Scrolls Preview: Not Playing with a Full Deck

Mojang’s Minecraft was the apotheosis of indie games — blocky, open-ended, and smothered in a straightforward aesthetic that somehow out-retro’ed retro games, and its very simplicity oozed with the promise of revolution. Scrolls, on the other hand, feels much more like a “real” game. This is Magic the Gathering for the right brained; more crudely, it’s what we might see if the offspring of Magic and Heroes of Might and Magic had been raised by Plants vs. Zombies. I could think of worse company if I were fishing for inspiration, but that barrage of déjà vu all but guarantees that Scrolls won’t shake the world like its predecessor.

That’s not to say it isn’t fun; quite the contrary, especially if you share my preference for visual learning. For all my admiration of collectible card games, I’ve always been one of those poor souls who get intimidated by their reliance on all those numbers — all that math — but Mojang wrapped Scrolls in such an intuitive design that it’s easy for folks who weren’t nursed on Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh! to pick up within minutes. Indeed, at heart it’s little more than an exercise in building up a deck of cards (ahem, scrolls), and using them tactically on a five-lane, hexagonally gridded battlefield to knock down three of your opponent’s five idols.

Therein lies Scrolls’ thin but important link to Minecraft. Under so deceptively simple a veneer, Mojang crammed such a wealth of strategic possibilities that even months after the alpha, you’ll still find the occasional new forum post detailing original strategies that elicit a collective sigh of appreciation from the community. Mind you, someone’s unique take on the Growth deck’s bunny swarm attack will never evoke the same awe as street-by-street recreations of Game of Thrones’ King’s Landing in Minecraft, but here and there you catch flashes of greatness that could warrant eSports with several months’ worth of tweaking. As for the strategy itself, it rests on the skillful manipulation of the ruleset, nicely explained via a quick tutorial.

Each battle starts with five scrolls in your hand but no mana to cast them, and here Mojang avoids the luck-based nature of Magic’s land system by relying instead on the sacrifice of one of the cards you’re dealt to build mana or to draw two more cards. Based on your available mana, you then cast scrolls to summon soldiers, creatures, or barriers on a the five-lane hexagonally gridded battlefield. Once they’re in play, you can either move units to adjacent grids on your half of the board, or send them to attack the enemies, barriers and idols on the other side by ending the turn. Much of this phase is simply but attractively animated, allowing for a better visualization of what’s going on than the simple clangs of swords or flashes of light you get for action in the recent Xbox and PC versions of Magic.

Scrolls’ tactical elements reveal themselves in the countdown values for each scroll, which, along with health and mana, comprise the stats for each card. (Oddly enough, there isn’t any clear way to distinguish rare cards from common ones.) Such a design prevents each turn from devolving into frenzied clashes straight out of Braveheart; instead, each summoned unit’s countdown value decreases with each turn. Once it hits 0, the unit rushes forward, smacking any obstacle or enemy creature in the way — or, more ideally, one of the idols on the far end, each with 10 health points.

Aside from some further niceties of gameplay springing from enchantments, healing units, and the differences between the three current factions, that’s Scrolls. Ranked and unranked matches against other players round out the rest of its offerings, as well as a quick match option and a series of trials that comes close to resembling a single player campaign at least in theory, if not in execution. Tough luck, in other words, if you want to know why the Viking hippies of the Growth deck have such a beef with the shining knights of the Order deck, or even if you’re enamored by the thought of boss fights against formidable opponents. Of course, gameplay always takes precedence over shoed-in narratives in a game like this, but Scrolls’ attractive artwork and rich earth tones exude a sense of high adventure that seems wasted by failing to give the factions some lore.

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