The Kitchen Table #133: Shandalar Revisited

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I recently fell in love with Shandalar again. It’s always been a fond memory of mine, and I decided to reinstall and replay it. “What is Shandalar?” you may ask…

What is Shandalar? Are you kidding me? You honestly don’t know what Shandalar is? Wow.

I recently fell in love with Shandalar again. It’s always been a fond memory of mine, and I decided to reinstall and replay it. “What is Shandalar?” you may ask.

What is Shandalar? Are you kidding me? You honestly don’t know what Shandalar is?


See, I like Shandalar so much that I wrote about in my second article published on StarCityGames.com. That was back in 2001! I wasn’t paid back then, and frankly, I wasn’t as good a writer either. (Not that I am good now, because I’m not. I’m adequate, but I’m much better than I was).

I liked Shandalar so much that I wrote about it in my second ever article. I must have loved it. I guess I still haven’t explained what Shandalar is, for those who do not know. Allow me to describe this mighty game…

What is Shandalar?

When Fourth Edition came out, a lot of people were upset about the notable loss of many good cards from the basic set. Microprose Software, the gaming company that brought you Civilization, Master of Magic, Master of Orion, X-Com, and Colonization, took a stab at making an authentic Magic: the Gathering computer game.

And it was great.

It the original game, you had three types of cards in the game. Fourth Edition cards were the bread and butter cards you could find anywhere. A few rare cards were also available, like Moxen and whatnot. Finally, there was a set of twelve cards made especially for Shandalar, called the Astral Set.

Shandalar was a campaign game set in a fictitious plane, appropriately called Shandalar. Let me set the stage for you:

You begin the game with a bad sealed deck already made for you, and you are on the Shandalar world map. You can move around the map. While you do, there are certain geographic regions of the map that correspond with the basic land types. In these regions are cities, towns, special sites, dungeons, towers and many, many mages. Each mage has a deck, and encountering one usually leads to a duel.

All games are for ante in Shandalar. Over time, you’ll win tons of antes, but you’ll also lose a few yourself, which leads to the continual development of your deck.

You begin with ten life. This signifies what your beginning life total is for matches. Opposing magi can have between ten and twenty-six starting life, depending on how powerful they are.

As the game continues, you can do quests. These quests result in you getting gems, cards, and mana links. If you get a mana link with a city, you get one extra life to begin every duel with. Sound fun yet?

There are evil sorcerers in each color that are trying to tap the mana of Shandalar. If one of them succeeds, then the game is over. As the game progresses, a sorcerer will send out a mage servant to besiege a city. After a short period of time, if you have not stopped the siege, the city will fall and be mana tapped by the sorcerer. If you had a mana link with that city, you will lose it for the game. If a sorcerer gets three mana taps, that’s the game.

You also collect special magical items that allow you to do things like swap your ante card with another random ante card from your deck, or walk more quickly through mountainous regions. As you get good enough, you can tackle a dungeon where there are secret “good” cards available in one copy each. Here you can get the restricted cards of the time, including such powerhouses like Black Lotus and Wheel of Fortune, and other, less powerful cards, like Feldon’s Cane and Copy Artifact.

In towns and cities, there are cards for sale, which you can buy. You can also enter special sites around the map that have random things in them, from finding a random card, to coming across a bazaar where you can trade gold or gems for cards of your choice, to occasionally discovering a sleeping dragon guarding a horde of cards.

As the game progresses, your deck will become sleeker and more degenerate, until you have a lethal fighting machine. Here is an example of one of my recent deadly decks:

4 Black Vise
1 Black Lotus
3 Mox Jet
2 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Emerald
3 Contract from Below
4 Sinkhole
1 Mind Twist
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Timetwister
1 Time Walk
1 Regrowth
1 Wheel of Fortune
4 City of Brass
1 Gem Bazaar
2 Mishra’s Factory
1 Copy Artifact
1 Feldon’s Cane
2 Paralyze
3 Strip Mine

This is actually an expansion pack deck, using cards from earlier sets that were added in two expansion packs. You can occasionally come across someone that gives you a duplicate card, and very rarely, you’ll actually get a restricted card from a special site.

