With the release of Whispers of the Old Gods, Hearthstone topped fifty million registered users. Its success is a result of introducing a popular niche game model to the masses. In its first two years, it has earned its user base with simple card text, intuitive UI, and mobile support. Because of Blizzard’s brand recognition, it also experienced rapid adoption. Dozens of professionals from games like Starcraft and World of Warcraft began streaming the game, making it one of the most popular on Twitch.
However, community response to game balance has been mixed. Single cards often dominate competitive play, and the development team has been slow to balance the worst offenders. They’ve taken a laid-back approach, waiting for players to adapt. Another concern is the level of randomness, sometimes rewarding luck more than skill. As luck would have it, many similar games are on the market. Whether you’re a Hearthstone player looking for a change or a complete beginner, you have choices. These are five of the best.
In March 2014, Counterplay Games launched a Kickstarter campaign for Duelyst. With a unique mix of high fantasy lore and pixel art animation, Duelyst took gamers everywhere by surprise. During the game’s month of crowdfunding, it raised over twice its $68,000 goal. While Hearthstone situationally takes card positioning into account, Duelyst is another animal entirely. In this marriage of Hearthstone and Final Fantasy Tactics, players must use their cards in both the right time and the right place.
Like Hearthstone, games are one-on-one, with a familiar mana resource system. Duelyst is split up into six factions, similar to classes in Hearthstone. Each faction has its own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to aggression vs. control. Of course, it’s not a seamless transition. Players of more “traditional” card games will have to adapt to the importance of positioning. Duelyst also introduces “generals” to the mix. These are powerful warriors that serve as the player’s avatar. When the general dies, you die. They can also enter combat themselves, so players must balance protecting the general and sending it valiantly into battle.
Duelyst saw an uptick in players from late 2015 through early 2016 when Counterplay Games sponsored several top Hearthstone players. Major streamers agreed to broadcast Duelyst gameplay to tens of thousands of viewers. While some saw this as a sell-out tactic, it brought Duelyst plenty of attention. Some streamers also continue to show interest in the game, despite the end of their sponsorships. Overall, Duelyst combines a unique art style, tactical positioning, and familiar CCG elements into a fascinating experience.
Faeria is a digital strategy game developed by Abrakam, an indie publisher out of Belgium. It’s been described as a combination of Magic: The Gathering and Settlers of Catan. Players collect “faeria” to play creatures, structures, and events on the hexagonal game board. They simultaneously make their way to the opponent’s “orb”, where they can chip away at the enemy’s life total. Whoever’s orb is destroyed first loses the game. Each turn, a player draws a card, gains three faeria and chooses one option from the “power wheel”. This lets them place any one specific “land” (a colored tile), place two neutral lands, draw an extra card, or gain an extra faeria. Unlike Hearthstone and Duelyst, Faeria is not split into separate classes or factions. Instead, players can build decks from any combination of colors they choose. The available colors are Blue (Lake), Green (Forest), Red (Mountain), Yellow (Desert), and Neutral (Prairie). Lands serve as spawn points and battlegrounds for cards of corresponding colors.
The outcome is a fast-paced and dynamic game. Large creatures can be played early, with high faeria generation per turn. Some players battle for position by controlling faeria spawn points called “wells”. Others opt to use creatures as meat shields while making their way to the opponent. Since combat is limited by proximity, stronger cards can be played more quickly to compensate. Faeria feels more like chess than Hearthstone, since players must employ multiple strategies at a time.
On the development side of things, Faeria was crowdfunded in October 2013. After the Kickstarter’s success, communication dropped off. Supporters wondered if they’d been duped. In December of 2015, Abrakam came out with an apology letter. “We have failed you,” they admitted. Faeria would not ship according to schedule. They also realized that their plans for an up-front payment model wouldn’t work: not enough players would dish out forty dollars for a new indie game. Instead, they would be moving to a hybrid pricing structure. Players could purchase the entire “core” set of cards for a flat rate. Booster packs and other content would be available for purchase with either real money or in-game currency.
Despite the tone of the letter, their outlook is hopeful. Abrakam has plans to introduce new game modes, tournament play, and card sets. They’ve also simplified the game and to make something new players will understand. Hearthstone’s greatest asset is its simplicity, so Faeria is moving in the right direction. Abrakam’s vision for a flexible and open-ended card game experience seems close to fruition. Anyone interested can buy their way into the game’s open early access or wait for its free-to-play release in late 2016.
3. Magic: The Gathering
If you’ve heard of trading card games, you owe that to Magic: The Gathering. In the early 1990s, Richard Garfield approached Wizards of the Coast and asked them to publish his board game. Unfortunately, this project was too large for the new company to take on, so they asked him to design a new, fast, and portable game instead. He agreed and returned with Magic: The Gathering, the first modern trading card game. Following its 1993 release, Magic became an instant success, inspiring an entire genre.
