Friday, 7 April 2017

Eternal Card Game - Beta Impressions

I wrote an “impressions” piece last year on Dire Wolf Digital’s Elder Scrolls Legends when it entered open beta. However, it’s not been their only recent attempt at a digital card game. Eternal is just about to leave open beta at the time I write this, so I figured it's a decent time to take a look.

It only takes a quick glance to grasp what Dire Wolf are attempting with Eternal. It’s Magic: The Gathering, with a Hearthstone interface. Ever since its release, Hearthstone has resulted in numerous (usually bad) imitators and copy-cats, hoping to cash in on the free-to-play deck building craze.

Whilst a lot of these games are simply an attempt to make a quick buck on the back of a popular trend, there’s something more to be said about the number of developers working on similar games. Whilst Hearthstone is enjoyable to play, it’s not without a myriad of flaws, and already games like Elder Scrolls Legends, Duelyst and the imminent release of Gwent suggest that, whilst Blizzard might have been the vanguard for the digital card game format, they’ll not be left alone for much longer.

Eternal seeks to copy Hearthstone on the surface. Indeed, its board and overall look and feel smack of a mid-weight clone rather than a serious contender. The hokey fantasy/steampunk art style and bland monsters aren’t really much to get excited about. Visual style can go a long way to setting your game apart (look at Duelyst) and it’s something that Eternal really lacks.

It’s in the card mechanics that things get interesting though. It immediately betrays the fact that it was co-developed by several Magic: The Gathering pros, with  the card pool divided into five colours, or factions in this case. Creatures meanwhile, don’t attack one another, instead only dealing damage to the opposing player, just like in Magic, only fighting each other when the defending player declares which of their creatures is blocking what.

It’s the biggest fundamental change between Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering. Hearthstone is a game of snow-balling an ever-growing advantage, and the abundance of momentum-changing board-sweepers and dramatic swings from one player to another are in part a way to prevent one player from simply accumulating an ever-growing advantage. Magic is a game of inches by comparison, where one play for value, such as playing a combat trick on a creature, can pull the game in your favour. Eternal definitely aims for this subtler, less bombastic approach.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Eternal, coming from a Magic background, is how the developers play with the colour wheel. Time (Yellow), Justice (Green), Shadow (Purple), Primal (Blue) and Fire (Red) each have particular mechanics and overlapping strategies with the other factions, and whilst its easy to look at the five factions and see them as carbon copies of Magic’s system, it’s interesting to note where the developers have made changes.

For instance, Time is the faction of big spells and colour-fixing, allowing you to play more late-game spells as well as dip into other colours for better versatility. Shadow meanwhile, is focused on aggression, with an abundance of its creatures have the Quickdraw mechanic, allowing them to attack before any defenders.

Each of the five factions also has two “official” allied factions (again, a lot like Magic) which make up a number of additional multi-coloured cards. This is arguably where Eternal comes into its own, not necessarily because of the multi-coloured cards themselves, but because a number of the cross-faction mechanics are unique to digital card games.

For instance, Time/Primal, by far the most fun combination, has a number of cards with the ability Echo. When cards with Echo are drawn, you get an additional copy. On the surface this doesn’t look like much, but the number of combinations and tricks you can pull off in a game, repeatedly putting a card back on the top of your deck to get another two copies, is insanely fun. It rewards players for thinking creatively, is powerful (you’re drawing an additional card) and it’s something that only a digital card game can do.

The other notable ability is War Cry, the Fire/Justice crossover mechanic. Cards with War Cry buff the top card of your deck whenever they attack, creating a steady snow-balling advantage that can quickly run away with games if the opponent can’t stem the assault. Again it's a mechanic that is easy to understand, and can only exist thanks to the game's digital nature.

