This post is from the now defunct website “A GameDev Plays…”, copied here for posterity
There is a new hotness in online multiplayer collectible card games (CCGs), the free-to-play Duelyst. While improving on the successful tabletop formula pioneered by Magic the Gathering, this game still has some problems common to the genre.
In Duelyst the player is a general in a one-on-one duel with an opponent (either computer or another online player). The battlefield is a small rectangular grid and each minion/general can move 1 or 2 squares at a time - enough to cross the grid in a few turns. The weapons are spells (depicted as cards) that: summon minions; do damage; remove minion; create artefacts to improve the general or minions; and, provide buff/debuffs. Casting a spell is performed with mana; each spell has a mana cost associated with it that needs to be paid in order to activate it. Mana is obtained automatically. A players starts with two or three mana, any not used by the end of a turn is lost. However, at the start of the next turn the mana is regenerated and increased by one (up to a maximum).
Each general or minion has strength, health and various abilities. When a creature is hit then the attackers subtracts their strength from the defender’s health. However, the defender also automatically does the same damage back. Any creature reduced to 0 health is dead and is removed from the battlefield. The last general standing wins. Each player has a hand of cards drawn from a customisable deck. Each turn another card is drawn into the player’s hand - ready for casting. There are various generals available from six different factions with each faction supporting a particular play style. Plus tons or lore.
So far it should all sound familiar to anyone who has played other CCGs over the last 20 years. As an occasional Magic player, I understood the basics and started playing in the online competitive league within a few minutes. The game actually encourages this. However, I did not do very well, rising only three ranks - which means I won three online games as losing does not affect your ranking, at least at the lower levels (a nice touch). This is also because of another common CCG problem - collecting the cards.
At first the player has the standard set of basic cards, barely enough to play. Each game earns the player a few cards or a little gold (whether against the computer or another person). Earn enough gold and you can purchase an orb, which converts into six random cards. There are many, many cards, and often multiples are required. To get enough to be competitive involves a significant grind against stronger opponents. Stronger not necessarily in terms of skills and talent, but perhaps in terms of the depth and quality of their cards. In at least half the games I played, my opponent had clearly better cards. All but once they won with ease. How did other players of such low ranking get such good cards? Maybe they spent numerous hours grinding through games and quests. Although, they probably just paid real money for them. For a small amount of money, it is possible to get most of the cards required - this is the game’s business model. At the lower levels, Duelyst seems to be pay-to-win. Perhaps at the higher ranking everyone has all the cards so paying more money is not a great advantage, but when getting started, it definitely makes a big difference.
Having noted that large negative, it is important to say that Duelyst is actually a good game. It makes a number of improvements on the standard template. Having the mana just given to the player, rather than derived from cards played is a huge benefit over Magic. It prevents many pointless games as one or both players are unable to get the mana they require. Similarly, Duelyst removes instant spells. On your turn you play your cards and your opponent can’t play theirs. There are no interruptions with people playing over the top of each other - greatly benefiting the flow of the game.
A lesser difference to similar games is having the player’s general active and on the battlefield. This gives a greater sense of engagement as your general, your game avatar, scrambling for survival or buffed to near invincibility. Surprisingly adding movement is not a great enhancement. At first it seems nice. However, the battlefield is so small that it is daily flooded and has little impact. Most games become stand-and-fight battles of attrition (and luck with cards) rather than involving intricate manoeuvre warfare.
This is a game worth trying especially since it is free at the start. It is definitely one of the better contenders among CCGs. Maybe you will like the game enough to pay money or grind towards competitiveness. For me, the barrier is too high and I have stopped playing - I don’t have the time or money to reach a decent level.