Some elements of Magic should be familiar to Hearthstone players. Players assemble and employ decks to lower their opponent’s health to zero. In the process, they use mana to play creatures, sorceries, artifacts, and other cards to seize control of the game. Creatures can do battle with each other in an effort to gain strategic advantage. Players collect cards and mana each turn to make increasingly powerful plays and eventually threaten the kill.
However, Magic has retained some rules that make it unique. The most obvious is mana generation. In Hearthstone, players automatically accumulate mana every turn, but in Magic, mana is created by “land” cards. One land can be played per turn, and each turn, lands may be tapped to add to a player’s mana pool. “Tapping” is another foreign concept. Several actions in Magic require a card to be tapped (turned sideways). In addition to lands, players can tap creatures to attack or other cards to activate special effects. An already-tapped creature cannot attack or block.
Since Magic was developed as a physical game, it requires more interaction. Certain cards can be played on the opponent’s turn, for one. Combat is also trickier. In Magic, rather than attacking one creature with one target, players choose every attacker at the same time. The opponent chooses which attacks they’d like to block and how the attackers match up with the blockers. The result is an in-depth combat experience, where more decisions are strategic. “The stack” is another example of Magic’s interactivity. When a player uses an effect, the physical card is placed in a pile between the players. Certain card types can be used in response and placed on top. When both players are finished responding, each effect activates in descending order.
Magic is perfect for those in search of strategy and extensive lore. While the game has a steep learning curve, there are ways for everyone to play. A large and dedicated fan base has developed around the game, and most of them are happy to help out new players. Several different competitive formats are available, and most hobby stores feature a weekly event called Friday Night Magic or “FNM”. Magic was the first of its kind, so Wizards has had more time than anyone to perfect their game.
4. Magic Duels
Since 2002, Wizards of the Coast has pushed their digital companion to the physical game, called “Magic Online”. It’s a reproduction that includes almost all the cards, various tournament modes, and competitive gameplay. However, it has mixed reception, due to its high price and clunky user interface. Furthermore, it shares the steep learning curve of “paper” Magic. New players may be put off by the knowledge and competitiveness of hardcore fans. In 2015, Wizards released Magic Duels as an alternative for new players. It’s free-to-play, it has a well-developed story mode, and the game has a cleaner look.
For those who are interested in Magic-specific gameplay and lore but are put off by its barriers to entry, Duels is a good option. Its story mode features defining moments for the Planeswalkers, a set of powerful spellcasters from Magic’s multiverse. However, Magic Duels is more than just Magic with training wheels. Even seasoned veterans appreciate the intuitive interface, as well as the sounds and visuals. A review published on Destructoid praised the game’s widespread appeal, saying “experienced players should finally have the customization and card variety they’ve been asking for.”
Of course, Magic Duels isn’t perfect. One concern is Wizards’ lack of attention to the game. It has more than its fair share of bugs, and card updates are often delayed. It’s advertised as a perfect fit for newbies, but frequent server issues have the potential to turn them off. There are also concerns with “dumbing down” the game. Experienced players complained about a bug related to player priority. Wizards responded by calling it a feature. Some even claim that Magic Duels can no longer be called Magic: The Gathering at all.
While Duels is not without its faults, it’s the simplest way for a Hearthstone player to ease into Magic. Its streamlined digital interface, online match-making, and free-to-play model are welcome. Besides, Duels is less than a year old. Perhaps a nearly twenty-five year old game with tens of thousands of cards needs some time to get the digital recipe just right. At the very least, Hearthstone and Magic players alike should keep an eye on Duels in the future.
Originally based on a popular T.V. show and manga series, Konami’s Yugioh erupted onto the competitive scene in 1999. A duel consists of using monsters, spells, and traps to take all of the opponent’s life points. While the game has become became more archetype-specific, explosive, and powerful, the central rules have gone un-changed. Konami has taken several steps to differentiate it from Magic. There is no explicit resource system: Yugioh forgoes mana in favor of restrictive rules and card text. Only one monster can be normal-summoned per turn, but additional Monsters can be played through special card effects.
There are still measures to ensure that things don’t get too out-of-control. Other games implement a “rotating” format, where only the newest cards can be used in tournament play. Instead, Yugioh outlaws only the most powerful cards. Others are limited to one or two copies per deck. If something sneaks past the development team (or a new card interacts with old cards in unpredictable ways), they’ll consider it for the Forbidden or Limited list. The result is decks and strategies that survive for years on end.
Of course, many will want to keep up with the newest cards available. Since the early days of the game, Fusion Monsters, residing in the “Extra Deck” have challenged players to create huge Monsters by alternate means. The combination of several Monsters into a huge monstrosity inspired Synchro monsters, Xyz monsters, and Pendulum monsters. All of these use the Extra Deck in new and exciting ways. With lightning-fast gameplay, abundant viable strategies, and often-cartoonish flavor, Yugioh is perfect for nostalgic hobbyists and top competitors alike.
What game is right for you? That’s for you to decide, but don’t be afraid to try something new. Have fun!