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Wot I Think: Shadowverse

A fun mess after seven expansions

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The crappiest common cards in Shadowverse look better than the best legendary cards in most of the collectible card games I’ve played, so you can imagine what Shadowverse’s legendaries look like. They are stupidly, irresponsibly beautiful. Dragons with uncountable glistening scales, angels clad in impossibly pearlescent metal, musclebound demons flanked by swirling tongues of raven-black flame, to say nothing of all the hunky anime boys and cute anime girls. The legendaries are also stupidly, irresponsibly powerful, which pretty much sums the whole game up. Shadowverse is a game of extremes – sometimes great, sometimes not-so-great, but always a spectacle.

The basics will feel familiar if you’ve played Hearthstone or any of its distant relatives: two players fight by placing units, represented by cards, on a board and directing them to attack the enemy player or their units. Shadowverse introduces a few subtle differences to this formula. You only have 20 life, for example, and you build 40-card decks with up to three copies of any individual card. If you’ve played any CCG in the past four years, you’ll pick up on all this in less time than it took me to write this paragraph. So what makes Shadowverse stand out? The answer: evolution.

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Once you reach turn five, you can Evolve your minions. Evolving a minion ups its attack and defense by one or two and gives it Rush, letting it attack enemy minions the turn it’s played. There are also Evolve-specific effects that summon other minions or deal damage, which are important when rationing your evolution points. Each Evolve costs one evolution point, and you only get two points if you go first. If you go second, you get three points and you get to Evolve on turn four. Apart from a few situational cards (and one busted legendary), there’s no way to replenish your points, and make no mistake, they are the most important resource you have. Your mana count, the number of cards in your hand, even how much health you have – nothing compares to the importance of spending your evolution points wisely.

There is a palpable change in atmosphere when turns four and five roll around. The words “Can Evolve” flash across your screen and all of a sudden you’re playing a game of chicken. You can’t afford to Evolve recklessly, and neither can your opponent, so you wait. And wait. It could take one turn, it could take five. Eventually, inevitably, somebody will blink and it will all go to hell. The first Evolve of the match turns your quiet game of chicken into a horse race. You spend the first few turns conserving your energy and sizing each other up, but once you round that final turn, you both break and dump all your energy into gaining even a few inches of ground.

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It might not sound like much, but buffing a minion and giving it Rush is a board-flip moment, and there are at least five of those moments in almost every game. Let’s say we both have two 3/3 minions on the board. I play another 3/3 and Evolve it, turning it into a 5/5 with Rush. Let’s also say my 5/5 deals three damage to an enemy minion when it Evolves. I use its ability to kill one of your minions, then I run it into your other one. Now I’ve got two 3/3s and a 5/2, and you’ve got nothing. Zip. Nada. A few seconds ago we were dead even, and now, because of one card, you’re hopelessly behind. Or are you? If you’ve got evolution points, you can easily do the same thing to me: Evolve a minion, use its ability to kill my 5/2, and run it into one of my 3/3s. Or you may well have something even nastier in store. Now you’re ahead, and I probably need to Evolve again to come back.

That’s the power of evolution. It’s a smart catch-up mechanism that helps prevent one-sided blowouts, and it’s a precious resource that makes for flashy and exhilarating showdowns. Duking it out Darwin-style is even better since Evolved minions get new, upgraded art. Some are just mirrored and slightly gussied up versions, but most cards receive dramatic upgrades. I especially like the ones that tell a little story – a coy vampire flashes her fangs, a knight unsheathes her sword, a villager turns into a werewolf. It’s a nice touch that really sells the power spike.

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What and when you Evolve has a tremendous impact on your odds of winning, but you start planning your strategy well before turns four and five, and the bulk of your strategy comes down to your choice of class. There are eight in all, and each has a cool aesthetic, a central theme, and often some sort of ability that gives your cards powerful bonuses.

Bloodcraft, for example, is all about dealing damage to yourself to trigger Vengeance, a power-up that kicks in when you have 10 or less health. Vengeance gives minions abilities like Bane (Poisonous) and Drain (Lifesteal), and causes some spells to summon bat tokens on top of their usual effects. Similarly, Shadowcraft loves to kill its own creatures to generate Shadows which fuel Necromancy effects. Forestcraft focuses on generating fairy tokens and using them as fodder for cards that get stronger when you play several cards in a turn. Swordcraft makes lots of dudes and buffs them up, Runecraft builds souped-up spells, and Dragoncraft ramps its mana to play big ol’ dragons.

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The newest class, Portalcraft, shuffles powerful Artifacts into your deck and uses other cards to pull them back out. Portalcraft also has Resonance, which buffs your cards while your deck has an even number of cards left in it. Portalcraft’s Artifacts are cool, but navigating Resonance is the best part of the class. It relies on a lot of weird mental arithmetic. Will I need Resonance active next turn? If so, can I afford to draw cards this turn? Should I put artifacts into my deck after I draw cards or before? And so on. It’s a delight to play.

