“Hearthstone meets Magic the Gathering”- this was the first sentence from the PR pitch I received, yet supposedly, it came from an early previewer of the latest online CCG Spellweaver. Although it bills itself as a Trading Card Game, there’s no trading, much like Hearthstone, once again relying on a kind of card-recycling crafting system. Immediately I had my doubts about the game. I accepted a press account and early access mostly out of curiosity, but I’m glad I did.
While my initial tutorial experience was rough, the game’s already released a second one to help polish it, describing most of the basics while also rewinding your turn if you fail to do a task, but without explicitly telling you how to accomplish it. This allows you to actually learn a bit of the mechanics for yourself and see how flexible your choices can be before being thrown in with the sharks other players. It may not sound like much, but honestly, a lot of Spellweaver is mechanically much closer to MtG than HS.
Like magic, you have spells (which you can use during your opponent’s turn), artifacts, creatures, and “lands.” However, spells can act like global enchantments, artifacts can act like creature enchantments, and “lands,” when used in the MtG sense, provide mana and an additional second or third card, but they can also increase your level. Things can get complex quickly.
Let’s look at a single card for an example. The number in the purple on the top left is the spell cost. Simple enough. However, the two flame icons and two white icons means you need to be level 4 before you can cast Red Dragon, specifically needing at least 2 levels in red, though the other two levels can be in any other color (yes, unlike Hearthstone, picking a hero doesn’t restrict you to a single color type! You can have as many as you want, but it’ll be harder to get the right resources for each additional type you use). Some spells even target cards based on levels. The green arrows are speed – you can only directly attack and choose to block creatures with the same speed as you or lower. If something has four arrows, Red Dragon here can’t touch it unless it decides to block him; his “flying” ability puts him on the support line.
Support, once again, is a more complex feature, which basically lets your minions sit on the board and do their thing in relative safety, being unable to be attacked direct, but (unless they have flying), at the cost of not being able to attack or block.
While all this does sound complicated, after a few games, I got the hang of it. Unlike MtG, there’s 6 colors, no direct mana destruction that I can find (but forcing opponents to discard from their hand is still in), fewer phases (times where you’re allowed to react to the enemy’s turn or choice), a 15 minute total time limit per character for all their actions (like choosing to end your turn, in addition to the hero levels and powers, support line, creature speed, and “diving”- the ability to trade a card in your hand to look at the top 4 cards of your deck, choose a mana granting one, and shuffle the rest to the bottom of your deck. Diving really mixes things up, as it’s more interesting than getting mana every turn, but it also allows you to rifle through your deck better.
I have played Hex in the past, before the PvE and “dungeon” encounters, but I mostly remember it being a natural evolution of MtG online. While that isn’t bad, it does mean you have to pay a lot of attention, have many phases, and a rather complex UI. For all of Spellweaver‘s additions, it still streamlines a lot of the MtG experience so that I can still play it while eating dinner, only I can’t also check my email between turns. The game satisfies that MtG itch without also causing any headaches. If anything, I feel like the Hearthstone comparison is only fair in that HS is a quicker CCG experience. In that sense, Spellweaver feels like speed Magic the Gathering.
It’s not all sunshine though. The game has tournaments at certain times. These aren’t like HS arenas (though the game has that as “trials”), but something a bit different. They’re not always available, but I did catch a specific Asia-timed one. The event took over 3 hours. I didn’t abuse my press status when I entered it either; I used a starter deck with a few additions, and I was kind of a newbie, but got 22/39, partially because people who lost early on quit. I didn’t make all my entry fee back, but it helped with leveling a bit, and I was happy with my results. Maybe it’s because they’re so limited, but the ranking made it feel worth my time, and I’m usually someone who hates ladder matches and rank grinding.
Speaking of grinds, your account has an overall level. You get one starter deck from one of the six colored factions, unlocking a new deck of your choice every five levels. Each deck unlocks an “area” on the map with quests, from simply grinding “fame” (your xp) to PvE boss fights, with rewards ranging from gold/gems (free to play currency or paid currency) to specific cards to booster packs. Most quests feel a bit grindy, but boss fights are a bit tough at the start, and well worth the effort.
The in game “hero” powers are pretty cool, and mixing colors makes it feel more interesting, though unlike Hearthstone, they’re more situational. You can’t use them every turn, but they’re also generally more powerful, and the ability to get more through the game helps make your hero/deck feel more unique, at least at my current rank (in tournaments, trials, and ranked play).
Now, I mentioned that trials are arena, but since colors are more flexible than HS‘s heroes, you choose a hero and 2 colors that are assigned to that hero by the game. You need more wins to get additional packs than in HS (5 wins of 10 only gets 1 pack), but you get a lot of gold to help recover from the cost, plus also crafting materials (like Hearthstone’s dust mechanic).
Though the game is free to play, and it’s easy enough to get gold (again, I made very little use of my press account, but may abuse it after this review), if I were a new player, I’d probably actually put $20 in the game for the extra decks, heroes, and tickets (used instead of gold to enter tournaments or trials). You don’t have to do this, but as someone who’s played a lot of card games in the past, I picked this up quickly and wanted to experiment with everything. I haven’t gotten excited about a free to play game in a long time, so this recommendation doesn’t come lightly. While one can subscribe to the game for weekly/monthly bonuses, I’m not quite sure if the value of the game is there for me… yet.
Although the game has a lot of the same features as Hearthstone, it originally aimed for more. Though there was no Kickstarter, Dream Reactor raised money for Spellweaver on their own site. 6 out of 8 goals were made, and (sadly) the two ones that weren’t made were 2v2 games and making the game into an MMO, like Hex wants to do. I asked lead designer and 2006 MtG Bulgarian National Champion Ivko Stanilov about the future of the game and these two options, and was told that they’re “not out of the question, but definitely low priority.” It’s kind of a shame, but at least it’s something that will make sure keep listening for news on the game, even if I take a break from it. It’s much more encouraging than HS‘s recent news!