Monday, July 9, 2018

Eternal Card Game (I—Factions & Resources)


A few weeks ago I tried out Eternal, a digital card game in the style of Hearthstone and Duelyst, and it's the only one I enjoy anywhere near as much as Magic, so I'd be remiss not to write about it. At a high level, its implementation is the closest to Magic's I've seen, differentiating itself primarily in two ways: First, it sets into action many of the "If we could re-create Magic knowing what we know now" refinements, and second, it makes delightful use of the platform in its mechanics.
There are five factions that work the same way the five colors work.
  • Shadow (purple) aligns with Black. 
  • Fire (red) aligns with Red.
  • Right now, you're thinking, oh cool, they line up 1:1. Well…
  • Justice (green) aligns with White.
  • Time (yellow) aligns with Blue.
  • Primal (blue) aligns with Green.
  • Except it's not even that easy.
Edit 7/10 [ The last three mix things up more than that. Justice thematically aligns with White and it's got a Smite the Monstrous equivalent and a Day of Judgment, etc; But it also gets Giant Growth, -1/-0, hexproof and morbid. Time values what Blue values, but also gets Llanowar Elves, Sedge Scorpion, Gravity Well, and Sun Sentinel. Primal (the only adjective among nouns) behaves like green but also gets Leap, Negate, Iron Will, and Pyroclasm.

It's clear the developers made many conscious choices to differentiate Eternal's factions from Magic's colors. Some of them were strong—Time does a great job feeling like a faction that cares about and manipulates time, and Primal feels very cohesive too—and some were not—Shadow and Fire are basically carbon copies of Black and Red, and it's also really confusing seeing green-, yellow-, and blue-colored cards that don't align with Green, White, and Blue. ] Edit 7/10

As with nearly all non-Magic CCGs, the cost to play a card is presented as a simple integer, but there is still a color requirement indicated by a number of influence icons next to the cost. Torch costs 1 power (mana) to cast, and you must have at least one Fire influence to cast it. Note that you could cast four Torches with four power and a single Fire influence, where you'd need {R}{R}{R}{R} to cast four Lightning Bolts.

Eternal's lands work the same way Magic's do, down to having default versions ('sigils' rather than 'basic') that omit the text of how they actually work, as well as more complex ones.
'Depleted' is the keyword for "enters play tapped," except that Eternal doesn't actually use tapping. When you attack with or otherwise exhaust a unit (creature), it just becomes faded; and your power (land) aren't even displayed as cards in play—instead you get a Hearthstone-style tracker that shows how much power you have remaining this turn and what your maximum power is (how much power you'll have next turn). 3/5, for example. That saves a ton of room on the board, which is terribly clever given that people play this game on smaller devices. And since you're only tracking power and overall influence, you can never "tap your lands" wrong. (This is an instance of shedding complexity that is 10% strategically interesting and 90% distracting and annoying.)

As long as we're on the subject, I'd be remiss not to share Eternal's dual lands. Four sets in, there are currently three tight cycles. Every power card increases your maximum power by 1 (there are no Cabal Strongholds); these dual lands increase your influence in two factions at once, which is pretty effective considering that color requirements in Eternal very closely match those in Magic.
There are colorless cards in Eternal, the most noteworthy being Seek Power, which is a one-mana Lay of the Land any deck can cast. Since we're talking about ways Eternal helps players play their cards, let's talk about the mulligan rules.

You initially see an entirely random seven-card hand. If you prefer, you get one mulligan: A new seven-card hand which the system fixes to guarantee it has between 2 and 4 power cards. There's a game designer purist in me that shifts in his seat a bit at the inelegance of a mulligan system that is only feasible via a computer and that squints suspiciously at exactly what the algorithm might be. Fortunately, there's also a game designer realist in me who jumps on his chair and pumps his fist in the air in support of a solution to a huge percentage of non-games, and who happily recognizes that it doesn't matter how complicated the algorithm is, this game will only ever be played on a computer, so why the hell wouldn't we let the computer make it better where it can.

There's a lot more I'd like to talk about, and I'll save that for another post, but if you're too eager not to read more, here's an Eternal starter guide.

