In the cards: The best CCGs for your PC

Robert Hathorne

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It's tough to find a quality customizable card game (CCG) on PC—there aren't a lot of them in existence, and only a few are worth playing. Thus, like a discriminate Lady Liberty, PC Gamer proclaims to the genre, “Give us only your best! Leave the refuse on your own shore and let the masses continue to huddle!”

I've plucked a select set of games, including one that weds Magic: The Gathering and StarCraft. But even the best of the best are only as good as those who play them with you. So to help you navigate these games' range of player communities, each is labeled according to my experiences with their online players, from non-existent (*), to welcoming (**) to downright terrifying (***).

PoxNora (***)

http://poxnora.station.sony.com

Released : August 2006

Cost : Free; cash shop

How's it work? It's a typical turn-based strategy model of capturing control points, squashing enemies and razing their strongholds. There are a lot of combinations (over 900 units and spells), but victory is usually decided by who has the bigger monster.

Is it fun? It scratched my itch for old-school Magic. The tabletop-style graphics are a nice touch.

Community: The bazaar is overflowing with rapid card-swapping and people willing to help out, to an extent. It's easy for players to buy their way to the top of multiplayer, so spend a few hours in the training grounds or single-player campaigns first.

Saga (**)

www.playsaga.com

Released : March 2008

Cost : Free; cash shop

How's it work? Level your nation through real-time strategy battles fought by armies summoned from your customized deck. Augment your army by constructing buildings like churches and farms in your persistent hub base.

Is it fun? Huge battlefields and massive armies give Saga a Total War sense of grandeur. As your army marches forward, the fires that they started miles back still smolder in the distance.

Community : “Anyone need help?” a player asks in chat. When I say “I do,” I'm encouraged to do training missions first. Players are eager to help, and eager to help you help yourself.

Battleforge (**)

www.battleforge.com

Released : March 2009

Cost : Free; cash shop

How's it work? It's real-time strategy where cards summon creatures and spells. Effects are straightforward, and resources are earned by holding control points.

Is it fun? Four-player PvE provides a light show of indiscriminate mayhem sweeping across a map in real time. The scene of my allies and I sieging the last bastion of a bandit army was particularly memorable: enormous dragons battle above masses of tiny infantry, while arrows and puffs of green, blue and yellow magical discharge fill the air between them. As I watch the kaleidoscopic scene unfold, I feel a familiar endorphin rush, and “Ode to Joy” begins playing in the back of my head. “Peggle!” I think, “it's card-based, strategy Peggle!” For only a smidge of input (waiting for my resources to accrue and clicking the monster I want to summon), I receive a spectacular display of enormous power—awesome.

Community : Players are highly active, making it easy to find good matches. The focus on cooperative PvE negates the unbalancing effects of the cash shop.

Mythoria (*)

www.randomstargames.com/mythoria

Release : February 2010

Cost : $17

How's it work? Battle for control of seven tiles with seven of 73 surprisingly distinctive cards.

Is it fun? Matches last around 10 minutes, making it the perfect warm-up or cool-down for extended play sessions with friends. A short roster of cards makes each Wall of Souls or Manticore you unlock feel powerful and game-changing.

Community : Two guys made it, and only a few more currently play it. Pickup games are out of the question, so you'll have to bring a friend or settle for playing the pretty-good single-player campaign.

Bellatorus (*)

www.bellatorus.com

Released : October 2009

Cost : $20

How's it work? Use seven decks and a powerful editor to raise your magical tower.

Is it fun? Once you've got a handle on all of the systems (population and resource management, village upgrades and how cards interact with one another), it's incredibly rewarding. Watching bricks burst from your opponent's plummeting tower when you cast Hurricane does not get old.

Community : A Best Buy-exclusive retail release limited the game's exposure, so there're not many people playing. Single-player is quite good, at least.

Warstorm (**)

www.facebook.com/Warstorm

Released : November 2008

Cost : Free; cash shop

How's it work? Select cards to fill out your squad, click Start, watch the fireworks and receive the rewards.

Is it fun? Surprisingly, yes. The combination of simple, super-fast gameplay, copious card unlocks and pitting your squads against opponents gives Warstorm a peculiar feeling of Zen, akin to clearing the bottom row in Tetris.

Community : Has a bustling Facebook player-base, and even has its own strategy wiki.

Spectromancer (**)

www.spectromancer.com

Released : October 2008

Cost : $10

How's it work? The combat interface looks similar to Warstorm's, but that's where the similarities end. This is far more complex, with a lot of stats to keep track of and effects that can be stacked for a quick victory—just the way a real CCG should be.

Is it fun? Definitely. A cornucopia of spells and creatures makes you feel powerful from the start. And with so many variables, one smart move (such as a well-timed Flame Wave) can give you a tense, last-minute comeback.

Community : Finding a game is quick, and within 15 minutes, I had my first friend request—and although it's probably because he beat me twice in a row, I still consider it a win. Spectromancer has a learning curve, but I was never abused or insulted while I struggled to learn the ropes—in fact, I was invited to an unranked training session by another player!

Magic: The Gathering—Tactics

www.magicthegatheringtactics.com

Releases : January 2011

Cost : Free; cash shop

How's it work? All the intricacies of the world's most popular CCG remain intact, with most cards from the tabletop version possessing nearly identical abilities here. Tactics adds an additional layer of depth by placing your summoned creatures on a grid for turn-based tactical action.

Is it fun? I haven't faced anyone online in the beta yet, but my experience in single-player and the deck editor (which allows you to completely customize and save your decks) has intensified my thirst for blood. The first time my 3D-rendered Serra Angel swooped onto the battlefield, I instinctively pumped my fist in the air, and I'm giddy as a school girl about the legendary Black Lotus I snagged from a booster pack. This is Magic, and it's going to be incredible.

Community (in beta at time of writing) : If Duels of the Planeswalkers and Magic Online are any indication, Tactics will be popular at launch, and the community will be as ruthless as it is large. But the fun single-player component and user-friendly features hehelike the auction house and friends list should help newcomers ease into the community.

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