Scrolls Preview: Not Playing with a Full Deck

Perhaps it’s still to come. Unlike Minecraft, with its bare bones ruleset that left it feeling like a finished game years before it was officially announced as such, Scrolls still feels like a beta. It doesn’t take long for the limitations of the gameplay to weigh down, such as when you’ve spent days battling only to discover that you’ve never experienced that “shock and awe” feeling of confronting a rare card you’ve never seen before. There’s not even that many cards, and considering that there’s only 45 cards for the Growth deck alone at the time of writing, it’s likely you’ll see every surprise your deck has to offer by the time you feel confident enough to venture forth from the trials and into competitive play.

And that’s where you can’t escape Scrolls’ issues, much like that one guy who just won’t shut up during the screening of an Oscar-winning film. The sad consequence of such limited options means that while powerful strategies do exist, many players seem content with slapping a bunch of units on the battlefield and buffing them. Many players also seem to use the same decks, likely cobbled together after reading the many guides that have already come to pepper the Internet in the mere month that’s passed since Scrolls’ transition to beta. The unlockable ability to use compound decks made of scrolls from multiple factions alleviates some of the pain, but right now Scrolls just doesn’t have anything like the stunning variety of its more established CCG counterparts.

So is there hope? Mojang’s impressive track record with Minecraft suggests that the only way to answer that question is in the affirmative, and even now there are signs that Scrolls is getting better. Over the last month, new cards have appeared in small spurts — four here, six there — and while Mojang’s not likely to overtake Wizards of the Coast by the official launch at that rate, there’s some sign that they’re trying to correct some of the more unfortunate aspects of the gameplay. You folks who slap and buff hordes of units on the battlefield? Meet the Dust Runner, who annihilates any creatures with three or fewer health points. Seemingly overpowered — many creatures don’t have much more than three health points — it’s a clear drive to encourage players to use walls.

Yet that’s not the only blot on Scrolls’ otherwise enjoyable experience. For one, there’s the price, which seems agreeable at $20 until you realize that’s only special early adopter pricing and that Scrolls does include micro-transactions. Granted, they’re fairly benign; certainly not extreme enough to square off against the money grubbing CCGs on iOS and Facebook, and you can purchase everything available in the store just by playing. Not that there’s much there right now. But if you’d like to throw some more money at Mojang, you can purchase two additional starter decks, the ones you didn’t choose when you first started playing, buy cosmetic modifications for your character’s avatar, or pick up one of six randomly generated cards. Considering that you can pick up a random new card from any of the three factions with the winnings of a single game, you certainly don’t have to worry about losing your fortune unless you have serious, deep-seated problems. (In which case, quit reading and seek help.)

But another issue with Scrolls is the way it locks you into the first deck you choose the first time you log in. It arguably only takes around a week of casual play to buy one of the starter decks from the other factions through game winnings alone, but it’s a grating design decision nevertheless, especially when so much of Scrolls seems focused on welcoming newcomers who never understood the appeal of CCGs in the past. As it is, you might feel pressured to spend hours researching each deck before you settle on one that’s right for you, much as you would for a game like Magic. I was lucky to choose Growth, a fairly noob-friendly deck that consists of spawning many units with negligible countdown timers and mana costs, but I know of at least one player who flat out quit just because he couldn’t get the hang of the far more challenging Energy deck. A bit extreme, but for release, Mojang would do well to provide a brief tutorial that imparts some of the basic strategic philosophies behind each deck before locking us into our choices.

And so, we come to it at last. Is this it? The next great thing? Walking away from Scrolls, I realized I felt no sensation that I’d witnessed the beginnings of a revolution; rather, I’d played an indulgent but welcoming labor of love, designed by a bunch of guys who now have enough money and time to do what they wish. I enjoyed myself, and I’d love to invite some friends to play once Scrolls has more meat on its bones. Alas, at heart, in its current design, it’s still a niche game. With greater card variety, more factions, and continual tweaks to the strategy, it may eventually attain greatness, but not Minecraft’s brand of fame. Perhaps it doesn’t need to. It’s still fun, as all good games should be. Not every release has to change the world.

Follow Leif Johnson on Twitter: @LeifJohnson

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