I’ve never been the biggest fan of collectible card games. Sure, there was a period of time where I fell into Magic the Gathering for a bit when I was a kid, but that was a freak incident. How could I have known that an innocent trip after church would become an introduction to the dark underbelly of the frozen yogurt industry? I couldn’t have. I was 10, and when you’re a curious kid being offered a free, unopened box of Magic cards from a shady looking dude with one really long pinky nail and what seemed like a cold, you fucking accept the cards with a smile or end up in the life.
You don’t want to end up in the life.
So upon personal reflection that only occurred to me while writing this article, I have been actively avoiding card games my whole life. Maybe it’s childhood scarring from meeting a shady character with a taste for frozen yogurt and blood magic. Maybe it’s from a life and death poker match against Jimmy the Fish in a room I’m pretty sure was where James Bond got his nuts whacked in Casino Royale. Or maybe it was just because mom rushed us out of the shop without any explanation and I didn’t get my Superman sorbet. That’s all I wanted, just some sorbet. Two scoops would’ve been nice, but I would’ve settled for one. Just one.
You know what helps with childhood issues and cold sweats at night? A free to play game that combines collectible card games and board game strategy with some of the most gorgeous pixel art I’ve ever seen! It’s like a 16 bit broodwich begging to be eaten. There is no refusal, only sweet submission. Just look at this Louvre-worthy animation:
If pixels make you cringe, tough shit. You’re not human and don’t deserve nice things. Fortunately for your more ‘refined’ taste, the unique gameplay is fantastic on its own. Players choose a general from one of six factions, each with their own strengths and distinct style of play. I highly recommend doing all the tutorial missions to get a general feel for the flow of the game. By the end you’ll have an understanding of the basics of play and an idea of what separates them. You will have earned starter decks for each of the factions that will allow you to ease into the online multiplayer. If you’re still unsure of which faction strikes your fancy, running through the solo challenges tasks you with skillfully using your resources to kill the opposing general in a single turn, and there’s one challenge for each general in each difficulty level. These can be really, really satisfying to complete. I’ve found myself staring at the screen reading my card descriptions trying to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do, and then aha! It feels like the sudden realization of the answer to your single question Ethics 202 exam, minus the dread of knowing it will never, ever be useful again in your life.
The best part is that it’s a card game that doesn’t feel like a card game. Sure it’s card based, but the moment you summon a minion it becomes a figure on the board. Your general isn’t just some avatar that sits on the side of the screen, he’s another piece you have to maneuver around the battlefield and utilize. Factions like Magmar and Lyonar make a point of throwing their generals into the fray, while others like the Vetruvian and Abyssian might focus on forcing their minions to give ’em the business. There’s a lot of room for experimentation and creativity available to the player.
Matches generally go like this: each player starts with a hand of cards. They’re allowed to swap out up to two cards they don’t like in hopes of getting something a bit better to start the round off, which is nice because that 10/10 Dragonbone Golem ain’t gonna do shit but stare right back at you for most of the match before it might be useful. Mana crystals are used to summon minions, cast spells, or use artifacts. Your maximum mana crystal count rises by 1 per turn up to a maximum of 9. They can move each unit up to 2 spaces, spend mana crystals on summons, and attack and defend. Turns go like this until the opposing generals hp drops to 0. Trolling emotes are not required before striking the killing blow, but are heavily encouraged. Kissy-faces are a community favorite.
It feels like a game whose sum is much greater than its individual parts. Tactical movement, smart thinking, and sometimes a clutch card draw at the perfect moment can lead to breaking concentrated, dead silence with elated screams of “YES! YES! Ahhhhhhh that was great!”, but sometimes my girlfriend is asleep on the bed behind me and I forgot because I put my headphones on, but in the excitement I tripped on the CPAP machine she got from that bogus sleep study. So I’m freaking out, trying to untie the tubes from around her throat, she’s trying to scream but all that’s coming out is a muted Darth Vader gurgle, and everything’s going to shit and I’m sorry but I couldn’t help but grin through all of it because that last play was
Just. Too. Hype.
I’ve had several of these moments so far, but my absolute favorite was a match against an Abyssian player. His deck relied on summoning large amounts of 1/1 Wraithlings to control as much of the board as possible to overwhelm me. Outside of using a ranged minion to take out some of his attackers here and there, I quickly shifted into defense mode, doing whatever I could to keep my minions between his onslaught and my general. The hp advantage was eventually in his favor 25 to 4, but by pursuing all out aggression he had left himself with maybe two cards left to play in later rounds. These kind of situations are where Duelyst shines the most. A minion with provoke in other CCG’s means that all enemies must focus their attacks onto that card until it’s dead. A properly placed minion with provoke in Duelyst means nearby minions AND generals must focus on that minion first. It’s brilliant! Because my opponent had no help to take out my Rock Pulverizer and he didn’t want to receive any damage from attacking it, he was effectively rooted in that spot on the board safely away from me until he found a way to deal with it. Over the next several rounds I was able to stay out of range and whittle him down, eventually lowering him to 2hp. He conceded the match. Winning that match was a high better than any Mr. MtG Coke-Yogurt has ever experienced.
