The Natural Next Step in CCGs

Abyssians fo' lyfe, suckas
Abyssians fo’ lyfe, suckas

Today I started playing a game called Duelyst from Counterplay Games. It plays like the lovechild of Hearthstone and a tactical RPG, where players control a general on a gridded battlefield. Using a steadily-increasing mana pool, players then summon creatures from their hand onto this battlefield, or cast spells in much the same way. These creatures and generals then move about the battlefield, and the game is won when you reduce the opponent general’s health to zero. It’s quite a good game, and I highly recommend it (it’s available for free here).

Duelyst also got me thinking about the nature of CCGs as a whole, though, especially in the wake of Hearthstone players seemingly becoming more and more irate of the state of the game. The time I spent with Hearthstone was like a summer fling: intense, but brief (I played for about four months, in a span of time that included the game’s formal release). I also used to play Magic: The Gathering for about a year (starting with Avacyn Restored and ending right at the release of Dragon’s Maze).

I love card games. I always have, ever since I got my first Pokemon cards as a kid. However, I always end up dropping them. I never had anyone to play Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh with as a kid. Magic has an abundance of players, including quite a few of my friends who still play, but I found that I hated the atmosphere of my local Friday Night Magic. Everyone wanted to win, and was playing top-of-the-line decks, whereas I was trying to create decks that were thematically strong, or created unusual and janky combos. I still had fun, but I felt like the amount of money I had to put into the game was too great to have my playstyle rendered utterly impotent, so I stopped.

Hearthstone suffered a few problems after that. I found the card pool simply not large enough to create the sorts of interesting and unusual combos I wanted to make. Furthermore, Hearthstone got crazy expensive to keep up with, and while I had the disposable income to fork up (quitting Magic freed up my ‘expensive hobby’ money), but it was then I realized that Hearthstone‘s design problems are more deeply rooted in its core design.

Not pictured: the hundreds of bucks all of these pirates had to fork over to have fun
Not pictured: the hundreds of bucks all of these pirates had to fork over to have fun

You see, the primary means of obtaining cards in both Hearthstone and Magic is the same: cracking randomized packs of cards. The difference, however, is that Magic has a used market. If you want specific cards, then you can just buy them from a guy, usually for a reasonable price (well, reasonable for a Magic player). Packs need to be cracked, obviously, to inject new cards into the ecosystem, but a thriving resale community ensures that you can always get exactly the card you need, exactly when you need it.

Hearthstone lacks such a function. It’s easy to write off this fact due to Hearthstone‘s digital-only nature, but if resale is possible in Steam’s trading card system, surely it is possible here. Instead, the only way to obtain exact cards in Hearthstone is by constructing it with Dust. How do you get Dust? By breaking down your other cards.

This turns out not to be an equivalent solution, however. Good cards cost quite a bit of dust, and so you can either burn dozens of crap cards to obtain the dust you need (which would require a sum of cards that would take forever to obtain without spending a lot of money on packs), or you can just break down a few rare cards.

Y’see the problem here? To get rare cards, you either need to crack packs and hope to get lucky and find what you need, or craft. But to craft, you need to crack a ton of packs, hoping to get lucky and find something expensive enough to fund your crafting. Or, you can just buy a ton of packs for pure crafting fodder, but that’s the same strategy you’d use when you just are trying to find a card in the packs.

As a result, there is only one way to get the cards you need in Hearthstone: cracking packs. And while gambling is fun, it’s not anything close to efficient, and it’s absolutely frustrating to crack a pack (that you potentially spent real money on), only to find garbage. Magic gets away with such a system, because Magic has a solid grasp of its format: it’s a physical object, and as a result, it can have a thriving resale market.

This gets to my main complaint about Hearthstone: it does not properly utilize the benefits of its format. Hearthstone is a digital game, and yet, it’s not completely impossible to envision Hearthstone as a physical card game sold in comic shops. With the exception of a few cards, which have cards capable of pulling cards out of thin air, all of Hearthstone‘s mechanics work in a physical format, which is a bummer to me.

I’ve always been an advocate of using the unique features of your medium to a maximum. Movies that don’t look good should be books. Songs that don’t sound good should be poems. Hearthstone doesn’t use any aspect of its medium as a digital card game except the ability to matchmake, which is hardly revolutionary.

This is why I do like Duelyst, though. The game does utilize its identity as a digital card game to the maximum, through the movement rules. Instead of having lengthy, complex rules about where cards can move, Duelyst says “Hey, when you click on a thing, you can move it to any space we highlight. Why do we highlight those spaces? Eh.”

Granted, this is not something totally impossible to replicate on tabletop, but it’s definitely rendered much simpler and better (and thus, the game is better) as a result. Duelyst also uses its identity as a digital card game in a different way: the animations in the game are absolutely beautiful. Unlike a physical card game, a digital card game can truly depict your deck as an actual fighting force, engaged in real combat, and it does. Hearthstone, meanwhile, has…cards. Which float, sometimes, I guess? And some particle effects?

This is Hearthstone‘s failure and Duelyst‘s success: Duelyst was built from the ground up with its format in mind, and the rules and mechanics, and style of the game were are built to maximize on a computer’s ability to perform clunky computations behind the scenes (like movement), and to show dynamic visuals. But I wouldn’t even say Duelyst is the apex of this idea.

Look at SolForge, the digital CCG designed by Richard Garfield, Magic‘s creator. In SolForge, cards can evolve mid-game, replacing themselves in the deck with better versions of themselves. If this were a physical card game, it’d be clunky as hell, with you having to own every card of your deck, in multiple, but in multiple on top of that, as you’d need every level of every card. However, this mechanic works wonderfully on a PC, because the computer just handles all of the card-handling behind the curtain, and doesn’t add extra complexity for the players.

This represents the kind of design philosophy I want to have when understanding CCGs: these games should use their medium to their advantage, and understand how to maximize that medium. Games should recognize the natural side-effects of their medium (like the used card market for a physical card game), and introduce mechanics that harmonize with their nature (like Duelyst‘s movement, or SolForge‘s card evolution). In doing so, you ensure you create an experience that is at least pleasurable for your players.

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