Don’t tell my boss, but for most of my life I have been a terrible negotiator. I’ve always been bad at making good trades. When I was 8, I swapped my precious Wario Land Game Boy cartridge with a friend in return for a crummy Game Boy version of Mega Man 2 that I found too difficult and which had no save function. I don’t know what I was thinking. He is now a successful house DJ, whereas I am writing this very article on spec.
Duelyst is a head-to-head turn-based battle type of situation. You collect cards, you build a deck. You use that deck online against other people. You deploy your cards – a mixture of single-use spells and summoned minions – in an effort to attack the enemy’s main character. Minions can get in the way of other minions, and it’s very much a case of setting up lines of defence and awkward traps while trying to break through those of your opponent. Get their main health down to zero and you win. Your head honcho – the hero in Hearthstone and the general in Duelyst – can often choose to pick off minions at the expense of their own health. You’re lowering the enemy’s defences, but burning up your own lifeline.
“The art is slim, subtle, and delicate.”
The cards themselves feel systemically identical to those in Hearthstone – from the attack/health/mana cost down to the special rules printed on them. Where Hearthstone cards have a ‘Battle Cry’ which activates upon deployment, or a ‘Deathrattle’ which triggers on death, Duelyst’s cards have an ‘Opening Gambit’ or the more somber ‘Dying Wish’. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen an analogue of every other Hearthstone rule in Duelyst, too, like creatures who get more powerful when other units are summoned or killed. Which is fine, because Duelyst is very different in other ways, the main one being that the action takes place on a big square plane.
This side of things is a bit like Final Fantasy Tactics, that game which everyone seems to love but is never able to communicate why, exactly. Aside from added complexity compared to Hearthstone – you’re not just trading blows, but re-positioning, chasing, evading – it makes the game a wholly different kind of spectacle. Instead of the doughy theatrics of Hearthstone cards smacking into one another, Duelyst‘s cards spark to life as beautifully animated sprites. The art is slim, subtle, and delicate – what it lacks in the you-just-want-to-peel-them-off-the-screen chunkiness of Hearthstone cards, it more than makes up for with wispy, lo-fi but hi-fi sprites which crackle with life. Think Swords and Sorcery EP.
So it has its differences to Hearthstone. But hey, if there’s one thing I’ve learned while playing these games, it’s that everything’s a trade-off. And it’s only recently that I’ve been able to tap into such a sensibility, something that is key not only to these games but to many aspects of functioning in the world at large. See, winning in turn-based games like this means you have to learn to negotiate. As a kid, I’d always lose at games like Magic: The Gathering because I had a specific endgame in mind – I’d want my cool gimmick card to set off, in a big apocalyptic finish, raining hell upon my opponent. I was so concerned with winning with pizzazz that I’d never win at all.
“Being able to identify when and how you can win in one turn is absolutely crucial.”
Hearthstone broke me out of this, I think because there are so many routes to victory, as well as that trademark Blizzard audio-visual positive reinforcement. I learned that the big flashy card isn’t necessarily what strikes the winning blow. Instead, it’s presenting your opponent with an urgent problem that they must solve. You won’t get to use the big flashy card, but its sacrifice will mean pressure applied to one area that will slacken your opponent’s grip on another. Or maybe it cost them more resources to remove the threat than it cost you to put it there in the first place. It’s give and take. The grid-based Duelyst makes that whole transaction even more apparent, as units are shuffled into position turn by turn, negotiating in the margins until one side has tipped the balance enough to put their coup into motion, and win.
Speaking of tipping the balance, Duelyst has a fantastic addition to the genre that is a blessing to any aspiring card nerd: the daily challenge. Every day, the game presents you with a new pre-set scenario and asks you to win the game in one turn. It’s a specific puzzle with a specific solution. Being able to identify when and how you can win in one turn – ‘delivering lethal’, in the parlance of both the collectible card game enthusiast and the south London drug dealer – is absolutely crucial. These overly elaborate scenarios are fun, self-contained puzzles to solve, but also do an admirable job of preparing you for the real deal, and it’s a rare example of a training regimen in a videogame that translates to online play in a useful way. The nature of these things is that victory is swift, sudden, and must come as soon as there is an opening else not at all. Duelyst is no exception, and I’ve found myself really looking forward to the daily challenges on my way home from work.
“These are the driving forces of the free-to-play schmuckonomy.”
The pricing model is identical to Hearthstone, though it feels a bit more generous. You buy packs of card with in-game currency or real money, and each pack will have at least one or two fancy cards. I always found the free-to-play nature of these things to be really curious, just because the actual game mechanics are entirely focused on the player judging the value of things. It’s a game that constantly makes you ask if playing a certain card in a certain way is a wise investment, and surely, surely the player-base applies that same mindset to how they interact with the game’s pricing model. Or maybe not. Maybe the game is riding on the coattails of the weaker players, those who trade poorly in-game and make unwise decisions outside of it too. The players who trade away bona fide Game Boy classics for questionable ports with a dead internal battery which doesn’t let you save. These are the driving forces of the free-to-play schmuckonomy.
But I’m getting better at trading smarter. Trading up, negotiating in a way that actually benefits me. Making room for a victory, and, occasionally, a big, flashy, showstopping combo. And it’s true, these card battle games have helped me get my head around the whole notion of negotiation. Spending x to gain y. Great!
Except, life, at least my life at present, isn’t built around dominating the competition. Why can’t we both win? Why, in Duelyst, in Hearthstone, in Magic: The Gathering, in Street Fighter, is the puzzle always one set by either player, for the other? Why can’t we both band together, let one another pull out our combo moves, our showstopping gimmick cards, min-max every number besides the one that denotes a total victory or defeat?
It’s something that does happen. Not often, mind – communication options are severely limited to a handful of emotes and as such players must intuit an incoming collaboration and chance upon the same brainwave. But it does happen occasionally. That rare situation where both players know that given the right circumstance, the proper plays from both parties, all those overlapping card rules will form a big stupid chain reaction. One memorable Hearthstone match ended up in a single turn where both players cards created a kind of perpetual motion machine, where cards spawned new cards which destroyed other cards which in turn spawned new cards. 5 minutes into this, the other player left. Their screen will have told them ‘Defeat’, but we both knew that this was a mutual victory over the powers that be. It’s a situation that’s yet to happen in Duelyst. It’s likely that the game’s jaw-dropping sprites and other artwork have kept us placated and the uprising at bay. Only a matter of time, I hope, until I find an ‘opponent’ who I can join forces with, the two of us picking at the seams of the rule-set, silently, dutifully, until the whole thing unravels before us. Victory!