I play Hearthstone pretty casually, so my card collection is slim. I use a lot of the same good cards in my decks and face a lot of the same good decks on the ladder. It's fun, but the play can become too routine between major updates. The success of Hearthstone has also spawned other new digital card games, and after trying a few I was starting to burn out on the genre—until Duelyst brought me back. It's a card game that doesn't feel like playing cards.
Duelyst does have cards, with minions, spells, weapons, and pretty much everything else you'd expect from another game in the genre that owes credit to Magic: The Gathering. It breaks suit, however, by adding a gridded board where the units you play appear and move around. Developer Counterplay Games has essentially combined Final Fantasy Tactics' turn-based strategy with Hearthstone's deck building, and it's reinvigorated my excitement for digital card games as whole.
The board is Duelyst's greatest asset, and it takes advantage of it well. You draw two cards per turn instead of one, and can swap a card in your hand for a random one in your deck once per turn, taking the focus off of drawing cards and putting it more on how you use them. With the board, you can't just try to predict what your opponent might play, but now have to consider where they would play it, how you might get around it, and where it could be two turns down the line. It's an exciting level of strategy to consider while building a deck, and one I miss when I go back to play more Hearthstone.
However, Duelyst is very much 'in beta,' having only opened up to the public last month and clearly lacking the polish of a game like Hearthstone. The most obvious example: it kicks me back to the main menu after doing pretty much anything. Complete a game? I get sent back to the main menu, where I have to click 'Play,' choose a mode, and then re-select a deck before I can start looking for a match—very much unlike the actual game's quick pace. It's a little frustrating, but hardly a big problem for a beta. And I am having enough fun playing Duelyst that I'm happy to click for it.
[Update: This has actually already been patched so that you stay at the deck selection screen after a match!]
The most impressive part of Duelyst is that it already looks gorgeous, combining a hand-drawn style with animated pixel art character sprites. The contrast of the two styles gives Duelyst a distinctive look, and they blend together well in large part due to the game's lighting system, which interacts with both the battlefield and the sprites independently. Each character has its own attack animation—impressive given the number of them—and some of my favorite units, like the Moebius and the Ironcliffe Guardian, are my favorites based on their design and animations alone.
And finding my favorite cards is much less daunting than in comparable digital card games. You get five cards per pack, which can be bought for 100 gold each—identical to Hearthstone's pack system. But gold comes much quicker and the chance of pulling an epic or legendary card is significantly higher, with Duelyst legendaries showing up roughly five times as often. Learning which cards are good or bad is arguably harder with the added layer of positioning and movement, but even if all my cards suck, the pace at which I'm acquiring them feels nice.
There are currently more than 300 cards, and Counterplay updates the game with new features, balance adjustments, and cards monthly. It's a much more engaged update and design philosophy than Blizzard has taken with Hearthstone, making Duelyst feel like a constantly shifting puzzle rather than a Rubix cube to be solved. There are advantages to either system, but it's refreshing to know that new content is always around the corner and that OP strategies will be dealt with.
But most importantly, Duelyst plays to my love of card games without getting in line with the rest of them. It's not a spotless experience, but it's definitely worth a free try if you've got too much Magic or Hearthstone in your diet and want to try a slightly different flavor. It's in open beta now, and can be downloaded at the official site.