Part I - Part II - Part III - Part IV

18 comments:

  1. Ah! Eternal is the only other CG that I play, mainly due to being on the tablet. No wonder it looks a lot like magic, having several pros working for it such as Chapin, LSV and Conley woods. Another notable aspect of it (which I don't know if other CCG have) is the lack of shuffling and some mechanics that only work because of being digital such as my favorite: warcry. I also love quickdraw as a fixed First Strike only for attackers.

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  2. If you compare the two years of Eternal's release to the same two years of Magic, I think Eternal wins hands down. I have played over a thousand hours of Eternal, and have enjoyed it enormously. Their free to play model is so generous that I often have to make up an excuse to give them money, and the variety of viable decks in their constructed formats is astounding. Sure, at times something has become oppressive, but for the most part the meta has remained diverse, and aside from Chalice, has never devolved into something I would consider unhealthy.

    Contrast this to MTG Arena where in constructed I will face RB 75% of the time and UW 25% of the time until I lose 20 games in a row and derank so I can play against people using precons.

    Dominaria was a high point in a what I consider a low ebb for Magic, but Magic's days of resting on its laurels are over. For years, I could unequivocally say that Magic had the best design and development team out there, and there was no way anything could compete with it. Now board game companies have started taking development seriously, and other companies are taking a whack at the digital card game medium, and WOTC is getting buried.

    Magic will always be a huge part of my life, because Cube (in all its forms) is still the best game ever made, but I think WOTC has squandered it's once unassailable position, and is now in the scrum with everyone else competing for my gaming attention. I, for one, think that is probably a good thing.

    Anyway, back to Eternal, I think the best choices Eternal makes are with regard to subtle changes in timing rules about who can respond to what when. Together with a very well defined and snappy interface this makes for a game that just flies by and leaves me ready for another one.

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  3. Not sure I'd compare Eternal or Hearthstone to Duelyst, which is a card game with a tactical board like Fire Emblem or Civilization. I'm also not sure the colors line up as nicely as you've put it (but it's been a while). For example, isn't Primal the faction with damage-based board wipes and lots of flying-matters cards? And isn't Time the ramp faction?


    I don't think there's an easy way to compare 1-1, aside from Red and Black.

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    1. Yeah, the last three colors are much more mixed up than I presented above. I will clarify.

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    2. Added to this page:

      The last three mix things up more than that. Justice thematically aligns with White and it's got a Smite the Monstrous equivalent and a Day of Judgment, etc; But it also gets Giant Growth, -1/-0, hexproof and morbid. Time values what Blue values, but also gets Llanowar Elves, Sedge Scorpion, Gravity Well, and Sun Sentinel. Primal (the only adjective among nouns) behaves like green but also gets Leap, Negate, Iron Will, and Pyroclasm.



      It's clear the developers made many conscious choices to differentiate Eternal's factions from Magic's colors. Some of them were strong—Time does a great job feeling like a faction that cares about and manipulates time, and Primal feels very cohesive too—and some were not—Shadow and Fire are basically carbon copies of Black and Red, and it's also really confusing seeing green-, yellow-, and blue-colored cards that don't align with Green, White, and Blue.

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    3. Ah, I didn't realize you were aligning them by their thematic color identity instead of their mechanical color identity. That edit clarifies things a lot.

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  4. I liked Eternal as a thought experiment about how to create a digital version of Magic. It's polished and I appreciate the effort to retain the mana system rather than Hearthstone's perfect curve. That said, two things made me pretty quickly lose interest. The first is that I personally have very little restraint when it comes to FTP online games. That's one of those things that make even generous FTP models feel incredibly off putting. I'd rather watch annoying ads for other games to support a developer than be Skinner-ed alive with subtle nudges.

    The second is that for a digital game, it also doesn't feel like it's exploring mechanics uniquely possible in its medium. Part of that is how closely it adheres to Magics underlying mechanics. More obviously digital games like the now defunct Solforge would be very hard to implement in paper, where most Eternal mechanics could be done with some minor memory issues in a traditional game. That's not a terrible thing, it just makes the designs feel less novel. Magic keeps finding ways to push the envelope that keep me interested, where I just don't get the same experience from most digital products. The events/puzzles were more interesting, however the grind caused by problem one made me less inclined to persevere to keep up with those. :/

    That said, I'm interested to here your thoughts on its design. There's sooo much design potential in the digital CCG space and I'd love to see Dire Wolf take more risks with that.

