Price: £40 / Players: 2 / Time: 90 minutes
In my Netrunner review a few months ago, I talked about the magic of card games. In a year when video games are trying harder than ever to reproduce that magic, I also called it the card game you actually should be playing.
A breathtakingly sharp game of cat and mouse, Netrunner has a hacker player and a corporation player wielding numbers and figures like knives. The game is such a strong idea, so terrifically executed, that it feels otherworldly. Cold, almost.
Care to go somewhere a little warmer?
Mage Wars is the other fantastic, expandable, two-player card game that took the top of my head off when it arrived last year. Like Netrunner, it's a game so good that I want to attach it to a brick and fling it through the window of every video game designer currently working on a digital card game. But unlike Netrunner, its doesn't advance the design of card games with an acute, alien, numerical grasp of the genre. Mage Wars just wants you to have fun. "The Customisable Game of Dueling Mages!" claims the box, with an entirely straight face.
This fun starts with the two real-life spell books that come in the box. These are at once laughably plasticky and completely awesome. You'll feel silly, laugh, then laugh again at how cool it feels to flip through your book, or watch your panicking friend crack theirs open once you make a surprise play.
These books are at once a gimmick and a huge innovation. In most collectible card games - and it's the same here - you draw a hand of cards, and those are your options for the turn. In Mage Wars your hand of cards is the entire book. In the palm of your hand is the Beast Master's entire menagerie of creatures, the Warlock's tome of curses and the Priest's prayerbook. Dozens and dozens of spells, ordered very neatly by type to stop you from being intimidated, but without having your jaw go a bit slack at your options.
This makes the opening of a game of Mage Wars a beautiful thing. Players might try and build up their mana economy by dropping Mana Crystals, or the Beast Master might wrench a Lair of Animals out of the floor. You might try and get a head start in summoning drowsy, confused minions into the arena. Or you might Do A Gandalf and begin marching straight towards your opponent, teleporting armour and weaponry onto your warrior wizard with every step you take.
Now. In most card games, this presents a problem. Given all the cards in the game, players are free to make absurd combos. Perhaps the Beast Master summons five terrifying wolves, and then Redclaw, Alpha Wolf, who gives a mortifying boost to all canines in his space. Perhaps the Wizard drapes himself in enough magical shielding that he survive a vacuum.
In Mage Wars, that's the point. The opening of the game is precisely as beautiful as it is because from nothing, you're going to see your opponent start lashing together the magical equivalent of a bunker buster. But because you have all of your spells, too, you have everything you need to counter it.
Mage Wars is a game where the Beast Master summons his wolf pack, and another wizard snaps Redclaw's hind legs like twiglets. The Wizard shields himself utterly and you void all the mana from the room with a snap of your fingers, leaving the wizard looking at his active enchantments like terrifyingly unwise mortgage repayments.
There's only one thing more beautiful than the beginning of a game of Mage Wars, and it's the end. Because slowly but surely, you're wiping clean the pages of your spell book. First come the turns where you reach for that one spell and find your fingers grasping at an empty sleeve. Then, if you're playing a really good game, the turn where you realise you're out of monsters. Out of enchantments. Even out of attacks, followed by the furtive glance at your character card; how good are you with that staff?
Make no mistake. This isn't just a great card game. It's one of the best two-player games I've ever played. It's at once a puzzle strong enough to leave you thinking about it when you go to sleep, and also profoundly human. Mage Wars gets the most out of the human opponent, because of its emphasis on surprise, countering and predicting - which brings me to the QuickCast token.
I've got this far without getting too deep into mechanics, so humour me for a second. At the start of each round, each player is allowed to draw two cards from their book that'll be available to them. From here, you alternate activating creatures - perhaps your Priest opponent moves her knight, you move a bobcat, then your opponent activates her actual Priest and casts a spell - but either mage can use their QuickCast to cast that second spell at almost any point.
Together, these simple rules provide even more focus to a game about judo-blocking and playing into the momentum of your opponents' plays. Think the Warlock you're facing down is about to run up to you, flinging fireballs, in a risky assault? How sure are you? Because you need to put your money where your mouth is. If you want to counter it by reversing the fireball and then draining his mana so he can't escape, you'll need to pick those spells and wait. And even within that turn, if you drape yourself in protective enchantments too early, you might scare him off.
There's even a deadly guessing game built into enchanting your Mage or minions. When you first cast the spell, you pay a flat two mana and place the card beneath the creature. A pall of mana is draped over them. It's only when the wizard chooses that the enchantment is revealed, abruptly siphoning the spell's remaining mana from your supplies. Mid-attack, the bear is revealed as Vampiric. Mid-move, your leech takes flight, becoming a hateful mouth-missile.
If this sounds absurd, it's because it is. Hell, that's nothing. Last night my Warlock summoned a lumbering greater plague demon that was so tough I was able to use the magical equivalent of a riot hose to help push it towards my opponent. It was awesome. I've had a beta key for Hearthstone in my inbox for weeks. I have no intention of touching it until it lets me enchant a ferret with the strength of a bear, creating an enemy so deadly that my opponent, who has conquered cities and commanded armies, has to put it to sleep and run away.
That Mage Wars has a sense of humour on top of everything else almost feels like too much. This is just a board game that gets absolutely everything right. Even the little things, from a straightforward manual, to an "apprentice game" with half the rules, to attack values being represented not by a modifier to a die but how many dice you throw. Oh, and then make those dice large and bright red.
The very second you decide you like it, you'll find options for customising your spellbook, expansions with more cards, even different schools of magic and new spellbooks.
There's not a shadow of a doubt in my mind. Netrunner's great, but it's incredibly hard to copy. Mage Wars is the game that digital card game developers need to be looking at right now, and it's getting better with every single release.
Quintin is the editor of Shut Up & Sit Down, a board game review site. Visit it for more coverage of this strange cardboard realm.