Magic: The Gathering -- Interactive Encyclopedia is a reference tool that provides a means of cataloging, pricing and playing Magic: The Gathering cards. The encyclopedia's interface is not Windows-friendly: it's a black background that doesn't lend itself to skipping between programs, even though much of the system relies on a web browser. After a couple of extraneous and irritating animations (that must be skipped every time the program loads), the product offers five sections: Magic Online, Deckbuilder, Encyclopedia, Links and Strategy Library.
The Magic Online section allows you to find an opponent and begin an online game of Magic: The Gathering. It's not, however, quite the same experience as playing a non-virtual game. Essentially, it provides nothing more than a virtual gaming table.
Like so many other venues that attempt to duplicate in-person, face-to-face action, the virtual gaming table is a poor substitute. While it does standardize some aspects of a face-to-face game, like not having to worry about spilling soda on the cards or the size of the gaming table, it's not going to replace the card game. Of course, Wizards of the Coast knows this or they wouldn't have created the Interactive Encyclopedia. At least you don't have to worry about running out of counters anymore.
All the typical elements of virtual gaming are evident, including the ability for coin tosses and dice rolls, so it's no longer necessary to guess if your opponent really got a "heads" on that last flip. There is also a list of parameters that can be set for prospective players which helps ensure the game is played under player specified rules. This program does not provide a computer opponent, however.
Beyond the awkwardness of a virtual interface that takes some getting used to, the biggest problem with the online section lies in its communication tools. Interactive Encyclopedia doesn't provide for audio interaction although it does have a chat window. This isn't usually an issue with most games because there are plenty of other shareware programs that can be used as workarounds. The problem here, though, is the non-friendly aspect of the windows. Switching between them causes lag and can actually cause the program to crash -- the window doesn't minimize either.
Still, considering the chaotic nature of most Magic: The Gathering games, the controlled virtual environment may be a welcome reprieve for gamers with high blood pressure.
The Deckbuilder is a fabulous feature for collectors because it allows you to see what cards are needed to complete a collection. This is also where virtual decks are created. The ability to print data about each card is very useful but no pictures can be printed. No surprise here, though -- if the designers allowed this function, players would create their own cards at home. But, it is possible to print a list of an entire collection along with the details of each individual card (including the quotes!).
There are also a few problems in the Deckbuilder section. Some views do not display correctly on screen and the search view appears to be broken as it only displays the upper left part of the search window. Patches and updates to the program have not fixed the problem at the time of this review.
The Encyclopedia is the real meat of the program. This section tackles the daunting task of providing access to every Magic: The Gathering card ever printed. Almost all of them, anyway -- there were, for example, no Guru cards. Other useful features include the ability to make customized notes about each card and additional background information about why a card was created, its intended use or strategy tips.
The Magic Links section is where the true value of the program becomes clear. With the speed that Wizards of the Coast produces cards, this Magic: The Gathering -- Interactive Encyclopedia would be rapidly outdated in a matter of months. But, with just a few simple downloads, the program is updated. This section also included updates to card pricing, ensuring the latest and most up-to-date values.
The Strategy Library is a storehouse of articles and writings to help with your gameplay. It includes rules and formats, articles, the history of the game and organized play. Don't get too excited though, as this isn't proprietary information -- it's all available (and linked to) the Wizards' website. This guarantees the information is kept current but makes for an awkward interface that doesn't mesh well with web browsers.
Magic: The Gathering -- Interactive Encyclopedia tries to be all things to all gamers and only achieves some of them successfully. As an interactive gaming tool, it's a novelty. As a collector's assistant, it's invaluable. As a reference, it's less successful due to the broken search function and awkward Windows interface. Most importantly, Magic: The Gathering -- Interactive Encyclopedia utilizes the full power of the Internet, ensuring a shelf life that will be measured in years rather than months.
Graphics: One particularly useful feature is the ability to zoom in on the artwork for each card. There are subtle differences between the seemingly endless editions of Magic: The Gathering cards and this function is critical in determining the authenticity of any particular card. It's also amusing to see how the game has changed for the better and how some obviously flawed rules were clarified in later editions.
Enjoyment: While the program is a lot of fun, it's much more useful as a tool rather than as a game assistant.
Replay Value: The database contained within the product would quickly be outpaced by the expansion of the collectible card game if it weren't for its linkage to the Internet. Although Wizards of the Coast doesn't officially endorse any particular pricing list, the game does provide the ability to download pricing lists from the Web. What they didn't provide was a means of sorting or displaying the prices in any useful way. In order to figure out the value of a deck, you will have to look at each and every card individually. Still, it's faster than looking up the value of each card.
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