Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Duel of Champions is Bad

Not Breaking Bad, not Michael Jackson Bad, and not even Snakes on a Plane bad. Just plain bad.

As I stated in a previous post, I think it's wise to play a game for at least a week before drawing any conclusions as to the state of the game and your personal enjoyment of it.

Firstly, it always takes a little time to learn game mechanics (even more in the case of card games), let alone how well the mechanics work and how they affect the game as a whole. Second is what I like to call the "honeymoon phase" where you're busy learning and experiencing what it has to offer and you enjoy the game early on, but as the shine wears off you see what you have left. That phase usually takes about a week for me, and if I'm still interested in a game after that, then chances are it's at least decent.


  = Don't bother.





Unfortunately, once the shine faded from Might & Magic: Duel of Champions, all that remained were hassles, restrictions, and blatant cash grabs on what could've been a solid game.

I will be making comparisons between Duel of Champions and other free-to-play digital card games throughout the rest of this post, and I feel it's incredibly fair and reasonable to do so. That said, let's begin looking at the game's features.
Factions: Choose wisely, because you're stuck with it for a while!

Starting Out

You begin by picking one of the original faction decks. You're given minimal knowledge about each deck's playstyle and introduced immediately to the campaign/tutorial. If you don't already know each deck's strengths, weaknesses, and options (which you shouldn't be expected to), you may pick a deck that you don't enjoy at all. Sadly, you're now stuck with this decision unless you get enough cards to make a new deck or start fresh on a different account. The website gives a slightly more descriptive look at the factions, but for in-depth information you're going to have to check the forums or an external source.

This is a ridiculous and archaic trick to get you to buy more cards - not because you're enjoying the game and want to buy more, but because you had to make an uninformed decision that could change your progression and enjoyment of the game dramatically. My only counter to this is to suggest making several dummy accounts to try out the different deck types. Once you find one you're happy with, either stick with that as your real account or start fresh with all the knowledge you have gained. Even then, that's a time-consuming, inconvenient, and annoying process to play a game.

Comparison #1 In SolForge (still in beta), you get two starter decks that contain a combination of two factions each. That's at least a sample from all four current factions, and you can start getting the feel for them all right away. Hearthstone (also still in beta) starts you off with one class, and you unlock the other classes by beating them in Practice Mode. As you level classes, you unlock their basic sets. In the case of both games, you have access to all the basics without having to spend anything but some time.

The "campaign" in Duel of Champions is incredibly small, and is really more of an extended tutorial. You can earn some rewards for completion and it doesn't take long, so it's worth doing... but calling it a campaign is an exaggeration.

Gameplay

You have a large play area to deploy creatures and spells, and the positions of each are pretty important. There are numerous special abilities and spells that affect an entire row or line, or spaces adjacent to the target/originating space. Staying aware of this is critical to your success.

Creatures attack inside their deployed row (there are exceptions of course), and attack the enemy hero if unopposed. The turn after being deployed, creatures can be moved to new spaces at the cost of not attacking. In addition, each creature has an attack type (melee, ranged, or flying) that determines where they can deploy/move to and what they can attack.

In addition to your hand/deck of cards, there's a separate mini-deck of event cards that randomly cycle each turn, allowing you more options. Your hero has several abilities as well, but I'll get to that later.

On the positive side, the game plays out on what feels like a pitched battlefield. It's an uncommon feature in card games, which usually just have a general "in play" area. This adds a tactical element to the game where board control doesn't necessarily mean the entire board. You may have one row locked down with a tough creature or spell effect, but your opponent is merrily swarming the rest of the field. Creatures are important, and you'd be hard pressed to build a viable deck consisting primarily of spells and fortunes.

As a result, matches tend to be more slow and methodical than in other card games. Note that each turn itself is only two minutes long (similar to other games) and as the game advances you have more decisions to make in that time frame. This can make late game turns somewhat hectic, as a mistake here can cost you the match - and there's plenty of places to slip up. I actually enjoy that part, as it encourages you to learn your deck and make quick, efficient plays. Overall though, match length is rather long with typical games going around 30 minutes and sometimes well past 40.

Comparison #2 SolForge has a similar but simplified play area with deployment lanes for creatures. Turns are usually the same pace throughout the match due to their "two cards a turn" rule, and matches are about 10 minutes shorter on average. Hearthstone has a much simpler play area (currently occupied exclusively by minions), but special abilities (like taunt or stealth) can dictate the rules of engagement. Turns can get more complex as the game progresses, and learning to make smart, efficient plays under a time limit is important. Matches can go as long as Duel of Champions, but there's far less to pay attention to at once.

