I like Duelyst [official site], which is a surprise. The world of collectible card games is a giant skip full of broken stepladders and dirty blankets, but every so often you find a perfectly serviceable coffee table. Duelyst is my coffee table. I’ve been playing for 60+ hours, bullying my way up the ranks with questionable tactics and ugly monsters. But yesterday, at the stroke of midnight, I fought the dumbest, most spectacular multiplayer match I have ever played, not just in Duelyst, but probably any game. My trouble is: how do I explain this to someone who doesn’t fight in this sleazy free-to-play arena of monsters and microscopic maths? How do I communicate to you just how intractibly stupid this game was? Let’s try using words.
To those unfamiliar with the game itself, Duelyst is a turn-based card game in which you and another foul human face off on a rectangular board of square spaces. You each summon minions and cast spells, aiming to kill your opponent’s general. The general is a healthy but offensively weak piece, like a tank that shoots eggs instead of explosive shells. It must die.
There are many types of generals, with their own magical skills and specialties. Some of them conjure painful shards of ice from the sky, others boost their demons’ morale to make them deadlier. The general I play as is a horrible gothic woman who magicks “wraithlings” into existence. These purple monsters are tiny, delicate and weak, like rats made of glass. They sport small wings, yet are entirely flightless. One or two of these ankle-biters is no big deal. Three or four is a nuisance. Five or six is a threat. Seven or eight is a choking, clawing horde of hateful little sulphuric farts that leaves you wondering how things got so out of hand.
My whole schtick is this “Abyssian” horde. I add more and more mini-monsters to the board, then I instantly boost them with a tricksy spell, making them taller and stronger. Less like rats and more like skeletal ghouls. If the cards needed for this tactic fail to materialise, I can throw out another minion, one who gets stronger with each creature’s death. Then it’s just a matter of throwing the rats at my enemy in a suicidal rush. The more deaths, the better. My gothic general is basically a chaotic necro-fascist. She has large shoulder pads.
At midnight, I was putting her through her paces. Winning a match here, losing a match there. A kitten came into the room and jumped onto my wireless router. Last week, my girlfriend adopted this cat after finding her walking the streets of San José as a flea-infested waif. I was dubious, because it was 8am when I was first confronted with this animal and I try not to make a habit of taking Central American felines with obvious brain damage into my home. However, the cat has remained. She jumped on my mouse hand and chewed my fingers.
The game shouted for attention, and I was thrown into a fight with a hulking green beast of a general.
This is one of the Magmar boys. Their tactic is normally to summon creatures who grow in strength with each passing turn. Like any good wine, they will slowly ripen and mature and gather flavour and subtlety, until they become a relentless killer. They just need to stay alive that long. The general often pumps himself up too, working on his glutes and triceps and downing strengthening spells as if they were protein shakes swallowed in single monster gulps at the gym. My opponent had a banner under his name. I hovered over it: “100 Magmar victories,” it read.
Meaningless. I would crush him like all the other slow, plodding hulks. I moved my general forward, ready to scrap for the centre ground.
But within a few turns I could see this was no ordinary Magmar gym bro. Turn after turn he would replace cards, each time drawing a new one from his deck. His special ability wasn’t to grow in strength but to have both players draw a card – a skill I normally like in my opponent because it often benefits me as well.
Not this time. What we had here was a digger. A player who was pawing away at his deck as feverishly as any dog looking for a buried femur. All the while we danced around each other, him mustering his Cabernet Sauvignon demons and me throwing rats at them until they dissolved, useless and corked. My girlfriend’s cat chewed on the router’s power cord. My opponent replaced another card. What is he digging for?
When he found the golden femur, I didn’t even notice. It looked like any other green beast these dim-witted hulks used in a fight. I didn’t even read the explanatory text of the card. I was focused on getting the rats into fighting shape. And the battle had already become troublesome. This scaly lizard weightlifter had life-giving cards that he chomped on like cereal bars, restoring huge chunks of health. Cards that dispelled my magical death-feasters. Minions with irritating forcefields that blocked the first attack they received. It was a deck built to frustrate. So when the Slithar Elder came out, I didn’t alter course. I kept picking up rats and throwing them into the fire, like a disgruntled sewer worker. Come at me bro, I’ve got glass rodents!
This is what it says on the card he played.
“At the end of your turn, summon a Slithar Elder Egg nearby.”
