Published on June 24th, 2016 | by Luke Turpeinen0
Magic: The Gathering Comes To Heroscape
A Review of Magic: The Gathering – Arena of the Planeswalkers
It seems that Magic: the Gathering (Magic, MtG) has been getting a lot of extra play time recently. Wizards of the Coast did something that it’s been saying for years that it would never do- publish a Magic setting for Dungeons & Dragons. It was always said in the past that “the higher ups” didn’t want to “dilute the brands” by mixing them together. Who the “higher ups” were was never really made clear, but it seems as though they’ve changed their minds.
Just a bit before releasing a Magic/D&D crossover, WotC released the game Magic: The Gathering – Arena of the Planeswalkers. Arena of the Planeswalkers is a tactical miniatures board game with simple rules and a touch of a Magic the Gathering theme. What the box doesn’t tell you is that the rules are almost exactly those of (and mostly compatible with) HeroScape, a game that WotC discontinued in 2010.
Wizards of the Coast’s history with HeroScape is mixed. Originally Heroscape was made for Hasbro Games and premiered in 2004. The game was mostly known for its pre-painted fantasy/superhero minis (using a Marvel license), easy to learn rules and 3D hex terrain. Sometime around 2008 Wizards of the Coast (a Hasbro subsidiary) took over the line and they eventually launched a D&D expansion set. In 2010 they cancelled the line altogether, much to the fans’ dismay.
Demand is still high enough that many sets are listed at a pretty steep price on the secondary market. Not too long ago I bought what a thrift shop felt was $10 worth of HeroScape that was actually worth $300 on Amazon. That being said, HeroScape is a perfect fit for the Magic brand and a game that very much deserves a come back. I don’t know why WotC has felt that they needed to shy away from Heroscape branding here (not even a tiny little logo on the underside of the box or something?) but if it means more Heroscape to game with, I’m all for it.
Arena of the Planeswalkers is a little different from base Heroscape. Each player must select one Planeswalker unit, which has a color identity. Your planeswalker’s color identity determines what units you can summon. In the base game there is one planeswalker for each of the five colors (White, Blue, Black, Red, Green) while the first expansion (Battle For Zendikar) includes a second Black magic planeswalker and a dual-color planeswalker who is both green and blue.
I liked the selection of planeswalkers they chose for the game- there are three women and two men, which was a balance that I was pleasantly surprised to see. I didn’t expect to get Liliana (a witch) when Sorin (a vampire) has been focused on so much lately, and I didn’t expect to get Nissa (an elf) instead of Garruk (a Conan). We got Jace (a psychic) and Chandra (a fire mage), which was predictable but fine; and we surprisingly got Gideon (a soldier) instead of Ajani (a cat priest) or Elspeth (a knight).
The creatures you can summon are classic Magic units: rhox, kor, elves, treants, zombies, illusions, and fire elementals. The sculpts for the models are good, but not great. The pre-painted miniatures have a decent paint job for a pre-paint line, though the gold standard is still WizKids’ Pathfinder pre-painted line. The non-planeswalker minis are not painted at all, though the plastic is color coded with the magic-color of the creature for easy identification on the battlefield. The rhox and kor in particular are more noticeably “MtG” and it’s great to finally have models that match up to the art on the cards, which would be nice to have for D&D games set in MtG worlds.
In addition to planeswalker and creature units, Arena of the Planeswalkers comes with spell cards that can be played from your planeswalker during play. Each spell has a color, and you can only cast spells that match the color of your planeswalker. Spells aren’t exactly the same thing they are in Magic the Gathering, but they take inspiration from Magic cards. Action cards never existed in Heroscape until now, as far as I’m aware and I found that the spell cards added another depth to Heroscape that it was missing.
Spells are essentially action cards that help you take advantage on the battlefield, and work on different strategic levels depending on the color of magic involved. Black magic reanimates your zombie creatures, blue magic unsummons creatures back into an opponent’s reserve without destroying the creature, etc. I like how spells gave me something to do other than summon figures or fight with figures, though some of the cards were of better utility than others. Overall, I liked the new mechanic and I hope Wizards eventually puts out a small pack expanding the current selection of cards for each color.
One of the main differences between Heroscape and Arena of the Planeswalkers is the board, or battlefield. Heroscape is mostly known for its multi-colored 3D-hex terrain that allows you to build all sorts of impressive looking scenarios. Admittedly, Arena of the Planeswalkers is a little disappointing in that regard when you first open the box. Instead of vibrant plastic hexes you get a flat, sand-colored board and a handful of sand-colored hexes, plus a couple of “ruins” as cutouts to put on the board (to block line-of-sight).
I get that to keep costs down, most everything is flat. I understand that and I support that decision. I just wish it all had a bit of color! Maybe if I lived in a place like Las Vegas or Boise where everything exists in shades of brown and/or grey it wouldn’t bother me as much, but coming from a Seattleite, this kind of landscape is really droll. I wouldn’t have minded them reusing textures from the Dungeon Tile line if it meant that there would be more detail and variation in the board. Here’s hoping for future expansion content in that regard! Fortunately, all of the previous Heroscape terrain fits with and is 100% compatible with Arena of the Planeswalkers, so if you really want to grab some ice or forest terrain, you can get it on the secondary market.
Overall, I enjoyed Arena of the Planeswalkers. It’s mostly a new Heroscape expand-alone with a MtG theme, which is one of the best pitches for a game I’ve heard in a while. It plays astonishingly well, and the new additions to the game mechanics are a solid A+ feature. The minis are okay, and the terrain could be more inventive, but that’s aesthetics. Arena of the Planeswalkers delivers on the easy-to-learn tactical miniature front, and is a solid hit from Wizards of the Coast.