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Scrolls Review Review

" Final Collectable Card Fantasy Tactics. "

My opponent is smart. After laying a laughable ambulatory eldritch owl creature on the board in her first round, she lulled me into a false sense of security by laying a warrior on the battlefield on her second turn. Sure, he can attack at every single turn, but he only hits for two damage and only has two health. He can wait. I already have a deranged cultist on the board that will kill her warrior on my next turn, but to be safe, I put a putrid shrine between my cultist and her warrior. But that eldritch creature gives her small army more resources with every turn, and she lays down a forest shrine that periodically heals her Nordic warriors. I can't kill the shrine in this turn, so I sacrifice a small bauble that would allow me to curse my opponents so I can play a ravenous zombie from my hand. In a couple of turns, she will regret not laying out more offensive weaponry.

Or so I thought. On her next turn, my fiendish opponent gave her warrior a magic ring, and suddenly his attacks hit harder. "It's fine," I told myself. He still only had two health, and my cultist was going to kill his protection that turn, leaving my zombie free to tear him to shreds next time. I laid down a wolf. I had three attackers to her one. I killed the shrine only for my opponent to lay down a cheap scout, and then my troubles really began. She cast verdant magic, and suddenly, this simple peasant warrior had more health and was immune to my own necromancy. A couple of turns later (and more foolishness on my end), that single unit had health and attack in the double digits and was slaying my units whenever they entered the battle. I surrendered and congratulated my opponent on her clever play.

Decks can be single-resource or mixed.

Scrolls, the latest game from Minecraft developer Mojang, is full of opportunities for stories like that. A potent mix of turn-based tactical strategy with collectable card games, Scrolls understands the basic quality needed for either genre to succeed: choice. Whether it's the hard-scrabble battles being fought on the 3X5 hexagonal grids that each army calls home or the painstaking decisions made in moment-to-moment card-drawing and laying, Scrolls forces players to make smart choices at each step of play or fail. You will fail a lot. Scrolls stakes its claim as one of the more difficult and complex games in the crowded CCG market, and unless you've already sunk countless hours into titles like Hearthstone or Magic the Gathering: Online, you can expect an arduous hike up this game's immense difficulty curve.

In Scrolls, players battle one another or the computer in a series of matches with decks of up to 50 cards. Players start with one deck--the Growth deck, which is a basic nature rush deck--but you can eventually unlock starting decks for all four of the game's main resources: Growth (nature/rush), Order (knights/buffing), Energy (machines/direct damage), and Decay (zombies/debuffing). Players generate resources and gain cards at each turn to lay their cards as units on their half of the game's grid. Units deal damage or proc magical effects to units in their row with exceptions for special ranged artillery units, which have a wider area of effect for their attacks at the sacrifice of complete immobility. The end goal is to destroy three of your opponent's idols, which are hidden at the back of each row. And you will likely swear uncontrollably, mostly in a good way, while doing it.

Some of the later trials are hellishly difficult.

Part of what makes Scrolls so unforgiving is its resource system. Unlike Magic or Pokemon, which have dedicated cards that one sacrifices to slowly but surely play more powerful cards in your deck, or something like Hearthstone, which has an auto-resource generation system, Scrolls forces you to sacrifice cards in your hands to generate resources or to get two other cards. It's rare for a match to begin without both players sacrificing a card for resources. If your deck is constructed well, you'll have few cards that you'll want to let go of willingly. And while you have to keep sacrificing cards to get enough resources to play the best units in your hand, if you only sacrifice cards for resources, you're asking to end up top-decking against your opponent. Scrolls is not a game where top-decking is a sound strategy.

So a constant balance is struck between sacrificing for resources and sacrificing for cards. And the longer you play, the more times you'll see an opponent use a card that you thought was an easy sacrifice choice in a new and interesting manner and crush you. And you begin to recognize the situational value of each card in your hand. And that makes the choice of what to let go that much harder. But you have to let something go. If you don't sacrifice one way or another, your opponent will break away in resources or cards, and either one is a lethal advantage in Scrolls. The choices become agonizing because every choice you make has immediate and measurable consequences.

Scrolls would be difficult if that were the only quirk in its systems, but the grid combat itself is just as punishing, though significantly more tantalizing in its complexity. Units, with the exception of ranged artillery and structures, are laid on the grid, but they have freedom to move about it. Units also have countdowns that determine when they can attack and when they can simply hope to defend, although “defense” is perhaps the wrong word because units attacked during their opponent’s turn do not do any damage to their attackers. They simply have to endure the attack and hope that they can vanquish their abuser before its countdown resets.

Scrolls forces players to make smart choices at each step of play.

And if there are enough pieces on the board--it's very easy to simply be swarmed by your poor decisions and good draws/decisions by your opponent--Scrolls becomes akin to a game of chess. Do you place your strongest units at the back of the row to ensure that they remain in play, or do you put them in the front to shield your weaker units while putting your most powerful players at major risk? Do you throw intentional sacrifices on the board to force your opponent to waste turns attacking meaningless units? Matches are won and lost in the minutiae of troop placement, and mastering that system is as important as understanding the competing values of your cards.