The Gem Bazaar is one of the 12 Astral cards. It is a land that comes into play with a random chosen color. When you tap it for mana, it produces a mana of the chosen color, and then chooses a new color at random.

This deck usually kills through Black Vise damage. In fact, I could get first or second turn kills fairly regularly with this deck. This was my final deck. My deck began with wonders like Jump and Sea Serpent, combined with Merfolk of the Pearl Trident and other such creatures.

You see, when you begin the game, you choose a difficulty level. Choosing the hardest level, which every experienced Magic player should do, results in a five color deck with an emphasis in a color you select, typically with 44 or 43 cards in it. You go to a store, dump some cards, buy a few more, and head out and get antes.

It’s a great game, and there are tons of other things in the game that I won’t go into here. Now, you should have an idea of what Shandalar is like. It’s an old game, yet I got my friend to play it, just after he bought Oblivion. He would find this old game he had never played was so addictive that he would forget to play Oblivion at times.

I wish we had a new Shandalar with new cards, and maybe a few additional tricks. It was a great idea of turning Magic into a computer game, and I’d love to see a new version, with a better game playing A.I.

If you want to find out more about the world of Shandalar, check out the Wikipedia entry here.

The Principles of Shandalar

Now, why did I introduce you to Shandalar? It’s a game from 1997 or so. With it being that old, why bring it up?

The reason that Shandalar is so important to me is the same reason that MagicShop is so important to me (one of my MagicShop articles can be found here). They present limited Magic with an ongoing reason to keep playing.

Sure, I love to draft or play sealed. Who doesn’t? However, drafting a new deck every single time or playing a new sealed every single time gets boring after a while. There’s no point, no purpose to it.

What if there was a purpose? What if the deck you have this week evolves into a new deck over the course of several weeks? Doesn’t that sound intriguing? Well, that’s precisely what Shandalar (and MagicShop) do.

What I want to do is find a way to create a Shandalar campaign in your own Magic group.

Here are a few principles in Shandalar that I think really show what the game is about:

1). You begin with a deck that, although is poor, isn’t completely random. Sure, your cards are random, but it is an actual deck with lands and everything. Additionally, your deck has a primary color that is the emphasis of the deck.

2). You only have a few cards more than forty, not three whole packs worth of cards to choose from. This gives your deck a more desperate feel. In modern drafts and sealed decks, the cardpool is so good, that the decks are often very smooth. Not so a beginning Shandalar deck, which can often leave you scratching your head at how bad it is.

3). You play for ante. Normally, I wouldn’t advise it, but here, playing for ante makes the environment malleable and changing. It breathes a natural life into the campaign that isn’t otherwise there. It also gives you a chance to get cards.

4). There are methods, beyond simple dueling, that can yield you cards, so you have an opportunity to grow your decks through choices that you make, and not just through random cards and ante. This gives you some control over the deck building process.

The Rules of the Campaign

With this in mind, here are my rules for a Shandalar campaign:

Rule #1 – The Draft: Begin by drafting two packs of cards per person in the campaign instead of the normal three. This will reduce the quality of decks significantly and make choices much more difficult. At the end of the draft, you’ll have 30 cards, and you can add land to make a 40-card deck. Unlike normal Magic, you can only play up to three of a card, no matter how many you acquire. This makes your deck feel more desperate and gives bad cards an opportunity to be played.

If you don’t want to put down money for a few packs, then good. I actually think the format works better with artificial packs as opposed to natural ones. In an artificial pack, you add a random selection of commons, uncommons and a rare to create a fifteen-card pack with cards from several different sets and a random feel to it. That’s a great way to get packs. If you want, you can play Shandalar without spending one dime on cards

Rule #2 – The League: Once you’ve built your deck and added basic lands, you begin to play against others. Play for the night. Each match determines a winner who is the first to win two games. Each game is for ante, so a player will lose, at most, two cards in ante during match. Basic lands can never be anted.

The winner of each match gets a random common from a pool created for this purpose. This represents the extra cards that a person can acquire over time in Shandalar. The winner of the evening, the player with the best record, gets to pull a random card from a pool of random uncommons created for this purpose.

By adding these random cards to the environment, it begins to change.

