The 9 best card games (that aren't Hearthstone)

Hearthstone can single-handedly be thanked for blowing open the digital card game market on PC. It's a great CCG, and without it most of the games listed below probably wouldn't even exist—despite the fact that none of them will likely ever see the same level of success. As someone who can't help but play every card game I can get my hands on, I noticed most of these competitors were often written off as dead or dying in the shadow of Hearthstone without even getting a chance to prove themselves. 

Whether you like it or not, we're in a golden age for CCGs on PC, and there's a lot of fantastic flavors to try. Even better, since Hearthstone is the top dog by a mile, most of these alternatives are extremely generous with their free-to-play aspects as a way to get new players invested quicker. All nine of the games listed below are a lot of fun, and do something different from Hearthstone that make them worth checking out.

Duelyst

Official site
Read our review here
What sets it apart: Tactics-style combat on a gridded board.

Duelyst is essentially a combination of Hearthstone and Final Fantasy Tactics. The combat and card mechanics are extremely similar to Hearthstone, but you summon your units onto a five-by-nine grid where they can move around each turn. It's a simple game to learn with a massive amount of choice and decision-making spurred by its board. It also has an interesting 'replace' mechanic that lets you mulligan one card from your hand every turn which, when coupled with its 39 card decks and allowing three of each card, makes drawing what you want a lot more consistent.

The Elder Scrolls: Legends

Official site
Read our review here
What sets it apart: Two separate 'lanes' and free card draws as you lose health.

The Elder Scrolls: Legends takes one big step toward Magic: The Gathering from Hearthstone. It allows you to mix cards from up to two of its factions, but still keeps Hearthstone's auto-increasing mana. It also uses similar damage and combat mechanics to Hearthstone, allowing you to choose your attack targets and having minions keep damage taken. But Legends separates its playing field into two lanes that rarely interact with each other, and one of which protects minions played there for a turn. It also has a rune system that lets you draw a free card for every five health you lose, making it important to plan carefully when you are deciding to deal damage to your opponent.

Eternal

Official site
What sets it apart: The reintroduction of 'instants' and mana cards while staying very streamlined.

From the same developer of The Elder Scrolls: Legends, Eternal is kind of the opposite—it takes one big step toward Hearthstone from Magic: The Gathering. It looks and feels a lot like Hearthstone in practice, but brings back things like 'instant' cards that can be played during your opponent's turn, mana cards with specific colors for each faction, decks with any number of factions mixed, and declaring which of your minions will attack and then letting your opponent choose their own blockers. The key here is Eternal has managed to make all these things quicker and more satisfying than most other digital CCGs that try them, not sacrificing depth for accessibility. It also has one of my favorite Draft modes of any game on this list, having you draft a deck from four card packs that you keep for your collection after the fact.

Hex: Shards of Fate

Official site
What sets it apart: A full-fledged campaign PvE mode and a massive marketplace to trade or sell cards.

Hex: Shards of Fate feels a lot like someone said "what would Magic: The Gathering look like if it was designed to be digital from the start?" With a few exceptions, it plays exactly like Magic, but has a much better client and play experience than any official digital Magic game—making it a better choice for Magic fans than any of them, thus their exclusion from this list. It also does some cool things that paper Magic can't with persistent buffs, copying cards, and transforming cards. It likely has the highest cost of any game on this list, mostly requiring you to trade on its marketplace to get PvP cards without spending real money, but its PvE campaign is shockingly deep and a huge amount of fun on its own.

Infinity Wars

Official site
What sets it apart: Simultaneous turns and a zone system for minions.

Infinity Wars was by far the most requested game when I wrote a much shorter version of this list two years ago. It's a game with familiar combat mechanics to Hearthstone but the added depth of being able to swap your units around in different zones—so you could change the order the units in your offensive zone attack in, or swap a stronger unit to your defensive zone if your opponent is about to pull out something big. It's also a faster paced CCG as players take their turns simultaneously, meaning you'll do less waiting around as the rope burns down. To be frank, the voice acting in this game is really bad, but the art style and theme itself is a cool blend of sci-fi and fantasy.

Faeria

Official site
Read our impressions here
What sets it apart: A living board that you and your opponent build over the course of the game.

Faeria is similar to Duelyst in that you place minions onto a board and then move them to fight, but Faeria's board is hex-based and starts entirely blank. Each turn players can place down tiles to build out usable land, meaning you are fighting to secure a foothold on the map that will help you better kill your opponent. Certain land tiles have special terrain, like lakes and forests, that are required to summon minions of specific factions, similar to colored mana in other games, but mana itself in Faeria is still colorless. It's a very unique game within this list, but still manages to feel like a deep CCG.

Shadowverse

Official site
What sets it apart: An 'Evolve' mechanic that lets you buff and transform any of your minions.

Shadowverse is probably the closest option to Hearthstone here, but it stands out in its own ways. Its theming and style is potentially the biggest indication that Shadowverse started in Japan, but it also has a number of mechanics Hearthstone doesn't. It uses an 'Evolve' system that lets you buff and transform a limited number of your own minions each game, making them stronger and changing their art to something a little more intense. Each faction in Shadowverse also has unique systems you can't really find anywhere else, and many Hearthstone pros recognize it as a deeper game strategically.

Chronicle: Runescape Legends

Official site
Read our impressions here
What sets it apart: No direct combat, a totally unique take on a card battler

Chronicle: Runescape Legends is an impressively and unexpectedly fresh take on a competitive CCG. Based around the Runescape MMO (similar to how Hearthstone is based around WoW), Chronicle manages to take some pretty standard CCG mechanics and make them feel more like an RPG quest than a card game. Every match is spread across five maps, each letting you play four cards. You place those cards in a set order in front of you while your opponent does the same. You can play monsters to fight or loot to purchase with the gold you get from killing them, essentially building out your characters' journey as you try to get stronger than your opponent before you have to fight them at the end. You can also use cards that will mess with their plans, so it's still head-to-head, just in a very unique way.

It should be noted that while I maintain Chronicle is still a good game, the developers have seemingly walked away from it, leaving it with a dwindling community and a general lack of support. I still think it's fun, but enter at your own risk.

Gwent

Official site
Read our impressions here
What sets it apart: No health or combat, more of a bluffing game with loads of strategy.

Flat out, Gwent is nothing like Hearthstone and doesn't take its roots from Magic: The Gathering. There's no health, mana, or combat, and you start the game with nearly all the cards you'll draw during a given match. Instead Gwent is a game built around bluffing and timing. Every match is played as a best of three rounds, and you try to play cards to end each round with a higher point total than your opponent. It's not as simple as "play all the big numbers" of course, as cards can interact with each other and you can mess with your opponent's side of the board. It's a very complex game, but also a relatively approachable one, and fills an interesting role in the CCG genre.