Top 10 Card-Battling Video Games
Introversion and lack of disposable income are two relatively massive hurdles that face a lot of gamers like myself who also share an affinity for traditional trading card games like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and, of course, the big one, Magic: The Gathering. Between the reluctance towards cutting into the video game budget to buy new cards, the difficulty in keeping up with the “official” formats (modern, commander, standard), and the eternal presence of bad apples to spoil the collection of friendly faces you might meet at your local Friday Night Magic meetings. The hobby often takes sits perpetually on a back-burner if you don’t manage to find a good group to play with casually.
For all these reasons, the card battle genre of video game is one that, oddly enough, interests me simply by recreating the basic strategy of creating, maintaining, and upgrading a deck of cards. The ability to sit down and fire up any of these games for a battle or duel at my own leisure without having to bother friends or force them to learn the game for my own amusement makes the incredibly niche genre something that always catches my eye or piques my interest when implemented in a game. Whether it’s a one-off attempt to make a new game or a long-running series, I’m always interested to see what type of approach a card-battling game chooses to take, and the topic of my list today, as I bring you the ten titles and series that best implement the card-battling format.
Magic: The Gathering: Duels Series
Addressing the elephant in the room first, the real tragedy of TCG video games has typically been that Magic: The Gathering has never had a truly great game based on the card game and likely never will. To be fair, the Magic game that many would want, featuring an extensive card library and numerous rulesets to be played online and offline against AI, would be a monumental task on a console and is essentially already covered by Wizards of the Coast with Magic: The Gathering Online. Of course, while MTGO eliminates the anxieties of scheduling and social interaction, it’s no easier on your wallet than the real game. Your new virtual collection requires an investment comparable to that of your existing paper one, and never the twain shall meet, thereby nullifying a lot of the pros that accompany that route for casual Magic players or collection-first patrons.
As a result of this, the closest thing we’re likely to get for a proper game (apart from hardcore-oriented deck sims like Forge) are the Duels series of downloadable titles dating back to 2009. Originally titled Duels of the Planeswalkers, the series has often been criticized for its narrow selections of gameplay modes and card database, so as not to encroach upon MTGO or its lucrative revenue stream. As a proper game, it has usually done its job of delivering a one-time pay, virtual recreation of the most popular aspects of the current paper game. With the latest edition becoming free-to-play so as to rival another entry on this list, Duels is a fun, cheap way for less serious players to experience the current MTG climate, as well as face a challenging and rewarding gaming experience. Its extremely low merit as a valid alternative to the real game will hardly break fans off from the actual game, as is Wizards’ endgame.
SNK vs. Capcom Cardfighters’ Clash
A game that receives the greatest boosts for its licensing, the SNK vs. Capcom Cardfighters series is best viewed as a great alternative to the abundance of fighting games on SNK’s impressive little handheld, the Neo Geo Pocket Color. Although not the greatest example of building a new card game from the ground up -- the rules and gameplay come off like a heavily pared-down version of Magic: The Gathering -- the feel of the game is commendable for being more at home on a handheld system than its fast-paced contemporaries on the NGPC. It’s also a lot of fun to build decks around some of the respective brands’ most beloved characters, from Geese Howard and Mai Shiranui to Chun-Li and M. Bison. A definite staple in anyone’s burgeoning Neo Geo Pocket Color collection, either the SNK or Capcom version of the first title will do, or at the very least, anything but the ill-fated DS incarnation of the series.
The Eye of Judgment
The Eye of Judgment was an interesting concept from the early days of the PS3 that, if nothing else, proved that Nintendo wasn’t the only company ready to pair niche peripherals with hardcore-oriented gaming concepts. Not only was The Eye of Judgment a bold standalone game based on a new format of card battling, but it also attempted to become an interactive experience utilizing actual paper cards and playmats to be read and implemented in-game by the PS3’s camera peripheral, looking down on the playfield from a bird’s eye perspective. As an all-around interactive experience, The Eye of Judgment was more than solid in function and form with help from a partnership with Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast to ensure that the new game still packed depth and replayability. Unfortunately, that partnership also brought with it the cardinal sin of games intended for this list in that it required the purchase of additional physical cards to maintain relevance, defeating the purpose of the game as an alternative experience and severely limiting it's staying power.
The essential example of a game within a game, Gwent is everything a great card game strives to be: easy to learn but difficult to master, endless in its number of valid gameplay strategies, and replete with unique cards and characters. All this comes with the remarkable caveat of being contained entirely within The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, a game that would have been every bit as adored for its depth and immersion even without the incredible in-game life that Gwent represents. It seems like absolutely no surprise that Gwent’s popularity in-game has resulted in the upcoming release of the game as a standalone, free-to-play title where players can get all the competitive Gwent they want without the rest of that pesky Witcher III to distract them.
Metal Gear Acid
An example of a card-based tactics game rather than a proper head-to-head dueling title, Metal Gear Acid is an odd left turn for Metal Gear that kicked off the series’ glorious run on Sony’s first underrated handheld. Essentially no different in scenario or feel than a traditional Metal Gear title. The main difference is in the luck of the draw, in which pre-selected cards will come up for the characters to use to move around the given area, sneak up on guards, or use weapons, just as they might in any other Metal Gear game. The Acid games are a curious affair mostly because they feel as though they could have been produced as a traditional Metal Gear game, yet implements a semi-familiar gameplay mechanic to provide something that is somehow par for the course with the rest of the series in terms of accessibility and innovation.
