I love card games, and I’m not ashamed to tell the world. Digging through binders, calculating points values on the fly like a deranged abacus, the snap of the vinyl-coated card back as it hits the table, there’s no gaming experience that can compare with the craftsman-like joy of pitting a deck that you constructed through sweaty nights of research against another living person and, seeing all your plans gang agley and crumble before their assured grin.
Android: Netrunner, a modern game by Fantasy Flight, was my particular poison, but the success of online video game translations like Blizzard’s Hearthstone and the forthcoming Gwent piqued my interest; can software really replace the fleshly delights to be found sitting across a formica tabletop at your friendly local game store?
I was first drawn to Duelyst by the game’s intriguing pixel art style, and on discovering that the game’s ambitions include marrying the deckbuilding and tactical play of Magic the Gathering with the turn-based strategy of Final Fantasy Tactics, I had to take a look. The action plays out on an 9×5 square grid, with each player starting with only their powerful general unit on the field. They then take it in turns to play cards, each of which represents a minion that can be summoned to the board or a spell that can used to attack enemies or strengthen your own side. Minions and the general are directly controlled, moved across the board and ordered to attack or defend.
In contrast to most physical card games, positioning is incredibly important. Since your cards represent physical units that can only attack units close to them, building a fighting front while your general runs and hides is a valid strategy, and as the game doesn’t end until one side loses their general, careful tactical play can present opportunities for misdirection and entrapment.
Winning games against other players online will increase your rank, earning you rewards in the form of new cards and in-game currency, while the practice and tutorial modes are expansive and easy to pick up, serving as a helpful introduction for even novice players. As with any game of this type, a community has sprung up online to share tips and recommendations which can be a resource for anyone looking to move beyond the game’s included starter decks.
Duelyst uses a faction system to break up the card pool into several distinct archetypes, each of which boasts a particular selection of units and magic spells. The specialisation of these units means that each faction lends itself to a particular style of play – the silicoid Magmar for instance concentrate on getting out big, heavy-hitting minions and buffing them up to towering stature, while the Abyssian faction deals in swamping the opponent with masses of low-cost units, ruthlessly sacrificing them along the way to increase their damage-dealing potential.
Another wrinkle in the strategic landscape is caused by the opposing generals, who boast powerful and cheap tools called bloodborn spells, which recur at specific intervals. Different generals within a faction will use different spells, which enhance the deck building possibilities open to you. For instance, the Lyonar general Argeon can buff the attack of minions, which tends to boost an aggressive attacking playing style, while his counterpart general Zir’An can use a healing effect, helping to keep your units alive for longer and control more of the board.
Combine these factors with the multitude of effects that any card might have, from cancelling out the powers of another unit to teleporting in clones of itself at random, and the deckbuilding element of the game is bursting with possibilities for number crunchers to dig deep. The play and counterplay of guessing where your opponent’s deck is strong and punishing their weakness is the heart of the game, and where the real fun is to be had.
Card packs, containing a random selection of cards of varying rarities, can either be bought from the in-game store or with currency that is doled out at semi-regular intervals for winning matches. Individual cards can be disenchanted, breaking them down into a pool that can be used to create other cards, giving you the option to trade in items you don’t want for those that you do.
Extra resources are picked up by completing daily challenges, a kind of puzzle game which tasks you to kill an opponent from a given board state in a single move, or by competing in the Gauntlet mode. Familiar to most players of card games as Draft, Gauntlet presents a limited selection of cards for you to pick from to create a smaller-than-normal deck, which will go up against other players decks constructed from the same set. Play until you win 12 games, or lose three, and win rewards based on your performance.
Monetisation is often a key concern of players in free-to-play games – is the developer going to force you to pay for privilege of playing by bleeding you dry with micro-transactions, or allow those with the biggest pockets to win no matter their personal skill level? To my tastes, the in-game store here strikes the correct balance. While extra card packs might cost you money, the random aspect of their contents means that you are unlikely to be able to buy your way to an unbeatable deck, at least without an ungodly mountain of credit card receipts. I’ve been playing for a week or so, have dropped the equivalent of around £7, and haven’t found any enormous difference in power between my own efforts and the decks I am facing. You can also spend money on customisation features, like emotes and card backs, should you wish to splash out.
If there are problems with all of this, it may come down to a question of taste over mechanics in the game: the prevalence of card draw and buff effects means that spectacular late-game turnarounds are very likely, and while that does mean an increase in suspense and excitement that could be if one player simply grinds out an early advantage into a win, it does produce extreme frustration when a lucky draw cancels out turns of careful, tactical play. It seems fairly certain that the developers are targeting the lucrative eSports market and burgeoning online video streaming scene – the option to watch both recorded and live matches in progress is displayed prominently in the opening menu screen.