Play your cards right

Screenshot of the Magic game, one of the card games that is getting a new lease of life on the iPad.

Magic 2014, Free to play

($12.98 to unlock all cards in the main game, $5.98 for expansion, $3.98 for each of the three add-on Deck Packs)

Celebrating its 21st birthday in August, Magic The Gathering has long been the king of strategy card games.

In Magic, two players face off like in a chess game, but instead of pawns and queens, each player has a deck of cards which he has put together with cunning and strategy.

The cards contain lands, creatures and spells which players can put into play on the tabletop. The aim is simple: reduce your opponent's hit points to zero before he does the same to you.

In 2009, an "arcade" version of the game was launched for the Xbox 360 and was named Magic The Gathering - Duels Of The Planeswalkers, to differentiate it from the main game.

Unlike the physical card version, which allows the rich to amass an overpowered deck, the digital "lite" version offers all players access to the same set, levelling the playing field.

Which explains why I have bought every edition and expansion since the series was launched.

The fourth version, launched last year, is now simply called Magic 2014. In addition to the PC and consoles, the game is also available now on the Apple iPad and on Android tablets.

Magic 2014 on the iPad is free to play but lets you unlock only three of the possible 21 decks. Fans like me will happily fork out extra to unlock all the cards.

To play spells and creature cards from your hand, you need mana. There are five different colours of mana - red, green, blue, white and black - which you gain only from having land cards of the corresponding colour.

Choosing a single colour deck offers less versatility but you are less likely to be caught in a position where you do not have enough mana to play your creatures and spells.

Each colour has its own unique characteristic:

Red for heavy spell damage;

Green for the strongest creatures;

Blue is best played by veterans as it focuses on counters and strategic play;

Black is the colour of death and the undead;

White decks usually have warriors of the light fighting alongside angels with plenty of heals.

Until last year, Magic had no serious contenders on the iPad. Now it has Hearthstone and Duel Of Champions.

Where Magic fares poorly is in its failure to sync across different device platforms. So, to play on your PC and your iPad, you must buy two versions of the same game.

While the cards here are quite different from those of the earlier versions, the general strategy of each deck borrows heavily from its predecessors.

The all-white Avacyn deck resembles the Peacekeepers deck in Magic 2013, while those who miss the blue-green Ancient Depths deck from Magic 2012 will be pleased with the all-green Chant Of The Mul Daya deck.

Both new decks have many strategies to quickly build up their mana and unleash the most powerful Eldrazi creatures.

In a few months, Magic 2015 will launch but, this time, it will have to work a lot harder to win hearts and wallets, because of the competition.

Hearthstone is more accessible and less complex, yet still requires deep strategy to win.

Pros

Deep strategic play

Well-balanced decks

Tried-and-tested brand name

Level playing field

Cons

You will not go far without buying at least the main game's deck unlocks

The game is not synced across different device platforms

There has been little innovation over the years

DL rating: 8/10

Hearthstone: Heroes Of Warcraft, Free to play

First, it made the complex massively multiplayer online role playing game, World Of Warcraft, accessible to casual gamers.

Now, Blizzard Entertainment looks set to repeat its magic with Hearthstone, stepping into further uncharted territory by making complex strategy card games easy enough for all to learn and enjoy.

As with Warcraft, Blizzard is using attractive comic-style art to attract a wider audience. Even demons and imps look too cute to ignore.

It is not just looks alone that make it a winner. Blizzard has worked hard to take away complex game mechanics in this genre.

Unlike the market leader, Magic, where you have to manage land cards to build up your mana to play other cards, Hearthstone makes it simple by increasing your mana pool by one every turn. One less thing to worry about means more time can be focused on the combat.

Another big move is to take away the ability of the opponent to cast spells that force you to discard one or more cards in your hand.

This means that you can play the "turtling strategy" of defending early enemy rushes and accumulating cards in hand for counter-attacks. Creatures that are destroyed stay dead and players cannot bring them back to life.

Even without such complex rules, there is still enough gameplay strategy to please hardcore fans.

In Hearthstone are nine heroes from the Warcraft universe, each representing one of the nine main classes and instantly recognisable to Warcraft fans. They include:

Jaina Proudmoore, the most powerful human mage;

Thrall, the shamanic leader of the orcs; and

Malfurion Stormrage, a powerful night elf druid.

Each hero has his own set of 10 unique class-dependent cards. These can be combined with cards of neutral creatures to form a deck of 30 cards. Every hero also has a unique ability.

The aim of the game is simple - reduce your opponent's hit points from 30 to zero before he does it to you.