Some of the other abilities are decent but far less notable. Primal and Shadow get Infiltrate, where creatures receive various bonuses provided they’ve hit the opposing player once. Aegis is perhaps the most unbalanced mechanic right about now. It functions similar to Hearthstone’s Divine Shield mechanic, but rather than nullify damage, nullifies the first spell that targets the creature. At the moment it leads to what I’d easily say are the least fun moments in Eternal, creating non-interactive game states where one player suits up a creature with Aegis, sticking buffs and power-ups onto it, only to send it hurtling at the opposing player turn after turn whilst they're helpless to stop it.

Whilst on the topic of non-interactivity, it’s worth touching on the game’s resource system. For some bizarre reason, Eternal has saw fit to emulate Magic’s weakest mechanic here. Decks are made up of 75 cards (Magic would seem to have some copyright claim on 60 card decks), and almost a third of that deck will be made up of sigils of various colours.

Anyone that’s played a game of Magic knows that the worst thing in the world is being land screwed/flooded. And there’s a good reason why it’s so bad; it means you don’t get to play the game. Say all you like about unbalanced, boring or over-complicated rules and cards, they at least let you still play something. Being locked out of even playing a game due to the whims of random chance is frustrating, and the added complexity of having to craft an effective mana base, assessing the correct ratio of colours, number of sigils and so on, don’t outweigh the negatives that come with it.

Eternal is plagued by bouts of non-games, where one player basically doesn’t get to do anything for the first four turns because they get stuck on two sigils and can’t play anything. It’s miserable, and is made worse by the larger deck sizes and, more importantly, due to the games current focus on aggressive, creature-oriented play.

Right now Eternal is a fast game, very fast. Fire, Shadow, Primal and Justice all have abilities that reward attacking, be it War Cry, Infiltrate or Quickdraw. Many games are decided by who can get stick an early threat and either snowball it with War Cry triggers, or tempo the opponent out with cheap removal and evasive threats.

This isn’t a problem in itself. It’s clear from Eternal’s design that it wants games to play out fast and straight to the point. However, when combined with the dated resource system, it can make for some rather frustrating scenarios as one player is left steam-rolled as their opponent tramples them with threats and they don’t get to play anything.

One thing that Eternal does get right however, is the play modes. It’s a generous game. Even after only a handful of hours playing I had six or seven legendaries crafted, and the ability to grind away against the AI for rewards means that players who aren’t satisfied with the daily quests still have something they can do to accrue more cards.

The big addition here, alongside the Forge, which is Eternal’s version of Arena play, is the addition of draft. The game does its best to simulate drafting with other players, with the “packs” you open being packs generated from other players, even though you’re picking cards asynchronously.

This is by far the deepest and most rewarded aspect of Eternal’s gameplay. Drafting is always incredibly fun because, much like a good rogue-like game, it forces players to create strategies out of a degree of randomness. You don’t know what cards you’re going to be passed, so the best player is usually the one with an eye for smart synergies and good card value.

There’s a slight problem at the moment in that only half of the ten potential colour combinations are supported. This means that, whilst Primal/Justice is a feasible combo, it’s going to lack the powerful multi-faction cards of a Fire/Shadow or Primal/Time deck. That being said, draft is great, and one of the game elements that sets Eternal apart from the abundant competition.

Overall, in its current shape, Eternal is solid. It lacks a degree of personality, and that’s largely in part due to its bland interface and generic fantasy art. As many more digital card games inevitably get released in the future, I think this is going to be one of the areas that needs to be focused on. A game with a fun art style and unique/creative visuals goes a long way, and currently Eternal just looks forgettable. I'll say it once more, just go look at Duelyst. 

In terms of the gameplay, it certainly scratches that card game itch, and does so without feeling as chaotic and prescribed as Hearthstone frequently does. More importantly, Eternal tries its damn hardest to do something interesting with the fact that it’s a digital card game, building its mechanics around the fact that it’s played on a computer or tablet, rather than with paper cards. Better yet, it does this without sticking the word “random” on every other piece of game text.

So at the very least it's got that going for it.


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