Collectible deckbuilding card games can be a lot of fun. They are not, however, a legitimate form of mind-to-mind competition. They’re certainly enticing and stimulating, to be sure. The illusory pull of being able to come up with strategies and collect cards to support that strategy, building from a core idea into a set of techniques, and then unleashing them in matches, testing, refining, it all sounds very cool. The problem is, in the internet era, an individual’s efforts just don’t amount to much. And furthermore, there’s far too much luck involved.
Sure, you can make progress, as I’ve done with homebrew decks from time to time, depending on whether the meta allows for the strategies I try. But for the vast majority of players, you must pay to win and bow to the whims of how the community is building its decks.
The specific games in the CCG genre all have their quirks, but in every instance, you’re up against the meta. The game is less about refining your own ideas than it is about efficiently farming cards to steal the ideas of others that have been tested in far more matches than you could ever hope to play on your own. It’s about taking advantage of momentary swings and imbalances in particular card combinations, looking for a weak spot that will rocket you up a few more notches against a ton of other people trying to do the same. You’re not testing your own ideas so much as testing the ideas of the community and its ever-shifting whims, and then changing tactics when you get countered.
I don’t find the idea of trying to eke out a more than 50% winrate with decks I didn’t make up very appealing. Nor do I like the idea that all my individual efforts are mostly for naught when compared to a whole internet full of people using particular premade netdecks that far outclass me, throwing hundreds of dollars at the game to get all the cards they need. Sure, I can try to scrape something together and compete, I can appropriate their techniques, but all I’m doing is playing the odds, hoping I draw into lucky strings of cards to make my combos work, hoping they don’t draw into theirs. Hoping that if we both draw into our deck’s ultimate concept, that mine trumps theirs in the meta, that they aren’t set up to counter me. I’ve done pretty well with my homebrew decks, but once you’re mired in the silver ranks, you’ll start running into decks using enormous amounts of synergistic legendaries that were most likely bought with real money. Sometimes, draw luck is on your side, other times, it’s not.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still fun a lot of the time. But it is not a direct competition between minds. There’s too much other crap in the way. There’s a certain amount of skill involved in playing the cards/decks correctly, but at their heart, CCGs are a matter of who has the time and the luck, who is willing to steal the best ideas efficiently.
Compare the strategies in CCGs to the strategy found in a game like Go, for instance, where every piece has the same properties and the rules are very simple with no randomness, yet the depth of potential strategies is so all-consuming that people dedicate their whole lives to the game, and the game is capable of opening itself up to higher and higher levels of play as you progress. In a card game, the pieces you even have access to are based on either your wallet or grinding out the hours. In a sense, this might be similar on the surface in that more time = more power. But there’s no set of pieces you unlock by studying Go for 1000 hours that will automatically win games for you once they’re all out on the board. You’re never stuck with pieces in your bowl that are unplayable because you lack some other amount of power, or finding that you reach into the bowl and there’s no stones in there to draw out and play. Your ideas have a direct expression on the board at all times, and the better your ideas, the stronger your purpose and the more efficient your play, the better you are at the game in a direct correlation.
So, all that said, Eternal is still a pretty good example of a game in this genre. It’s pretty close to M:TG, and has a lot of great elements that make it shine with a hell of a lot less RNG than, say, Hearthstone. The attacking and blocking mechanics engender some interesting mindgames and back and forth. But it’s still a collectible card game at the end of the day, and bound by those same limitations.
I’ll finish this out by saying that while I still do play Eternal quite a lot, and I usually enjoy my time with it, I can only provisionally recommend it to those who are willing to put up with the usual pay-to-win collectible card game frustrations present in every example of this genre. If you’re up for struggling quite a bit against factors outside of your control, for the sake of the occasional dopamine rush of an earned win interspersed with a lot of unearned wins and losses, well, you could do worse than Eternal. It certainly whiles away the hours, and what more can we ask for?
I’d also like to pose a (somewhat rhetorical) question: what would be so bad about giving all players access to all cards right from the start, and charging a reasonable price to purchase the game? Or, providing the player with an option to draw cards instead of taking an action, like Infinity Wars does? Then, much more of your success or failure would rest on your own ingenuity rather than RNG and time/money spent just unlocking the ability to play the game, or getting screwed out of power or card draw.