Opinion on Duelyst (brother of Scrolls, the prodigy child of two genres)

Look at them pretty colors!

Look at them pretty colors! The official site calls it ‘Tactical Turn-Based Strategy Multiplayer Game’. I prefer Multiplayer Turn-Based Strategy Collectible Card Game’. Brother of Scrolls and Hero Academy. Closed-beta accessed. Great at parties.

Introduction

As I’ve said, Duelyst is a TT-BSMG (nice name, by the way), a hybrid between Hearthstone and Heroes of Might and Magic, otherwise a game whose launcher got me hyped. There’s this rich tree with burning, slightly unsaturated, pink leaves. The contrast between colors, between the theme of the background and the theme of the ‘Launch’ button – HYPE. The loading screen shows a mage gazing into the distance as imposing obelisks materialize while the game loads. The art team did a terrific job –  the contrast between modern-ish elements, such as the usage of hexagons or figures which resemble genetic code; and fantasy elements, such as grand temples and mystique landscapes. The depth of the contrast is empowered by the color pallet and by the artistic choice which, I feel, defines the whole visual experience: highquality effects combined with pixel art. Hype!!!

The game is currently in closed beta, and since I was fortunate enough to get a key, and the game feels me with excitement even before getting into the actual gameplay, it was clear – this is the one game I have to write about. The tutorials are well made. You can pick up the game with ease. All 23 tutorials are categorized by difficulty: basic, novice, medium, expert. Interestingly enough, I believe the difficulty refers to the understanding of the mechanics presented, rather than the actual difficulty of the challenge, which can be easy,medium or hard. Before getting into it, however, what is the game about?

There are two players. Each has a deck of 40 cards they have made before the game. The deck is build out of minions, or creatures you play on the board, spells and artifacts, the latter being equipped by your general. When the game starts, you are either the first to start, or the second. If you are the first, you gain 2 mana (3, if you are second) – you gain plus one maximum mana each turn, and all your mana points are given at the beginning of your turn, as opposed to games like Magic the Gathering where you have to consume cards for building mana. Each player has already on the board a general, they have 2 attack and 25 health – the player whose general dies loses.

Every turn you can play cards. All cards consume a certain amount of mana. You can have only 6 cards in your hand. At the end of each turn you draw 2 cards. This is a very interesting element – you draw two cards instead of one, unlike other card games, and your hand cannot hold more than 6 cards (otherwise you no longer draw). This increases the tempo of the game (alongside the fact that you start with 2/3 mana, not 1). As well, it encourages active usage of cards, which means that you won’t be able to pull off the greatest OTK (one turn kill) combo since the witch trials. The fact that you draw at the end of the turn means that you are allowed to come up with strategies even before your actual turn, which also adds to the speed of the game.

Most creatures are summoned only near other minions or near your general, meaning that most of the time you won’t be able to summon minions straight into the enemy groups. It also encourages cornering the enemy so they won’t be able to summon – effective strategy, history-proven. The rest is typical turn-based square-based combat – except for bonus effects each card may have, such as being able to attack from range, or gaining +1 attack and +1 health whenever a minion dies and other gimmicks.

Back to the Game Experience

Every tutorial was meant to teach me about a certain mechanic. I was supposed to kill the enemy general in one turn with the given board. I had to hover over every minion and spell to learn about what different effects do, and was put in the perfect scenario to use my understanding of the quickly-grasped concepts. Certain minions and spells, however, had absolutely nothing to do with the goal. They either were meant as distractions, so the player will try to interact with them, which was a false lead, or they were meant to be there to both teach the player the mechanics the cards have to offer and the consequences of choice. Most of the time I found myself doing the right thing, but in the wrong play-order, which had a massive impact. Other times I managed to finish the enemy general and still had minions I hadn’t used, or spells in hand – which made me think if the tutorial-designers made a mistake, or it was deliberate so the player will use the wrong tactic. Or maybe it was just left there for the player to experiment?

As I finished all medium tutorials and got a hang of the 6 factions, I took a look around what the game had to offer in the other menus. You can buy spirit orbs, either with 100 in-game gold or with real money. Each orb contains 5 cards. Each card has a rarity, and can be made into Spirit, currency used for crafting cards. Does it sound familiar? It should – because it is exactly as Hearthstone. Some values have been tweaked, but apart from that, it is exactly the same collect/craft/buy system. The main difference is that the maximum number of cards in a deck is 3 instead of 2, and there are no special collectible versions – no golden beauties which show either how much you spent into the game or how much obsessed you are. You can also get cards by playing enough games with each faction, in order to reach level 10 for each.

Crafting Gallery

There are also 3 game modes, apart from the tutorials. There is ranked ladder, which is self-explanatory. There is Gauntlet, which is 100% Hearthstone’s Arena and there is a practice mode, in which you play as both generals. If you plan to improve your skill in the sandbox, good luck. Unlike chess in which you can improve yourself by seeing how different tactics interact, or even unlike Heroes of Might and Magic where you have approximate knowledge of what spells the opponent has, in this game a big part of the strategy is knowing how to deal with the hand you have currently, and guessing what sort of cards the opponent has, case in which you have to be prepared for anything. The Sandbox, however, is a great place to test out certain decks or certain gimmicks before heading out into the ranked ladder with them.