When playing Jaina the mage, for instance, you have powerful unique spells, such as Fireball, Flamestrike and Polymorph, at your disposal, while being able to summon hardy Water Elementals to aid your cause.

Jaina has many area-of-effect spells designed to take out entire groups of enemies at a time.

Flamestrike, the most powerful, deals four points of damage to all enemy creatures. But it will cost you seven mana points to cast.

Even the two-mana Arcane Explosion, which deals one point of damage to all, can be a serious threat when combined with creatures, such as Kobold Geomancer, who have the spell damage trait. With two Kobold Geomancers in play, Arcane Explosion deals three damage points and can wipe out the enemy's entire army at one fell swoop.

All players start with the same 59 basic neutral creature cards. At first, you have only Jaina but as you play practice matches against the computer, Jaina levels up and unlocks her class-specific basic cards until she hits level 10.

Beating the new computer hero will unlock that hero for you to use. Once all the basic cards are acquired, you need to think about getting more powerful expert card packs.

Each card pack has five random cards, of which one is of Rare quality or higher. If you are lucky, you can get Epic and Legendary, powerful cards that can make your deck super strong.

Every pack costs 100 gold pieces that you can accumulate by completing daily quests, such as winning two duels using the Mage or Shaman, which earns you 40 gold pieces.

The best thing about this game is that you can easily earn enough gold to buy extra booster packs.

Those with deep pockets can buy 40 packs for US$65 (S$82) and get an amazing head start.

Hearthstone is simple to learn, but tough to master. It has clearly dethroned Magic as the king, simply because a lot more people are playing it. In my Hearthstone friends' list, I count 10, but just one for Magic and none at all for Duel.

Pros

Well-developed learning curve makes it accessible to casual players

Playing at the top level will still require deep strategy

Good players can develop effective decks without spending a cent

Familiar heroes from World Of Warcraft game

Con

Rich players can still pay their way to good cards

DL rating: 9.5/10

Duel Of Champions, Free to play

Those who grew up playing the Heroes Of Might & Magic series will recognise the style of the heroes and creatures in this strategy card game.

The six factions in Duel Of Champions - Haven, Stronghold, Necropolis, Inferno, Academy and Sanctuary - closely follow those of Heroes. Haven (like the good guys from Heroes) is a noble collection of humans, griffins, knights and angels, while the evil army of the Necropolis consists of undead such as ghouls, vampires, zombies and skeletons.

In Duel, players create decks of cards to be used in battle against the computer or against other players online. Each deck can have only one hero or heroine, who has unique abilities.

Strong decks should have cards which are a good fit with the hero's abilities. My current favourite now is Sveltana, a Necropolis hero with the ability to resurrect low- to mid-level vampires. Obviously, I filled my decks with these vampires which drain life and heal themselves as they damage their enemies.

Combined with Dark spells that cripple and destroy enemy creatures outright with a single cast, the strategy is to whittle down the enemy till they can be overcome by an endless army of vampires which can be brought back to life.

Unlike Hearthstone and Magic which have no formations to think about, Duel plays on a 4x4 battle grid like a chess game.

Each player can summon up to eight creatures on his side of the battlefield, in four rows and two columns. In the front column are typically melee-style and tougher creatures that can soak up the damage, while the ranged attackers of the back column take out enemies from a distance.

If your enemy has creatures on a particular row, you would want to have at least one on the same row to prevent enemy creatures from damaging your hero. Whoever reduces his enemy hero's life to zero first wins the game.

Each faction has unique characteristics.

Haven - typically strong defenders and powerful healers;

Inferno - powerful demons and spells which can hurt multiple creatures at the same time; and

Sanctuary - fans love the deck's mobility and versatility, which allow players to reposition creatures and limit their mobility to gain a strategic advantage.

You start by choosing a basic deck and earn more cards by completing the campaign. The sheer number of cards makes this a challenging affair, especially when you couple this with the glacial pace of earning enough virtual credits to buy new card packs.

It is clear that this game requires players to spend real money to get more cards and the game does get challenging for those who will not pay.

When you complete the single-player campaign, you can then focus on online battles against other players and take part in tournaments that reward winners with free card packs. Unfortunately, you need tickets to join tournaments and they cost about US$5 (S$6.30) for a stack of six.

Like Hearthstone, Duel is available on both PC and Mac plus iOS for mobile devices, and your profile is saved and synced across all the different platforms.

Pros

Great versatility in deck creation strategy

Deep gameplay strategy

Board-game style combat

Familiar Heroes Of Might & Magic universe

Cons

Rather complex and inaccessible to casual players

Takes too long to unlock more cards

DL rating: 8/10

All reviews by Oo Gin Lee.

This article was published on May 14 in Digital Life, The Straits Times.

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