Back in 2014, as every major publisher in the industry was clamouring to figure a way to stuff microtransactions into their games (a trend that seems to have curbed itself but has in no way subsided), Blizzard appeared out of the vasty blue with a free-to-play card game called Hearthstone.
They swore up and down that it would deliver a fun, challenging experience that wouldn’t require a dime to remain competitive, a notion that many turned up their noses at, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t precisely what Blizzard delivered in the end. Hearthstone is nothing short of the finest example of a free-to-play game done right.
I mention this only because Duelyst, a free-to-play strategy deck-building game from the team at Counterplay Games, seems to have copied its entire business model and much of its gameplay from Blizzard’s towering example of pro-consumer, pro-player design rather shamelessly. But you know what they say: if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. A motto that Duelyst has happily taken to heart.
Duelyst, as its name implies, is a one-on-one game of combat between powerful heroes summoning armies to do battle for them. Your minions, spells and artifacts all appear from a 4- card deck you draw from at the beginning of each round and play in whatever order you choose, provided you have the mana to spend. Each round you gain one mana, allowing you to cast more powerful spells and creatures in increasingly complex combinations until one player’s hero does enough damage to the other to end the game.
If that sounds familiar it’s because I just described Hearthstone, and if the comparison stopped there you could accuse Counterplay of being an also-ran, nipping at Blizzard’s heels in an attempt to cash in on their runaway success. But there’s a thoughtfulness to Duelyst that goes beyond mere imitation. In fact, Duelyst‘s central diverging point, a grid-based battlefield on which your minions are summoned to do turn-based combat, shakes up the formula that Hearthstone has established so much that it almost qualifies it as an entirely unrelated experience. Almost.
Once you have played a minion to the board, you are allowed one movement and one attack with each minion played on the previous turn as well as your hero who acts as the anchor for your constantly changing army. This rhythm is broken up by a myriad of natural abilities and spells that allow minions to take actions on the turn they’re summoned, appear anywhere on the board, buff each other or your hero, summon additional creatures, gain immunity to certain types of damage, help you draw cards, provoke enemies into attacking them, and much, much more. So numerous are the possibilities that your best chance at developing a winning strategy lies in selecting a hero that fits your natural playstyle then build a customised deck that maximises their natural advantages.
My only complaint with Duelyst‘s gameplay is that it seems to be optimised for a touch interface and yet is only available on PC and Mac at the moment. During the tutorial, you’re taught to drag characters and icons about the screen but I found this option to be gummy and imprecise, leading to multiple misplays in my early games. I soon learned that you have the option to merely click on each space instead of dragging which totally eliminated these errors and really should have been the defacto point of education for PC and Mac.
There are six factions to choose from: The Lyonar, who focus on defense and healing; Songhai, the most mobile and aggressive of the bunch; Vetruvina, who rely on powerful abilities and high adaptability to win their fights; Abyssian, who can neutralise threats and swarm their enemies; Magmar, who rely on overwhelming power; or the Vanar, with their cunning and trickery used to hedge their opponents in.
Each faction has two unlockable heroes with a unique bloodborn (I know) spell that can be activated for one mana every few rounds to help turn the tide of battle. They also have a unique set of spells, minions, and artifacts that can be used only by their respective factions in addition to the neutral minions that can be placed in any faction’s deck. Another conceit brought over from Hearthstone that works well here.
In order to strengthen your decks, you purchase blind booster packs known as spirit orbs that contain five cards in total with at least one of those cards being rare quality or better. For the purposes of this review, I was given a cache of 40 spirit orbs which I never used as I wanted to test the viability of Duelyst‘s free-to-play model. I am happy to report that, without spending a single red cent, I was able to remain competitive with players in the lower ranks of the season ladder. Duelyst also follows Hearthstone‘s lead by offering daily quests that allow you to complete simple tasks to earn enough gold to buy a new booster every day or so. Had I simply played my way into it, the 40 spirit orbs that Counterplay gave me would have probably come in a little over a month of playing through daily quests and earning rewards. Not bad at all.
There’s also a crafting system that works just like… well, I’ll let you figure that one out. You can disassemble duplicates and underutilised cards in order to build better ones that will assist your general strategy.
After completing the tutorial (which does a capable if not entirely complete job of explaining the mechanics to you) your main avenue of play will come through the season ladder which will have you climbing the ranks, competing with players at your current division level (from bronze to s-rank) until you reach the height of your capabilities. There’s even a place to watch replays of the current top matches in each division to help you understand how other players are strategising. Practice and solo challenges are your single player avenues for honing your decks and learning advanced mechanics. Finally, you have the gauntlet, which is a draft mode where you choose a faction and draft a deck on the fly from a series of random card choices before competing in a series of 12 matches without losing three. I don’t have to bring up Hearthstone anymore, right?
One avenue where all of this stumbles is a problem endemic to online strategy games. Balancing is always the most difficult task that a developer faces and in order to keep the game fun they have to be fast and aggressive when one faction, card, or playstyle becomes so dominant that it threatens to overtake the metagame. As of this writing, I’ve been faced with a far too many Magmar players in the ladder; a sign that some of their cards are in need of a light nerf. Based on what I’ve seen on the forums, though, Counterplay seems to be taking these concerns seriously and I’ve already seen a patch in the last few days that has increased the mana cost of a particularly overpowered card so things are looking good on that front.
From a presentation standpoint, Duelyst is beautiful in its relative simplicity, though a bit thematically confusing. The menus and faction heroes all have beautiful, hand drawn art assets while the actual in-game models are ugly, under-animated pixel sprites that seem lost for their size against the painted backgrounds. The whole aesthetic is indicative of a flowing fantasy epic and the bits of lore that can be found in the codex (voiced by a man giving the narrator in Bastion a run for his money) are better written than they have any right to be. Yet, when you enter a match the faction names are called out by the ringside announcer from Street Fighter 2. Each individual element runs the gamut from decent to great, but it all struggles to retain any thematic consistency which can be jarring at times – though by no means a distraction from the excellent gameplay.
So Duelyst is an excellent, excellent addition to the free-to-play market that takes its players and consumers very seriously and rewards them both with an entertaining and challenging experience at every level of play. I’m certain I will be visiting the world of Mythron again in the future, especially if Counterplay makes good on their plans for a mobile version in the future.