Eternal Preview

Why Hearthstone's Days As King Of Digital Card Games May Be Numbered

Mar 24, 2017
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Developer: Dire Wolf Games
Platforms: PC (Steam), Android
Price: Free
Currently in Early Access on Steam
Contains microtransactions

Buckle in, dear readers, for some shocking news. There's a battle coming for the hallowed ground on which Hearthstone has rested as the king-emperor-god of digital card games, and it's all because of the game I'm here to share with you today: Eternal. It was the sleeper hit that took me by surprise during my first day at PAX East. I was slightly early on Friday to Dire Wolf for an interview, but all the tables for their new board game, Clank!, were full. My intention was to give it a go and then talk to the good folks at the booth about it. I saw what looked like a Hearthstone clone on some tablets belonging to the same studio, and I'd some time to kill. Why not try it out? I started up a game and tumbled straight into the rabbit hole. The more I tapped the screen, the more I realized that this thing was good. Really good.

The nagging question you're probably already asking yourself is whether this largely unknown game could possibly be better than Blizzard's hit title. I'll toss you a spoiler up front and say that I think it is, and for the cost of free there's really no reason not to give it a try and compare for yourself. The real question is why. And do you think this might be the digital card game for you? Let's have a look.

It's just a Hearthstone clone, right? You'd be wrong to leave it at that. Dead, face-meltingly wrong.

The Rundown

A game of Eternal sees players starting at 25 life points and attempting to joust each other to zero before succumbing to injury oneself. This happens in all the standard ways one would expect from a card game, mainly through the summoning of creatures with which to attack and by tossing out various other spells. The best way to describe Eternal to a new player is "like Hearthstone but." It's like Hearthstone in that you summon creatures to do your bidding, but creatures can only directly attack the other player, who may choose to block. It's similar to anyone who's played Magic: The Gathering; there's no direct attacking of one summoned creature to another, generally (there is an ability, killer, that allows this, but it's appropriately rare). Eternal also uses more of a Magic style color system; there are 5 sigils of power, with each color corresponding to a particular style of play and a certain host of abilities. Finally, the creatures and spells have a variety of powers, but unlike its Hearthstone, Eternal's cards embody a wider array of abilities and have less overall "kill everything that moves," board-wipe effects. Minimum deck size is also 75 cards, which is a huge departure from Hearthstone's 30. The effect is that Eternal comes off as a more considered, more in depth game, though it's no less snappy for it, and matches are often still quick and intense. And for those that have seen Hearthstone competitive matches, knowing how in depth those can already be, that is saying something.

The way I prefer to describe Eternal, to those that are familiar with my comparison, is "as if Hearthstone and Epic had a baby." Epic, for me, strikes that balance of a game that hits all the sweet spots when playing a great game of Magic: The Gathering, while doing so at a fraction of the cost and commitment issues. Mix that in with a solid, digital card game and you can begin to see the appeal of what Eternal offers. It's something that fans of Hearthstone who are looking for a little something more will appreciate. More on that "more" in just a minute.

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In addition to these things, this game has dinosaurs. Dinosaurs! No spell slinging western would be complete without them.

What Eternal Gets Totally Right

Where. Do. I. Start? Can you tell I'm excited about this game (and you should be too)? How about we start with the interface itself, as it's the first thing you're likely to notice. Hearthstone's familiar two-sided battlefield with creatures represented by rounded tiles will be an instant, familiar sight. However, Eternal takes the interface one step further by adding simple, custom animations to persistent battlefield effects. Flying creatures actually hover over the board. Creatures with infiltrate, a special power that fires once if the monster can hit the enemy player, have a shadowy pattern than periodically flashes over them. Exhausted, or for the Magically inclinded: tapped, creatures have their portraits darkened out. And there are a slew of other easy to recognize symbols that quickly allow you to survey the field of battle at a glance. You can always hold a click or tap on any creature, if like me you're forgetful, to get a reminder of what any special abilities do.