Another plus is that I’ve been able to have good success so far without spending any cash at all. Each time you earn 100 gold you can purchase Spirit Orbs, which are essentially a pack of 5 random cards. By completing challenges, pvp matches, quests, and leveling factions, it’s not a pain to play enough to be consistently earning enough gold to steadily build your collection. Rarer cards even appear at a satisfying rate, so budget players shouldn’t feel like they’re being trounced by paying opponents. It’s mostly about smart play and using what you have at your disposal, but having better cards can give you better opportunities in the upper ranks. Should you choose to spend the dough, Orb prices are reasonable. New players are offered a one time deal of 10 Orb’s for $9.99, which normally nets you 7. There are other amounts available at $2.99, $19.99, and $49.99, with the higher prices giving slightly more Orbs than you would get by paying for the $9.99 packs several times. With 4 new cards arriving each month, the recent Denizens of Shim’Zar expansion pack, and another expansion pack scheduled for the future, there’s always something to look forward to.
Pricing for everything else is where Counterplay Games starts screwing players with an overpriced dollar shaped dildo. Emotes run from $1.99 to $3.99 apiece, while the complete set of 11 emotes for your chosen general will set you back nearly $13.00. Profile icons can set you back $2-$3, card backs $4, and general skins $8 each. In fairness, none of these things are essential. They’re there for some fun extra customization and to add some personality to matches, but it’s pretty jarring when what seems like a player friendly economy suddenly becomes so polarized. There’s a crafting system that allows you to sacrifice cards for spirit, and with enough spirit you can purchase any of the aforementioned items, but unless you really want those emotes spirit is much better spent crafting specific cards you want to build your deck with.
The most egregious offense is the stuff of nightmares. After feeling pumped about my win I was greeted with a screen informing me I earned a Mystery Crate out of nowhere. I rushed to the menu to open it. I was pumped! What magical things could be inside?
Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck what the fuck?! Instead of cool stuff, I’d earned the ability to pay $10 to buy a key to get cool stuff. I’m sure from the devs point of view they believe they’re giving us an opportunity to pay a smaller amount than what these items cost individually, but in practice it instantly swaps a great high for a cold, gut dropped feeling. What purpose does this serve? It doesn’t encourage me to buy a key, that’s for sure. It makes me want to fight the nearest bystander. Now I have a permanent icon on my home screen reminding me I have a wondrous mystery crate just waiting to be opened. I wasn’t horribly upset with the overpriced extras in the armory, but I can’t help but feel a twinge of resentment whenever I glance at that icon. Hopefully they give this some serious thought and modify it to something more sensible.
The only non-cash related bother I found was that the art can be somewhat inconsistent. The painterly stills used in menus are gorgeous, but the generals look like they were crafted in MS Paint and slapped in to meet a deadline. Their flat, cartoonish style clashes with the rest of the game. I chose to play Vetruvian general Zirix Starstrider because he was a black and gold badass with the name of a space pornstar, only to think twice about my choice when I saw how goofy his face looked in the prematch versus screen. It’s like expecting Jim Lee but getting Tex Avery. I’ve got my fingers crossed that eventually they’ll be cleaned up and receive the painted treatment.
Odd as they may be, pricing and art issues can’t derail the great combination of elements Counterplay Games have crafted. Duelyst’s unique gameplay has fostered a dedicated and very vocal fan-base that encourages others to give it a try. They’re also one of the nicest, least toxic groups I’ve ever found, and are always willing to give newbie’s advice in the official forums and on reddit. Tip – I’d recommend new players try to hold off on looking up deck builds and strategy. You’ll learn a whole lot more just by playing with what you have until you know what you want to do with your decks.
If you’ve found yourself 1900 words into this article and are still on the fence, there’s a free Humble Bundle promotion right now that gifts new accounts created on September 15th or later 20 Spirit Orbs and a cosmetic pack containing several items and a card. That’s more than a months worth of in game earnings to start with. The opportunity only lasts for just under 11 more days, so be quick. (Edit – Sale’s over, folks!)
If CCG’s mixed with strategy sounds like your thing, or even if it isn’t, give this one a shot. You can find Duelyst on Steam, download a standalone client from their homepage, or even play in your browser, with mobile coming in the future. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised. Or completely addicted, tossing and turning at night, searching for that lost scoop of Superman sorbet in a dark, endless frozen yogurt shop in your underwear with only a digital deck of cards to defend yourself.
It’s worth it.