My first game against a player was glorious. I was playing as the Abyssian Host, a dark-themed faction, all about casting death and controlling the enemy one way or another. That, and summoning small things which also die. I was cornering my enemy with my lil’ one-one’s, whilst an unholy creature I just conjured was feeding upon their deaths. Weaving her staff, the general summoned more, and as the swarm grew larger, the enemy was consumed. As the swarm was cut through, deadly conjurers away from the front line casted their magics and made the opponent regret killing those lil’ wraithlings children. I felt more of a swarm-leader than I’ve ever felt playing as zergs in Starcraft. Generally, I prefer to play a minion master archetype – it gives the impression that you are stronger than you really are, because of the visual impact; it lets you achieve indirect control of areas, or of the enemies, because of the tokens you strategically move. All your minions are disposable, so they are basically tools which allow you to impose your presence on a wider range. This is why I love playing Yorick and Azir in League of Legends, or why I am a necromancer and illusionist lover.

As I was spamming my goddamn army of wraithlings, the opponent played their minions. ‘I believe in the power of the cards. I have faith in the heart of the cards!’ I said, as taken out of Yu-Gi-Oh. All the cards are moving by default, and when you hover your cursor over them, they also get out of the frame they are drawn in and do… something. They get a nice alive feeling to the cards, or maybe they feel animated by the power they hold. Speaking of which, let’s –

Get into Details

I am the Swarm!

There are more than 300 cards at the moment. The game is version 0.38.0, so far it seems oddly balanced (but let me get more into it and surely I will find that the meta is against me). The design of the map seems to be well polished – there are also mana springs in certain key squares which offer one bonus mana for the turn they are picked only – this adds to the balance between first and second picks. I think it does a better balance job than the coin does in Hearthstone, considering that, sometimes, in Hearthstone, certain decks (or cards) gain advantage from either being first or second. Surely, the same case is in here as well, just less obvious. The way you have to click and drag everything to they’d move then attack, or the way you cast spells can feel a little bit delayed, or even sloppy at moments, but it is not something I find obnoxious.

Let us go a little bit deeper into the game itself. It is true that the mana and crafting elements are extremely similar to Hearthstone, surely some would say even stolen. Surprisingly enough, it’s not something I am concerned about – because it does good for the game. It suits it too well to say it’s unoriginal. It adds one core strategical element: deck-building and card-playing. Unlike chess or other tactical turn-based games, the board is more dynamic. The players don’t share the same pieces, and thus decks gain the property of having strengths and weaknesses. In chess, every player shares exactly the same pieces, arranged in the same manner – only their strategies can have weak spots, not the layout itself. In Heroes of Might and Magic, or other such games with customizable pawns, an ‘army’ does have its own characteristic good points and weak points, but they are all laid out at the beginning of the game, thus both players have a clear idea of what they are facing.

Here comes the card-playing element into play. You cannot control what cards you get, you are not aware of what cards the enemy has in their deck nor hand – you can only make assumptions and be prepared for different tactics. Since you start with no board, you have to make the board yourself. However, you are limited by a certain amount of mana, thus you not only have to manage the cards you play, their order, but also the tempo of the game, because of the mana-limit. The strategy behind cards implies not being able to foresee your opponent’s move. Nor can you foresee two or three turns further like you would in chess. Heroes of Might and Magic leaves open more room for diversity, since you can move more pieces per turn and also cast spells – but the board itself is hardly controlled by them, and all the pieces, generally, remain the same.

The final element of strategy is the board play itself. While deck-building makes you play according to the set of good and weak points chosen by yourself, and the card-play adds elements of both management and intuitive play, the board play is more straight forward. Every minion on the board can be moved, surely, and they can attack, which can be foreseeable. If, somehow, magically, players run out of game-changing cards, then the one with the best strategic mind wins. There are patterns in which you can summon your minions in a way that you corner the enemy, or create a steady defense for your general, despite the stats of the creatures themselves. The way you play the board can by itself be a counter to your opponent’s card-plays, but not always.

All of these three elements interact with eachother, and it makes it easier to recognize a good player from another. There is more to the game than having an overpowered deck, or being lucky when you draw the cards. Not even mastering chess would be enough when there’s a spell which can mess with all your predictions. I personally believe that this is the right way of doing a strategy game – the designer has to allow the players to approach the game in more ways than one. People are diverse, some may have a great intuition, some may be able to memorize certain patterns and apply them in the way they play, and Duelysts makes sure that everyone can shine their way.

Ending Lines and Nice Touches

Nice touches including emotes – you cannot talk directly with your opponent, but you can talk via emotes, and the dialogue is satisfactory. It sometimes can even give you the feeling that ‘yes, indeed, it’s my victory’ when the player emotes a cute-crying face or a Well Played. Also, you can be annoying if that’s your thing. Better not be your thing.

The average tutorial

I think that the game it best resembles is Scrolls. It has a very similar formula, the only difference being that in Scrolls you have to destroy 3/5 totems behind every of the 5 lines. Your minions are put in certain squares in the line, and attack the first thing they face on the enemy’s side. It had a different take on mana as well, but that’s not something I’d talk about here. Maybe Scrolls tried too much to be more of a Magic the Gathering than Hearthstone? Maybe it’s something else regarding Mojang’s income of money and outcome available for every project. Scrolls’ servers won’t last long, so for those of you who haven’t played it, give it a try while you wait for your Duelyst beta invitation. Might be worth the wait.

All in all, the game is great. The artstyle and themes used fit the gameplay quite well. Matchmaking, so far, seem to be fair. Let us hope that it won’t be another indie to bite the dust because of financial risks or bad design. It copied what other games and genres had best to offer, so its potential is great. Now, let me dive in into another match and let my abyssian swarm consume yet another victim.

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