This is an expensive but dangerous card and I completely overlooked it. Basically, a lot of Magmar's green beasts, including this solid nightmare, have a “rebirth” skill. That means they turn into eggs when they die (green, pulsating, repulsive), and unless the egg itself is destroyed, the whole monster comes roaring back to life at the start of Mr Motivator’s turn. Normally, this isn’t too much of a problem. The eggs don’t attack back, and they’re so feeble and squishy that even my wraith-rats can slap one dead in a single blow without suffering a scratch. But this Slithar Elder – he laid new eggs. And those Elders, once hatched, laid their own eggs. By the time there was five of them on the board, I had realised my error. These scumbags reproduced exponentially.
I had some hope still. The cards I needed had shown up, little glinting jewels in my mucky, rat-haired hands. The wraithlings had become the ghoulish jerks I needed them to be – five times as powerful than they normally were, and swarming over the board in huge numbers thanks to some more fetid necromancy I’d been doing in the meantime. In previous games, whenever I reached this stage I invariably won due to numbers and well-rounded strength. I may have been hurt and backed into a corner, but I wasn’t beaten. Our dancing had landed us on opposite sides than each of us started on, full reversal, and we’d both come close to death a few times already, and both scraped back our dignity and health. Despite it all, I felt confident. Look how many ghoulish shitbags I’ve got!
But bad things happen to good rat mums. Two bad things, in particular.
Bad thing the first:
This ridiculous monster came onto the field.
This is a sphinx who introduces a "riddle". A small, itchy spell that stops you from replacing cards as long as you hold it. Essentially, this is like a tax you have to pay at the start of a turn. If I wanted to stick my hand into my bag of slimy monsters to get something fresh and goopy, I needed to pay the riddle tithe. But when you play the riddle it doesn’t disappear. Oh no. It just goes into your enemy’s hand, hot potato style. This riddle would plague both generals for the rest of the match, the pair of us serving it back and forth like the world’s worst tennis ball. Like a tennis ball, if a tennis ball could mug you.
Bad thing the second:
If my rat factory had a heart, it was that little girl up there with the hula hoop in the centre of it all. Every time something died, she made a new rat. Which I then turned into a bigger, deadlier ratman. She was a beautiful team player. Until that weightlifting murderer turned her into an egg.
My opponent killed this egg with dark magick, while his fertile Elders continued to poop out their own leathery young, through invisible ovipositors, and all of them probably on steroids, the shameless killers. With my rat nanny dead and buried, I was in a bad place. Many of my best cards had been played. The riddle with no answer passed back and forth. My girlfriend’s cat knocked over the wireless router and climbed into a tiny drawer, where she became stuck and had to be rescued, for the second time in two weeks.
I had one last hope: a blue flaming jackass called a Shadowatcher. This guy also thrives on death, becoming stronger with every disintegrating cadaver. He was right next to the enemy general and had seen so many deaths that he was ludicrously strong. Imagine a clay brick that gets heavier with every window it smashes. That’s the Shadowatcher. He was now less a brick and more of a skyscraper.
But he was also surrounded.
The egg bros tore him apart like he was a tub of whey protein. I now had seven cards left in my deck. The game turned. Eggs were laid, and eggs hatched.
You can’t speak to your opponent in Duelyst, apart from barking some pre-made text like “GLHF” or “Well played”. Partly this is because the developers want to avoid toxic behaviour - bratty foes slinging swearwords as well as rodents at each other. But you can make little faces at your counterpart. I often made this face.
I now had zero cards and no room to manoeuvre. My only ally was a dog-like creature that I couldn’t even control called a “Gor”. I was surrounded by detestable throbbing eggs. And my girlfriend’s cat, now free of her drawer prison, was viciously biting my ankles. So this is what it feels like, I thought. This is what it feels like to face the horde.
“Well played,” I said, as I passed back the fucking riddle. “Well played.”
I died in two blows. And thus ended the dumbest, strangest multiplayer match I have ever endured. I was proud, because I had defended myself until there was only a single space left on the board, until neither player had any cards left. It had been a brutal back and forth – the longest game I’d played in all my time with Duelyst, but also the most bizarre, with the most pleasingly overwhelming finale.
I turned off the computer and finally went to bed.
My girlfriend’s cat lay in the corner, like a sleeping wraithling.