Fortunately, Scrolls offers a large and substantive training mode to ease players into the game before you take on human opponents. Beyond the basic tutorials, the Trials challenges (of which there are dozens) teach you to think situationally about the game. The Trials range from Easy and Medium to Hard. The Easy Trials give the player stat bonuses and various other buffs/extra units to start matches. They are used for situating yourself with the Growth deck and help you unlock the other decks. They can still be lost if your draws are bad enough; no matter how tactically driven Scrolls is, there's still a random element to the game. But, by the time you finish all of the Easy Trials, you should understand the basic ebb and flow of Scrolls matches.

It's when you reach the Medium Trials that Scrolls brings out its claws and teaches you how to react to the odds being stacked against you. While you may occasionally get buffs in Medium trials, your opponents also get bonuses like extra units and their own enchantments. And you will play these trials over and over and over again until you solve the puzzle. And while the opponent's advantage may seem unfair, the lessons are invaluable. You learn how to deal with opponents with comical health stacks. You learn to eliminate units that generate other units first. Sometimes wins in Medium Trials seem as if they came down to pure luck, but that element is at play in all card games. Hard Trials are for only the most masochistic, as the computer's advantage is nigh insurmountable unless you are a top-tier Scrolls player.

Matches are won and lost in the minutiae of troop placement.

Scrolls is one of the best-looking games of its genre. When cards come into play, the units on the board transform from cards into the units themselves. And with a visual aesthetic that is drawn equally from Western and Eastern inspirations, Scrolls' character models recall the art style of Nickelodeon's The Legend of Korra with a touch of George R. R. Martin. Units have unique battle animations for attacks and will sprint across the board to attack their opponents. It's a small touch, but it adds to the feeling that your cards are waging a war on your behalf, and it removes from the abstraction of health points and damage boxes. When a hulking, carapaced blob tears through three of your units in one go, it feels more satisfying than a glowing card and flashy ephemera for damage ever could.

Another highly redeeming feature of the game is its minimal microtransaction model. Real money can be spent for "shards," which allow you to buy things like preconstructed decks, individual cards, or entries into the game's "drafting" mode, Judgment. But there's a limit to how often money can be spent on shards, and there's almost no reason to "pay to win" in the first place. Even matches that you lose pay out a decent amount of gold, which can be used to buy anything you can buy shards with. The various Trials reward with gold as well upon completion. And in my time with the game, I had enough gold to enter Judgment three times, buy over half a dozen card packs, and purchase four of the six preconstructed decks. Shards also can't be spent on the random deck packs, further minimizing the advantage that wealthier players can accrue. Here's hoping that more CCGs follow Scrolls' suit in this case.

Zawh-hawmbie Zawh-hawmbie.

For all the ways, then, that Scrolls rewards players who are willing to delve into the caverns of its mechanics and possibilities, it's a shame that the endgame is often such a drag. Scrolls matches are long. If neither player concedes and one opponent isn't squashing the other with a nasty rush deck, matches can last between 30 and 50 minutes. It's easy to tell when you're too far down to have any possibility of coming back. Many matches are won in the first five to seven turns, but if you have enough hope to struggle forward on the off chance you'll get the one card you need to survive, matches can drag on for an eternity as you and your opponent slowly pick away at each other's defenses. You know you aren't going to win, but you don't know it with enough certainty to throw in the towel. It ties into the game's countdown system, which keeps units from attacking at every turn, and while that adds a delicious layer of tactics to the early and mid-game, it manages to rob the endgame of that urgency. It's especially problematic when you and your opponent have so many units on the grid that neither of you has the mobility to execute complex strategies in the first place. It just becomes a repetitive slug fest.

The endgame isn't always a drag. I played in (and lost) a ranked match against a player running an Energy deck against my Decay deck. My deck was built around surviving to the endgame because I had a spell that would transform all of my creatures in play (which would, I hoped, be a lot by then) into re-animated husks with high damage that could attack immediately. And I could then play a creature that summoned more husks like that every two turns. But Energy decks revolve around area-of-effect ranged attacks and a ton of direct damage, and we were trading pieces back and forth for almost an hour until he played a spell three times in a row that wiped essentially my entire army off the board on the third go (a spell that attacks every unit connected together, which at that point in the game is every unit). It was a frustrating loss, but the match was thrilling from start to finish.

Dude's a fan of orange

Scrolls also suffers from a handful of bugs. The most benign simply erases the attack/health/countdown information about the units on your screen unless you hover over the unit, though even that bug can cause serious headaches if you momentarily forget numbers and do bad math in your head. The more serious bugs require regular resets of the game because the game will simply refuse to connect you to Trials or to put you in the queue to participate in multiplayer ranked matches. They don't happen often, but they are far from rare. The matchmaking system is also somewhat disappointing, and there have been dozens of times where I've fought the same opponent multiple times in a row, which can be frustrating when the game consistently fails to match you with other players around your rank/rating.

Scrolls shouldn't be your introduction to collectable card games; Hearthstone serves that purpose far better. In fact, you should probably pop in Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea should you need a primer on Scrolls’ strategic concerns. But if you crave a challenge and a new type of CCG experience, Scrolls may fulfill that role. The community needs to grow, and some general balancing issues need to be addressed, but it's not hard to imagine Scrolls becoming the home of the most dedicated and talented of the CCG community.

The Good

    Rich with tactical possibilities
    Engaging visual aesthetic for a usually staid genre
    Microtransaction model is the opposite of predatory
    Engaging sense of progression

The Bad

    Endgame takes ages while feeling predetermined
    Bugs can keep matches from loading
    Intimidating difficulty curve

Posted on Jan 24, 2015


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