You might be thinking, "Adam, it sounds a lot like Magic, and one of the reasons I got out of Magic was 'mana screw'. I'm so tired of it!" Dire Wolf has you covered there, buddy. For those that aren't familiar with 'mana screw', it is when you don't draw the power cards you need to cast your spells. It's one of the worst feelings when RNG combines with really bad card luck, and you sit from turn to turn discarding at maximum hand size because you can't actually cast anything you've drawn. Eternal improves on this formula by having two currencies tracked when you play sigils: power and influence. Here's an example. I play a fire sigil, and that gives me one power and one point of fire influence. On my next turn I play a primal sigil, and that gives me an additional point of power along with one primal influence point. At this point, I could actually cast two, one-power fire spells. I only have to have enough influence, as noted on a card, to have access to playing it, but the power cost comes from the total of all sigils I've played to this point. The result is a much more forgiving system that gets you to the fun part faster: plastering your opponent against a wall with fireballs and lightning strikes. The deckbuilding system in the game does this for you automatically, based on the proportions of colored cards in your deck, so you don't have to worry about the ratio of sigils to other cards if you don't want to!

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Pretty much everything about this game's theme summed up in one shot.

I'm coming back to Hearthstone for a moment to mention and contrast the absolute joy of customizability in Eternal. Hearthstone's class system mirrors Warcraft, and it's easy to learn. The ease of accessibility in Hearthstone is what drew a lot of players into the digital card game genre, and Blizzard has proven track record in this regard. Even the folks at Dire Wolf acknowledged this in my interview: If not for Hearthstone, there might not be a market for Eternal to even break into. But that same ease that Hearthstone totes can also be a shackle. If you want to play a mage, you can choose from a few good mage builds and go from there. You're always restricted to what a mage can do at its core, though. What if you could play a mage/warrior? Or a mage/cleric in addition to just the pure mage? Eternal allows you to choose what style of a color you want to play, but you can mix colors in twos or threes for some wicked combinations. Yes, I've seen at least one card as well that has one influence point required from all 5 colors, if you were wondering. Card games are all about customization and playing with an extension of yourself, and I've mentioned it plenty in regards to Android: Netrunner. Eternal lets you take your favorite concepts and run with them! Oh, and by the way, you can also add custom portraits supplied in game to both your avatar and your individual decks.

I also need to take a moment to acknowledge the game's generosity. I had a chance to speak with Matt Hudson while at Dire Wolf's expo spot; he said, for a casual player spending an hour or two every day or two, a "top tier" competitive deck could be achieved in a couple weeks of play. Well, I cleared the starter campaign at the hotel over the weekend at PAX, and I've played for a little over a week at a casual pace since then. Matt's estimate is on the money, because I can confirm the rewards in Eternal are generous! Too often, free-to-play games with microtransactions make you grind to achieve any measure of success. It's a business model, I get it. I saw the next campaign chapter in Eternal marked at 20,000 coins (the in-game, free to earn currency) and immediately had flashbacks to these feelings. Actually, I'm happy to report I've earned 20k on my own while I write this! The reward chests you get for your daily quests give you plenty of free coins, and I walk away with 1-2k in coins easily for a casual day's play. The more "rare" the grade of chest, the more coins, cards, and packs you receive. Chests can randomly upgrade into their next tier when opened as well, which is always a pleasant surprise. And you can earn multiple chests for quests and various other rewards, further accelerating your gains. Have I mentioned that plenty of quests aren't tied to victories, either? You can complete lots just by playing and having a good time rather than stressing a string of losses! I haven't spent a single dollar yet, but I'm likely to just to support the developers. I'm considering a fancy, cosmetic to show off during matches and maybe some extra rounds in the draft mode (you keep all the cards you draft in addition to any actual prizes you win).

Back in my Hearthstone days, I bought a pack every other day for the same level of casual play. In Eternal I could buy two packs a day if I wasn't saving up for the next campaign chapter. I really appreciate a business model that cares about fun before it asks for my money. It makes me want to give it to them even more. I can see easily see a wide variety of gamers, with a wide variety of budgets, finding satisfaction in this game.

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Primal power is all about ice, lightning, storms, flying creatures, and looking really calm and cool while you blast stuff! Find the power that resonates with you.

