or impale their bodies with ice shards. It's a remarkably powerful feeling, and Hetenyi says it's exactly what developer Cryptic Studios had in mind when it decided to make Legends an action RPG.

"It's really about the feel of battlefield control," he said. "It needs to feel really good, and it needs to be really snappy when you play, but you need to be able to take big actions as a planeswalker, and have big impact, so we need it to feel immediate and visceral."

Casting spells is massively empowering.
Casting spells is massively empowering. / Courtesy of Cryptic Studios

It does. At one point in our demo, I call in a tidal wave that washes away a swarm of zombie knights. Watching them lifted in the water and dashed against the cobbles of an ancient ruin, I exclaim out loud at how satisfying it feels.

But Cryptic has also worked hard to maintain the strategic depth that so many love about MTG in Legends, beginning with its approach to the five colors of mana. In Magic the Gathering, everything is sorted into one of these five categories: blue, red, green, white and black. The colors each have their own identities and typical concerns. Blue mana is associated with water, yes, but it's more defined by its cold logic. Red is impulsive and chaotic, green is instinctual and wild, white is orderly and moral, and black is self-serving and decidedly amoral.

Although the public demos at PAX lock players into basic 12-spell decks, each based around a single color, the full game will allow them the freedom to choose any combination of spells, from any color, with any class.

There are two major constraints on deckbuilding. First is that decks can only spend a certain number of points selecting creatures. More powerful creatures cost more Creature Points, preventing players from loading up exclusively on earth-shattering monsters.

The second limit comes in the form of mana costs. To cast spells in-game, players must spend mana. They can have up to 12 mana at any given moment, and they pull from that pool to cast spells. Each spell has its own cost, and spells in different colors require spending mana of those colors. For example, a white spell might cost three mana total, but one of those three might have to be white mana.

The possibilities spiral dizzyingly, but the game works hard to streamline the deckbuilding experience. Adding cards from different colors to a deck will automatically adjust the player's mana pool to best fit their new deck construction — if you have more white spells than green spells, your mana pool will adjust itself to favor white mana.

The Beastcaller class comes with an ethereal fox companion.
The Beastcaller class comes with an ethereal fox companion. / Courtesy of Cryptic Studios

The third class in Legends, which Cryptic revealed at PAX, is the Beastcaller. One of his abilities allows him to heal himself, forming the basis of one of the experiments Hetenyi and the team have conducted in the studio. Rather than use green mana to summon creatures as tanks, these experimental decks focus on dealing as much spell damage as possible using red and blue spells.

"They’re able to keep themselves alive with their healing and with stuns and control, and have a lot of direct damage and a little bit of spell draw in there to make sure that they’re not constrained by the rate at which they’re regenerating cards," said Hetenyi.

Another fundamental piece of the Magic experience is discovering and exploiting synergies between abilities. Hetenyi described one such example, which combines an enchantment that spawns a zombie whenever an enemy dies with a powerful creature called an Abyssal Fiend that consumes the player's other creatures as part of its cost. Provided the player can keep killing enemies quickly enough, the Abyssal Fiend will keep eating the zombies spawned by the enchantment, keeping the beast around as long as possible.

Hetenyi, himself a longtime MTG player, described the lightbulb moment of discovering a combo as essential to the Magic experience.

"I often wish I could go back to when I was a kid, it first clicking to me," he said. "And as soon as these things start to click, you start to connect really deeply, not just to the second-to-second gameplay, but to the whole structure of the mechanics. So when we have a game where we’re aiming for a lot of depth, especially in terms of deckbuilding, combinations of things, people getting to experience that for the first time, even if it’s in an action RPG environment, we’re trying to get that essence."

Hetenyi told me players can unlock new spells by completing missions and additional deck challenges that add replayability to the game's quests. Like in MTG, some spells are rarer and more powerful than others. Unlike in MTG, all spells can be improved by spending in-game currencies that players pick up as they do quests and fight enemies.

Many of those enemies will be familiar to MTG players, as Legends aims to engage as much as possible with what Hetenyi calls the "rich tapestry of stories and characters," pre-existing in Magic lore. Hetenyi said the Vess family, most famous for its scions Liliana and Josu, are among his favorite parts of Magic lore. Josu appears as a mini-boss in one of the demos, and his recreation in-game speaks to the team's approach toward converting card game to video game.

Characters are a mix of figures from Magic lore and new creations by Cryptic.
Characters are a mix of figures from Magic lore and new creations by Cryptic. / Courtesy of Cryptic Studios

Wherever possible, Cryptic tried to make one-to-one connections between cards and Legends. If a spell or a creature could translate without losing its essence, the team made that translation. But sometimes, just translating the card wasn't enough.

Josu Vess in card form can summon a horde of zombie knights when he enters the battlefield.

"Josu Vess in the game, guess what? He summons zombie knights. He also hits you in the face with a hammer because it's an action RPG so you need a little bit more action."

In other cases, where the distance between card and game feels too wide, the team takes a more cautious approach. If a spell in-game is inspired by something from MTG, but doesn't exactly match, the team will name it in a way that pays tribute to the original card.

“We don’t want to misrepresent things that people have a really clear vision of in their minds from the card games. So in situations where we don’t think we’re going to be able to do it proper justice, or it’s going to be too different in an action RPG, then we probably will change the wording, or kind of reimagine it somehow.”

A similar process was necessary for designing the visual effects of the game's many spells. Magic: the Gathering Arena, a virtual version of the card game released in 2018, was lauded for how it adapted those spells into animations and effects. Hetenyi told me the Legends team looked to Arena's example, but also pulled directly from card art to build its visual language.

That work has already paid off. One animation in particular, for a spell called Elven Assault, transfixed me every time I cast it. At one point I stopped fighting just to watch the animation. Hetenyi told me I wasn't the only one impressed by that animation, and emphasized how proud he was of the game's aesthetic.

"We have this kind of painterly, semi-stylized approach that seems to work really well for us. As you cast spells, they have different looks, you start to recognize what they are just at a glance.

"You cast Mighty Bellow, and it’s a big spectral Baloth head bellowing with sound lines and stuff. Everything in the area gets buffed. It’s about trying to find the best way that will look awesome and also be understandable in terms of visual language."

Attention to visual language even extends to the use of color in character design. Characters are often colored according to their mana affiliations as a shorthand for their personalities or values. For instance, soldiers turned renegade wear red accents on their white uniforms.

"Their red color isn't just for evil," Hetenyi said. "It also shows some of their recklessness, their disregard for the laws of the land."

This combining and recombining of colors is another central facet of the Magic experience. Cryptic plans to launch Legends with one class for each color, but future classes may expand into color mixtures. When I asked Hetenyi about the possibility, he played it coy.

"Think about Teferi," he said, referring to a particularly powerful MTG character who is both blue and white. "That's a pretty fun planeswalker, right?"

"I have nothing to show you about that right now, but we [at Cryptic] all think that that's a very, very cool thing that should be there."

That's not all that's on Hetenyi's wishlist for Legends. He expressed his and the team's interest in leaning into Magic's tribal system, in which like-monsters make one another stronger, and shared which Magic location he most wants to visit (Lorwyn). Whether or not his lobbying efforts will succeed remains to be seen.

Magic: Legends will begin its first public tests this year on PC, starting with an alpha before moving into a larger beta. The full game is set to launch on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in 2021.