Hearthstone's new Duels mode feels like a fun vacation away from Standard

Hearthstone Duels Mozaki Master Duelist Mage
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My board is far from threatening. I've got a 2/3 Mana Wyrm, a Wand Thief, and my opponent has just cleared my Firebrand. Until this point I was quietly regretting that I'd picked Book of Wonders as my treasure. In any other game mode, stuffing 10 cast-when-drawn spells into your deck is a recipe of disaster. But this is the new Duels mode, and here it's kinda the point. 

I proceed to draw three Scroll of Wonders in a row, buffing my minions with Power of the Wild, clearing two enemy minions with Cleave, and gaining two extra Mana Crystals with Lightning Bloom. Thanks to the extra Mana, I slam down Archmage Antonidas and generate a couple of Fireballs to burn my way out. 

The key mistake the other player made was going for a relatively sensible Mage build, with a passive spell damage buff thanks to the Robe of the Apprentice treasure, plus multiple Frostbolts and Arcane Missiles. Whereas I have put my faith in the roulette wheel.               

The Duels mode launched in Early Access a couple of weeks ago, and it strikes a good balance between creative Dungeon Run-style deck-building and RNG in its current form. It's only possible to play casually at the moment. Heroic Duels, with similar awards to the Arena mode, will arrive alongside the Madness at the Darkmoon Faire expansion on November 17. The lack of stakes right now makes questionable deck choices all the more exciting to experiment with. 

If you're yet to give it a whirl—probably because entry currently requires pre-ordering Darkmoon's mega bundle—here's how it works. Initially you pick one of four Heroes from Hearthstone's 10 classes. You then pick one of three possible hero powers (although only one per class is unlocked right now), a starting treasure, and then use your collection to construct a 15-card starter deck. 

Similar to the Dungeon Run PvE formula introduced with Kobolds and Catacombs, the further you go, the more cards and treasures you add to your build. Although this time you'll be testing out your skills versus other players, rather than AI opponents.

The thing that I love about Duels so far is that it encourages me to be creative, without asking me to build the perfect deck from the get-go. There's only room for 15 cards initially, so it forces me to weigh up what kind of deck I actually want to play. However, unlike other modes, it feels like there's more room to try entirely different builds each time without getting super-punished for it.

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I'm sorely lacking the Kripparrian-level skills needed to create a solid Arena deck, and at this point in the Hearthstone expansion cycle, viable constructed archetypes have mostly been solved. I'll be honest, the only time I feel confident enough to construct decks entirely from scratch is during the first few days of a new expansion, when everything feels new and I can get away with running unrefined builds in Ranked.

While there are already a few patterns emerging in Duels, each new run genuinely feels like a fresh chance to try something entirely different, even when I pick the same class. As a general rule, opting for a build with good tempo will likely see you go far, and I've run into a few players using similar base cards for classes like Mage. 

Band of Bees (Your minions that cost two or less have Poisonous) also looks to be an instant-pick treasure if you're offered it. However, I think there's little danger of Duels feeling stale quickly as there are so many ways to adapt your deck as you play, and the nature of the mode forces you to be reactive. New cards and treasures evolve your strategy with each new match, and I found that I didn't receive the same options all that often—although I've seen some reports of bugged duplicate card offerings a few times on Reddit.

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Even if the community manages to find the optimum builds for each class, there's always room for the pool of cards to change, too. At the time of writing, Scholomance Academy, Curse of Naxxramas, One Night in Karazhan, Classic, and Basic are all active, but switching just one of these sets out would dramatically affect what's on offer, and encourage a new wave of creativity each time. Presumably the Madness at the Darkmoon Faire set will be added soon after the expansion launches, so I hope they also throw in the Whispers of the Old Gods set for maximum madness.

There have also been some community complaints about the fact that Duels utilises old sets in the pool of cards available for the starter decks, but I don't think this is something players need to worry about. If you have cards from old expansions in your collection then this is a great opportunity to use them outside of Hearthstone's Wild mode. However, you won't be at an immediate disadvantage if you don't own these cards. As you add more cards and treasures to your Duels deck, your deck will evolve past its bare bones foundations, so there's no pressure to rush out and craft old sets to remain competitive.

As with Arena, your aim is to win 12 games without losing three, and so far my best streak was with a Demon Hunter build that was also initially high-tempo. As I won more games I was able to flesh it out with much larger threats that I could cheat out with my signature treasure, which summons three Demons from the deck. They're 'Dormant' for two turns, but once they wake up it's a lot for any deck to deal with. I also found room to throw in a few juicy board clears as the deck morphed to be able to take board early, and then close out matches with some beefy minions.

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I've had a lot of fun trying my luck with riskier treasures too, such as the Ever-Changing Elixir, which transforms a friendly minion into one that costs one more at the end of your turn. This can go sour pretty quickly when you build a small deck with synergies in mind, only to scupper your own plans by evolving a minion into something subpar. However, it's fun when you manage to pull off a crazy turn with the help of a strange treasure-card combo that no one saw coming. Even when I end up losing to something utterly ridiculous, I haven't found myself taking it to heart. 

Maybe that will change when the Heroic mode arrives, but for now I'm very happy to continue taking an extended vacation in Duels until Madness at the Darkmoon Faire revitalises the Ranked scene.

Emma Matthews

As PC Gamer's guides writer, Emma is usually juggling several games at once. She loves competitive first-person shooters like CS:GO and Call of Duty, but she always has time for a few rounds of Hearthstone. She's happiest when she's rescuing pugs in Spelunky 2.