Lost Kingdoms Series
Perhaps one of the more obscure items to come out of From Software’s extensive back catalog of work, the Lost Kingdoms games for Nintendo GameCube are one of the more successful attempts to blend the card-battling genre with a proper action title. Players edit their card loadout before diving into the next area of the game while progressing on an epic dark fantasy quest filled with fantastical creatures and formidable enemies that must be taken down by summoning creatures and spells to a real-time battlefield. Like an RTS, players need strategy, reflex, and a solid command of the controls at all times to progress in the game, which is both visually and conceptually in line with From Software’s now established style. Both games are interesting and worth playing, but the improvements of the second game over the original make it the better option, along with begging the question of how good the series could have gotten if it had performed well enough to have continued on later consoles.
Baten Kaitos Series
Boasting an almost overwhelming amount of influence from Namco’s previously established Tales series, Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean and Baten Kaitos Origins are everything that Lost Kingdoms brought to the Nintendo GameCube, but with a turn-based format and even more stunning and gorgeous visuals. To put it simply, Baten Kaitos is one of the better options for turn-based RPGs on the Final Fantasy-less GameCube, regardless of the card-battling flavor. Oddly enough, the card-battling aspect is one of actually a few different mechanics that make up Baten Kaitos’ very deep and unique battle system, which perhaps is why it never caught on beyond a cult audience. Like Lost Kingdoms, it would have been great to see the series flourish on another console with a greater concentration of fans that would have appreciated it and allowed it to continue and grow. Instead, it stands out largely for its lack of competition but has held out as a crowning jewel of the console due to its insane depth and great presentation.
Pokémon Trading Card Game
In almost twenty years since the release of the original, Nintendo has still never released another video game edition of the massively successful Pokémon Trading Card Game, in spite of the paper game’s incredible success and growth in that span. Pokémon Trading Card Game for the Game Boy Color is a top-tier example of one of the card-battle genre’s greatest uses: a tool for teaching players how to play the real-life game. For all the years the Pokémon TCG flourished in the hand of elementary school children, it’s almost cliche to joke about how not a single one of us ever played the damn thing right. The only chance for that game to catch on with young kids that loved the cards so much was to make a running series out of this sole GBC cart from 1999, which was equal parts teaching tool and unique Pokémon adventure in its own right. Even today, the game gets the basics of the game across very well as well as providing the most appropriate blueprint for a video game about a collectible card game -- the idea that you are literally a person playing a collectible card game. It honestly baffles me that the Pokémon TCG has continued to amass the fanbase it has while still being second to MTG, and not even have an alternative way of presenting the game like they did when the Pokémon craze was in its initial boom.
Given my previous penalties regarding card games that incorporated or subsisted on supplemental purchases or microtransactions to deliver a full gameplay experience, it’s probably quite a surprise to see Hearthstone sitting so high up, but there’s absolutely no way to deny the phenomenon that the untouchable Blizzard has created with their free-to-play Warcraft card game. Hearthstone is the free-to-play formula done right, with a player base of over 70 million that maintains itself via the inclusion of all types. Yes, games like this can often feel like a play-to-win scenario, but a game like Hearthstone simply doesn’t become so successful, even blossoming into one of the world’s premier eSport titles, by being solely about funneling money into it.
For all the success the Magic: The Gathering Online has garnered in the 15 years since its inception, Hearthstone has surpassed it by virtue of sheer freedom in how to play it, whereas MTGO, when viewed as a video game as opposed to a card game simulator, is quite literally the world’s most successful pay-to-win game. Hearthstone takes everything that makes Magic: The Gathering successful in the real world for over 20 years now -- variety in cards and strategies, varied formats and levels of competitiveness, interesting and vast amounts of lore (being based directly on one of the most successful game series of all times really helps with that one), and a game that’s constantly changing and evolving -- to stake its rightful claim as the go-to virtual card game.
Yu-Gi-Oh Series (Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS)
Despite spending years in the shadow of the more serious Magic: The Gathering, the Yu-Gi-Oh card game is still going strong today with a dedicated fanbase and increasingly more complex game mechanics. Even if the majority of card game fans play something besides Yu-Gi-Oh, though, or perhaps have simply moved on from the game to something different, the one thing that always played to Yu-Gi-Oh’s advantage was its incredible marketing through its ownership by Konami. Between Konami’s impressive abilities to make games based on the card game and a lucrative TV spot for the accompanying anime on the WB network, the franchise became a huge hit in the early-2000s with American kids. But not only have a lot of those younger fans grown up and continued to enjoy the game as it evolved, but Konami’s video games have always been there to provide the virtual alternative that other card games never had, which hold up surprisingly well today, both as a great tool for learning the game and an addictive, handheld-friendly series of titles in their own right.
Since the first Yu-Gi-Oh video games in the late ‘90s, Konami has tried all kinds of things to spice up the card game and allow the video games to differ from the paper game in one way or another, from incorporating tactical RPG elements (Duelists of the Roses), to muddying the gameplay with adventure-style sections between duels (The Sacred Cards), to eschewing cards almost entirely with Pokémon-esque monster battles (The Falsebound Kingdom). However, the franchise was always at its best when sticking to the straight and narrow method of recreating the straightforward paper card game. The Game Boy Advance and DS boasted more than a few of these no-nonsense dueling titles, which were the best ways to play because of their tendency to closely recreate the visual style of the cards and TV series, as well as offering the best method for head-to-head dueling (because you can’t see your opponent’s cards, of course). Best of all was the way they approached the card libraries -- about 1,000 cards in early titles would balloon to over 4,000 as the game continued to grow, which could always be obtained from their real life counterparts via a code, or via in-game booster packs which offered a nice sense of reward. Even if you don’t like Yu-Gi-Oh card game, or you view it as something you’ve outgrown, the classic games from the Game Boy Advance and DS still hold a tremendous amount of merit for their replayability, accessibility, and simply doing something no other card game ever really did by providing a legitimate video game companion to the real-life collectible card game.