Daily Activities

Once per day as you login, you are given an option to either "cash in" or "grow your rewards". If you cash in, you receive all the login rewards you've previously grown, with a cap at 7 days that gives seals. To get this, you must login consistently about every 24 hours for one week. If you miss a day, your build up is gone and you start new. This can be pretty annoying if any unplanned events take place that keep you from logging in at the proper time. Short of incredible planning or severe lack of any social/family life, you will come to see this as frustrating. It's similar to Farmville crops where if you don't tend them during a certain time window then you lose them.

There are also two forms of tournaments which require tickets to enter. Only one version is accessible at a time, and it alternates daily. If you vastly prefer one over the other, again you're stuck waiting until the next day (or longer if you're busy tomorrow).

Comparison #3 SolForge currently runs a login, first win, and third win daily bonus that resets according to their server. The timing is far more flexible and the rewards are much better on average. Hearthstone has daily quests to complete (that day or later on) that pay out alright and don't require specific time commitments. Again, both of these systems are more flexible and rewarding, and feel more like a bonus than a hassle. There's no tournament options for SolForge yet, and Hearthstone currently has the Arena draft. If you prefer constructed play in Hearthstone, your options are limited to ranked games. Expect to see more tournament-style features in both games soon, though.

Store Options

Duel of Champions has two in-game currencies with gold and seals. Gold is much easier to obtain (you can play matches to grind gold), and can purchase most packs from their store. Seals are way rarer, earned sporadically via achievements, leveling (I think?), and logging in consistently everyday for a week.

There's a vast array of purchase options in their store, each with various pros and cons. It's a bit overwhelming at first and you'll either waste currency buying sub-optimally or develop a buying strategy depending on what you're looking for. There's a couple of guides on their forums to help new players understand the options, and it's required reading if you want to purchase wisely.

While it's nice to have options, it feels like a bit too much for new players who will almost certainly regret making uninformed purchases. You can argue that it's ultimately up to the user to decide what to buy (and that's a valid point), but you can also argue that some purchase options are utter rubbish at all times (looking at you, small pack) and flooding the market with traps is a tad unethical.

Comparison #4 SolForge also has two currencies (silver, gained easily for free and gold, available only with cash), faction decks, and several pack options. There's some trap options here too (never use gold to buy basic packs), but they're far easier to spot. Hearthstone uses gold (freely gained) and real cash, and your options are limited to the number of decks to buy, or paying for Arena entry - pretty straightforward.


Collecting and Deckbuilding

Now we come to the heart of the matter as to why I'm not impressed with Duel of Champions. You are severely limited in deckbuilding options because of two major restrictions:

You cannot use the same card in multiple decks. For example, let's say I have three copies of a card. If I put 2 copies in one deck, I have only one copy left to put in other decks. This is an outright asinine and arbitrary restriction for a digital card game. It means that if you want to make a variant of a certain deck, you either make decklists and keep having to rebuild the decks each time you want to switch, or buy more cards until you have multiples. Even in real life you're able to "deck jump" cards you don't have multiple copies of, and in most other digital card games this is no exception. I'm calling it for what it is - a sleazy sales tactic.

Ultra-rare heroes limit your options. When you build a deck, you need exactly one hero card. This determines what faction and spell cards you can add to your deck.

Don't get me wrong, this is a balancing mechanic to keep players from cherry-picking broken combinations and I fully support that. Your chosen hero is unique and has certain strengths and weaknesses, and that makes things interesting.

The problem here is that hero cards are the highest rarity. If you open a bomb rare and some decent commons from a faction you don't own a hero of, you can't play them. Same goes for a neat spell from a school none of your heroes allow. It's such an issue that a purchase option was added to get a random hero with some playable cards for it as a pack. This alleviates the problem somewhat, but don't expect to get a certain faction whenever you want - random means random. There are faction decks available for a handful of heroes, but they aren't cheap.

Imagine if you couldn't play any goblins unless you had Kiki-Jiki, or no counterspells without Jace Beleren in your Magic: the Gathering deck. That would be ludicrous and poorly designed, yet that is exactly how it works in Duel of Champions.

Combine those restrictions with the aforementioned hassles and sleazy sales tactics, and you have Duel of Champions in a nutshell. It has some great ideas and could have been a good game, but some key poor decisions hold the title back.

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