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Wot I Think: Duelyst

"Almost everything Hearthstone does, Duelyst does better"

Duelyst is Hearthstone’s child. You can see the shared DNA everywhere, from the menu layout and free to play business model to specific minion abilities and hero powers. Almost everything Hearthstone does, however, Duelyst does better. I’ve spent years grinding away at the Hearthstone mill, but now I’ll never go back.

Duelyst does so much more by slapping on a whole other game to the tried and tested CCG formula. The goal remains the same: to kill the enemy player before they kill you. Most of the core mechanics from the genre are there, untouched – minions and spells are randomly drawn from a deck, and are played using a mana pool that increases each turn. The key difference is that in Duelyst those minions – and the player ‘General’ themselves – are played onto an actual board, where skilful positioning can often tip the scales against an opponent with a better deck.

The result is an elegant hybrid that combines deck building strategy with moment to moment tactics. Even if Counterplay Games had executed the idea sloppily – and they haven’t – it feels like a natural combination. Take ‘Provoke’ minions, for example. It’s a mechanic you’ll instantly recognise if you’ve played pretty much any CCG: minions with Provoke force other units to attack them first. In Duelyst , of course, that only applies to minions that are next to them, meaning careful positioning is needed to both employ and avoid them effectively.

At the same time as bringing new life to old ideas, the extra dimension opens up entirely new possibilities. While most minions can only be played next to a square that already has a friendly unit on it, Airdrop minions can appear anywhere. Blast minions are ranged, and can target all units in a row or column. Flying minions can move to any square on the board, while Backstab minions will do more damage and won’t be countered if they attack from behind. It’s a toolkit that, with the huge number of combinations offered by the 300+ cards currently in the game, allows players to be smart and creative in ways that the typical CCG format cannot.

That variety isn’t limited to the cards. There are 6 different factions, each with a unique cohort of minions and spells that gear them towards different playstyles. On top of that, every faction has two different Generals to choose from, each of which has their own Bloodborn Spell that’s analogous to Hearthstone’s Hero Powers. Abyssian generals summon hordes of small creatures, throwing them at the enemy while Deathwatch minions gain in power every time one of them dies. There’s a Songhai general that can teleport his minions short distances, allowing them to move in for killer backstabs. The starter Magmar general, being a dinosaur, buffs his own damage so he can tear apart anything in melee range by himself. He also lays eggs.

This is all well and good, but let me tell you about Argeon. He’s the first general the game suggests you play, and he revolves around summoning big armies with lots of high health Provoke minions. His faction, Lyonar, use Zeal minions that gain extra attack when standing next to their general. He’s less fiddly than most of the other generals, but by no means less powerful: I managed to get up to gold division on the ranked ladder without looking at online decks, which I’ve found impossible to do in Hearthstone. More importantly than that, however, is that he can sometimes end games like this.

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That's me winning the game with an emote. I love messing around with them, which are yet another idea that’s been taken and improved from Hearthstone. They’ve got more personality than Hearthstone’s voice lines, and more people use them – admittedly mostly for trolling purposes, but I have managed to get a nice dialogue going in a few matches. It’s a shame that they need to be bought with either in-game or real life money, which is better saved for card packs, though if you played at all in the beta then many of them will already be unlocked. You can also buy card backs and other cosmetics, though the pixel art is gorgeous enough as it is.

It says something about how much there is to praise that I haven’t gotten around to explaining what might be Duelyst’s best innovation of all. Once a turn, you can swap a card for another random one from your deck, which introduces yet another layer of skill without losing anything of what makes CCGs fun. Choosing which card to sacrifice, or even whether to swap one out at all, is an agonising decision that asks you to draw on knowledge from your own deck and from guesses about what’s in theirs. There’s an old principle I learnt from my Hearthstone days: you should know which cards you need to draw in order to win and play as if you’re going to draw them. When that works, you feel amazing – this doubles the chances of that happening.

Games are mostly short and fast paced, though I’ve had some which have lasted over half an hour. Even then, matches rarely feel like they’re dragging on: the games that go late are those where both generals are on low health and dance around each other, knowing that one wrong move will end it. I had a game where me and my opponent were on one health for five turns or more, where if I hadn’t played exactly as I did I’d have lost for sure. In games like that, at the moment when all the parts click into place and you manage to tease out a winning play, you feel like a genius.

At its best, Duelyst feels like an infinite puzzle game that constantly generates interesting situations, powered by the variety of cards and faction match-ups combined with the unpredictability of human opponents. Past the first couple of turns, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see the same board state twice between games. Still, there’s a big question that needs addressing. There’s no doubt that Duelyst’s skill ceiling towers above Hearthstone’s, but does that actually translate into a ranked ladder that’s possible to climb without spending countless hours (or pounds) hoarding cards?

Yes, but only up to a point. I mentioned earlier that I managed to climb to gold division (from rank 30 – 10) without netdecking. That was after only a few weeks of play with a pretty meagre card collection, and for a while I convinced myself that Duelyst had done the impossible and made a card game where decks didn’t need to be packed with legendaries to be competitive. Then I played a few games in gold, and got absolutely crushed.

I’ve heard the some people have managed to reach Diamond using just common and rare cards, and while it’s nice to know that’s technically possible, it’s a feat that’s well beyond me. Unlike Hearthstone’s maximum of one copy of each legendary card in a deck, Duelyst allows you to put in a full three. It is much more generous with its drop rate, but that doesn’t begin to make up for the power difference between newer players and those with hundreds of games under their belt. The situation isn’t helped by the ‘Seven Sister’ cards that were added a few months ago, several of which are especially powerful and can only be unlocked by crafting 3 of each rare card for their relevant faction. Frustratingly, I’m still over 3,000 spirit (a resource needed to craft cards) and many, many hours away from getting one.

In fairness, it’s a problem inherent to the genre that can’t be solved without sacrificing the long-term appeal of gradually building up a competitive card collection. Besides, it’s possible to side-step the issue by focusing on ‘Gauntlet’ mode, which is Duelyst’s take on Hearthstones Arena. Instead of playing with a pre-constructed deck, at the start of each run you draft a deck by choosing between 3 cards at a time. It costs either 150 gold or $2 to start a run, though the game’s generous enough with gold that you shouldn’t have to splash out real money. I’ve always thought that Arena was a little underappreciated in Hearthstone, so it’s nice to see that there’s a healthy community forming around Gauntlet mode. I’ve found streamers like Hsuku and Zelda are great to have on a second screen while playing, and the twitch chat is – amazingly – usually pretty friendly.

In its present state, Duelyst is fantastic, and with time it’s likely to only get better. The game’s first expansion, Denizens of Shim’zar, came out last month and introduced an entirely new unit type. ‘Battle Pets’ either pack powerful abilities or inflated base stats for their mana cost, but they’re controlled by dumb Ai that the other player can exploit. It’s a neat mechanic that shows the devs aren’t done toying with fresh ideas. While Hearthstone’s doing its best to keep up, the base game lacks the complexity that affords Duelyst the freedom to properly experiment. If you’re at all interested in card games, or even strategy games in general, you have to check this out.

Duelyst is out now for Windows and Mac and is free-to-play.

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