Room For Improvement

As Eternal is currently in early access, there is of course some room for things to get better. For one, any fan of Hearthstone/Blizzard is used to having a metric butt ton of of content at their fingertips. The Warcraft IP might just be one of the richest sources of material for a game company to draw on. Their Hearthstone campaigns are hilarious and entertaining, each one being like its own mini-adventure. For those that I've completed, I've definitely felt the journey and have been sad to see them end. By comparison, Eternal's initial campaign was a good introduction to each of the factions, their feel, and a bit of lore, but I never really got a good sense of the world. It's a neat combination of, as the developers put it, swords and six-shooters ala the weird West. But I don't exactly get that from the outset. For folks like me that don't immediately thrown down for the next campaign chapter, we'll have to make due with what we can glean off the card art and our otherwise limited exposure to the world. And without a world as huge as Warcraft to draw upon, that limited exposure is felt. The mechanics of this game are solid, but if you're a lore junky you might be initially disappointed. Thankfully, this is a problem that will easily be fixed as more and more content releases.

Another sticking point for some may be that the game is optimized for tablets/PC. Admittedly, if you play on a phone you get a message every time you log in reminding you of this. And it's true, I usually stick to hardcore deckbuilding while I'm at home with a full sized monitor, only making slight adjustments to my decks on the go and reserving my phone strictly for play. I've mistapped a couple things on my phone screen and suffered slightly for my clumsy thumbs. It's not a game breaker, but it's good to keep in mind. Know what you're getting into if you play on mobile. That being said, I'm still glad the developers allow play in this way right from the start; I remember it took a while for Hearthstone to do the same (and was glad when they did it too).

I could also see Dire Wolf trying to branch off in even more directions in the digital card game world, being even more bold and visionary. It's a great game in its own right as it currently stands, but another chainlink in the shackles of the digital card game genre is the fact that they play exclusively for two players. Games like Magic and Epic are wonderful for their ability to seat multiple friends and play in a variety of multiplayer variants. Telling friends they don't have to wait for a match, but instead can throw down in a brawl, is always a blast. This is admittedly more of a hope than a point of improvement, but hey, I can dream!

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Magic, guns, and swords! Go ahead, pard'ner. Make my day!

The Final Verdict

Perhaps my biggest concern when deciding if this game is "better" than Hearthstone is the complexity. Ultimately, Hearthstone's streamline simplicity is a huge draw for some folks; some people don't want to deal with more abilities and complicated power systems. Eternal may not be your cup of digital card game tea if that's the case. It does have more rules, and the lack of major board wiping effects might leave some players frustrated. If you really, really don't care for a mana system, even an improved one with Eternal's power/influence ingenuity, Hearthstone's simple "one more energy point per turn" is certainly a plus. But it's important to keep something very vital in mind: Dire Wolf isn't making Eternal to steal business from Blizzard. I know because they told me as much (admittedly not the question I lead with, but cool to hear the answer nonetheless). This is a game made by game lovers who want to share a thing they love with others. It's that classic case of "we made a game we wanted to play" and now the rest of us can play it too. I, for one, am glad this game exists. It certainly shows us that there's room in the digital card game genre for more variety.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that this game is still only early access. Occasionally you see a post on Reddit regarding login issues, registration trouble, or the occasional need to repeat a tutorial level. Overwhelmingly though, these things are minor, and I see constant feedback that this game is more fun than everyone initially expects. For me, this game completely replaces Hearthstone. I want that extra depth, I love the generosity of the in game rewards. The look and feel of the game are smooth and satisfying, and I enjoy the deck building ten times more than I ever did in Hearthstone. If you're still sitting on the fence after reading to this point, do me a favor: go and download it. Play through the tutorial. Build your first deck. It's free and costs you only a couple hours of your time. If you decide it's not for you, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Both Eternal and Hearthstone are ultimately excellent games that fill slightly different niches for different people. But maybe, like me, you'll be just a little bit more surprised, a little bit more intrigued, than you'd expected. Once you tumble down that rabbit hole, you'll want to see just how far it goes.

Adam Factor