Given that Magic: The Gathering has been around for two decades, I have to imagine virtually everybody reading this paper has at least a passing familiarity with the popular trading card game. At a minimum, we’ve all seen one of its millions of players playing it, and those of us who actually got into the game could come up with a dozen ways to describe it. Maybe “complex,” or “deep,” or “competitive.” Personally, I’d summarize it in three words: “Expensive as hell.”
It ate my monthly allowance as a kid, and a decent chunk of my leisure money as an adult. Skill mattered, luck mattered, but owning the right cards mattered as well. And every dollar spent was just treading water — it wasn’t long until a new set of cards was released and you had to lay down more cash just to keep up with the Joneses. The only sort of arms truce you could broker with friends was to play draft games, wherein you’d put everyone on more or less even footing by taking turns picking cards from randomized packs to form your decks. But that was hardly better — it’s not like booster packs of MTG cards grew on trees.
I had hoped against hope that when an online version of the game was released (over a decade ago), that the cost of playing would go down. Surely the game’s makers, freed from printing and distribution costs, would show mercy on us lowly addicts? But sadly, it was not to be: MTG Online was pricey in 2002 and it’s still a pricey pastime today.
It’s rather surprising therefore, that it has taken this long for serious competitors to arise and challenge MTG’s high priced online trading card game monopoly. Sure, it’s hard to think that an upstart rival will create a more balanced and intricate game in the face of MTG’s 20-year head start … but delivering something almost as good? At a lower price point? It could only have been a matter of time before big game companies took a stab at such a market.
Thus, we have two online card games to review today: Scrolls by Mojang (makers of Minecraft), and Hearthstone by Blizzard (leveraging their World of Warcraft IP). Both games are currently in beta testing, though both are developed enough that it seems fair to judge them as if they were released games. Here is where they sort out in a head-to-head comparison.
Both games are dirt cheap. Scrolls is $21, and it didn’t take me more than a few days to obtain a full play set of cards. The rate at which the game gives you in-game currency is fairly generous, and most importantly, it is easy to trade cards with others.
Hearthstone is free to play, but it is much stingier with its in-game currency, and even after weeks of play, I am nowhere near having anything resembling a full play set. Furthermore, you cannot trade cards with other players — leading to a lot of mostly worthless duplicates. If I spent $21 on card packs through Blizzard’s store, I still wouldn’t obtain cards faster than I did in Scrolls.
Both games are much simpler than Magic, both preferring to make something faster and more accessible than MTG’s rule-heavy system. But while Hearthstone seems like Magic stripped down to bare bones, Scrolls introduces clever new dynamics into the game that make it more understandable while retaining some degree of the strategic depth that MTG features. In some ways, Scrolls is even better than MTG — its mana system, for example, replaces the randomness of MTG’s mana system with one that requires careful decision making by the player.
Hearthstone, by contrast, feels heavily pared down. The game still presents challenges, and as with any card game of this type, constructing the right deck is half the challenge, but the gameplay itself is nowhere close to Magic, while Scrolls feels like an actual competitor.
As already stated, Scrolls has something of an advantage when it comes to player interaction, since Scrolls allows for card trading while Hearthstone does not. But in some ways, I’ve found that less is more. In Scrolls, players can chat with each other during the game. At first glance, a chat system is a pleasant feature, but in practice, what is there really to chat about? In roughly two-thirds of the games I played, my opponents found it necessary to inform me that my card-draw/control deck was, quote, “the gayest shiit ive evr seen” and, that because I had the audacity to play such an elegant and unusual deck, I should “go eat a dick and die of cancer.” In Hearthstone, friends can chat with one another, but randomly matched strangers are limited to a set of six “emotes” like, “Hello!” or “Well Played!” and while I’m sure many Hearthstone players would tell me to go stand in a fire if they could, it makes for a better experience that they can’t.
Building your own deck is a core component of strategy card games. Knowing what cards to include and exclude is sometimes a bigger part of the game than actually playing a match itself. And generally speaking, the larger the pool of cards to choose from in a card game, the more challenging and satisfying it is to build a well-tuned deck.
In the case of Scrolls vs. Hearthstone, it seems to me that despite having a larger set of cards, Hearthstone offers less challenge in the way of deck construction. It’s not just that the deck size in Hearthstone is smaller than Scrolls — some Hearthstone cards (usually rarer cards) are very clearly better than others, and a very large fraction of them serve more or less the same role in a deck. In Scrolls, while there are generally fewer cards to choose from in any given deck, the choices feel more meaningful and the variety of decks much greater. In my little control deck, I went through at least 20 different iterations as I played, and even just swapping in or out a couple cards could completely change how the deck felt. In Hearthstone, every one of my decks feels like a collection of more or less the same cards. There are a couple exceptions, but for the most part they all play the same way: put out creatures, kill the opponent.
Moreover, Scrolls has the right take on a matchmaking system. No hidden matchmaking rating — they give you the exact estimate that the system uses for how well you play, and at any time you can compare your number against everyone else’s. Being an 1800 rated player meant something, it told you what your expected odds were against players and gave you a real idea of where you were at. Hearthstone hides your rating, replacing it instead with a series of tiers — it’s not until you reach the final tier that you get some semblance how well you’re really doing, and even then, it’s just a ranking of you versus everyone else in the final tier. I made it to 6th best in North America briefly, but still had no idea how high or low I was relative to 1st place or 100th place. Plus, the spot was worthless — Blizzard’s seeming plan is to reset the system every month or two and knock you back down to square one.
Of course, Constructed Play is only half the story with a proper trading card game. Many players prefer a draft format, which truncates the deck construction process by having players choose cards one at a time from a randomly generated, limited set of options. Drafting a deck is as challenging as constructing a deck, but with the added bonus that you never end up playing the same deck twice, keeping the game fresh and exciting. Scrolls has richer overall gameplay and is more satisfying to play in a constructed format, but where Hearthstone takes the edge is in draft. The mana system of Scrolls is heavily biased toward single-resource decks, limiting the potential of a draft format. In Hearthstone, you choose between one of nine small card sets, but can also add cards from one large neutral set. The consequence of this is that the draft format feels natural in Hearthstone — some of the game’s problems (like some cards being simply better versions of other cards) disappear when neither you nor your opponent can pick from every single card in the game. In Scrolls, draft feels forced, as if it were an afterthought, shoehorned in only after seeing the success of draft games in Hearthstone. In time, Mojang can balance their card set for draft play, but without a major overhaul, it seems unlikely that they’ll get far in draft with the game mechanics they’ve created.
For long-time fans of trading card games, Scrolls seems like the superior option. Compared to Hearthstone, it’s a deeper game with more variety that, even in its beta form, captures much of the fun of playing Magic. For casual trading card game players, or Magic fans who prefer draft, Hearthstone, despite its flaws, seems the better choice. It won’t serve up the same complexity that Magic has, but it’s quick and fresh and free to boot.