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Card Game Meets Turn-Based Strategy Coated with Pixel Art

Markus Rohringer | Posted: May 31, 2016 9:00 AM
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For a change, let’s start with a challenge: Can you find any article about digital CCGs (collectible card games) that doesn’t mention Hearthstone at least once? See, I already did it myself. However, even if you are not the biggest fan of Blizzard’s successful game, it is hard to neglect how much it opened the door for a new generation of great digital card games. One of those is Duelyst, a Kickstarter-funded little gem that is so much more than just a CCG. Turn-based strategy is the actual heart of the gameplay, and therefore any comparison to pure card games would be insufficient. Yet Counterplay Games, developer of Duelyst, manages to pick up players from competing games easily by offering similar accessibility, means of progression and game modes that made Hearthstone so successful.

Three quick tutorials show you the basics of the game and it immediately conjures associations with the classics of turn-based strategy, like Heroes of Might and Magic or Final Fantasy Tactics. On a chessboard-like battlefield each commander starts at one side of the board. Via playing your cards you can summon your units, cast spells or equip your commander with artifacts. The target is to reduce the health of the opposing general to zero before your own dies. While this sounds quite familiar from typical card games, here your general is in the middle of the battle and acts like any other unit. In each turn you can move and attack, but movement is usually rather slow, therefore good positioning matters a lot. There are for example three mana orbs distributed over the field. As soon as a unit reaches them, the controlling player gets an additional mana for that round. They are always positioned in the same way, so that the player who goes second reaches the first one easier and has a mana bonus – a very good catch up mechanic, not unlike the one in Hearthstone.

Speaking of mana, Duelyst is pretty much walking on the beaten track when it comes to the mechanics of the card game aspect. Your cards cost different amounts of mana, of which you get one more every round. From your starting hand of five cards you can replace up to two, to give you the best possible start. To decrease randomness even further, each round you draw a card but also can replace one card and will get a different one. Obviously there are a lot of different card abilities that enrich the gameplay with variety. Some cards for example have “Provoke”, which forces neighboring units to attack the provoking unit first, before they can move or attack any other minion or general. Or they might be “Ranged” and can attack any unit on the battlefield.  A lot of these keywords have similar counterparts in other card games, but the battlefield almost always gives them a new dimension or twist.

Let’s zoom out of the battle gameplay and have a look at the game crafted around the battles. Here it is just impossible to ignore the inspiration from Hearthstone. You basically get the full package of ongoing motivation. There is the ranked ladder system that resets every month and while the player base is not the biggest, matchmaking was always astonishingly fast for me – it might change at higher ranks. Alternatively you can play the Gauntlet mode, which is the equivalent to the Arena. You have to choose between three random factions and then build a deck on the fly by picking from random cards. The more wins you collect, the higher the reward will be in the end, but after three losses your Gauntlet run is over. A nice bonus: After seven wins you automatically win a ticket for another Gauntlet try.

What is missing though is some sort of casual or unranked mode to play online without worrying about losing ranks. On the other hand, the Solo Challenges are a great addition. You are going through a considerable amount of puzzles, often requiring you to win the game within one round in a given constellation. They are not only rewarding you with gold, but also challenging you mentally and teaching you great combinations and comeback moves.

In general Duelyst is more generous in giving you rewards than competing games. While a pack of five cards costs 100 gold like in Hearthstone, you collect the gold much easier. You get rewarded for the first win each day, for two wins in a row and so on. There are also daily quests and they are usually not dependent on winning games, you simply have to play a certain amount. Therefore there is no frustration or feeling of wasted time if you lose a couple of times in a row. Furthermore, while the rarity system is the same as in Hearthstone, you get rare cards much more frequently. In the case that you want specific cards, you can of course also disenchant dispensable cards to gain the spirit needed for crafting new ones.

I was mentioning wasted time before. I cannot emphasize enough how surprisingly fast paced this game is. After playing Scrolls for a while, which has a similar concept of mixing card game elements with a board game, but had the problem of being too slow, I thought this wouldn’t be possible. Duelyst proved me wrong, as almost no game takes longer than 5 to 10 minutes, while still offering tactical depth. If there is any dealbreaker that could repel some potential player, then it would be the visual style. All cards (and therefore also units) are animated in pixel art, which gives the game a very distinctive look, but personally it wouldn’t be my first choice.

To add more variety there are of course different factions. You can choose between six of them and each is coming with two different generals for now. As every general has a distinct spell that it can use with a certain cooldown, the choice can matter quite a lot. Each faction has also its own cards which you can mix with cards from a neutral card pool.  Currently there are over 350 different cards available, but apparently the deck variety could be bigger. I am not long enough in the game to judge the meta accurately myself, but among the criticism that I found within the community, one point was that the competitive deck choices are still limited. Also some neutral cards are strong enough to make many decks, making them therefore more similar to each other. The balancing is still an ongoing process and the developers are not shy of card changes, which happen at the end of each month, where there are also always a few new cards added. In the future even bigger card expansions will await us.

GAMEPLAY: 9 | Counterplay Games created a great mix of card game mechanics and turn-based strategy. Everything blends in nicely: The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Especially providing a fast pace in combination with tactical depth is a big accomplishment by the developers.

VISUALS AND SOUND: 7 | This is a very subjective one. While many players will absolutely dig the pixel art style, it might be a reason for Duelyst not gaining the popularity it would deserve. Personally, I think that it doesn’t fit entirely to the beautiful art style of the UI and battlefield backgrounds, but many would disagree and honestly I care more about the gameplay after all. The sound doesn’t stand out too much and simply provides an atmospheric background.

POLISH: 8 | While the game has already been in beta for quite a while, it was released officially only recently. After some rather influential changes over the last months there is a feeling that the game is still in flux, even though it seems to have found itself now for the most part. In terms of UI and clarity Duelyst makes a surprisingly slick impression for an indie game. I also didn’t run into any noticeable bug. There is however one absolute no go: The installer doesn’t let you chose where to install but instead automatically installs the game in some dubious folders on the system partition. SSD owners are screaming in pain! At the latest with a future Steam release this will be gone.

LONGEVITY: 9 | Despite the lack of an unranked mode, Duelyst already offers everything that is necessary for long term motivation. Future game modes and more deck variety will only add to that. The gameplay itself offers enough tactical possibilities to not get boring even after a series of matches, and the typical “one more” effect kicks in faster than one might wish for.

VALUE: 9 | There will always be a value discussion when it comes to free to play. However, compared to any similar game, it can’t get much fairer than in Duelyst. You basically get gold for almost everything, either by simply playing and doing your quests (without the necessity to actually win) or by winning. The spirit orb (booster pack) supply therefore is pretty high and seldom cards are easier to get than in most other games. Of course it remains to be seen how future expansions will be monetized.

  • Deep Lore
  • Excellent tactical battles
  • Highly replayable
  • Solo Challenges
  • Lack of unranked mode
  • Pixel art is divisive


Markus Rohringer