Rule #3 – The Meta-Draft: At the beginning of each campaign session, everybody sits at a table and Rochester drafts a random selection of cards equal to the number of players times three. In other words, each player will add three cards to their cardpool during the Meta-Draft. If there are five players in the campaign, just crack a booster and Rochester draft it (because there would be 15 cards needed). Remember, you can create an artificial booster if you like.

Choose draft order for the Meta-Draft based on the previous sessions standings. The person with the lowest record gets to choose their seat first, and will usually opt for the first selection from the pack. The next lowest record chooses their next seat and so on, and then the draft begins.

This is a way of adding several random cards to the environment, while also giving players with a lower record, and therefore probably a weaker deck, an opportunity to catch up.

Rule #4 – The Addition: Once per gaming session, every player can announce that they are adding a common to their deck. They have to let everybody know what common they are adding. You can add any common you want to a deck, as long as you own it. Typically, cards like Lightning Bolt, Counterspell and similar are added to decks. This simulates your ability to control your decks a bit.

If you play campaign more than once a week, I suggest making The Addition happen only once per week.

Rule #5 – The Put Back: My group originally adopted this rule in order to keep the size of an individual’s cardpool manageable. You can, at any time, exchange five commons from your card pool for a random common from the random pool of commons. If you have five off-color cards, feel free to toss them back for one random common. You can also exchange five uncommons for a random uncommon. This promotes the idea of keeping your card pool down. It also represents selling off your cards in Shandalar in order to buy the randomly generated card in a store.

Now, you begin playing.

Obviously, you’ll need to create a commons pool, and possibly an uncommons pool, and maybe even a rares pool ahead of time, depending on what your group wants to do in terms of rarity. This format works fine without ever using a single uncommon or rare, and that would be cheaper. Just about every Magic player has a horde of commons they don’t use that could make a commons pool to be used for Shandalar, and you wouldn’t even need more expensive cards. If your group has people with a lot of cards, creating pools at higher rarities are also easy to do, and add some interesting choices to the campaign.

You’ll find that the best commons pool is one that uses a variety of cards from a variety of sets. If you can, never include more than two of any common. No one wants to keep pulling the same commons week in and week out, especially since you can’t play more than three of a card in your deck.

Remember, any cards you don’t have in your deck are still in your own, individual cardpool, and you can add them to your deck as you lose antes or change your deck around.

Sample Campaign

Alright, enough with the theory, let’s take a real look at a sample campaign. Obviously, the more people playing Shandalar the better… to a point. I’d think the campaign has a built in limit of eight or ten or so active participants.

Now, suppose that I had a much smaller group, like three. Would Shandalar still work? Absolutely. Let’s take a look:

I grab a couple of people from IRC and we draft Shandalar. They are Azrael and mimimick924. We draft and then build decks online. Are you ready? Let’s play.

I chose for my two boosters to be Ninth Edition and Guildpact. I wanted something fun and wacky, and liked Guildpact for that. I also really liked the Ninth Edition pack as my base. Azrael is sitting to my left, and he took Ravnica and Guildpact. Mimimick924 is to my right, and he chose Mirrodin and Fifth Dawn. Everybody ready? Here is what I ended up with:

I cracked my GP booster first and skipped the Nephilim I opened. Here is what I ended up with in my booster (the cards I took were with picks 1, 4, 7, 10, 13, in draft order):

Torch Drake
Leap of Flame
Benediction of Moons

I consider myself lucky to stick with my two colors in the first three picks.

Mimimick924 opened his Mirrodin booster first. Here is what I took from it in draft order (picks 2, 5, 8, 11, 14)

Spikeshot Goblin
Aether Spellbomb
Yotian Soldier
Clockwork Beetle

Here I was just happy to stick with my initial draft colors of Red and Blue. Troll Ascetic went pick one and Granite Shard went pick three or four.

Azrael opened his Ravnica booster. Here is what I got from it:

Circu, Dimir Lobotomist
Drake Familiar
Viashino Slasher

I figure Blue is underdrafted, and I suspect that I am the only Blue player at the table. There is at least one other Red player there, however. I grabbed Circu here because I wasn’t sure what was happening color wise yet, and I wanted someone who had committed to Black to not feel pushed into one of my colors by taking Circu.