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    1. I feel like Eternal has more digital only mechanics and cards than any other online CCG I have played. Warcry is a huge part of the game, and is certainly digital only. Echo and Fate are on fewer cards, but were even in the base set.

      Warp is becoming central to the game. Inspire is also certainly digital only. Of course the variety of effects like Crown of Possibilities and Equivocate where something is chosen randomly require a digital platform.

      The way that Eternal handles copying (copying everything) and persistence of buffs through zones is also a huge callout to digital, and something that could not be done in paper.

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    2. I'm with Tommy. Eternal is doing a ton of digital-only stuff. Arguably too much to the exclusion of great existing mechanics, but clearly you'd disagree, Wobbles.

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    3. Sure, I just see very close analogs to Magic to the point where I didn't feel like those mechanics add much strategically to the game that Magic doesn't do. Warp is neat, but it doesn't feel that different than a Garruk Packmaster type card. Echo is basically Flashback (Arena even just puts those cards into a player's hand). I mean, it's not nothing, it's just not the kind of radical changes that are possible with Digital

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    4. Warcry N (Gain N +1/+1 counters when this enters the battlefield. When you next cast a creature, move all of +1/+1 counters you have onto that creature as it enters the battlefield)

      It's not exactly the same, but it's close. Graft also played in this space for Magic. Eternal just plays in such a similar space to Magic, it's hard to escape feeling really similar.

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    5. Some decks certainly feel like Magic, but decks like Crown Roaches just feel totally different. The fact that Disentombing something with Echo gets you extra copies, for example, is just nothing like how stuff would work in Magic.

      The whole Warcry thing also point at some else Eternal does that is digital only: It never shuffles your deck. This is used in all kinds of subtle ways beyond Warcry.

      I think Eternal did a lot so well that unless you stare very closely it feels like what they did was obvious, or sometimes you don't even realize they did it. But you have only to play Arena or Hex to realize just how much smarter Eternal designers were when making choices.

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    6. I agree, Wobbles, Eternal feels a lot like Magic. They made more identical and similar choices from the rules to the cards than any other successful game. If warcry isn't different enough for you (it is for me), look at spellcraft and token making: Creating new cards, cards that go the void, or your hand, or your deck, and come back extant: That's pretty wild.

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  5. Jay, I'm interested to know why you think Time lines up with blue. From what I can see, Time lines up more closely with green (Big midrange creatures, ramp), while Primal lines up more closely with blue (draw spells, counterspells). But Dire Wolf divvied up blue's slice of the color pie among at least three colors.

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    1. Yeah, the last three colors are much more mixed up than I presented above. I will clarify.

      Delete
    2. Added to this page:

      The last three mix things up more than that. Justice thematically aligns with White and it's got a Smite the Monstrous equivalent and a Day of Judgment, etc; But it also gets Giant Growth, -1/-0, hexproof and morbid. Time values what Blue values, but also gets Llanowar Elves, Sedge Scorpion, Gravity Well, and Sun Sentinel. Primal (the only adjective among nouns) behaves like green but also gets Leap, Negate, Iron Will, and Pyroclasm.


      It's clear the developers made many conscious choices to differentiate Eternal's factions from Magic's colors. Some of them were strong—Time does a great job feeling like a faction that cares about and manipulates time, and Primal feels very cohesive too—and some were not—Shadow and Fire are basically carbon copies of Black and Red, and it's also really confusing seeing green-, yellow-, and blue-colored cards that don't align with Green, White, and Blue.

      Delete
  6. As an addendum to our twitter conversation last night, I think it bears mentioning that some amount of why Eternal's color pie is a bit difficult to pin down is likely because they effectively started with the Ravnica model of color-pairing. So much of the distribution and "strength-weighting" of mechanics/behaviors is based on which pairing a given card belongs to, which can cause an individual faction to have some of its independent identity be less clear.

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    1. One of the dangers of starting a new game with all the knowledge of an old game, is losing the new one's identity while benefiting from the old one's lessons.

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