Shadowverse is seven expansions deep at this point, and newer cards have helped make classes less linear by adding alternate ways to play them, sort of like unofficial subclasses. My favorite class, Havencraft, comes in two main flavors. Traditionally, it deals with permanent spells called amulets, which take up a board slot but aren’t actually minions. Most amulets have countdowns, meaning once the necessary number of turns pass, their timer hits zero and their effect activates, destroying the amulet. An amulet might draw you cards, kill a random enemy minion or, most importantly and most commonly, summon a minion, usually one that’s way above the stat line for the amulet’s mana cost. Amulets also cost time, so it’s only natural that the minions that pop out would be bigger.

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So, what, a class about waiting? Yawn. Well here’s the second-act twist: using normal minions, spells and even other amulets, you can manipulate your countdowns. Rather than waiting, Havencraft is all about setting up explosive turns by building up multiple amulets and triggering them all at once. If I play a three-count amulet on turn one, I want to play a two-count amulet on turn two so they line up for a big push. Or I could play a four-count and reduce its timer by two on my next turn, or I could play it slow and pocket my amulets to prioritize minions which only work while I’m holding two or more amulets. Havencraft is inherently about games within games, and I can’t get enough of the wonky foresight it revolves around.

Of course, that’s assuming I’m playing an amulet-based deck. But if I’m playing what I’ve termed vampire Havencraft, a surprisingly vicious variant that damages the opponent whenever I recover health, I’m going to play more aggressively. Likewise, while I would normally generate a bunch of spells and buff them when playing Runecraft, I could instead focus on playing earth amulets and sacrificing them for bonus effects via Earth Rite. There are different sides to most classes, which helps break the usual aggro, control and mid-range molds.

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But while Shadowverse’s classes play differently and feel firmly defined, their individuality is undermined by how rigidly and predictably cards are balanced. There are bronze, silver, gold and legendary cards, and higher-rank cards are better in every conceivable way. The optimal cards are basically laid out for me, so no matter what class I played, I felt forced to play as many golds and legendaries as possible, which limits the strategy of building a deck.

Legendaries are the worst offenders. It’s pretty telling that AI bosses play the same decks, but at higher levels they’re just stacked with legendaries. No, an all-legendary deck is not optimal, but the fact that an all-legendary deck works at all, especially in the hands of such astoundingly stupid AI, says a lot about how Shadowverse distributes power. For all intents and purposes, legendaries are the capitalist one percent. I hate the burst damage they provide more than anything. Remember, you have 20 maximum health. There are several legendaries capable of dealing six, seven, or even 10 damage out of absolutely nowhere. Here’s an analogy for you Hearthstone fans: imagine if Pyroblast dealt 15 damage. Yeah.

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One thing Hearthstone has always done pretty well is offer great cards at every rarity. You’ve got dozens of workaday commons that earn their keep, a comparable amount of viable rares, a few handfuls of strong epics, and a couple of standout legendaries. Shadowverse is basically the total opposite. You need lots of gold cards to even compete, and nearly every legendary is so absurd that you’d be a fool not to play it. The worst part is that you can run three copies of every card, including legendaries. Coupled with the stingy crafting system, this makes top-tier lists untenably expensive. Without spending real money, and without sacrificing the basics of my collection, I was barely able to craft five legendaries after 30 hours of play, and that’s with new player bonuses backing me up. That’s not even enough for one top-tier deck.

There are a few silver linings. Shadowverse gives out more free packs than most of the card games I’ve played, and packs come with eight cards, which is nice. There’s also a visual novel-style story mode for each class, and completing one yields a decent chunk of change you can use to kickstart your crafting. And you only need to worry about crafting cards from the five most recent sets if you play the Standard format rather than Unlimited. I can’t recommend Standard strongly enough, not just because it’s the cheaper way to play, but also because Shadowverse’s newer sets are strictly better than the ones which have rotated out of Standard.

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Then there’s always the poor man’s card pack: Take Two, Shadowverse’s answer to Hearthstone’s Arena mode. Take Two quickly became my favorite way to play because it guarantees equal access to the best cards, which is especially valuable in a game where decks can cost you a kidney. It’s also a fun limited mode in its own right. Like most modern CCG drafts, you build a 30-card deck from random choices. The catch is that you pick between two pairs of cards each round. So, you can take cards A and B or C and D. It’s a small and seemingly arbitrary change – what if Hearthstone Arena, but twice – but drafting two cards at once does make you approach choices differently. Sometimes it’s worth it to eat a bad card if the other card in the pair is exactly what you need.

That’s quite a few bandaids, but they can’t fix the gaping wound that is Shadowverse’s imbalanced card economy. That said, it isn’t enough to outright ruin the game. It’s a mess, but it’s a fun mess, like 52 pickup. It’s got the prettiest rectangles I’ve ever done seen, the back and forth of evolving makes every match exciting, and despite its faults Shadowverse can still produce the highs that keep me coming back to card games. My latest match was textbook CCG fun: I managed to barely scrape by in an unfavorable matchup, only to win at one health on the back of a few lucky top-decks on my end and two weak evolutions from my opponent. In that brief moment, I was over the moon about Shadowverse, and sometimes that’s enough.

Shadowverse is out now on Windows and MacOSX via Steam and is free-to-play.

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