Okay, pack #2. I crack my Ninth booster, obviously. I was hoping for a nice bit of removal in Red, or a broken uncommon or rare. No such luck:

I can choose between a Hill Giant, a Horned Turtle, or a Whip Sergeant. I decide to go with the haste guy because he can change people’s math. By the way, I opened Greater Good.

Whip Sergeant
Horned Turtle
Sleight of Hand
Rogue Kavu
Norwood Ranger

I got several creatures for my deck here. There was a lot of competition for the five Red creatures I opened, and I only scored two of them.

This round, I got Azrael’s booster second, Guildpact Booster number two for us. Here is what I grabbed from it:

Izzet Signet
Djinn Illuminatus
Drowned Rusalka

I was able to get every single card in my guild colors. I notched a second Electrolyze and a Djinn, both nice grabs from this pack. The Signet really helps too.

Lastly, we have mimimick924’s Fifth Dawn Booster. I picked third here.

Goblin Brawler
Spinal Parasite
Rain of Rust
Spinal Parasite

This was a lousy pack. There was no Red card of any value, except for a 2/2 creature that should be a much later pick. There were no Blue cards at all. The guy opened Retaliate, and it turned out he was in Black/White, so there really was no Blue card cracked. Only the Brawler is main deck playable from this pack.

Here was my initial deck:

Djinn Illuminatus
2 Electrolyze
Drowned Rusalka
Goblin Brawler
Izzet Signet
Whip Sergeant
Horned Turtle
Sleight of Hand
Torch Drake
Leap of Flame
Spikeshot Goblin
Aether Spellbomb
Yotian Soldier
Rogue Kavu
Viashino Slasher
Drake Familiar
Clockwork Beetle
9 Island
9 Mountain

It was a pretty simple deck.

An interesting thing happened here. I went U/R, mimimick924 went G/R and Azrael went W/B. In other words, each player took a Guildpact guild. This was probably a wise strategy because everybody was able to use the cards from the two Guildpact boosters, and thus was able to avoid playing a third color. We each went different ways and stayed the course, rarely hate drafting.

Now I can take my 40-card deck and play against mimimick924 and Azrael. We’ll play for ante. If I defeat one or the other I get a random common added to my cardpool. If I win the night by defeating them both, then I get a random uncommon.

In order to speed things up, we assumed that the guy who didn’t fight for Red, Azrael, went 2-0 and we flipped a coin and I lost to mimimick924. This is just for demonstrative purposes, obviously. There was no ante exchanged and no random cards added, but there would be normally. Now, we fast forward to the next play session. Note, that if we all played in real life, we could now play multiplayer or do something else. You don’t have to exclusively play Shandalar.

We randomly chose a pack of Betrayers to open to draft for our Meta-Draft at the beginning of the following night. We randomly remove six cards from the pack. As the person who went 0-2 in the last session, I get to choose where I pick, and I decide to go first. We Rochester the nine cards. Here are the cards available:

Ninja of the Deep Hours
Takeno’s Calvary
Harbinger of Spring
Quillmane Baku
Toils of Night and Day
Shimmering Glasskite
Body of Jukai
Iwamori of the Open Fist

Azrael was upset because an Eradicate and Throat Slitter were removed randomly from the pack.

I grabbed the Glasskite. Mimimick took Iwamori. Azrael grabbed the Skullsnatcher and the Calvary. Mimimick took the Body of Jukai. I wheeled the Ninja and the Toils of Night and Day. That means I ended up with two nice cards for my deck.

With antes that I would have lost and these new cards to add to my deck, you can see how it evolves over time.

Note that this entire scenario took place completely online. No real packs were opened, no real cards did anything, and we just used random pack generators and such to draft our opening decks.

If we continued this experiment, you could see how, over a month, the decks really start to change. Ante rewards the better player but also punishes the better player more severely should he lose. Random cards, and the draft itself, reward the worse deck or player by giving them a more advantageous draft position. There is some balance here as a result.

I hope that I have whetted your appetite for Shandalar. Check out the computer game. Check out this campaign you can do with your group. Then let us know how it works!

Until Later
Abe Sargent